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As an American in Canada, I often feel slightly embarrassed or self-conscious about a number of things. That said, one wouldn’t normally think that socks would figure so prominently into the equation. However, as a newcomer, they have become a central part of my life and the source of more than one embarrassing moment here, in what is often called the Great White North.
Hailing from Boston, and previously Connecticut, I am more than familiar with the wet, the cold and the snow. We New Englanders know how to dress for inclement weather: We wear our most practical boots for snowy days and always leave them on the doormat to drip and dry.
Yet, shoes are a different story: We usually keep our shoes on, especially when visiting the houses of others, wiping our feet vigorously at the door. If the weather is particularly bad, we may ask, “Should I take off my shoes?” The answer is usually “no” and we don’t even give it a second thought.
Of course, we all have a few friends with a “no shoes” policy. We comply out of respect and are always prepared when visiting, making sure that, at the very least, our socks match and have no holes. We might feel slight resentment, but matching colours and no holes are truly the extent of our concern. I remember a particular party in Boston where, upon arrival, the hallway door swung open to reveal a foyer filled with shoes. I groaned. I hadn’t prepared for a no-shoes event, especially for a Saturday night, when my knee-high boots were central to my outfit. Inside, another partygoer had also been caught off guard. She looked great from the knees up; yet from the knees down, she was a wreck: Her black stockings were in shreds, with holes and runs everywhere, her own knee-high camouflage forcibly left in the hallway. In America, we are simply not prepared for such surprises. In Canada, however, stocking feet (as my grandmother used to say) are de rigueur in all seasons.
My first month in Ottawa was one of the coldest on record; snow was all I could see from our large picture window, with walls and walls of ice lining the road. Inside, I donned my white ankle socks, greyed by wear, or the warmer pairs I had brought with me in pilled black cashmere. All of my selections were monochromatic and practical and had always been hidden from sight by shoes. In contrast, my new husband and his children sported socks of vibrant colours and motifs; stripes and dots, stars and lines, Santas and Star Wars figures.
What I initially found even more remarkable, was that no matter the visitor to our doorstep, shoes were automatically removed. No one asked; nor did we need to do so when we visited others, as every house we entered had a cluster of abandoned shoes left silently at the front door to greet us. Everyone inside had their own version of dancing stars and Santas.
Courtesy and respect aside, when we were invited to a New Year’s Eve party, I was torn. Should I wear a dress and heels or pants? Would I really be asked to remove my shoes for such a momentous occasion? I decided to err on the side of caution, opting for a blue silk shirt and black skinny pants, and brought a pair of tall boots with stiletto heels in a bag. I had purchased them two years before, but had never had the occasion to wear them. Upon arrival, I removed my snow boots and slipped into my “indoor shoes,” which I managed to flaunt for a full two minutes before I was told the heels would pockmark the floors. This time, I was ready. I smiled, nodded and slipped them off, revealing a pair of jubilant pink socks with stripes.
When artist and friend Tanja Hollander asked if she could photograph me, and by extension my new family, for an upcoming project, I was thrilled. She came all the way from Maine to immortalize us on film, as she was doing with 626 others around the globe who formed her Facebook network. We would, she said, be in the final exhibition at a prominent Massachusetts museum. I stressed about what to wear to this most prestigious event. What would make a statement about my newly adopted home? I grabbed a pair of Dr. Seuss-esque socks, with red and blue horizontal stripes and ordered my new family to do the same. “Put on your silliest socks!” I commanded. In the photo, no one’s socks are visible but mine. Viewers will not notice them, nor think them significant to the image; but I will.
After nearly two years in Canada, I never feel fully dressed and have often turned to the futile activity of trying to match my around-the-house footwear to my around-the-house clothing. To spare my American visitors the embarrassment of being caught unawares by the stockinged culture up here, I have started a collection of Canada-worthy offerings to place beside their folded towels: socks of all sorts, the more outrageous the better, with moose and deer, and, of course, the iconic maple leaf. As American visitors to Canada, we will have enough embarrassment, especially given our new President. We do not need to add oil to the fire by worrying about our socks.
Jessica Lee lives in Ottawa.