That’s what they call it here: Freshers are called “Froshmen”. How weird. They also don’t say “half past” the hour, at all, they don’t know what it means. Language barriers are more common than I initially thought they would be, but fortunately, these encounters come across in more of a cute way than a communicatively obstructive way. For example, a girl laughed at me today in the lift (sorry – elevator) when I asked where she’d bought her “chips” from. I should know by now that they call the deep fried potatoes “fries” by now. Yesterday I saw a sign that said “Please put your trash in the garbage” – how Canadian!! Also they don’t know what “jumpers” are.
Warning: this post is a long one! Don’t think you can get away with reading it in five minutes!
If asked to describe my week in one word it would be “surreal”. I’ve been so busy that time has been warped and I feel like I’ve been here for months. In a good way.
On the plane I made friends with a lovely Canadian couple; the wife was originally from Chile. She explained to me her experiences with coming to live in the country and dealing with the cold and cultural barriers. She had been in London for three days performing as a professional Concert Pianist. She recommended me a shop for warm clothing and sent me on my way with a lot more confidence for the cold weather and how to deal with the adjustment – she loves Canada now and wouldn’t think about going back. This was my first taste of Canadian kindness.
Ultimately, that has been the biggest adjustment so far: dealing with the different social norms and expectations with regards to etiquette. I was bowled over by fantastic smiles and friendly small talk as soon as I stepped off the plane, which filled me with confidence to express myself and approach others. The university reps were especially like this, and every single rep I met was full of so much energy that it was infectious. I’ve found myself changing the way I speak to people serving me, and smiling at people who pass me by. Here, anyone can start a conversation with anyone and it won’t even be questioned or judged. Even at immigration control I made a friend in the (incredibly intimidating and scary) officer once I mentioned where I was studying – he was a McMaster alumnus!
Secondly, THE HEAT!!! Bearing in mind that this summer has been freakishly hot even for the Canadians, it has been reaching temperatures near forty degrees centrigrade quite consistently. My accommodation doesn’t have air conditioning. The acquisition of a fan has been the best tactical move made yet! Spare a thought for me bearing with this – I never thought I’d end up wishing for the snow to come!
There are also a few other strikingly obvious differences between the lifestyle here and the one I’m used to. Residences on campus are bound by many rules and regulations which initially I struggled not to find intimidating or condescending. But the reasons for such implementations have become clearer the longer I’ve stayed here. The majority of the first year students are aged 17/18 (below the drinking age of 19), I mentioned previously that I was nervous about living within a community where I was by far the oldest at 20. However, there are around three Community Advisors living on each floor (of which there are 5) who are older students responsible for the welfare of the younger residents. This works really well, as they’re all very friendly people, but it’s interesting for us being looked after by those the same age or even younger, especially whilst comparing this with my experience of English Freshers week. For the first week we weren’t allowed in other residences past 7pm which made bonding with the other exchange students quite tricky! Now on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings guests have to be signed in and out, and you’re only allowed 12 visitors past 11pm on these nights a term.
Having made close friends with a few exchange students living off-campus it has been interesting to share our experiences of moving in and the first week. It isn’t uncommon for rented houses to be unfurnished, and things like internet and utilities can take a few weeks to set up – which I’d imagine intensifies the culture shock upon arrival. For those of us living in rez (residence) we had pretty much instant access to campus wifi, pre-paid utilities and meals, and for those of us lucky enough to live in Mary Keyes or Brandon, air con! However, now the livers out have settled in they seem to be enjoying their freedom and independence, more so than us, and they will end up overall having a much cheaper year. Personally, I’m glad I’m living in residence because by my nature I’m lazy, and as this is my first time travelling alone I relish the comfort aspect of being in a close-knit community, especially with a lot of other internationals. I think this will also be the case once the cold weather kicks I’m and I’ll be happy I only have to walk short distances to food or lectures. Anyway, back to the first week..!
After waking up reasonably early on Sunday (not by choice – thank you jet lag) we set off on a hike to the Albion Falls which were just a short bus ride away. Here I got to try out my new camera, and we climbed up the waterfall (amongst the other tourists) and relished the hot weather.
That evening we visited a pub called the Snooty Fox that I had heard about from the MIX Facebook group before, and it lived up to expectations. They do great food and have a really great, chilled out vibe. With a fantastic playlist. I can see us frequenting this spot a few more times throughout the year. We also happened to bump into a large group of students from Leeds University who were all living out – there are about 22 of them in total!
On Monday we walked about 15 minutes to the closest grocery store Fortinos (the equivalent of Waitrose, I’d say) where there was such an arrangement of food, Amy and I were bowled over. The supermarkets don’t seem to have a logical layout here, they don’t put all of one thing in one place, for example there were two pasta isles! We learned later that this is one of the most expensive places to shop and we could have saved a LOT of money by catching a short bus downtown to a place called Food Basics.
In the evening there was the first MIX society meeting, where we met a lot of the other exchange students for the first time – I was bowled over that there seemed to be over 150!! They followed this with a group hike into Cootes Paradise (a wood very close to campus) but Amy, Niamh and I slipped away to head into Westdale (the nearest small town) and set up bank accounts with CIBC who were offering a very good deal on student accounts. You have to be careful when taking out money here, because any ATM not associated with your bank will charge you to withdraw – a little annoying but easy to get around. That night we stopped at a bar called Emerson Pub (or E-Pub for short) which was great value and very sociable with a lovely outdoor terrace. Here I met some Danish and French students which was refreshing, even though I kept having to check myself because I couldn’t believe how much had happened in 48 hours, how well I had gotten to know people, and how far I was away from home.
Tuesday was the much-anticipated trip to Ikea, where we had our first experience riding in the stereotypical yellow school buses that you see in films and on tv. This was exhausting, and I spent something like $160 on incredibly necessary (or not) home accessories and appliances (a full length mirror, bedding, cutlery, a flower pot etc.). This excursion left us hot and bothered and extremely in need of an evening out at a place called Boston pizza, who accept our mealcards as tender, and serve huge portions of greasy, cheesy pasta. It was also a sports bar, so we ate a traditional Canadian meal, surrounded by “football” and baseball games. Fortunately we had stumbled across karaoke night, and a few of us showed our true talents (and colours) on the stage. This was a brilliant night, and a lot of the internationals turned up, meaning it was a great opportunity to mingle and make friends. I still remember one of the Italians, a now close friend of mine, Mauro majestically singing “That’s Amore” with his perfect handlebar moustache. Never have I ever respected someone so much in my life. (I think this was especially touching because it forced me to reminisce about those fond nights in Klute).
On Wednesday we took some rest, and prepared ourselves for the first night out of the trip at an event called Motown, known and loved for playing only original songs (no covers) – lots of MJ and beach boys etc. A night at Motown is never shy for a Grease Medley, and was thoroughly enjoyable, yet slightly reminiscent of a school disco.
Our second waterfall hike occurred on Wednesday to Webster falls, which was by far the best yet. We hiked through a gorgeous forest for about half an hour before reaching an opening, where a staggering stream flowed dramatically onto large rocks beneath. This time I had come prepared in my bikini so we spent a good while showering and covering ourselves (and each other) in the supposedly “nourishing” mud (that was slightly grey).
That evening, Rhiannon and I hopped on another yellow school bus to engineering night, which was taking place in a small park just outside of town. This was part of the Welcome Week introductory sessions, with free food, comedy sessions, a live band and story telling by the bonfire. Contrasting to English welcome week, the reps seemed much more concerned with actually making friends with the first years and especially ourselves, considering we were going to be in some of their classes. They were all such good fun or in the words of my Irish housemate Amy “such good craic”.
The following day a few of the group decided to visit Toronto, but Rhiannon and I stayed in Hamilton for an annual Engineering event called “Bus Pull” that was supposedly “legendary”. This was part of the week long event “Shinerama”, raising money for Cystic Fibrosis charities. We caught buses into downtown Hamilton and the 200 or so of us were joined by a police escort as we pulled a bus by long ropes down the streets in the town centre that had been closed especially. This was surprisingly easy. I am no longer so impressed by those Mr Universe figures who lift cars and trucks to show off on tv. We were joined by a family where the youngest daughter was a sufferer, and the dad did a speech at the beginning which was very touching. I couldn’t help but well up with the reminder of family, but managed to hold it together with the fear of looking like an emotional trainwreck in front of my newly aquainted peers.
Once arriving back at campus, we were in a way “initated” into the Engineering society through some strange and slightly uncomfortable tasks. The first was a test of trust. We were lined up one behind the other and told to close our eyes, and were led, with only the shoulders of the person in front for guidance, though an assault course of woody terrain, steps, in and out of flowerbed, bollards and obstructions, all the time with the “reds” (the engineering reps wearing red boiler suits) whispering things in our ears and making noises. Sometimes they would even tickle us with feathers or sticks, or blow onto us to make us shiver. All in all, a very strange experience. We were told we could regain control of ourselves once we had followed the line down into a very strange, overgrown part of campus, that was oddly sunkern into the ground. The reds lined the walls, and us “frosh” were gathered, all rather anxious in the centre. As intimidating as this was, fortunately the only reason for this was to announce the “Super Frosh” and “Lady Godiva” of 2015 – two of the most willing and enthusiastic first years who had shown themselves to be especially keen during the past week.
We were then taken to the statue of the “Iron Ring” placed purposefully outside the main entrance to the Engineering building – an oversized replica of the ring that every Engineering graduate receives to remind them “never to be sh*t” when taking on their Engineering career, or more eloquently:
“The ring symbolizes the pride which engineers have in their profession, while simultaneously reminding them of their humility. The ring serves as a reminder to the engineer and others of the engineer’s obligation to live by a high standard of professional conduct.”
Read more about it in the link above. At the time, this was explained to us by “Wonder Plumber” the female mascot of the society, a role that pairs with “Super Plumber” (the male version), and generally provided comical moments throughout the week. I have never felt anything more surreal than calling out to a lady dressed in a mock Wonder Woman outfit, plunger in hand, eating dessert in a frozen yoghurt shop. Apparently the position is quite competitive.
After this explanation, as a final act, Wonder Plumber announced the beginning of the “Chivalry Walk” as a dedication to the ladies of the society. For this, the womens’ feet were not allowed to touch the ground for the journey from the engineering department to the Student Centre (about 200m). This was, I can confirm, utterly mortifying. As a tall, rather stocky girl, I had to latch myself onto a group of males as soon as I could, and I consequently chose poorly. It started off well, with a lovely young lad offering to piggy-back me, and this was looking, and feeling fine. Until he tried to pass me to a friend in an awkward, chair-like lift where, due to my floaty dress and slippery (thanks to the humid weather and ultimately, fear) legs failed in an epic fashion. As I lay, trying to make myself as rigid as a plank, with four, nerdy, skinny boys on each limb, with my dress ridden up around my waist and pants on show, I contemplated my life decisions. Once again – surreal.
Having survived that ordeal, I needed to get away as soon as possible and made a swift escape back to residence to get ready for a concert in the evening. If any of you remember the youtube video where 5 people played Gotye – Somebody that I Used to Know on one guitar, this was the band playing. If you don’t remember – the link is here. This was followed by an unsuccessful search for “keggers” (essentially house parties) in the local residential area, which was incredibly disappointing.
For the weekend, the fun didn’t stop, but energy levels were running low. Saturday night saw the likes of WestFest- similar to a carnival in the centre of Westdale (the local town). We watched some brilliant bands and cheesily danced the night away, whilst pleasantly dreaming of returning to our beds for the night. With a little more motivation on the Sunday, we managed to make it out to another MIX event – a lovely pub crawl in some of Hamilton’s more remote bars and pubs, and eventually ending up in a small club that played only vinyl records.
And as swiftly as it had started, my first week in Canada came to a close, leaving me with fond memories and a bundle of solid, and fun-loving friends. This was to be, as I continue to believe, the beginning of the best year of my life.