Shoes off the Chesterfield! (And Other Quirks About Canadian Houses)
Welcome to Billy's new series Cansplaining, in which an American immigrant to Canada delves into the idiosyncrasies of the Great White North
[Editor’s note: Canada and the United States share a number of superficial similarities – but few know the differences better than Kevin Bracken, who moved to Toronto from Long Island, New York, in 2003 to attend university and never looked back. Based on excerpts from Bracken’s free-to-download book What’s Different in Canada?, our Cansplaining series will help Canadians know themselves better, and may be of interest to Americans who feel motivated to learn more about a new country. Ahem. This week we kick off by kicking off our shoes – because what kind of monster doesn’t when they’re at home?]
If you really want to contrast two cultures, the home is the perfect place to start: It reflects the subconscious of a people, and expresses deeply held cultural priorities. Consider the Japanese home, where you’ll simultaneously find a bed that is spartan by North American standards, but all manner of toilet gadgetry that makes our facilities look positively barbaric – the Japanese actually have heated bidets that will sing to you. The differences aren’t as pronounced in American homes versus Canadian homes, but this makes them all the more interesting: They are examples of what Freud would call the “narcissism of minor differences.”
The first thing you notice as an American walking into a Canadian home: As in Japan, you’re usually expected to take off your shoes. While many American homes are “shoes on” households, you are not likely to find these strange places in Canada where you may leave your shoes on inside and still be considered a polite guest. In many Canadian homes, this shoe removal ritual may happen in a mud room, a clever architectural trick for snowy climes, or it may happen in the foyer. By the way, Americans, the word “foyer” is pronounced the French way up here; the second syllable rhymes with “yay,” not “her.”
This one difference alone is a microcosm of the differences between the United States and Canada: Many Canadian kitchens feature an electric kettle, and some may not have a microwave at all. To an American, the microwave is basically magic, and they will use it for anything: preparing soup that came in a can, heating frozen dinners, using as-seen-on-TV microwave inventions like the “Egg Wave,” cooking bacon between two pieces of paper towel, and even boiling water for tea or instant coffee.
To a Canadian, boiling water in the microwave is roughly as sacrilegious as allowing an American flag to drag on the ground. As they seem to have a superstitious aversion to the microwave, just about the only thing Canadians can agree the infernal machine is meant for is reheating leftovers. “Why,” they would ask, “would you use a microwave for all those things? Soup is to be heated on the stove, and ramen and tea should be made with boiling water from the kettle!”
Americans would retort, “Why do any of that when you can just nuke it?”
Every Canadian has a dish wand. A dish wand is a sponge with an abrasive scrubbing surface, attached to a hollow plastic handle that also doubles as dishwashing soap reservoir. Some of them even have little suction cups so they stick to the sink, while others have a button that allows you to control the soap flow. This magical item can be found at the only-in-Canada dollar store brand Dollarama, and is among the first purchases a Canadian makes when moving into a new home, as indispensable as shower curtains or milk bag pitchers.
The dish wand phenomenon seems directly related to the relative lack of dishwashing machines in Canada; Canadians did not have the same Cold War-era “beat the Russians” mentality, and the modern-era mania surrounding inventions for the home never hit the Great White North as hard as it did in the states. Similarly, in-sink garbage disposals (known by the genericized trademark "garburators" in Canada after a defunct Canadian company) are exceedingly rare find in Canadian homes. In some cities, including Toronto, they’re illegal.
Anyway, Americans, buy a dish wand; they are so handy.
Depending on whom you ask, a couch is known as a chesterfield in Canada. (The term is mainly used by older Canadians, but younger ones will be familiar with it.)
This is a classic example of the phenomenon whereby the name of a particular type of an item becomes the catch-all expression for the entire category – in this case, a specific kind of couch/sofa came to denote all kinds of sofas to a couple of generations of Canadians.
Allegedly named after the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, outside of Canada a chesterfield is a type of firm, leather sofa with winged arms, slightly overstuffed and buttoned so it has a luxurious look and feel. In Canada a chesterfield could describe just about any type of couch – and the word conveys more class than the crude “couch” or “sofa.”
The seven-time Juno Award-winning Canadian band The Barenaked Ladies immortalized the Canadian use of the word “chesterfield” in in their song If I Had $1,000,000: “If I had a million dollars / I’d buy you furniture for your house / Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman.”
When it rains in Canada, where does the water go when it rolls down to the roof? Into an eavestrough, of course, a channel that runs along the edge of a roof and terminates at a vertical pipe. Take note, Americans, the second syllable of the word “eavestrough” rhymes with “cough,” you know, like a trough for animals to eat from on a farm. In the U.S., these things are simply called “gutters,” much to the bemusement of Canadians, who reserve the word gutter for where the rain runs along when it hits the street and heads for the storm drain (or for the channels in a five-pin bowling alley, an only-in-Canada game.)
The expression “keep your mind out of the gutter” simply doesn’t have the same meaning if you’re talking about a rooftop stormwater device. The origin of the word eavestrough lies with the construction of the roof itself: The edge of a roof is called “the eaves” in Canada, which explains the origin of the English word “eavesdropper,” literally, “a person who listens from where the water falls.”