Friday, November 4, 2011

Culture in Canada

I come from an island of four million. We are famous for our 'craic' and our impressive drinking capabilities. If you haven't guessed yet, I'm talking about Ireland. There I lived my life for eighteen years, knowing only my fellow Irish people, two Canadians and four Polish. I've seen all the sitcoms, English programmes, American comedies - I know that deep down we're all the same and culture is dead. But then I uprooted myself and moved to Toronto, Canada. Two months into my life there I could see how appallingly wrong I was. In just eight weeks I learned more about the world and its inhabitants than in the entire nineteen years I'd spent sheltered in Irish education.

I'm a penniless explorer, so everywhere I venture I must work. In Canada I secured a job as a waitress in an Italian banquet hall and it proved to be pure, brilliant madness. I suspect it was akin to being in a scene from my big fat Greek wedding except the visitors were Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese and Polish. I was the only Irish person, the only blonde, the only person over 5ft4. One of the female customers asked me if Ireland was beside Russia before nicknaming me 'white girl.' Another complimented me on my good English to which I replied, 'thank you, it's my first language.' I was making some great first impressions.

The perk of the job was discovering how different nationalities approached partying. Portuguese people were crazy, fun and ridiculously skinny for the amount of food and drink they consumed. I worked a wedding where we served a six course meal followed by a seafood buffet, sweet table and an open bar. By god did they have know how to have a good time. An Italian stag party was a similar story; a sit down meal with massive amounts of consumption. Despite these fascinating social occasions it was a Muslim prom which remains etched in my mind.

The cloaked women arrived en masse and I watched mesmerised as they unwrapped themselves from their confines to reveal a parade of coloured, sparkling gowns topped with tiaras and sashes. No men were permitted to enter, only female waiters were allowed and alcohol and meat was banned. I couldn't help feeling sorry for them. Where was the fun, the madness? It was so far away from the customs I'd grown up with that I was tempted to arrogantly assume myself their superior. What happened next had me awe-struck. As I listened to the key speakers belt out their life lessons, common themes arose. Themes such as: do not put yourself in a position to be attacked; cover your curves so you don't attract attention; never be alone with a male that is not a relation. I'd heard all this before but it was from the TV, newspapers, things far away. Never this close, face to face, and my heart plummeted. I thought we were all fundamentally the same. All humans and equals. How could there be such a divide between me and these girls sitting before me?

They were called to prayer twice throughout their celebrations. Each time we quickly covered the dance floor with white sheets as they once again covered themselves from head to toe and kneeled to their God. Much later, the atmosphere changed and groups of girls put on matching outfits and performed beautiful traditional dances. Though the night wore on, their energy never let up. With plastered smiles on their faces they joined hands and spun and weaved across the wooden floor. Just mothers and daughters out on their one night of freedom.

Thankfully for me, Toronto wasn't all work; the place is a rich persons' playground. I spent warm nights out on the town in bars on towering buildings with views of the entire Toronto skyline. Hours were spent chilling with a beer in hand, surrounded by new and incredible people. Or legs dangling over the bow of a sailboat with the water splashing on my pale legs. Other times I canoed around Centre Island, strapped myself into the Behemoth at Canada's Wonderland, licked ice-cream at Niagara Falls and ate popcorn at a baseball game. I even attended their annual Gay Pride Parade.

Canadians in general are quite a conservative bunch but the same cannot be said for their thriving gay community. They were wild. It was like being in one of Botticelli's paintings - a lot of naked people amongst a riot of colour. The annual Parade closes down Toronto's main high streets for one whole day and attracts thousands of tourists to the city. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. Gone were the usual monochrome suits and briefcases, replaced with a chorus of neon clothing and bare skin. People were singing and chanting, sitting on window ledges, trash cans, traffic lights, all cheering at the onslaught of floats parading down the street. Everywhere I turned were stalls spilling from side streets and alleys, all bursting with trendy goods. Speakers knocked out chart music and everyone was blissfully happy. On this one day a year people can freely express their sexuality and not be frowned upon by society or suffer violence and aggression. I was so lucky to get to see such a brilliant example of human nature.

It all makes me wonder why everyone wants to go to the States. Over the border, Canada's got everything they have with a hell of a lot less drama. I may be back in my own world, back to the reality of university life, but I feel different and changed. I no longer cluster around my British and Irish friends but walk willingly into the International community. I want to hear their stories, learn about their culture and travel to their worlds. After all, home will still be there and waiting when I get back.

Written by Orla O Muiri.

Orla's full profile can be found here.

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