I think of Virginia Woolf’s essay and cabin, Vita Sackville-West’s tower, and Carlyle’s study, their necessary, self-imposed isolation, and wonder how Jane Austen managed to produce six scintillating novels, at least two of which are masterpieces, in the midst of the busy domesticity of a small house where servants and family bumped against each other crossing a threshold.
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step One, by Felicia Mihali18 August 2012
Be a cheapskate
When you first set foot in this country, stash your pride out of the way. Everything you touch and everything you buy should be cheap.
March to your own drummer
Don’t worry if no one is there to welcome you at the airport. Your new friends will be eager to advise you to do what they did when they arrived, but their lives and their aspirations may very different from your own. Friendships that blossom at the outset won’t last anyway. Better to do your own thing.
Your first task is to find a cheap apartment in a modest neighbourhood. You’ll soon find out that Canadians spend the biggest chunk of their income on housing. And that means heating, electricity, telephone, and internet bills, as well as rent. You need a modest apartment, but not too modest. If it’s a dump, you won’t want to stay there. Every move means a rent increase, moving expenses, and fees for changing all your services. Your plan should be to stay in one place for a few years at least, which means your apartment should be neither too expensive nor too cheap. Not the best neighbourhood, but not the sketchiest part of town, either.
Birds of a feather
When you first arrive, you may think it smart to live near others like you. You may look for a building inhabited by other people from your country. They come from a tradition of hospitality you’re familiar with, and you figure they’ll help look after you and open doors for you.
Not a good idea. After only a few years here in Canada, your compatriots are not what they once were. They will try to control you. If they fail in this, they will criticize everything you do. The gold principle they follow is Lenin’s: “Whoever is not with us is against us.” Which, as you know, leads to monumental mistakes. You will soon be irritated by their ideas, their political views, their relations with the old country, the way they treat their wives, the way they’re bringing up their kids. They will be a pain in the neck. Figure things out for yourself and keep them at a distance. You won’t be able to avoid them later on.
Once you have a key to your own place, you’re going to wonder what sort of stuff it should be protecting. For the first few days, it’s fine to sleep on the floor and eat off a box instead of a table. You can use your suitcase as a drawer and feed your family cold food. If you have no kitchen utensils, you can buy bread, cheese, milk, sausages, and fruit at the corner store. I suggest you not overload your luggage with kitchen utensils. You have more precious things to bring with you than frying pans, cutlery, and dishes. Ditto for sheets, towels and pyjamas.
Don’t be in a hurry to furnish your house; the items you buy in haste will be the first ones you discard when you move. So live like pioneers. Spend your nights on the living room floor the way the first settlers to this country did on the hard earth.
The day after their arrival, most people go to a big supermarket and start buying furniture, appliances, a TV, towels, kitchenware, toys for the kids, shoes for the wife, a computer for the husband.
This is a mistake. The paltry amount of money you and your overseas family spent half a lifetime saving up for will vanish in a trice. And becoming penniless is ill-advised, not least because it will lead you to make bad decisions later on. Your main goal for the first months in this country should be to save your pennies.
Alternatives to the supermarket
So what are the alternatives? Second-hand shops like Salvation Army and Goodwill stores, for a start. In a single visit, you can buy everything you need to fill your entire apartment. You will need to have it all delivered, so get as much as you can in one go. What you save on transportation will feed you for a week. For less than $200 dollars, you’ll have furnished your apartment with better things than you ever had back home.
For items you cannot find on the spot, go to garage sales or wander the streets in your neighbourhood on garbage days. You will be astonished by the quantity and quality of stuff people get rid of in order to purchase new things: carpets, armoires, armchairs, tables, chairs, lamps, ottomans, mattresses, toys.
I know you could argue that that old stuff is not to your taste or that it’s humiliating for someone with your background to resort to second-hand goods. Forget about taste and background. Your taste and your background will be discredited many times in the years to come. This is a good time to start getting used to that.
And to multiculturalism. Your home here will be a patchwork just like Canada. Buying used goods will be your first experience of the diversity this country is forever touting.
You’ll be amazed at what people who are rich – or richer than you, anyway – get rid of just to make room to buy more expensive things. And at how well these disparate oak chests of drawers, walnut bed-frames, glass coffee tables, box mattresses, oriental rugs, woollen blankets, and vintage lamps go together. As for dishes, you can consider yourself really spoiled with porcelain plates from Japan, tea cups from England, crystal from Bohemia, and copper pots from Syria. At the Salvation Army, for next to nothing, you can purchase what tourists spend a fortune on in antique shops. These are relics of the old empire you came here to conquer, so don’t hesitate to make good use of what Westmount has discarded. The funny part is imagining what they would make of congee and kimchi served on their fine china.
I know you will be reluctant to use second-hand towels and sheets, but don’t forget there are washing machines that can work well. For just $20 you can buy towels and sheets for the whole family, so think twice before turning your nose up at them. The people who owned them do not have the plague. Brand new items bought at Wal-Mart will fade after just a few washings anyway. Pride is the most damaging feeling for a newcomer. Expensive, too. If you have any pride, just keep it for some better purpose.
Once your rooms are furnished and your kitchen is equipped, you’re going to be looking for a convenient grocery store. Big supermarkets do not always offer the best deals. You cannot avoid them, but for traditional flavours you will need the ethnic shops.
Before deciding where to shop, take a tour of the neighbourhood. Do not avoid the shops owned by ethnic groups your people have a history of killing or being killed by. Food can bring you together, and even if it doesn’t, just buy what you need and exit. Chinese stores are good for duck and fish, Arab stores for dried fruits, sweets and coffee, Greek stores for yogurt and cheese. On some products, they offer better value for money than the supermarkets.
I know you’re hungry and eager to start being Canadian. You will think that buying what regular people do is the way to go, but, believe me, it isn’t. Don’t be in a hurry to fill your cart and carry heavy bags with stuff that will be always there for you. In Canada there is no shortage of anything. You do not need to fill your pantry up at one go. It should be done in small stages, with every new expedition. As this country is obsessed with fitness, you can consider this your daily exercises. It will also be your main contact with people who spend money like crazy. They do so not because they are wealthier than you, but because they are more foolish. In fact, with cash in your pocket, without credit cards, free of debt, you are a whole lot richer than they are. They have lost their minds. This is not a good time for you to do the same. You will undoubtedly do so later on.
To avoid buying tickets for every ride, you should buy bus passes for you and all our family members from the get-go. I know it’s a heartbreaking expense, but it’s absolutely essential. You will be taking a lot of trips in order to fill in your citizenship papers. If you don’t have a bus pass, you will waste a lot of money buying tickets.
Take your family with you on every outing, including the small kids. They will remember those first days. They may hate you for carrying them everywhere. They may even be ashamed of your ill-fitting clothes, but one day they will understand. Besides, they will help carry bags.
Get out of the house
At the beginning you have to avoid staying in your apartment too much; you might get depressed. Your grocery store will be your daily destination. A place to go to and come from, which is a big deal for somebody who has nothing to do.
Don’t buy food you would not have eaten in your old country. You will see people piling their carts high with frozen pizza and cases of Coca-Cola; this does not mean this is what you should be doing. Buy what you are used to, and in small quantities. Rice, macaroni, sugar, wheat, oil, canned beans, peas, tomatoes, and pineapples will always be there for you. On every trip to the store, you can add one or two of the items missing from your pantry, be it a bottle of oil, a pint of milk, a dozen eggs, or butter. This way you can also getting used to the cashier who stares at you for using cash instead of plastic. People buy too much because they have forgotten how to count money. For a credit-card holder, the sky can seem to be the limit.
Cook the kind of food you know how to cook, and don’t pile up new stuff in the fridge until you’ve used up what you have. Don’t throw food away, even if you’re feeling pressure to do so because throwing food away is the mark of a good consumer and a good Canadian. In time, you too will be a good Canadian consumer, but that’s an experience you cannot yet afford.
You’re going to want to spoil your family a bit. As long as you have money in your pocket, you will feel like rewarding your kids and your partner with new toys, sweets and new clothes. Don’t do it. Stuffing your children with candies is not a way to express your love for them but to buy their confidence. You feel wrong about yourself, so you need them to feel good about you. You want to gain their respect in a country where you’re a nobody. On the street, people look right through you. No one sees you, and no one greets you other than irritable clerks in those government offices where you thrust your landing papers through the round holes. It may be true that money can buy everything, even other people’s respect. You don’t have that much money, though. Don’t try to bribe them.
Dressing for winter
You came here with this terrifying knowledge: Canada is one hell of a cold country. To begin with, this seems to be the case, but over the longer term you’ll see that the weather here is really quite bearable. So hold onto your horses when you set out on your first buying expedition for Arctic gear.
The cold is a fact of life, but it is not your worst enemy. In the big city where you likely settle there are worse things than rain, snow, and wind.
People who might actually freeze to death in this country are people who go to the North Pole or those who try to find a North-West passage. They might just be as unfortunate as poor Franklin. You yourself are unlikely to go deer hunting or ice fishing, and you do not ride a dog-sled. Canada’s scary weather is just an American urban legend. For them we are not even people, we are Kanuks, which are goose-down coats.
In a city, you can get through winter with just an ordinary coat, boots, woollen mittens and a tuque. You won’t often be outdoors for more than ten minutes, between the Métro station and the bus stop. As for the wait in bus shelters, remember you can set your clock by the bus schedule. It’s hot in the Métro and on the bus, and if you put on too much outerwear, you will sweat and then freeze when you emerge. If you go for a walk, just add a warm sweater under your coat and an extra pair of socks. All those Canada goose down coats, Patagonia Boots, and Burton mittens are a waste of money.
If you’ve done well so far, you’re ready for the next step.
© Felicia Mihali, 2012
Photo: Martine Doyon
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012).