Best For Last
Even though I’d never been to Atlantic Canada before, the moment our flight touched down in Halifax I felt like I was home. The milk cartons were bilingual, the five cent coins were embossed with beavers, every shared plate in sight still had a single French fry left on it — thank the good Lord (or whoever) this could only be Canada! I honestly nearly cried, not for any particularly patriotic reason, but because I was so happy to feel comfortable after so much time being profoundly uncomfortable.
Paradoxically speaking, I love that travel makes me uncomfortable. Even when every part of me wants to stay home and watch Netflix, I know that getting out there and experiencing the unknown is good for me. I’m at my best when my adrenaline is pumping, my awareness is heightened and I have no idea what might happen next. It’s terrifying, it’s exciting, it’s travelling.
A whole year of that though? At the risk of sounding like a privileged brat who was oh-so-tired of visiting new amazing places every month, there is such a thing as too much new, at least for me. Even with our carefully planned breaks from being on the move, after about 10 months of being without a place to call home, the novelty of the new started to wear off.
I think it was around the time we arrived in Madrid in June that I realized I was ready to come home. We were standing at the airport metro station trying to figure out yet another new transit system, struggling through vague instructions from a fairly unhelpful woman at the info desk. I was exhausted from the flight and tired of repeating the bag packing, plane boarding charade for the umpteenth time. All the newness of foreign languages, currencies and cities that had been exciting at the beginning of our trip, had now become burdensome. I threw my backpack on the floor of the metro station and made Mike figure out how we were going to get to our Airbnb. I just didn’t have it in me.
I’ll be honest, feeling this way in Europe made us pretty nervous about the cross-Canada road trip we’d committed to just a few weeks later. Our flights to Halifax were booked and my parents were already en route from BC to meet us there with their car and our camping gear. If we were losing steam in June, was this 8,500km drive in July going to feel painfully long?
We were relieved to discover that the comfort of being in our homeland gave us renewed energy and enthusiasm for our trip. Instead of a drive we had to endure, it was a grand finale filled with awe and wonder at the beauty our own country has to offer. We drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific through nine provinces and seven National Parks; through posh cities, quaint towns, and vast stretches of beautiful nothingness. After so much time spent exploring other parts of the world, discovering and appreciating Canada in all its glory was the perfect way to end our epic adventure.
What is Canada?
If someone asked me during our travels what Canadian people are like, I honestly don’t know what I would have told them. In fact, the more I think about the places we’ve visited and the people we’ve met, the more absurd it seems to try to define even a single person let alone an entire country of people. If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that humans are so nuanced and so distinct that any overlap in personality traits or habits seems as likely due to coincidence than any kind of cultural norm.
For Canada’s 150th anniversary, Reader’s Digest interviewed some famous Canadians and asked them what it meant to be Canadian. Donald Sutherland recounted a touching story about being welcomed by a Dutch family after WWII who cried and hugged him after discovering he was Canadian. It was lovely, but not particularly relatable for a Millennial. Dan Aykroyd defined Canada as a place where people say “sorry” a lot. While that may be true, it seemed oversimplified. Margaret Atwood said something beautifully articulate, but I can’t remember what it was so that couldn’t have resonated with me as the right answer either.
You often hear Canada defined by was it isn’t, especially in the Trump vs. Trudeau era. When compared to our Southern neighbour, it is is seen as open, inclusive, polite, apologetic, green, socialist, uninhabited, non-confrontational. But just as it’s unfair (and untrue) to characterize all Americans as gun-loving, egotistical and ignorant, it doesn’t seem right to define Canada as the anti-America either. In a country so vast and so diverse, is it even possible to say what it is that makes Canada, Canada?
There were a few moments during our cross-country drive where I thought to myself, “This feels REALLY Canadian” – not in the cliché poutine-eating, eh-stuttering sense, but in a way that made me feel genuinely proud to be a citizen of this country. The first was during a morning yoga class on Cavendish Beach in PEI National Park. I was the only Anglophone in a class of at least 10 Francophones, and while I insisted a yoga class in French would be a fun first for me, the instructor continued to lead us through an incredible bilingual yoga class! As I learned the phrase for Downward Dog in French, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where else in the world would this possibly happen?” An impossibly dreamy island, a national park that subsidizes yoga classes, and two languages intertwining on a beach through a series of awkward, sandy poses. How perfect, how Canadian.
The second time was on our visit to Fundy National Park in New Brunswick — home to the highest tides in the world! As we walked for kilometres at low tide over Bay of Fundy’s ocean floor that had been covered by saltwater just hours earlier, we were mesmerized by the change in scenery. On our way back to the parking lot, there was a sign posted at the exit that read “Did you forget to leave your shells?” followed by an explanation of why empty shells were an important part of the ocean’s ecosystem. It wasn’t a particularly memorable sign, but I found myself thinking about it afterwards. It could have easily said something like “Don’t take the shells with you” or “Removing shells from the beach is strictly prohibited”, but they took a different approach that felt more aligned with the way I like to be treated and how I try to treat others. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and applied to me with reason instead of rules. I don’t know which was more Canadian — the phrasing on that sign, or the fact that I sheepishly pulled out my souvenir shell from my pocket and dropped it in the bucket before I got into the car.
Like Donald, Dan and Margaret, I still don’t have the perfect answer for what it means to be Canadian. Compared to most of the world, our country is still in its infancy so maybe we’re still trying to figure out who we are. I didn’t see all of Canada, but I did see a country attempting to embrace its differences in land, people and politics. I saw trans-friendly washrooms, protected First Nations lands and parks brochures featuring faces as diverse at the people who live here. I found myself feeling optimistic about what my country could be, is trying to be. Imperfect but wanting to be better. Maybe because I see myself that way too — more than ever, a work in progress.