Points North: Measure for Measures...

By James Fife

There are a great many circumstances during our transition to life in Canada that have required some adjustment in attitude or just plain learning new things and ways, as I have tried to catalogue here in this column. I know some of it may have sounded like belly-aching complaints at times, but I tried to view it all through the lens of being a big adventure.

Most of the time, that is. I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that in some instances the Move is very frustrating and distressing. The furthest thing from ‘adventure’ as one could get. Not unless you're the sort of blessed soul who finds something ‘good’ in even a train wreck or flood. I've never been able to muster that degree of sang froid towards set-backs. So, it's a relief to find some aspects of the move North have required less ‘adventure’ than they could have. I'm glad to report I am not that tightly wound that I can't appreciate how things could be worse in a given circumstance.

For instance, there are several ways that the transition to Victoria has been made easier by the proximity of the 49th parallel. By that I mean that certain aspects of life in Canada match pretty closely to their counterpart in the United States. Measures are an example of this. Although there are also several conspicuous exceptions, to a satisfyingly large extent, I can count on at least being understood when I so unconsciously use a unit of measure that I have grown up with, but, as it turns out, is not the Canadian standard— at least not anymore. Take money. It's the greatest gift, I have now realized, that both of my countries use the same name for their currencies. And not only do we both use dollars, but the names of the subdivisions of that dollar translate. Several times I nearly stopped in my tracks as I was just about to call a 10¢ coin a ‘dime’ to a Canadian listener. I had the fleeting suspicion that I was going to use an Americanism. But, it turns out, there was no cause for concern. Even the ubiquitous slang word buck requires no introduction.

Turns out that's a subtle, but continuous, lack of adventure in our transition, one where we need not feel self-conscious of spouting out some ungodly, American solecism every time we enter a store. I am very glad we have not been put into the nerve-wracking position of having to learn and recall how many bob are in a guinea or the number of sous you need to make a guilder, or some such mind-bending exercise. The only effort needed in that direction was the purely amusing one of learning how to spot a loonie and a twoonie in your handful of change when standing at the register. Not such a big burden.

Not all measures are as directly translated as money, but we've found that the vestiges of the ancient avoirdupois (a wholly ironic retention of a French name for a uniquely British system of measures) still linger in Canada, at least among Canadians of a certain age range. So, we usually need not feel we’re being too obscure when we ask for a pound of cheese or tell the fishmonger how many ounces of halibut we can afford today. Still, I do find myself studying the face of the person across the deli counter, trying to gauge his or her age group. I'm not exactly sure where I sense the line falls, but I find there's a point where I sense I'd best not ask for “half a pound” of that potato salad, but for “250 grams,” if I want to be handed something roughly in the amount sought. I do that partly as a desire to facilitate communication, partly to avoid the wrong amounts, and partly to not peg myself as hopelessly archaic, as if I went into Home Depot and asked for four cubits of lumber for my ark.

When it comes to driving, measures can differ significantly in Canada. While most people will not bat an eye when Marilyn or I ask about how many miles away something is, it is obvious that—officially—all those distances are set out in kilometers. I can translate them quickly in my head into ‘normal’ distances. And as far as the speedometer is concerned, most of the time I just read that like a clockface: if the needle is too far past noon on the dial, then you're driving too fast, whatever those numbers mean. And although there's a real difference at the pump in whether you’re pouring in litres or gallons, for us, it just feels with any nominal price under four bucks like we're paying less. If we don't notice that Canadian gas tanks seem to take four times as much to fill.

Despite these little differences, we've been able to adapt and measure up without too much bother. One less big hurdle to clear on the road to our full absorption into life in James Bay. Now, if only I can figure out how many drams in a growler, I'll be all set.

Poem: The Spirit Merchant

Nobody's Perfect