Being an English Girl in Canada

By: Holly Nelson

I spent so much time coming and going between Canada and England last year that my poor head was all of a muddle! I would come to Canada wondering whether I would ever get used to the Canadian accent and I would then fly home to England feeling as though England were the more foreign place. It really was a peculiar year in which I felt nomadic. There was nowhere that I could call home!

England had been my home for twenty seven years but without my partner Luke and our beloved dog Pickles (full name Dame Zoey Picklebottom) beside me, England didn't fit anymore. Yet when I came to visit my partner and pup in Canada, it seemed strange and unknown. My friends and family weren't there.

I guess I still feel like this now. I am unsure where my true home is, I adore both countries in many different ways. But the real pull and lure of each country lie with the beloved people living there - my partner and dog in Canada and my friends and family in England.

The following are the biggest differences I have noted and struggles that I have faced in a brand new country. I thought it would be an easy transition to move abroad to a country in which I would not need to learn a new language but language is not the only barrier faced when attempting to embrace a wholly different culture!

When learning anything new the brain has to work extremely hard to forge new connections. Piaget introduced the term 'schema' in 1926 and it is a word that has been used to describe the way children learn. I won't go into it in detail, lest you drop down in some sort of stupor from the boredom, but it goes a little like this. A child owns a dog with a yellow coat. He believes all dogs are yellow. He goes out for a walk and sees a dog with a brown coat and is told that is also a dog. His brain synapses fire a new connection to accommodate this new learning and he now knows dogs can be both yellow and brown.

What does this have to do with the expat? Well, this is the same process that the brain goes through whenever it learns anything new, for example when learning new cultures and traditions in a new country. The catch is that it is harder to learn new things when you're older, the brain is less elastic and it is more difficult to forge new connections. As you work through this process you can feel tired, drained and even a little depressed. Don't fear though! It won't last forever!

When I first came to Canada there were many things that I found just so totally different!

I wrote earlier that I thought it would be easy moving to an English speaking part of Canada. I imagine that it certainly was easier than learning a new language, however there was still a language barrier! First of all there was a new accent to overcome. I wondered whether the Canadian accent would grate on my nerves. At times I struggled to keep up with conversations because words were so differently pronounced. Then the words themselves were different! Sidewalk not pavement, store not shop, workshop not garage, leash not lead etc.

On the flip side, people misunderstood me too. I was constantly explaining myself and the phrases that I used. 'What does 'oh bloody Nora' mean?' they would ask. 'Gordon Bennett? What are you talking about?!' but it all makes perfect sense to me! We English use both terms to express annoyance. FYI I have heard that 'bloody Nora' was in fact a lady who murdered someone viciously with a stick of celery whilst Gordon Bennett was an 1840s playboy who used to get up to mischievous shenanigans. I wonder whether there will ever be an 'oh, Holly Nelson' phrase to express frustration at the misunderstanding of phrases in different countries. That would be cool.

Other things that wowed me included the difference in size of the two countries; the sheer vastness of Canada in comparison to the coziness of England! For New Year 2012 we went to a party in what my partner described as being 'the next village'. In England the next village is always half a mile away, here in Canada it was thirty miles (mile here meaning a unit of measurement for distance that is commonly used in England, similar to, but not the same as, the kilometre)! Distance means less here because there is so much if it! Luke thinks nothing of driving an hour to get a new pair of trousers (here meaning pants) or similar. There isn't much that would make me drive a whole hour!

Knowing where to shop is still a constant source of both frustration and amusement. Which supermarket is cheaper? Currently No Frills is winning, but who knows. Which clothes shop? In England I would pop out (an English phrase here meaning to 'go out') to Top Shop or New Look, but here who knows? This is such a simple thing, but to begin with you wouldn't believe the trauma these decisions caused!

I suppose one of the biggest things to contend with is the weather. There are such extremes in summer and winter and I am ill acclimatized with either. In summer I can be found with my feet in a bucket of ice and a wet towel to my forehead, whilst in winter I can be found huddling next to a radiator in thick layers! I wonder when I will be used to the weather?

Snow this thick takes some getting used to!
Snow this thick takes some getting used to!
Smaller things you wouldn't normally have thought of came as a culture shock too.

The toilets are smaller so I kept finding myself dropping down an extra half foot more than expected when going to sit on them, landing with a bang.

Milk comes in bags, not cartons or bottles. It took me a long time to get the knack of opening those bags without spilling the contents!

Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies and toonies are all coins. Except that two months ago the penny was abolished, so now it isn't a coin anymore and that was the only coin I was familiar with!

You are legally obligated to sweep snow from the pavement in front of your house and there is such a crime as jay walking. How many other laws do I not know about?

Ice hockey and baseball are the big sports, not rugby, cricket and football (football here meaning soccer).

Raccoons like to get into your garbage. Squirrels are black. Those circling birds overhead are vultures. You mustn't camp with food up north because of the bears, wolves, coywolves and coyotes. Coywolves are a mix between coyotes and wolves. I see birds every day that I can't name. All of creation is different!

There are NO CADBURY WISPAS here. This is traumatic.


Just four months in and I am already learning to prefer wunderbars (which make me giggle and think of wonder bras) to wispas. Well, maybe not prefer, but certainly accept. The accent is just another accent, it sounds no stranger to me now than the cockney, liverpudlian or brummy accent. I still watch corrie (here meaning Coronation Street, an English show that the Canadians love as much as the English) every night. The enormity of the country is liberating after the cramped, confined but infinitely cozy feeling of England. Meh, was I really into rugby, cricket or football (here meaning soccer) anyway? I can now rock my way around a loonie or toonie at the shop if I have to, no longer using notes to avoid having to work out coins and look like a buffoon in front of the shop keeper (here meaning store assistant or store clerk).


The other day I fell asleep with the TV on and my little Pickle pup curled up beside me. As I woke up to the sounds of 'Heartbeat' on the TV (a programme - here meaning show - from the old days in England), I felt that not only could I be in England right now, but I could be ten years old again, watching the programme on a Sunday night after my weekly bath. So, no matter where you are in space or time, there is always a way back to the familiarity of what you know best, if only for the briefest moment and these moments help a lot as you acclimatize.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingHolly Nelson is a British expat living in Canada. Blog description: This is a blog detailing my move to Canada from England for love...
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Contest Comments » There are 11 comments

Den Nation wrote 7 years ago:

The bathtubs are lower too! And, dare I say, the water in the toilet flushes more slowly too. I really enjoy reading Holly's blog. It's a mixture of posts on everyday life and her experience as a recent immigrant to Canada.

Holly Nelson wrote 7 years ago:

The bath tubs are smaller!! You should have written something for this too Den Nation? I love your stories! I have been to Tim Horton's Erin!! I really love Tim Horton's. mmmm double double!

Den Nation wrote 7 years ago:

I would have loved to have written an article, but one of the requirements for this contest is having your blog listed in the directory here. With only 21 posts, my blog is 4 posts shy of meeting the eligibility criteria for being included in the directory.

Buttons wrote 7 years ago:

Oh This is a fantastic look into a life I as a Canadian really did not know was so very different from "Merry old England" as they say. I laughed as I listened to you talk about our accent because I did not know we had one and think the English accent is so very cool. I had no idea our toilets were lower, is there a reason for that, very strange indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have never laughed so hard thinking of just how difficult this transition would be yet finding myself laughing at that difference. I truly am happy Miss Holly Nelson has fit in so nicely. I look forward to hearing more stories from this English/Canadian woman.

Holly Nelson wrote 7 years ago:

Thanks Buttons!! Such a lovely comment! No idea about the toilets, it is true though! I really struggled with them to begin with! It isn't just our toilet either, but all toilets!! I do so love reading your blog too!

Erin Moran wrote 7 years ago:

I'm going to steal a joke I heard from Stephen Fry, you want to know the reason why there are no Wispas on the American continent... because they don't know how to whisper. I really enjoyed your post, everyone thinks that America/Canada are the basically the same but there are a lot of differences. Have you been to a Tim Horten's yet?! Haha

EmmaK wrote 7 years ago:

Yeah I am a Brit in the USA and the sweeping the snow thing in front of the house rule can get on the nerves when the snow is 4 ft thick. I am so sorry about the Cadbury Wispa shortage - maybe you can buy some online.

Jason Whittington wrote 7 years ago:

Holly Nelson was this ever a good read!

Nicola Young wrote 7 years ago:

Always a great read Hol! miss your face and love reading your blogs, always feel like I learn something new, whilst at the same time, just listening to an old friend :) Keep doing what you're doing, and let me know when you come back to the UK so I can get you tipsy on Stella :) xx

Laura wrote 7 years ago:

Another fabulously written post. I never thought about all the little adjustments that you have to make as well as the monumental ones! Informative and fun to read, as ever. I love your writing style and how much personality shines through x

Mia wrote 7 years ago:

Another beautifully written one Holly - a light but thoughtful look at some interesting ideas, obviously written from the heart. Look forward to the next one!

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