Ambassador Me

I thought Canada was the 51st state. No, not literally. But I did think living here would be nearly indistinguishable from life in the United States. It ain’t so.

Windy and Michael Robertson

Windy and I aboard Del Viento, under sail in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, stradling the border between the U.S. and Canada. Michael Robertson

I didn’t just fall off the proverbial turnip truck. I’ve traveled, I’m fairly well read, and I just turned 44 years old this month. Yet, I have to come clean on a misguided prejudice I’ve held: I thought Canada was the 51st state. No, not literally. But I did think living here would be nearly indistinguishable from life in the United States.
It ain’t so.

For example, I knew Canada had a French thing going on, that folks in one of their states provinces back east were pretty much French. But I had no idea French and English share “official language” status throughout the country. Every food label in the grocery stores here in British Columbia is printed in both English and French. Credit card terminals and ATMs automatically simultaneously display in both languages. Folks at the post office are ready to address me either way. (When I especially want to feel cosmopolitan, I prep something to be mailed, take it to the post office, and greet the clerk with my best, “Bonjour!” before switching back to English. Wink, wink.)

And the flip side of the French thing is the English thing. Canadian English is more English than American. Accordingly, nothing is spelled correctly and British influence is everywhere. Royal this and royal that. Queen Elizabeth is Canada’s head of state, really (and of Pakistan too, who knew?).


And that’s not all. Can you believe Canada is still stuck in the metric system? Thanks to our time in Mexico, I’ve finally got a good feel for the gallon-liter relationship—and miles-kilometers, kilograms -pounds are sort of 1:2—but the gram is tough. There are 28.35 of them in an ounce. Why on earth wouldn’t they choose a round number of them for an ounce? Not too big a deal until you’re in the grocery store, trying to get a feel for the price of stuff in the bulk section.

Fortunately, Canadian money trades roughly 1:1 with the dollar. Unfortunately, they don’t use dollar bills here. And despite all of the failed attempts at broad acceptance of a dollar coin in the U.S., the folks in Canada love them. Their $1 coin has an imprint of a loon on it so they call it a loonie. (Their $2 coin…anyone? Yep, a toonie.) Cute, but Canadians use loonies like we use quarters. In a U.S. laundromat, we deposit three quarters and get our fleece cleaned. In Canada, we deposit three loonies and feel fleeced.

But it could be an island thing; everything here in Victoria is expensive. The regular people’s grocery store (Thrifty Foods, a misnomer) has prices that would make any shopper at a U.S. Whole Foods store feel like they got a screaming bargain. Eating out is out of the question. On top of the high cost of the meal, folks in Canada pay a sales tax that would eliminate the U.S. national debt in six months: 12%.


And some differences defy explanation. Like where you go if you have to go. They don’t have restrooms in Canada—not a one. All they have here are washrooms. Universally, it seems that is the only term that’s used. Surely U.S. media bleeds through, wouldn’t our term catch on? Who knows. But if I continue asking waiters and clerks where the restrooms are, maybe it will rub off. After all, that’s why we travel, to do our part to help the world become just a bit more American, right?

I will say that like the U.S., Canada has learned to maximize the Christmas shopping season. This mid-November lighted holiday parade passed right in front of our docks. The girls loved it.

I__n our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at