Monday, November 30, 2015

Loving The Repat

Now I'm going back to Canada / On a journey through the past / And I won't be back till February comes / I will stay with you if you'll stay with me.” - Neil Young, Journey Through The Past

“Just chill, uncle,” says Liam. “You’ve done so much with your life already.” 

It is after midnight and, too drunk to drive, we are slumped in the back seat of a Tesla electric car hired from Uber, an online taxi service. The ride across town is smooth and hushed, and the abundant window space provides us with dramatic views of the streets. 

“I know I haven’t been much of an inspiration lately,” I say, slurring my words, “moping around the house in my pajamas, smoking blunts, listening to tunes with the volume cranked up…”

He puts a hand on my shoulder then smiles. “You’re always an inspiration to me, uncle.” 

I am blessed. After decades of wandering aimlessly in a cloud, I have returned home to a mother lode of kindred hospitality. My sister Andrea and her husband Dara have given me work, and their son Liam has put a roof over my head. How can I ever repay them?

The Tesla drops us off at a club in The Glebe. Inside, Liam bumps into an attractive young woman who, it turns out, once had a crush on him in high school. “I’m on a Tinder date with another guy,” she says, “but I’ll come over and dance with you later.” That never happens. The next morning he fervently scans Facebook, looking through friends of his school friends, in a vane effort to try and spot among the multitude of profiles the pretty face he saw in The Glebe last night. 

Charge your glasses, I am now the proud owner of a Purple Card, consequently a fully fledged repat. All that remains is for me to fill out a stack of forms and wait in line at a bunch of government offices…The immigration lawyer did warn me that life would have to get a lot more boring before it got exciting again. Jet-setting is anathema to customs officers. Put simply, I need to repatriate gracefully. 

I never intended to repatriate. I know from experience the locals think “repats" are off-topic. That thousand yard stare is fixed on shit way beyond their comfort zones, and they do not want to hear about it. “The fuck cares that you’ve been anywhere?”

A repat is the opposite of a refugee. Canadians love refugees. Our new prime minister promised to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. After the recent attacks in Paris, however, that number got reduced to 10,000, of which most will be privately sponsored. Still, following a more rigorous screening, the remaining 15,000 are due by the end of March.

The talk in my sister’s house is about taking in even more. Neither she nor Dara, her husband, believe refugees pose a serious threat as potential agents of jihad, nor do they care that when the time comes many will not want to repatriate. Just throw open the damn doors, they say.

As a self-made man of Irish origins, Dara fully appreciates what the chance of a new life in a new world can mean to someone. Last week on Facebook he posted this: 

“Mums, dads, kids, friends, brothers, sisters, aunties and uncles - all welcome to come to my Canada from any refugee place on earth. If you are suffering or fleeing the horrors of wars or such you are very very welcome here at my dinner table.”

Christmas decorations are going up early in our house, a reflection of the residents’ good cheer. Eric is stringing lights up on the front porch. Erin, his girlfriend, is standing by the door watching. Liam’s tenants, a handsome couple in their late twenties, have been remarkably obliging about uncle gorilla man living in their basement, rent-free.

“Do you hate Christmas?” Erin asks me, scrunching up her elfin features. It seems an odd question to ask. Perhaps she wrongly detects I am having some yuletide doubts. “Not at all,” I say, “I fucking love Christmas. The tinsel may go up late in Africa but it stays up until March.”

The house on Bell Street seems an unusually large residence for unmarried hipsters. But my housemates are exemplary of Canada’s bright future. Ambitious, driven, with decent jobs and cars, they work hard, go to bed early during the week, and play hard on the weekend. 

Pastimes revolve around the large TV screen in the living room: watching series and movies on Netflix, YouTube fail videos of people harming themselves, and Super Mario Racing, a game Liam and Eric seem to have mastered.

I see in them an alternative life-path for myself, how I might have turned out had I stayed put. And they have helped me dispel a few misconceptions about my fellow countrymen. Turns out they are not all outdoorsy, passive aggressive, browbeating social engineers. Some could actually care less if their neighbor has the music up too loud, lets the dog off its leash, or drives around without wearing a seatbelt. Live and let live, they say.

Lately I have been listening to a lot of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, eating poutine, and drinking craft beer, but I have yet to find my inner Canuck. I am certainly not built for this weather.

We live close to the action. Little Italy, a hub of trendy restaurants and bars, is just a short walk away, or the time it takes to listen to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. At the end of the day, if it is not too cold out, I like to wander over for a relaxing beverage. 

Wrapped up against the elements, I skulk past my neighbors’ doorsteps. Even in icy conditions they gather outside on their porches to smoke. Brrr! A wolf, or a coyote, or even a ‘coywolf' would be less out of place. I am a leopard, uneasy in a tropical town, maybe, but completely at ease in jungles and savannas. Here in the Great White North, however, I stand out a mile.

It is too early for regulars at the Moon Room. The music is up loud but the bar stools remain empty. Like a mine shaft, the only source of light is a dozen mason jars laid out around the bar with candles inside. Stare at one long enough and the rest of the place fades to black. 

Moon Room has hit on a winning formula: bijou, intimate, and quirky, with high standards and a visible pride among its staff. The bar is known for its all-female cocktail bartenders who also prepare the food, an eclectic menu of expensive but funky bar snacks. Watching young women prepare ‘Sexy Grilled Cheese’ in front of me as I drink my St Amboise beer is more than a thrill.

As a third culture vulture I came home to scavenge my heritage, and can serve no other purpose except to add a bit of contrast to the local color. Maybe my purpose is to be a guiding light.

Liam is a man with many solutions and few problems. Charming, smart, and with an upbeat disposition, he has what it takes to get by in life. At work he is a star, racking up mountains of cash for his employers. They call him the wizard. “Give it to the wizard, he’ll know what to do.”

He insists that the abundant hospitality he has shown me since my homecoming in September is simply good karma for when I welcomed him into my home in London ten years ago. 

I have mellowed in the intervening years. Dug in deep in Uganda, hammering out the dents in my soul, I found a more sympathetic voice for inward dialogue, and stopped beating myself up about my mistakes. The conversation continues.

He and I share an impulsive gene. We can change directions on a dime. So far his horizons have been limited. I aim to change that. As a global nomad my legacy is simple yet intangible: an atlas of unrelated events, places, and people. For all I have tried to write about this journey, it has to be seen to be believed. I want my nephew to get a taste of that world.

Malindi on the Kenyan coast, where the wind cries, “Salaama”, is a good place to start. Aesthetically pleasing in the Moorish tradition, uncluttered and ancient - Vasco de Gama stayed for a fortnight in 1498 - the town is one of East Africa’s best kept secrets. A dose of whispering palms, coral cliffs, and dhows catching the trade winds on the up tide should cure all that ails him. I spent six weeks there last summer, in an ocean-front villa belonging to a good friend of mine, and did not want to ever leave.

The wind and the surf are quarreling. A coconut falls, tries to settle the argument. Then, one by one, from a large overhanging tree thick with wandering branches, a troop of Sykes monkeys descends onto the roof and begins foraging for windfall on the terra-cotta shingles. 

The sound awakens you. With one eye half-opened you see the tropical sunrise. You are lying in a four poster bed in the centre of a second storey bedroom sparsely decorated with antique wooden furniture, and surrounded by levered glass doors. They’re all open, allowing the fragrance of seaweed, salt water, and frangipani to waft in to your room.

Without leaving your bed, you part the mosquito netting to gaze upon a broad swathe of ocean, sapphire in the distance and mottled emerald and turquoise over the reef. A string of white-capped breakers stretches from horizon to horizon. Six dhows are sailing past, their progress marked by a grove of crooked palms on your property. You can see they’re moving fast, helped on by a brisk morning northerly. At this point you may struggle to recall how you came to be sleeping in a paradisiacal villa on the Swahili coast. Maybe this is a dream…

Friday, November 13, 2015

Man Without Country

“Hey uncle,” says Liam. “Hey nephew,” I reply. We press knuckles. Reunited after many years apart, uncle and nephew are seated by a roaring campfire next to a pond in a forest. It is not quite the wilderness, only an hour and a half drive north of Ottawa, but refreshing and inspiring. 

We are not alone. Thirty to forty others have gathered for Mocktoberfest, a weekend festival of live music and unlimited beer drinking. It is the dream-child of MaYo and his band of merry carpenters. They have erected a hamlet in the forest, a hodgepodge of tree houses and living pods strung together by ladders and wooden walkways. Basically, it is camp for grown ups.

For me, recently arrived from Kenya, it is a rare opportunity to observe the locals up close, jot down a few notes. “They drink like Africans,” I write. 

Liam sees me scribbling in my notebook, then says, with a goofy voice, “Dear World, this is my story. I hope you like it…” He never fails to make me laugh and is not afraid to take the piss out of me. We are wired the same way.

Spending time with kith and kin is good for the psyche and helps me adjust. My sister Andrea and her family have opened their hearts and homes to me. Nephew Liam has given me a place to live. Brother-in-law Dara, always an enabler, is helping me trawl through the paperwork. And Andrea’s cooking and knitting keeps me fat and warm. Bless them.

“Why is it,” I ask Liam, “that in every other country I’m like a chameleon, blending in nicely with the locals, but back here, no matter how hard I try, I stand out?” 

“They know, man,” says Liam, “they can smell an outsider.”

“Right,” I say, taking a sip of reposado tequila. “Watch how quickly the crowd becomes a mob when the outsider refuses to conform.”

“What the fuck you talking about, uncle. These people think you’re way cool.”

“I don’t mean these people. These are good people, my kind of people. Any one who enjoys psychoactive drugs is alright by me. I’m talking about regular Canadian folk.”

O Canada, my home and native land… Viewed from afar in the 1970s, your freedoms, tolerance, and uniquely progressive leader, Pierre Trudeau, looked mighty appealing to me. Growing up overseas, all I ever dreamed about was my next homecoming. 

I was born in Montreal, started out life in a two storey cedar-paneled riverside home on Green Island that once featured in Better Homes and Gardens, the kind of suburban utopia that people in far off dusty lands dream about. Then in 1967 my family expatriated to Kenya. 

While we were away, the radically francophone Parti Québécois rose to power in Quebec. After Bill 101 got introduced, defining French as the only official language, Mom and Dad decided to sell the house on ‘Île Verte' and transfer our home base to Ottawa, in anglophone Ontario. 

My first summer here was in 1978. I was planning to repatriate then, attend Woodroffe High School, and live in my parents’ new high-rise condominium. But as the summer wore on and I began to discover Ottawa on my bike, my outlook changed. I decided to return to the Tropics. 

Over the next two years I would be arrested in The Seychelles, get expelled from boarding school in Madagascar, go on safari in Tanzania, learn to dive with Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, celebrate my eighteenth birthday in Malaysia, have my appendix removed in Singapore, and barge up the River Thames to Oxford with the lovely Caroline Bull, object of my unrequited love.

When I did finally repatriate in 1980, Trudeau was still prime minister, re-elected after a brief hiatus, but I failed to fit in. To regular folk I was little more than an exotic freak. Strange talk of peculiar customs in distant lands caused them to roll their eyes and sneer.

Thanks to binge drinking and substance abuse, I did eventually find some common ground. And I could dance. But all I ever dreamed about was getting the fuck out. After Trudeau left office and I dropped out of university for a third time, I got my chance. But that’s another story.

Leaping ahead 30 years, due to circumstances beyond my control, I am again repatriating. Not much has changed. As before, a Trudeau is in charge; Justin, son of the late Pierre, was elected prime minister shortly after I returned. And I am still an exotic freak.

“When was the last time you filed a tax return?” asks Dara. He is treating me to lunch in Rockin’ Johnny’s Diner in Westgate Mall.

“One thing at a time, man,” I laugh. “First I need to find a job.” 

“You’re a man of many talents,” he says, with a hint of old country in his accent. “I’m sure you’ll find something.”

“I’m not holding out too much hope,” I sigh. “As a fundraiser I raised over $10 million for good causes. That’s a wealth of experience you’d think was worth tapping, And yet I haven’t had a single goddamn reply to the dozens of applications I sent out for fundraising positions.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Probably because I don’t have a bachelors degree,” I say, tucking into my bacon Swiss burger. “Apparently, decades at the industry’s cutting edge doesn’t make up for dropping out of college.” 

“Don’t give up on that front,” smiles Dara. He is nothing if not quietly tenacious.

Another option is to look for bar work. I have got mad mixology skills, cut my teeth as a bartender in London’s wild West End. Not so straightforward. They told me I would first have to earn a Smart Serve qualification; Ontario’s weird liquor laws require special knowledge. That I did, leaned a few things along the way. But no one wants to hire a smooth-talking bar steward in his mid fifties who lacks the proper paperwork.

So I applied for an Ontario Photo Card, also known as a purple card. Having never learned to drive (yes, that’s right) I do not have a driver’s license, ergo no second form of photo ID. The purple card will allow me to get the citizenship certificate that I need to get the social insurance number that I need to be allowed to work here. After that it is all uphill.

Part of me just wants to get the fuck out of Dodge and go back to doing what I know best. Plan B is a business proposal for a backpacker’s hostel in Malindi, Kenya. I’ve been trying to draw others into the scheme. Who wouldn’t want to live on a paradisiacal ocean-front villa, eat paw paw and mango for breakfast, wet their toes in the Indian Ocean? Slaves to the treadmill, that’s who. Africa’s not for sissies. Anyway, Plan B would just put me right back where I started. 

Along the vacant tree-lined shore of Dow’s Lake, dead leaves cover the ground, stark boughs and branches claw at an overcast sky, and a chill wind encircles me: the ghosts of my ancestors. They are questioning the choices I made that led to this awkward situation: man without country. Never before have the consequences been so apparent to me.

Still, it has been a fun ride, seeking out adventure, living life imaginatively, and moving continents every six years or so. There is a movie of it in my head that I play over and over. None of it makes any sense but at least there aren’t too many scenes where I am unhappy. I have few regrets. One planet, one life - no rehearsal.

Repatriating, regularizing my citizenship status, trying to find work in Canada as an unskilled, middle-aged, third culture dropout: these are all big challenges. Over the next few months I will be blogging about my experiences of trying to fit in. I hope my insights help other people like me.

Who am I kidding, there are no other people like me.