Oot and Aboot- An International Picnic in Lyon

Bonjour ! My name is Tessa and I’m in my fifth year of Concurrent Education for French Studies (Intermediate/Senior). I took an extra year so that I could do some French literature credits in France and am currently attending Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon, in Lyon.

In early September, I had my first real experience representing Canada (explaining Canada to my British friends isn’t extremely difficult, after all).

I was invited to two separate picnics and got a little confused. I ended up at the one where I didn’t know anybody. I was put into the position of being the only North American in the circle where I found myself. And since I’m not American, no one had any real idea of where I come from. Apparently, in World Geography lessons, the only provinces they learn about are Québec and British Columbia. I was asked repeatedly if Ontario is near the West Coast and had to remind them of Toronto and Niagara Falls before they got the idea.

Really, this wasn’t even slightly annoying. I love Canada and I love talking about it. I especially love being able to set the record straight when there are misconceptions. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if it’s really cold in Canada this time of year. Almost no one realizes that the climate where I live, in Southern Ontario, and the climate here are virtually the same. Most Canadians live reasonably close to the U.S. border, and Niagara Falls is at about the same latitude as southern Spain. A very funny Italian, Marta, sarcastically tried to convince my German friend Stefan that Canada is actually part of Europe. It was good fun, but sometimes sarcasm gets lost in translation. He didn’t think we were too bright.

My challenge at this picnic was being asked to bring a “traditional” food. Traditional foods of Canada … maple syrup … tourtière … poutine … Nanaimo bars … nothing that would really work as picnic fare. Or that I could have scrounged up at the grocery store. (In France, AND in Australia, they don’t even know what cheese curds are. I know. I’m still reeling from the shock, too.) In Canada, each region has traditional dishes based on their cultural heritages and Canadian cuisine is more about where the ingredients are grown than which dish is prepared. Indigenous people ate what the land provided them, and that varied by region and climate. As Canada was colonized, the colonies learned that to survive, they also had to make do with what was available, but that they could use local ingredients to make their traditional dishes from the countries of their heritage. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark has been quoted as saying, “Canada has a cuisine of cuisines. Not a stew pot, but a smorgasbord.” If you ask me, Canadians should just be asked to host the picnic and bring the paper plates.

Canadian culture is also really hard to define. Someone at the picnic told me that all they knew of Canada were the jokes on How I Met Your Mother. She also asked if we really pronounced about “aboot”. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, the culture section played on Canadian stereotypes. Catherine O’Hara, for example, talked about our tendency to be too polite and apologetic. I think on a meta-level, the culture section was meant to demonstrate that a huge part of Canadian culture is to laugh, good-naturedly, at ourselves. We know we’re not a “big” country (in terms of population and political influence). We know that there is a lot to know about Canada, but that it isn’t always a priority for citizens of other countries. Personally, I find the How I Met Your Mother jokes about Canada hilarious. However, they’re maybe not the greatest source of information about Canadian culture. Instead of scoffing, I tried to look for the truth in the stereotype and to show that there are many different Canadian identities and that maybe some people do say aboot. I definitely say “eh” way more than I realize.

The more you discuss with people, the more you and they come to realize that language challenges faced in Canada, challenges concerning the identity of the country, etc, happen everywhere. An Italian friend, Samiha, was explaining to me that Italy had absorbed a city from Austria and the Austrian city revolted by refusing to speak Italian. That region became equally German and Italian and there was a choice of schools based on language. She explained that the region of South Tyrol in Italy has officially adopted German as a second language. As a Canadian, this sounds extremely familiar. It also sounded extremely familiar to my Flemish-speaking friend, Valérie, from Belgium. Her country is also bilingual between Flemish and French. Because Flemish is the minority language (in terms of its use outside of Belgium), it needs to be protected, the same way that the Québecois try to protect their language in Canada in the face of a Anglophone-dominated continent.

To explain Canadian culture as something distinct from the cultures of other countries, I would compare it to our “traditional” dish. Just like its cuisine, Canadian culture is the blend and the overlap of the Native cultures and the cultures that were brought here by immigrants: originally British and French, but also Scottish, Polish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Congolese, South African, Dutch, German, and so on. I would say that Canadian culture is the culture of cultures. It is also a smorgasbord; being Canadian is not just about O Canada, the maple leaf and ice hockey. Those things bring Canadians together at the Olympics, but I think what sets us a part from other countries was our effort to create a culture of acceptance — a “mixed salad” of culture — rather than a melting pot before the world became so globalized.

Leaving home gives you a mirror to look back at your own cultural identity and to see what it really means to be Canadian. I’m excited to continue the learning process!

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