Thursday, July 30, 2009

An old story

It has been brought to my attention that some readers are baffled by the pumpkin pie allusion. Anyone who has been reading the Unoff Mensa List for the last few years will have heard it at least once, and anyone even remotely connected with Theresa’s family will have heard it, oh, annually. But the nice thing about blogs is that they develop legs and move about the place under their own steam. If you’ve heard it, skip a week, I will be moving along shortly. If not, the moral of the tale of my first Canadian Thanksgiving is that you probably have to grow up with traditional holidays to really 'get' them.

Thanksgiving isn’t an English custom you see. We Brits have a sort of harvest festival but it is restricted to little food drives at churches and schools. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm sure that receiving your autumnal box of tinned rice pudding, pineapple chunks and an apple is very nice for those elderly folk brave enough to open the door to a gaggle of schoolkids. It's just not very exciting, no family gatherings for a start. Or traditional dinners.

Please don't think that we Brits go short of pre-winter celebrations, we are most festive on November the 5th. It's the time for firework displays, bonfires and sausages you can write with, but we save our major family feastings for Christmas. Which is why, shortly after emigrating, when we were invited to Theresa’s for Sunday dinner earlyish in October I accepted the invitation happily enough but had no inkling that anything special was going on.

It must have been half-way through the Saturday when some kind soul scanning my groceries made a little polite conversation: "So, are you going anywhere nice for Thanksgiving Dinner?" My face must have been a picture of incomprehension. She said it again more slowly, just in case I didn't speak English. "Um, yes, I think so," wasn't the wittiest riposte in the circumstances but I suddenly had a lot of processing to do, and an urgent phone call to make.

"This Thanksgiving thing, is it, you know, sort of a special meal?"
And do you know what? It turns out that we had, indeed, been invited for a special meal. Apparently turkey is usual but the family tradition chez Theresa is for Bob’s famous ham and scalloped potatoes.
"How nice, what can I bring? How about dessert? Have you made dessert yet? Good, leave it to me."
Ten minutes later:
"So, is there anything sort of traditional that you're supposed to have for dessert? Pumpkin pie eh? Ok, pumpkin pie it is."

Consider the dilemma. You are a habitual baker. (Due possibly to an English upbringing... processed food is so much more expensive than basic ingredients, so everybody cooks from scratch.) You have never, however, eaten pumpkin pie. You have twigged that the chap who told you about pumpkin hunting was probably kidding. (The farmer blows a horn and it frightens them so they all run about the pumpkin patch, then you can shoot one. It’s considered cheating to shoot a resting pumpkin. Allegedly.) But you have not – to date – seen, tackled or cooked with a pumpkin at all. You have no idea what it should look like or taste like. All the recipes tell you to start with a "cup of cooked pumpkin" but omit the step beginning "first, attack your pumpkin". Yes, yes, yes, I know you can buy it in cans now, but I didn't then and it was an emergency. So, I chickened out and went to Zehr's for a frozen pumpkin pie.

Having finished shopping a few hours before we were due to join our adopted Canadian family, I decided to leave my prized pie in the car. The theory went that it should have thawed nicely by the time we were ready to eat it. You are naturally way ahead of me here so I'll cut to the chase. Picture the scene, a dining table full of family, friends (and adopted strays like us) have had a little rest after their Thanksgiving Dinner of Bob’s deservedly famous ham’nscalloped potatoes. Ben and I are feeling welcome and happy and all in favour of this New World tradition. We all begin to feel as though we could manage a spot of something dessertish and I step proudly into the kitchen to dish up my contribution. There is a pause. A silent moment that lasts a fraction too long.
"Um, is it meant to be all runny like this?"
"Not really. How long did you bake it for?"
"Oh dear."

Of course the unbaked runny filling had slopped all over the box by then, there wasn’t a huge amount left in the pie case but we baked it anyway. At about midnight we all partook of a slice of soggy, pumpkin flavoured pastry. It wasn’t terribly nice. I still take dessert when invited for meals. I am greeted at the door on each occasion with a cheery "did you bake it this time?" I rather like being part of someone else's family folklore though, it’s a belonging of sorts. I have even learned how to make pumpkin pie but I can't say that I like it very much. Thanksgiving definitely takes practice.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tradition, tradition

I’ve been to a bridal shower. Well not exactly been to one, to be exact it came to me. My house was logistically the best venue for this eagerly anticipated pre-wedding event. I was intrigued to find out what would happen since we don’t have bridal showers, baby showers or any other sort of showers in the UK. Except for the merely utilitarian sort that make you wet.

I offered my little house and volunteered to make food, after ascertaining that the appropriate type of catering was something that I could handle. A rerun of the Great Pumpkin Pie Disaster of 2002 would not be wise on a nice young lady’s pre-special day special day. Apparently pretty canap├ęs, finger food generally and edible feminine fripperies are the best thing, and I can do that, so I did. The rest of the planning fell to Theresa and Katherine, who know from bridal showers.

The musings were, well amusing (sorry). Thanks are due to Ba for her specifically English take on the idea...“The bride is hauled into a shower and stripped. Her sage women friends turn on the cold water in the hope that she comes to her senses. It has been known to do the trick.” But in the interests of proper, educated, transatlantic cultural enquiry I turned to Wiki for help. And there I read that this is a specifically North American tradition, which may have been imported from Belgium or possibly the Netherlands in the mid 1800s. A party at which all the women associated with the forthcoming nuptials get together and shower the bride with wedding presents. There are also games. The gifts bit makes sense but the games bit, less so. Wiki tells me that the custom probably began as a way to marry off young ladies whose father couldn’t afford a dowry. Make sense. And actually, it comes over as a little classier to me that that horrible habit Brits have of putting all the gifts on display at the wedding, so that everyone can see who bought what and how many toasters there are.

Wiki also advises that ‘Sociologists like Beth Montemurro note that the ritual of the bridal shower "socializes women into the hyper-feminized traditional wife role," with its emphasis on the future role of the bride-to-be as family cook, homemaker, and sexual partner.’ I think that makes them a Bad Thing. But, mulling this over in the light of a fairly pleasant evening where the dishes, teatowels and candle holders took centre stage and there was only one kettle, I am minded to place a more generous, post-feminist interpretation on the custom. Perhaps, down the ages, families have known that if you give anything to a guy he will lose it in a poker game and the sensible course of action is to let the women take care of the giving and receiving. Hey, I’ve got an ‘ology, perhaps I can get a grant to develop the theory.

Anyway, the shower has been and gone. Leftover tasty, nibbly comestibles inhabit the fridge and I get the thing with the games now. If you are going to collect together all the women of two disparate families with nothing in common, who don’t know each other yet, and ask them to have a tolerable evening, a little greasing of the wheels is required to convince everyone that they are having a nice time. Fortunately for us, Theresa is a consummate storyteller; so on this occasion the games rapidly gave way to tales of ‘all the other traditions Carolyn knows nothing about and has messed up’. Yes, Including the pumpkin pie.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The eternal language barrier

I’ve been chatting online with a pal in the hospitality business, comparing notes on the respective frustrations of running a B&B versus a motel. He is off to buy a new TV for one of the rooms today and I was reminded of the absurd TV buying disaster of yestercareer. So, with thanks to Barry for reminding me today, and Ian for putting me right at the time, I think it’s time to relive the great Canadian R debacle. This is what I wrote at the time…

It's a useful thing, the Canadian R. There are times that I wish my English way of speaking – my inherent BBC accent – could learn to incorporate it. The technique would have helped a lot with this week's spot of linguistic difficulty. The discovery that I am still prone to linguistic difficulty is surprising in itself. I have been through the initial culture shock associated with realizing that no-one in Canada knows that Brits speak a different language. I have come to terms with the fact that old episodes of 'Are You Being Served' on TVO don't help me when I want to buy petrol, crisps or knickers.

I came through all that and emerged on the other side the sort of wise and whimsical Brit who uses the language barrier for fun but can turn it off at will when there is serious work to be done. I went native vocabulary-wise and thought I knew it all. Well guess what? Vocabulary isn't always enough. An inability to produce the Canadian R can get you into just as much trouble as a car with a bonnet.

It all began with an email from a friend…another ex-pat from London, England, transplanted to Ontario. Another mascot with a quaint accent who entertains all and sundry on a regular basis with jolly misunderstandings of a transatlantic nature. After a few years of gags about putting trunks in the boots and boots in the trunks of our cars, asking for tomatoes that don't rhyme with potatoes just to confuse people and clinging doggedly to trousers and torches and lorries, we both considered ourselves adept at mangling the language for pleasure, the deliberate, linguistically delicious cabaret.

So, what strange alignment of the planets…which unheard of synchronicity of biorhythms caused us both to discover in the same week that Canadians pronounce 'pawn' and 'porn' somewhat differently? Of course, I am very grateful to have received the email. Without it, typed amid tears of glee I understand, after what sounds like a classic cabaret day, I would not have known. And that is the big difference between his story and mine, his listeners put him right. There and then. Embarrassment, laughter, beer, funny anecdote.

Mine were polite. Without the anecdotal email I still might not have known quite how I had managed to horrify a couple of guests at my B&B. I would only have known that they appeared to think me a little strange. If my ex-pat pal had not been among work colleagues who consider it their inalienable right to poke fun, and if he had refrained from kindly sharing the joke with me I would still be none the wiser.

It might have helped if I had told them I was looking for a TV/VCR to upgrade one of our bedrooms but I didn't. They told me all about their day and I told them all about mine. About finding this great little pawn shop where the people were so friendly and helpful. My guests looked a little nonplussed but smiled encouragingly. They appeared to want me to continue with an explanation, so I did. "They have this great scratch and dent section for electrical goods," I wittered. "All new stuff, nothing used…and I have a 30 day guarantee too."

If you are reading this, dear guests, I am truly sorry if you thought I was running a brothel out of the room next to yours. It was a beautiful little TV/VCR combo and I am still delighted with it. Brits are quite normal really.

I have been practicing my diction ever since. I thought I could be relatively Canadian when I chose, after all I can do a really authentic 'howarya' on the telephone sometimes after a beer or two. I have tried really hard to make 'pawn' and 'porn' sound different but I can’t do it. The Canadian R you see, Brits just don't have what it takes. Should I require any more cheap'ncheerful electrical goods I shall have revert to Dickensian times and frequent the town's pawnbroker. So much safer.

Friday, July 17, 2009


For a few of us it is a lifestyle choice, for most of the world it’s a ‘issue’. The UK witters about it all the time, what with being full up, and it would appear that Canada is beginning to fret about immigration too. Only this week the Canadian government has slapped visa requirements on Mexicans and the Czech Roma, to try and stop unsuccessful refugee claims from tourists. There have been minor outcries. Apparently it costs insane amounts of money to look after people for the years it takes to process an unsuccessful claim, and Canada looks after people prettily, that’s why they come. It’s ok of course if you are a real refugee, but the chancers and tryers-on are a drain on resources.

The other category that we love to hate, of course, is your economic migrant. These cheeky people are the lowest of the low on both sides of the Pond. Not even pretending to be in fear of their lives, they move around the world with no finer motive than to try and better their family’s lifestyle. The phrase economic migrant is one that is difficult to say without a little sneer, something to do with the consonant sounds... try it.

Both countries like to celebrate diversity of course, that’s a different thing. Diversity is colourful and inclusive and tolerant and is about being polite around strange customs and interested in weird food. There are festivals about it. But where does that leave me? I am an economic migrant who is not diverse. Who cares? The system has no pigeonhole for me...I am not welcome at the local Immigrant Employment Centre (trust me, I dropped in for a bet). I am that invisible, uninteresting sort of immigrant who appears to be able to cope. I am here for reasons that have nothing to do with visible hardship, oppression or need. I am prosperous and articulate, an economic migrant who even speaks a sort of English. I am fair game for hanging out to dry.

It's an interesting characteristic, a BBC accent, an asset and a liability. "I love your accent." I hear it in stores and at interviews, it makes instant friends in restaurants and supplies work for which I am in no way qualified. An English accent inspires confidence. I am clearly honest and charming and although I sound as though I might think myself a little superior, that's kinda charming too. I am everybody's mascot; just opening my mouth makes someone's day. Being quaint as a career move.
Government and big business see me differently though. To those outfits who own the inalienable right to make the rules, handle my money, sell me utilities and insurance, I am one enormous gravy train. Totally vulnerable; I have no choice but to walk head-first and eyes-open into scams so blatant they can't possibly be legal.
"As a foreigner you may not understand how insurance works."
"You might not know how to pay utility bills."
"You could have forged your credit history."
"You probably didn't understand your accountant's advice."
And every time it costs me just a little more than anyone else. What am I going to do? Go home? Complain? To whom?

I'd like the powers that be to know that we are not stupid, those of us who move around the world. An institutionalised fleecing of us just because you can is really rather un-Canadian. Whatever colour our skin, whatever language we speak, whatever our reason for being here, and whatever initial assistance we may or may not appear to need in order to settle; let me tell you here and now that the people who choose to make their home in Canada are really rather bright. We understand how to pay bills and we know what banks are for. The dumb ones don't come.

Don't get me wrong, I love this region's people. I chose them. When I opted to stop being a struggling single parent in a UK slum and make a bid for prosperity and new opportunity; when I sold everything I owned and sunk every penny into one final chance to turn life around; K-W was my deliberate destination. And anyway, the few who chose to take advantage have fallen by the wayside, replaced with the finest friends anyone could ask for. The ones who learn with me that one of us doesn't speak English. The ones who are first to join in a good laugh when I mess up again. The ones who pass other English-speaking migrants my way for advice.

It amuses me greatly that I get my electricity from the hydro company and my water from the gas supplier. That flower beds are gardens and gardens are back yards. It is all part of the fun of emigrating, life just-a-little-different. I explain happily to newcomers that the pavement here is the bit you drive on and that, should you require air in the tyres of your car, you can't go into a garage and ask to use their air line. They will look at you a little oddly and direct you proudly to the new Waterloo Regional Airport.

I tell everyone to be a mascot in their local shops, revel in their accent and anticipate an exciting education for their children. I tell them that Canadians are the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. I also warn them about the label on their forehead that says "bleed me dry". I tell them to expect the small print to have more, smaller print and to expect that the smaller small print will include things they thought were illegal. I tell them to count their fingers after signing anything and to tolerate losing the odd one with a rueful smile. It will mean they have settled in a little more.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking back

It occurs to me that there are several sorts of travelling. Immigration, for example, is a lot more than just moving to another place. The demolishing of normality makes for a bizarre internal journey. As I contemplate not writing about new places for a while, it might be amusing to look back at some of the odder aspects of settling in. We live here now, it wasn't always thus. So, a few articles culled from work published by Emigrate magazine over the years. Just to get things going...

How complicated can it be? You pack up a few books and clothes, a box of toys and an antique grandmother clock. You pop a teenager under your arm, leave London, England behind and cross the Atlantic. You then buy a big house full of stuff and run a B&B. Why? You fancy to live in Canada because it’s nice. Canadian Immigration demand that you buy a business, so you do. Dead easy, why doesn’t everyone emigrate?

I honestly thought the anxiety was over the day we moved in. The years of planning, paperwork, legal battles and interviews were behind us. I had permission to enter Canada as an Entrepreneur and two years to prove myself a competent business person. The fabulous B&B I’d agreed to purchase at the start of the application process was still sitting waiting for us two years down the line, the future looked assured. All I had to do was arrange a modest loan, buy a car, move into my palatial new home and sit back to watch the money roll in. Oh, yes and cook the occasional rasher of bacon.

I began to realise that all might not be plain sailing during the car hunt. In the UK one buys the car first, then insures it and – if necessary – learns to drive it. Having to pass an Ontario driving test before I could insure a car, and having to insure it before I could buy it, was an unexpectedly irritating extra hoop to jump through. ‘Piece of cake though’ I thought. ‘I’ve driven ambulances in London, limousines in Toronto and nurtured nervous young ladies through their driving tests in leafy suburbs. I’m as good as through.’

With commendable caution I decided to leave nothing to chance and booked myself a driving lesson. Shame really, it would almost have been worth failing the test to see the examiner’s face when I inadvertently treated him to a British emergency stop. I can now report that when a Canadian examiner asks you to stop as if in an emergency he has a very different scenario in mind. None of your imagining a child has run into the road at your minimum stopping distance while he braces himself against hitting the windscreen. A Canadian examiner wishes you to pretend you hear a strange noise emanating from the bowels of your car and execute an unanticipated but politely signalled stop at the side of the road. Much is made of which way you will turn the wheels depending on the incline of the road. Canadians like their emergencies relatively polite.

That was the start of the training. Thanks to a patient lawyer and a string of accountants I acquired my B&B. It was as gorgeous as I’d remembered but came equipped with a terrifying array of toys; machinery to do things that Brits didn’t know needed doing. I had a toy to soften the water, another to filter it. A toy to turn the baths into Jacuzzis, a toy to make ice and a toy to squash my rubbish. The only thing that didn’t have an on/off switch was the septic tank. Septic tank? I hadn’t anticipated one of those, do they go wrong? Is it smelly when they do? Who do you call? (Poo busters?) I rapidly learned what each and every snazzy part of my fabulous new life cost to repair when it went wrong. And do you know what? It’s all a bit overrated in my opinion. Despite the premium rates chargeable by pretentious B&B’s with knobs and whistles, on the days when I was contorted at an impossible angle on the kitchen floor with my rapidly numbing hand up the freezer workings trying to dislodge a blockage from the ice-making machine, I recall wistfully that it wasn’t so hard…all that filling up of ice trays in the benighted, technologically innocent UK days.

In addition, I can now report that a swimming pool requires a chemistry degree plus more attention than a baby and that having a ride-on lawn tractor is totally terrifying. During the owner-of-half-an-acre years, I ripped several spotlights out of the ground, mowed down the barbecue and demolished the pond. Twice. Ben it was, however, who parked the mower in the constantly rebuilt pond on the day of its final demise. Somehow that ended up my fault too. I found out what could go wrong with a septic tank, where to find the ‘septic people’, how to trouble-shoot air conditioning and correct recalcitrant hot tub chemistry. I became almost competent with transatlantic toys. But I turned into Basil Fawlty in the process. There is more to the industry than bacon frying. All that having of strangers in your face before coffee in the morning takes its toll. It had to stop and five years on it did. The tales are on the verge of becoming funny again. Even the bit about Ontario dropping the driving test nonsense for immigrants a year after we landed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

All change

It’s been ages. I know. ‘What happened to the blog?’ I’m being asked. And it is high time I told you.
It appears, you see, that I may not be quite strong enough to be a trucker after all, and that is quite a difficult thing for an intrepid trail blazer to admit. Just after the last, terrifying, sleep deprived, icy, whiteout of a drive I had some trouble getting out of the cab. I could drive ok but unaccountably couldn’t walk. Whisked off for tests to check for worrying things like MS and brain tumours, I wasn’t allowed to drive until some doc or other deemed it safe.
The good news is that I don’t have MS or a brain tumour. The bad news is that some of the symptoms continue, as do the tests; and it looks like whatever I do have will turn out to be something that doesn’t respond well to physical exhaustion.
So, here I am, an apparently ex-trucker, with half a book about the joys of trucking and a blog that was just starting to get interesting. It has been pointed out to me though that I don’t have to become an ex-writer as well. The blog can be about other things. Lots of people blog about non intrepid lives. And, as Ben works on a play about the wilder aspects of life in the B&B we used to run when we first arrived in Canada, I am reminded that emigration has its exciting side, even if it generates fewer songs and urban legends.
So, just to get the ball rolling again I am planning to revisit some of the articles I wrote back in the early days, pop a few of my favourite stories up here to get back in the swing of things. Then perhaps the Book of the B&B will emerge, tale by tale. Or maybe I will become an intrepid local reporter...the hidden delights of Mennonite country. Dunno.
I think the title will remain however. Not sure where the blog is going but to keep calling it Trucking in English appeals to my sense of the absurd. And to keep the sense of failure at bay, it will serve as a reminder that I did almost make it, a bit, for a while.
If you feel inclined to watch this space, something will appear.
And thanks for all the nagging, you know who you are...