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…

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