Multicultural Relationship: Pros and Cons?

When it comes to questions about my life as an expat, the international state of my romantic life is surely to arouse the most curiosity. I decided to raise the curtain a little and write a post about my life as a part of a multicultural couple. How does it work? Does it work at all? Do we constantly fight about things related to our cultural differences? How does it feel to love in a language that's not your own?

The key attribute to success in living with someone who doesn't possess the same cultural background as you is to acknowledge the fact that it is indeed the case: we are different in a way that cannot be possible for a Finnish or a Canadian couple. Our struggles are different: where a Finnish couple might fight over who does the dishes, we're fighting over with what we're doing the dishes, since my quebecois partner prefers a washcloth, and I want my brushes. We both think the other's option is unhygienic.

Come to terms with these differences. I'll start with a real-life example from yesterday: Alex has started in a new job in retail close to our home, and he had told me his shift would finish at 5. So at 20 to 6 I started to get a little confused and tried to call, but he didn't answer. I was hungry and wanted dinner. When he finally arrived home, I proceeded to ask:
"And where have you been?"
"At work? I told you my shift finishes at 5?"
"It's 15 to 6?"
"Well the shop closes at 5 but of course we have to clean up the shop before we leave!"
"So why isn't that included in your shift schedule on a daily basis? That's how it works in Finland. The shop closes at 5, so they extend my shift to 5:15."
"But they can't know how long it will take to clean up the shop."
"Well can't they estimate?"
This went on for a while until we realised the discussion has faced a dead end. I didn't realise that this is how they roll in Canada. Alex of course didn't know that I was unaware of this. So when these fights happen, someone has to raise the white flag and request a time-out, since none of us is right.

There are pros and cons in a duo of two nationalities, as one would expect. I came up with 3 biggest differences compared to a couple of the same nationality, and my way to deal with these differences.

Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada

The Difference: Our cultures and habits are not the same.

As demonstrated above, we often encounter situations that feel a little absurd for a Finnish or Canadian couple. We want to do different things, we want to do same things with a different method, we need different things, we speak differently, we intepret words differently, we eat differently. The list could go on.

I came across one of the most common differences up to date just a few weeks from becoming a couple: I call it the Maybe-question. Finns are very straightforward and direct to a point where it becomes impolite in Canadian culture. I say yes and I mean yes. If something is wrong, I'll say it straight away, and if something pisses me off, I'll open my mouth and speak up. I don't play word games. However, in my partner's culture this is much more common, and sometimes it's hard for me to understand what they actually want. I might ask if Alex would like to eat mushroom pasta for dinner, and I get "maybe..." as an answer. This confused me at first, but with almost 2 years' experience I know now that "maybe" often means yes - depending on the tone, of course. No-Maybe sounds different.

We use words in a different way: our languages have been developing in different surroundings, and thus they stress and have words for separate things. I often amuse (and frighten) quebeckers by telling them Finnish doesn't have a word for "please". Meanwhile all that "ça va?" sounds unnecessary and pretentious to my ear - but my opinion on this never changed the fact that for a year our Skype conversations would always, always start with this mantra:
"Hi there, how are you?"
"I'm fine, how about you?"
"I'm fine too. So, what's up?"
Many times I requested we drop this courtesy and go straight into business, since we never had much time to exchange news. But no, he insisted and kept doing it. So after a while I understood that another way to start a conversation with a French-speaker doesn't seem to exist, and have been playing along ever since.

One thing that directly affects the everyday life of an international couple is the question of holidays. We consider different days of the year to be worth celebrating. Quebeckers go absolutely nuts on the 24th of June: St. Jean, Québec's official national day, is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. I myself am very keen on Midsummer (Juhannus) around the 21st of June, when the sun doesn't set and Finns spend their nightless nights dancing around bonfires and trying to avoid drowning. Our common calendar holidays, such as Christmas, have completely different traditions, and I'm already mentally preparing myself for a Christmas without smoked salmon this year.

Alex in Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland

BUT: It offers us a chance to question our own habits and opinions as something universal.

Exchange students and emigrants-to-be are often warned about the upcoming monster called the culture shock. It's the small dreaded creature sitting on every expat's shoulder and suddenly making all Finns want to exclusively eat rye bread and drink salmiakki vodka, even if neither of these things have been on their daily grocery list in Finland. They spend hours and hours running around their new hometown desperately trying to find a store that would sell cardamom (speaking from experience here!), because you absolutely need those cinnamon buns right now. The locals don't seem to understand the importance of cheese slicers and door handles, water tastes nothing like in Finland, insulation is nothing like in Finland, people are weird and nothing like in Finland, grocery stores and washing machines are your biggest enemy, and even showers are trying to kill you.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone to a new and strange culture is a crucial moment for anyone's national identity: it offers us a chance to rethink our position in this world and in our own culture. Am I a Finn? What does it mean to be a Finn? How much of a Finn am I? Living in one single culture makes it easy to take cheese slicers for granted and think of door handles as something cosmopolitan - the Finnish way of living appears as something universal, The One Culture, and the rest of the world as The Other in relation to it.

Multicultural relationship puts you into a position where struggles like these are part of your everyday life. The new home country/travelling destination/exchange university might appear as the biggest enemy for someone who's not used to facing that mild helplessness at first, but for one struggling with cultural differences on a daily basis such a feeling is nothing but new. Your whole life is that culture shock: your spouse doesn't understand doors without knobs nor see the point of cheese slicers, toilets in Europe don't have enough water and there are multiple separate stores for stuff you would normally find in one single pharmacy in Canada. Every time I might slip into thinking the Finnish way is the only way, he reminds me that none of us knows the right way to do things - only different ways. And no matter how much I might think asking the unnecessary "ça va?" is not at all me, last week I actually asked this question for the first time completely automatically when I entered our HR Manager's office and simultaneously realised how handy it is when trying to break the ice!

Along the Seine, Paris, France

The Difference: We don't have a common native language.

My boyfriend is a French-speaker. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, I look at him and it strikes me all of a sudden: My boyfriend's mother tongue is French. How did this happen? I was pretty much able to say "Bonjour" and "Merci" when I met him for the first time. I, however, speak Finnish as my first language, a language that no one has ever even heard of. It was obvious that Alex had no idea how Finnish even sounds like.

Sometimes our linguistic differences reveal much bigger things about our general cultural differences. French and Finnish are binary opposites on many aspects, but I came up with one fundamental difference: GENDER. Finnish is a language of gender equality. There is no she or he, only hän to describe the 3rd person singular. After 2 years of speaking English every day I still screw up at times when it comes to mentioning the gender of the person I'm talking about, and it makes my quebecois friends really confused.

I might be telling a story while simultaneously fucking up the pronouns in English (or French, even more drastically). My quebecois friends look at me, a little confused, before they proceed to ask: "So.... was this person a man or a woman?"

Me, being raised in a culture where I will necessarily never know the gender of the protagonist, ask the obvious question: "... Why do you need to know anyway?"

They stay silent. Because they don't know why they want to know. They're just used to knowing. We argue about this at times, since it's hard for me to understand why there has to be a different word for a female mayor. At the same time, Alex makes lots of efforts to make me realise that without a female word for a mayor, the French word only refers to a male.

So we communicate in English, which has been a natural choice of language since the very beginning - we lived in England, after all.

Is it hard? At times we might have to stop and try to find words for certain things. We might sit down on a couch and go on Google Translate together to check this word the other was is trying to explain (usually diseases or kitchen utensils). You should hear us when we have to tell each other something really quick while doing 10 other things at the same time (cooking is a perfect example: imagine a situation where I witness a bowl of tomato sauce about to fall on the carpet, and I have approximately 0.5 seconds to inform Alex about the upcoming disaster!).

A quote by Dany Lafarrière in Québec, Canada

BUT: We learn new languages while simultaneously mastering our English skills.

The best way to learn a language is to speak it with native speakers. Even if my French skills are not at all impressive, I'd like to be brave enough to say my pronunciation is not too bad, thanks to learning it from a French-speaker.

At the same time we learn a lot about our own mother tongues by listening to our spouse questioning the obvious. "But WHY do you say it like that?" "WHY is there a difference?" I've become familiar with the confusion and helplessness I feel in front of my own mother tongue, thanks to my partner's brilliant questions.

Sometimes it's hard for me to remember that Alex has a different mother tongue, a whole different world happening in French inside his head - a world I haven't been able to understand. Communicating with Alex in any other language than English feels unnecessary and weird, since we both speak it almost perfectly. The idea of Alex not understanding my mother tongue has never been on my list of concerns - and you know what's much scarier? Now that I speak and understand French remotely well, I'm finally able to hear the French-speaking Alex, the quebecker who ends his sentences with "là" and swears by saying "calice".

Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The Difference: Our future is always a bit uncertain.

According to the study by European Commission, more than quarter of the people attending Erasmus exchange meet their long-term partner while studying abroad. I have all means to start believing I have become part of this happy group, but building a life with someone from another country is somewhat tricky.

We spent a year in a long-distance relationship before being able to live in the same country, but we were lucky - for some, it might be 2 or 5. Where a Finnish couple picks up a phone and calls when they miss each other, we created detailed weekly schedules to find a moment for a quick Skype session. We saw each other every 2 to 4 months. The question I heard the most during this time was ”Are you sure it’s worth it? I mean, that must be really hard.”

The word is not hard - it’s complicated. It’s complicated because it asks for arrangements which make that lifestyle sound just a little miserable: it asked us to schedule our every day to match someone’s who’s living 7 timezones apart just to hear their voice for an hour at 2am. We ate noodles and porridge for two weeks straight just to be able to put that last 100 bucks aside for the plane tickets to have a chance to see each other every 2 or 3 months. We always took that one extra shift, thus making us study at nights, I even sold over a half of everything I owned so I could move into a hippie commune from my cozy studio flat. It asked for long, uncomfortable and complicated flights, to sleep at all these bloody airports using a computer as a pillow, to plan our life a year ahead and to argue with friends and family who think we’re batshit crazy - and I really can’t blame them. It asked me to start over once more by beginning to learn my 7th language while Alex tries to make all 14 Finnish cases make even a slight sense. A hint: they don’t.

To maintain this relationship I went through a long and complicated immigration process of half a year, filled 8 forms and provided 20 different supporting documents from criminal recods to medical statements. I had lived my whole life in a barrel called European Union, and nothing could have prepared me for the complications and procedures it required to move to North America. No, ESTA, I'm not a nazi!

We finally live together - for now. If everything goes well, next September our common destination will be Ireland, and I can happily jump back into my barrel of visa-free immigration, euros and European Insurance cards, and it will be Alex's turn to go through a war of papers and certificates.

BUT: We share the desire to explore and experience the world.

You meet a guy on an exchange semester, you fall in love after chasing each other like idiots for ages in the fear of an uncertain future, and finally at the end of the year you promise to stay faithful and skype every day. Sounds like a disaster-to-be-born, doesn't it?

A situation like ours had all the chances to become a disaster, and it's exactly what happens to many. The disasters like that turn into exchange flings, and are the reason why I had to count to ten, inhale and exhale a few times and bite my tongue more than enough when family and friends came up with their concerned queries about the realistic outcome of my love life. There are always obstacles to overcome and extra willpower to maintain.

But when you overcome those obstacles, keep up with those skype sessions and fill all those forms, in the end you end up with something absolutely amazing!

Lost in Brussels, Belgium

Over a quarter of the people attending Erasmus find their long-term partner while studying abroad - why? People attending international mobility programs often share the passion to see the world, meet new people from different cultures, gain more international experience and figure out whether or not the expat life could be their thing. Meeting such people is a welcomed change for many. I'm personally more afraid of getting stuck in Finland and living in the suburbs with a 8-to-4 job than I have ever been of getting my heart broken because my international relationship ended up being too hard to maintain.

So you go on an exchange semester in the hopes of figuring out what you want to do in life and experience new cultures, you meet a guy from the other side of the world who shares your passions, desires and plans to see the world and never get stuck in one place, you fall in love, and finally at the end of the year you've figured out that the person you fell in love with will never ask you to stay when you need to go, they will never make you choose between them and your own ambitions, and if you're lucky, they're mad enough to surrender to a life of weekly skype schedules, lonely nights and countless hours at airports, so that in the very end they will have a life with you.

We have so much to offer and teach to each other due to our different cultural backgrounds. We don't have a common native language, so we will master three at once. Our future is always a bit hard to figure out, but it makes our everyday life yet another adventure. It's a perfect deal!

What are the pros and cons of multicultural relationships in your opinion? Do you have any similar experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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A mini-hike in Cap Tourmente

The nature around Québec City offers many facilities to enjoy the beauty of Canada, VALLÉE DU BRAS DU NORD and SENTIER DES CAPS to mention a few. Many of the national parks within a reasonable driving distance from the city have multiple different hiking trails with several difficulty levels.

The problem with enjoying these opportunities as a resident working full-time is that usually this kind of trips require you to reserve a whole day for hiking: even a simple daytrip consisting of driving, hiking and snack breaks easily takes up to 8 hours of your day. This was the concern we had with Alex the other day. We really wanted to spend a day together for once (it's a little tricky to find time for that at times since I'm working weekdays and he mainly does weekends), but Alex was working in the morning. We could only leave a bit after 1pm.

So Cap Tourmente National Wildile Area was a perfect destination! According to the website it would take 2 to 4 hours to hike a trail - a little different to Bras du Nord's estimated 6 hours... Upon arrival, we decided to choose a trail called La Falaise, with a high-level difficulty and a rewarding viewpoint at the end. In Alex's words, this place is actually more about walking around than hiking, but as the map underneath might tell, our chosen trail is pretty much steep up-hill until the end.

Map from Environment Canada

Despite the difficulty level, this 4.2km trail is pretty much the easiest I've experienced so far. Cap Tourmente is actually not about hiking, but protecting greater snow geese, which I was unfortunately unable to record on camera. But I swear, there were seriously thousands of them.

So we walked for two hours, and I had a chance to take some pretty nice pictures of the hill we ended up conquering. We couldn't have chosen a better weekend for our little trip, since the ruska (still struggling to find another word for this, excuse my Finnish) was at its best. All these autumn colours!

The first wildife area with a railway track that I've seen....

We made it to the top after some panting and one very short break. My bright-coloured hiking shoes I bought in July have been serving me incredibly well - 119$ well spent. Alex wins me at this though: the shoe you see in the picture has been doing its honourable job for 12 years now.

And as expected, the view from the top is breathtaking as always:

My Finnish friend, who visited me here in Québec, described the local nature by saying that it's like Finland, except that everything is bigger. I'd go a little further than that and say that everything is not only bigger, but also more colourful due to the bigger amount of deciduous trees, which I guess is a result of warmer local climate. Finland is all about pines and spruces even in the South.

It's surprisingly hard to dress for hiking at this time of the year though, as the temperatures vary from +12ºC during daytime to -2ºC at night. I started the hike by freezing, but during down-hill I seriously had to fight against the urge to remove most of my clothing layers. Luckily my University of Leicester hoodie seems to be suitable for every occasion, from work to hiking and interrailing.

The forest had a funny magical feeling to it. The trail was a child's play to walk after my mudslide-fest in Bras du Nord.

The experience was pretty awesome overall, and I hope our 11$ (6 for adults, 5 for students) helps the folk to protect the geese. Go greater snow geese!

Website: Cap Tourmente
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Ask anyone to name cities in Canada, and they'll probably come up with the Big 3: Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal. So far I've conquered 2 of them, but living remotely close to Montréal gives me an advantage of exploring the streets of the biggest French-speaking city of my new home country with a greater detail. The contrast to Québec City is huge: where Québec is all about history, provincial governance and big distances, Montréal is a tightly structured metropolis of 1,6 million inhabitants with something for everyone, even if shopping for moose T-shirts and strolling through the touristic Old Town is not your thing.

Québec City has a small and picturesque centrum with its 400-year old buildings, but stepping outside of this Unesco-protected area is rather difficult due long distances and the lack of diverse public transportation. Luckily, this isn't the case with Montreal, where many things worth seeing are of a walking distance from each other - and if not, the underground with its 4 metro lines will surely take you there. Montréal is the 2nd biggest city of Canada (yes, bigger than the capital of the country), but with a 1-day transportation pass of 10$ it's easy to flounder through some of the most interesting attractions in just a day or two.

Another drastic difference between my hometown and Montréal is the question of language. Regardless of being the biggest city of the whole French-speaking province of Québec, only 57% of people are primarily French-speaking. In other words, the city is easy to approach by someone who doesn't necessarily master French, and sometimes you might even run into situations where speaking French to your waitress is practically useless. This is a well-welcomed holiday from the life filled with French immersion and confusing situations. But worry not my dear quebecois friends: Montréal is still the biggest French-speaking city in the world right after Paris.

One good thing about Montréal as a travel destination is that it's easy to access, the Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport being just a 30-minute bus trip from the centrum (needless to say, this is the only international airport in the whole province of Québec). There are multiple AMIGO EXPRESS routes to and from the city many times a day for a person who fancies cheap transportation and social encounters. In case you prefer more traditional ways of moving around, GREYHOUND bus company has connections between most important cities in Eastern Canada. Just recently my favourite cheap-ass bus company, MEGABUS started driving in Canada, and my experience with the 6-hour bus drive from Toronto to Montréal with 25$ was totally worth the price.

I came up with a little list of things that might be worth visiting in case you ever end up bored in Montréal. Like mentioned before, this island really has something for everyone, so I tried to be diverse with my top 5 Things To Do In Montréal. Here's the map (click to enlarge), and as you can see, almost everything is within walking-distance from each other, only No 5 being 9 metro stops apart:
Map from maps.google.com

1. Mount Royal Park ⎮ Parc du Mont-Royal

If you have 1 hour in Montréal, go and see this. Parc du Mont-Royal is in the middle of the city, free to access and a very rewarding destination if you have the energy to climb to the top of the 234m-high mountain in the middle of the island. The park is especially beautiful during autumn, since the trees have started changing their colour (ruska, as we'd say in Finnish) and the maple trees are flaring from different shades of red and orange. The park is full of squirrels, but feed them at your own risk: feeding wild animals is prohibited by law, and might gain you a 50$ fine.

The best part of the park might not be for the faint-hearted, though: the viewpoint, Chalet du Mont-Royal, is accessible through a set of stairs that feel like a never-ending climb. Many locals come here to work out, since running up and down these stairs will surely gain you a great ass. I took a few pictures:

There will be stairs.... Lots of stairs.

If you make it to the top, the view is absolutely astounding (my face not included). You can see the whole horizon of Montréal with its skyscrapers and suburbs, the fleuve of St. Lawrence in the background. I have a thing for viewpoints and high places like this, and so far I have a somewhat similar picture from all the cities I've visited during the last 2 years. We already tried to access the place over a year ago, and I can tell from experience that trying to climb this park at midnight in a fairly intoxicated state is not going to work out. Just saying.

Speaking about midnight, the park is closed during the night - meaning, it has no streetlights of any kind. My amis quebecoises told me that according to the urban legend, gay men use to come here during the night to have sex. So unless you're into that, I suggest you do your trip to Parc du Mont-Royal before sunset, as it gets dark really quickly afterwards during fall and winter.
Website: Le Mont-Royal

2. Chinatown  Le Quartier Chinois

If you seek to hide from French and smoked meat, the typical Montréal dish, find your way to Chinatown (Le quartier chinois de Montréal, 蒙特利尔唐人街) in Rue de la Gauchetière. The neighbourhood is filled with restaurants, convenience stores and shops for Asian food, and is the home for many East Asian communities. Many of the restaurants import their products straight from China, so a somewhat authentic experience should be quaranteed. The place is especially popular during lobster season, so if you're looking forward to eating in Chinatown around April-June, make sure to have a reservation.

Like said, French and sometimes even English are practically useless in many of the shops. Some of them have put signs outside of their doors specifying what languages are to be used in case you decide to enter: my favourite one said "We speak French, English and 6 dialects of Chinese". So go ahead and choose! Most signs are written in traditional or simplified Chinese, with occasional pinyin (which makes it much easier to stroll around for someone who took one beginner course of Chinese in uni).

Flags of The Republic of China hung above the pedestrians' walk

This district really has its own atmosphere, so make sure to pop by if you fancy a break from all the canadianess. The smell of Asian food is almost irresistible, so it might be better to arrive with an empty stomach.
Best Restaurants in Chinatown: Restomontreal

3. Rue St-Catherine

Rue Ste-Catherine West is The Street in downtown if you're planning on having a night out or go shopping in Montréal. The street used to have a sketchy reputation as the district for prostitution and strip clubs, but nowadays it's more of a center for Montréal's cultural life. During the day it offers countless of clothing stores from casual brands to expensive luxury boutiques, and during the night it transforms into a pulsating cityscape with flashing led-lights, nightclubs and street kitchens. And in case you're into strip clubs, they still have that too. The entrances for these places are also much less discrete than what I'm used to: it seems that Rue Ste-Catherine really is comfortable with its history.

Rue Ste-Catherine travels through many different city blocks from business district to Montréal's gay village and Place des Arts, Montréal's central concert venue, which works as a location for the annual Montréal Jazz Festival. The street is also close to many university campuses, such as McGill and Concordia University.

An entrance to a strip club, visible from at least 50 meters apart

The street is really long, so don't try to walk from one end to another at 3am in the morning with high heels. Just saying.

4. Old Montréal  Vieux-Montréal

Montréal's Old Town is the touristic center of the city, and your primary destination if you want to buy souvenirs, visit museums or taste Montréal's classic, smoked meat. In case you're wondering, it's basically a sandwich stuffed with a thick layer of meat slices. Old Town offers many restaurants that serve this traditional food, but make sure to choose the right place - not all restaurants offering smoked meat actually know how to cook it. Speaking from experience here.

Old Town is a picturesque district with cute old houses and narrow alleys, and has a very European feeling to it. It's very charming in its own way, but might not be that astonishing for someone from the old continent: the architecture and style remind me a lot of Stockholm's Gamla Stan, or even my Helsinki a little. The district offers a lot for a northern American who can't afford flying across the Atlantic, though.

And like any typical European city centre, Montréal's Old Town has rows after rows of souvenir shops filled with printed T-shirts, moose figurines and items related to Montréal Canadiens hockey team. And hats like this:

A very necessary equipment during +40 degrees

The Old Town is directly connected to Old Port, which might also be worth a visit - especially if you're a fan of circus, since it's the home of world-renown Cirque du Soleil. The Old Port has pretty walkways and facilities for cycling, and reminds me a lot of Amsterdam in this sense.

Montréal seen from the Old Port
Sadly I don't have many pictures from the Old Town, since my camera was running out of battery at the time. Hopefully a picture of me with a raccoon hat repaid the loss somehow.

5. Botanical Garden  Jardin Botanique

The last attraction of my list is a bit further from the city centre, and not necessarily the most typical spot for tourists - which is exactly why I wanted to include it in my list! I've always been very keen on botanical gardens since I was a kid, but Jardin Botanique de Montréal offers something very special during autumn. I was lucky enough to pop by the city close to Halloween, when the Botanical Garden hosts a pumpkin decorating competition. The pumpkins are on a display inside the greenhouses, which are decorated to suit the seasonal festivity.

More than just pumpkins, the Gardens of Light -event takes part in the Chinese garden to bring light into darkening nights. The view is absolutely breathtaking, and unfortunately pretty hard to capture on camera. The lanterns on display around the garden are handmade in Shanghai, and the biggest one of them is placed in the center of the pond.

The visit is rather pricy for non-residents (and I can't really explain how good it felt to declare myself as a resident....), but with the price of 19.90$ you gain access to all the greenhouses, the lantern festival and the Japanese garden. It's a perfect destination for dates.

The Botanical Garden is also located right next to the Olympic Stadium, if you're interested in seeing some rather confusing architecture:

Hopefully my list made you feel like Canada should definitely be your next travelling destination. If you have any tips as to what else there is to see and experience in Montréal, please share your wisdom with me!

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