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.

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