Saturday, November 27, 2004

Fahrenheit to Celsius

Canada uses the metric system of measurement. That means when your American friends ask you, "What does gas cost there?" you first have to convert litres to gallons, and then convert Canadian dollars to American dollars.

I ride a bike, and now I can finally think in terms of kilometres rather than miles. When my mother came to visit, I ordered 200 grams of turkey from the deli counter, and I think she was actually shocked. If you want to blend in with the locals, you have to make all kinds of conversions in your head. It takes some getting used to.

By far the strangest mental adjustment for me is not distance or volume but temperature. What do you wear when it's 28 degrees outside? If you're here, the answer is shorts and a t-shirt, because 28 Celsius is 82 Fahrenheit.

All the weather reports are in Celsius. In fact, we get the Seattle television network affiliates, and one of them gives the weather in Victoria, BC along with the Seattle area weather. Everything is in Fahrenheit except Victoria, which is in Celsius. Everything is in the 40's except Victoria, where it's 4.

For the longest time, I would listen to the weather forecast on the radio and have no idea what was in store. Then I found a trick. There are temperature palindromes!

16 degrees Celsius is 61 degrees Fahrenheit.
28 degrees Celsius is 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
04 degrees Celsius is 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
-11 degrees Celsius is 11 degrees Fahrenheit.

And I hope you'll never need to know that where the scales meet is -40 degrees. -40 is -40 no matter how you look at it.

Now of course this is Canada, eh? So although everything is supposed to be metric, you will find some things that just aren't, and you'll find some people who were pretty well grown before the supposed conversion took place just don't think metric. So while you wouldn't find people here ordering a quarter pound of turkey at a deli counter, in the meat section you'll find turkeys organized by "under 10 lbs" and "over 10 lbs." Go figure.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Canadian Identity

Winter is coming again, and that means I'll have more time to devote to trying to figure out what things make Canada so…well, so Canadian. This project has kept me busy since I've been spending so much time up here. But the real interesting thing about that is that this keeps Canadians busy much of the time, too. They take a great deal of pride (well, as much pride as Canadians take in anything) in their ability to conduct "National Discussions" about the "moral imperative" du jour.

Canada is so much like the United States in some ways that it's easy to forget for a time that you are living someplace else. One November day as I waited for a bus in Vancouver I noticed the ad on the bus stop kiosk across the street said, "Tropical vacation paradise! See Cuba!" Everything had seemed pretty normal up to that point.

And then, the money. It takes some getting used to. The government introduced $1 and $2 coins and in order to make that work, they simply stopped printing $1 and $2 bills. So you go to the grocery store, take a buggy, do the shopping, stand in the line-up at the till, and your total is $56.90. How do they count out the change from the three $20's you give them? "Fifty-seven, fifty-nine, sixty."

Eh? You have a dime, a toonie, and a loonie in change. By the time you run the rest of your errands and get home, you may have thrown out your back from the change in your pocket.

If you need to see a doctor about that back injury, you really should understand that the notion that health care is "free" is an American misunderstanding of the situation. Health care in Canada is not free. Canadians pay a health premium, and that money goes to bureaucrats who then claim that the reason Canadians are waiting something like 7 months for treatment to begin after a diagnosis of cancer is that there isn't enough money to go around.

The really great thing about the heath care system in Canada is that Canadians don't have to pay anything extra for all that waiting around. Ever since the mid-1960's when the system was adopted, Canadians have come to expect that adequate health care is the right of every Canadian. The many interpretations of the meaning of the word "adequate" is one of the National Discussions in which Canadians are presently engaged.

One summer, my partner (a Canadian) became ill and we experienced a couple of thrilling visits to the local Emergency Ward. I had plenty of time to observe the Canadians around me. From what I can tell, Canadians like the present health care system because as a Canadian you can go to the pub, drink yourself into an agitated and belligerent state, grab a beer mug, hit some guy over the head with it, and then pass out, cracking open your head on the corner of a table as the floor rushes up to meet you.

And the best thing about it is that all the stitches are free! For both of you! And the second best thing about it is that all the government employees who work in the hospital get paid the same no matter how many people they see or how many people are waiting to be seen. There's no particular incentive to move any faster or work any harder. So, they do not. And it's not their fault! Nothing is anybody's fault here; it's just astonishing. I have been known to propose (on my way to a drunken and belligerent state) that the national motto be "It's not my fault. So."

The Story of Canadian Thanksgiving

As Americans ready themselves for a day of Thanksgiving, Canadians find themselves preparing for Christmas. Thanksgiving here was in October, even before Halloween. It takes some getting used to. Canadian Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Pilgrims. Here is the story:

Martin Frobisher and crew first celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in the eastern Arctic in 1578.

Frobisher was driving his boat around the Arctic in 1576 looking for a northern passage to Asia when he discovered Frobisher Bay (and wasn’t that an incredible coincidence?!?) and some ore he thought might contain gold. Frobisher spent the next couple of years trying to become rich mining what seemed like gold ore, and attempting to establish the first English settlement in North America. He failed on both counts, but did manage to celebrate the first North American Thanksgiving. Pilgrims and turkeys (with the possible exception of Frobisher himself) had nothing to do with it.

Besides The Frobisher Incident, there is some anecdotal evidence that Canadian Thanksgiving also draws on a tradition started by residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia who celebrated the end of the Seven Year’s War in 1763. Frankly, I suspect that said citizens actually appropriated the idea from their relatives in Salem, Massachusetts because Halifax was probably the sort of place where any excuse for a party would have to do. Some Canadians claim that this explains the introduction of pumpkin pie, turkey, squash, and the four-day weekend into the holiday. Others blame the United States of America for … well, for being the United States of America.

Thanksgiving Day is proclaimed as “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” Thanksgiving is considered a National Holiday in Canada, rather than a religious one, even though there are no extra “U’s” in Thanksgiving the way there are in Labour Day here, and references to God and blessings notwithstanding.

Since 1957, Thanksgiving has been celebrated by decree of Parliament on the second Monday in October. It used to be earlier, and then for a while it was later. After the current date was proclaimed, E.C. Drury, the former “Farmer-Premier” of Ontario lamented that “the farmers' own holiday has been stolen by the towns” to give them a long weekend when the weather was better. This did not impress anyone apparently, perhaps in part because Drury was also a founder and leader of a political party with the unfortunate acronym UFO.

Finally, Frobisher Bay was renamed Iqaluit (ee-KWAL-eh-weet) where the population for some time was mostly Inuit trying to subsist on fishing, and US Air Force personnel staffing the DEW line. This suggests that modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations occurred at the end of November and involved turkeys and satellite dishes receiving American football.

This week we’ll have some of our Canadian friends over and celebrate an American Thanksgiving with turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, wine, strong coffee, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the cable station from Seattle. Later there will be American football and more pie and coffee.

Next weekend, the Christmas lights go up.