More Misunderstandings (Canadian Version)

Posted on December 7, 2010


My wife and I arrived in 1993 for our first visit to Prince Edward Island, a place that would eventually become our home. Soon after driving off the ferry and getting onto the Trans-Canada Highway, I noticed the cars coming the other way all had their headlights on. Where we came from, the only time you saw that during the day was when a funeral procession was going by. I pulled over to the side of the road. I had been taught to do that, whether the funeral was moving in the same direction or the opposite direction. It was proper etiquette.

The cars kept coming. Hundreds of them, all with their lights on. We sat for minutes. Then, finally, it ended. But as soon as I started to get back onto the road, another line of cars appeared, again, with their headlights on. Unsure what to do, I pulled over once more.

“Somebody really important must have died,” I said to my wife. We sat for another ten minutes. “This is the longest funeral I’ve ever seen.”

“Me too,” she said, proving I wasn’t the only ignorant person in the front seat. What we didn’t know at the time was that vehicles in Canada are required to have daytime running lights. This means that as soon as you start the engine, the lights come on, a safety feature that makes your car more visible to the other drivers. No one told us about that. We just thought, well, it’s a small island and everybody knows everybody. Eventually it dawned on us that no one could have that many friends, and that we must be witnessing something other than a funeral. We drove off.

The confusion in the car was a sign of the verbal misunderstandings that would follow over the next days, months, and years. Sometimes a shared language can lull us into a false sense of comfort. We spoke English. They spoke English. So it was easy to forget that different places have different ways of saying things. One day, soon after we moved in, the phone rang. I picked it up and said hello.

“How are you two getting along?” someone on the other end said. The question seemed inappropriate, especially since this was a person whose voice I didn’t even recognize. I paused, then said what anyone from my part of the United States would have said.

“Who is this?”

What I failed to understand was that he wasn’t poking his nose into the health of my marriage. He simply wanted to know how we were doing. It was a question we might have worded like this: “How’s it going?” But here they ask, “How are you getting along?” Someone should have mentioned that to us. I also would have appreciated some warning about how often people around here talk about the weather. (Constantly.) They use it as a greeting. They don’t say, “Hello.” They say, “Beautiful day.” Or, “Some storm coming.” Or, “We needed the rain.” Waiting on line at the supermarket, you might hear the cashier have the identical conversation about the weather with every customer ahead of you. It’s the same thing at the bank. One day, after standing behind half a dozen people, I got up to the teller and said, “Do you ever get tired of talking about the weather?” I expected her to be relieved, and to lunge at the chance to discuss something else. “What do you mean?” she said.

About a month after we moved in, I was introduced to someone in the community. Foregoing the usual remark about the temperature or impending precipitation, he asked pointedly, “Have you got your beds in yet?” I didn’t know this, but he was inquiring about our flower beds. The people here all do their gardening around the same time, in late May or early June, depending on what they’re planting and how much frost is in the ground. Yet again, no one had told us. I thought the man was asking about our furniture, and I wondered where he thought we’d been sleeping all those weeks. “Oh yeah,” I said. “We got those in on our first day here.” He seemed impressed. Or skeptical. I wasn’t sure.

The frost in the ground, by the way, comes up in conversation with almost unimaginable frequency. The level of frost seems to affect almost everything, from crop yield to the price of heating oil to how the local semi-pro hockey team is doing. Exactly how people go about measuring underground frost was beyond me, and remains so.

The midday meal that we call lunch is referred to as dinner here. What we call dinner, they call supper. This is an important distinction. One day when our son was about six, his friend was coming over to play. The boy’s mother dropped him off at eleven-thirty in the morning and asked when she should come back to pick him up. I said after dinner would be fine. She arrived an hour and ten minutes later, put him into the car, and left. Our son cried the rest of the afternoon. My wife and I were totally baffled until much later that night, when it dawned on us that what we meant to say was after supper.

Mileage and speed limits are measured in kilometers. But apparently the word kilometers is too long and threatens to eat into the time available for discussing the precise amount of snow we had last winter, and so people say clicks instead. And they don’t use highway numbers or street names. They don’t seem to even be aware of them. When giving directions, they refer to landmarks. Often, they’ll refer to landmarks that are no longer there. “Go down this road here for a while, oh, about eight or ten clicks. Then turn left where Henry’s appliance store used to be.”

I didn’t bother trying to figure out who Henry was or how I was supposed to recognize where his appliance store once stood. I had no idea how to count clicks, or even what clicks were. Anyway, I was sure I’d never be able to make a left turn, because there would likely be a funeral coming the other way. And that was just as well, too; I really needed to get home. It was almost August, after all, and we hadn’t even gotten our beds in yet. When it came to gardening, my wife and I just didn’t seem to be getting along. Maybe there was too much frost in the ground. Or not enough.

Still, it was a beautiful day.