Expat experience


26
Mar 14

Saskatoon and the King of Kovbasa

Image courtesy of: http://www.doukhobor.org

Image Courtesy Of Doukhobor

Picture leaving your home and your village; everything you ever knew and loved and travelling unimaginably far away, knowing that you’d probably never come back. Then imagine arriving in this new and foreign land; cold, sick and hungry after a gruelling sea journey of several weeks, then you have to spend days spent passing through immigration. Next, weak with exhaustion,  you’re loaded on a train for a journey of even more days and nights with nothing to rest on but bare boards, rattling across a vast and strange country to your final destination. And when you step off the train, your body aching and sore, your new home is some 20 miles away. And there is no road. No one is there to greet you. There is nothing.

The ache of separation from home and everything familiar must have been almost unbearable.

This is the story of the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, a law which encouraged pioneers to come to the prairies to settle and farm the land there. Men over 18 and women who were heads of their households were offered 160 acres of land for a $10 administration fee. They had to stay on the land for three years, build a permanent home and farm at least 4 acres and then the land was theirs.

Yevshan Dancers

What they left was heart-breaking enough; ruled over by Austro-Hungary, Poland and Russia, denied education and conscripted to fight for the Austrian army, the people of the Ukraine were treated abominably by those who had invaded their country (and oh, in the light of recent events, how depressing is it to see things have not changed over the years).  But they made things work, these immigrants. They faced up to the back-breaking challenge of clearing bushland and tons of rocks before they could even start to farm. The men left the women and children to subsist on the homesteads, as they took paying work in lumber camps or down the mines. But they survived and lived to tell the tale.  They built communities and they made a life for themselves on the prairies. And like all immigrants, they cherished the customs and the foods of the land that they had left behind. sas8

Which brings me neatly to a huge community centre, Prairieland Park, in the heart of Saskatoon. It’s February and minus 21 degrees outside. The wind chill factor brings it down to minus 30, and I stood outside for just a moment to try and imagine living in this without the benefit of modern clothing (thank GOD for my Canada Goose parka and gloves) never mind making it through without central heating. I lasted maybe a minute or two before scuttling inside into the warmth; my eyelashes began to freeze, my chest hurt from the cold air and what small part of my skin was exposed to the vicious cold ached from the icy wind. But just looking around the people in the room I know that their great-great grandparents didn’t just survive, they thrived. Clearly they were made of so much sterner stuff than I.

The contestants

Almost 700 people are here – the majority Ukrainian Canadians – and they are here to taste food from the old country and vote on this year’s King of Kovbasa. The contest is in its thirteenth year and it’s a cultural celebration of the traditional Ukrainian kovbasa sausage. Twelve local butchers enter, and every one attending gets to cast their vote to decide who will win the trophy. It’s a prestigious contest and tasting is taken seriously. Each table gets its own huge platter of samples and there are even instructions on how best to taste the sausage; regular palate-cleansers of pickles, cheese and crackers are essential – as is immediately logging your vote on the cards provided. We’re voting on best texture, seasoning, appearance and overall winner.

sas9This is also a fundraiser event with door prizes, a secret auction and vodka-and-pickle shots for cash donations – with money raised going to an adult literacy program, READ Saskatoon. I watch the the girls and boys in their shiny blue and white costumes bring out the trays of carefully-prepared meats to serve to each table. Later they’ll perform traditional dances on the stage, the girls whirling and swirling their skirts and the boys squat-kicking. I think about how important events like these must have been to those first immigrants; a chance to talk to someone other than your family – maybe the only chance that teenagers would have to meet someone to marry. I think about how much joy and pride is in the room and of the importance of tradition and continuity. I think about how, some days when I am missing my friends and family, I can cry just at the taste or smell of something that reminds me of home.

sas4I understand why these traditions are so fiercely guarded, why people dress up and come out in the heart of brutal winter to gather together and to celebrate. It’s a pride that makes the butchers so competitive – being Kovbasa king really means something – this year SmokeHaus Meats of Martensville swept the board, winning in every category.

The winners

Leaving I stood outside again in the car park, the stars seemed so bright in the crackling cold of the night. To live here; to build a home, dig out a farm, carve out a life and create a community in bitter, brutal weather and then, decades later, to have your descendants dance in a toasty-warm room, full of good cheese and sausages, happy with vodka and beer is the immigrant’s dream. From unimaginable hardship to comparative luxury in just a few generations. I wonder at the strength it must have taken to make that first step and then the next and the next. The faintest flavour of such a life must have been in their mind when they closed the door of their homes that one last time and started their long journey to a new life in Canada, with the hope of better days driving them through the hardship. sas3

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own. 

Further information

Tourism Saskatchewan

Ukrainian Museum of Canada

 


29
Jan 14

Challenge #2 Learn to Skate Like a Canadian

I started 2014 off with a splash – by leaping into the freezing cold sea at English Bay in Vancouver with a heap of other Crazy Canucks for the Polar Bear Swim – and I vowed to make this a year of fresh challenges – well, here’s my latest. This weekend I plan to skate the Rideau Canal in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. My challenge? Um, I don’t know how to skate… or rather – I didn’t, but thanks to my hero, Raymond – now I do.

My Hero, Raymond

My Hero, Raymond: he doesn’t usually wear antlers – this was his christmas special! 

It seems to me that Canadians are pretty much born with a pair of skates or skis strapped to their feet (their poor mothers!). I’ve sighed so many times over enchanting stories of my new friends’ Canadian childhoods: playing hockey out on a frozen pond, skating at home on a rink that their dad made by flooding the backyard – none of this was ever possible back in England, of course, and even skating rinks are few and far between. Not in Canada – I was amazed to discover eight beautifully maintained rinks in Vancouver and there was one just around the corner from me – and that is where Raymond skates into this story. We met last year at a Wine Festival event and once I realized I needed to learn to skate, then I knew he was my guy: an ex figure skater and now heading up the teaching programme at the busy Denman Street rink, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. 

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

I was terrified even lacing the skates up; all I could think of was falling and hurting myself. Bambi-like I wobbled onto the ice but accompanied by Raymond (and some pretty cool Lorde tracks) it all felt slightly less terrifying.That was five weeks ago and since then I’ve practiced, learned how to stop, fallen over and – crucially – worked out how to get up again. Just after Christmas I splurged and bought my own skates and last week I went for a truly joyful glide around the outdoor rink in Whistler. I may not be skating like a Canadian yet, but I’m giving it my best shot: Ottawa: here I come.

 


13
Oct 13

One year in Canada

It’s been a year; a whole year since I arrived in Vancouver and I feel like I never want to leave. If I thought I was flirting with the idea of being here before then it’s turned into a full-blown passion. All year long Vancouver has delighted and astonished me; its fierce almost overwhelming rain, the clouds which shroud the mountains; the relentlessness of autumn and winter which – just as you thought ‘I can’t take another dark, grey rainy day!’ would amaze you with a crisp blazing blue sky of a day. And then spring and the riot of flowers; the streets carpeted with pink and white pom-poms of cherry blossom, the beauty of Stanley Park. Summer, I knew I’d love summer but who knew that the days would be so long and the sunsets last for hours?

This lasted for hours every night.

This lasted for hours every night.

My view at the moment is all autumn again; the green leaves are turning rusty-auburn, candy-apple red and lemon-drop yellow. There was a dusting of snow on the mountains last week but the warm weather of the past few days has melted it away again, but oh – it’ll be back. I like to imagine myself easing into the seasonal cycle for years to come. But for that to happen I need to fill out my residency application forms and I am not the world’s best form-filler-out-er. I’ve plagued my poor lawyer’s office with what are probably achingly dim questions – and, bless them, they have been patient and helpful each and every time. It’s clear already that if I’d tried to do this alone it would never have happened so yes, a thankful shout out to Amy at Wildy Immigration who has the patience of a saint.

Fallen in love with the shimmering city by the sea

Fallen in love with the shimmering city by the sea

People often ask if I miss home and really – it’s not the place so much as the people. The time difference is a killer, after long a day, I want to curl up with a glass of wine and talk with my girlfriends on the phone and I can’t; it’s probably 3am for them. I wish I could just walk around the corner and see my friends and their kids and I miss being able to walk into my local pub and know most people there. But I’m building a life here; making good friendships and finding kindred spirits. The people that I’ve met here have made Vancouver feel like home. Fingers crossed that it really can be one day soon.


1
Jul 13

On my first in-Canada Canada Day…

This is why I can't stop staring out of my window at home.

This is why I can’t stop staring out of my window at home.

People ask me all the time why I moved to Vancouver and I have just one answer: “You’ve seen here, right?” and I mean it. I’d read about Vancouver for years before I ever made it out here. I wanted to move, sight unseen, but my ex-partner refused and so I bided my time until three years ago I finally made it out here for a three-night stay. It was, of course, raining and I didn’t feel that feeling that I thought I’d have; I didn’t feel excited, didn’t feel a rush of emotion, nothing. It was cold and a little misty and just not what I’d thought it would be at all.

On my second night I had a meal at the Salt Tasting Room, I asked for the BC platter and had wine from BC too. I had no idea that BC even had a wine industry, so to get glass after glass of exciting wines was like being hit by an awfully alcoholic thunderbolt. Same for the charcuterie and cheeses; all local, all delicious and not one of them known to me before I sat down. I ate peaches from the exotic-sounding Similkameen paired with artisan Kulen sausage and wondered what other wonders lay in store in this strange new place.

How can you not fall in love with a city carpeted with flowers in the spring?

How can you not fall in love with a city carpeted with flowers in the spring?

The next day it rained again, I wandered around Chinatown, excited by the exotic produce in the groceries and the thrill of feeling I was truly in a very different country, I remember I went into a shop and when I came out, the city had done the very neat trick that it sometimes pulls off, the rain had stopped and as fast as the sun appeared the clouds vanished. I stood on the busy pavement and gaped at what I saw down the road; huge snow-capped mountains, rising above me. I hadn’t even known they were there! There was something about the chaos of Chinatown, the noise of the city combined with the breathtaking beauty of those mountains and the promise of the ocean at the end of the street. I felt a rush of emotion and burst into tears. It wasn’t love at first sight no – but oh, I have fallen so hard that I think this may be forever.

I moved here nine months ago and I haven’t regretted it for a second. I find Canadians, on the whole, to be warm, friendly people; I love how chatty my neighbours all are and the real sense of caring within the community that I’ve found here in the West End. I’m lucky enough to have met genuine, kind, funny, brilliant people who have become friends. I’m enchanted with the daily thrill of fresh discoveries – a cheese I’ve never tried, a new-to-me fish like the spot prawn – and I cannot take my eyes off those mountains. I sleep with my curtains open every night and their mesmerising beauty makes me feel lucky to be here every single day when I wake up and see them.

Even Freddie agrees...

Even Freddie agrees…

So, I’ve made a decision; I want this to be my home. I’m applying for residency. It won’t be easy and it could take years but I want this more than anything. I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Canada and I want to stay – and share that by writing about it! I got talking with a fellow Brit (and fellow-writer), Lola Augustine  who recommended Wildy Immigration – she recently had a great experience with them and now her and her husband are settled here and having their own adventures in Nova Scotia. So I’ve been in touch and we’re going to start the paperwork (wow, it feels serious to have a lawyer!) I already took a look at the process and frankly, I’m glad to have *someone* who knows what they are doing as complicated forms and I are not the best of friends! Hopefully, here’s to a new beginning for Freddie and I.

Flying the flag...

Flying the flag…

I’m excited about being here on my first ‘Canadian’ Canada Day. I’ll watch the parade later and see that joy that people have of simply being Canadian and hope that one day soon I can join in too, as a legal resident, not just a visitor.


4
Apr 13

In which I’m mostly flat…

Most of the time living here in Vancouver I feel like I’m on a great adventure. Every day brings a fresh discovery; I eat something I’ve never tried before, see birds I’ve never seen, meet new people – I love it. However, the problem with being so very far from home is that when things go wrong, you feel every single millimeter of the distance. I’m not OK at the moment. I’ve been flat on my back for the past week, can’t walk properly and it looks like I’ll be that way for a while more.

This has been my view for the past few days. I am BORED.

This has been my view for the past few days. I am BORED.

Being unwell when you’re by yourself is never much fun. Turns out being unwell when you’re by yourself AND thousands of miles from everyone you love really sucks. If I were just by myself, I could probably stick it out thanks to grocery delivery companies, Netflix and Skype, but I’m not alone; I have my dog and he needs to be walked. Right now, I feel like Blanche duBois in Streetcar, having to ‘depend on the kindness of strangers’. I know I’d be fine in Brighton, I’ve known my friends there so long that we’re family to each other, but I’ve only been here seven months and when it’s ‘new’ friends, you have to wonder just how far you can push asking for favours. I feel lucky that my neighbour Wendy is a sweetheart and so I don’t feel bad calling to ask for help and I’m even luckier in my friend Van who’s popped by after long days at work to take him out too.

The other thing with not being well is that your circle of health-support that you’ve spent years building isn’t there any more; Tom my acupuncture guy at the Anahata, the amazing William at the Treatment Rooms, even my doctor who’s known me for years… all at least 10 hours flight away in Brighton! I feel pretty blessed that months ago when I was creaking with pain, I checked local paper The Georgia Straight to find a massage therapist and discovered aces Nicole Van Damme who pointed me in the direction of top chiropractor Dr Jamie Hennessy. He’s been absolutely amazing – if you follow me on Twitter you’d know I’ve been banging on about how great he is for ages. You can spend months, years trying to find a great practitioner so the relief when I limped into his office with agonising sciatica – and then walked out half an hour later, was overwhelming.

Seriously. He wears this hat, like, all the time.

Seriously. He wears this hat, like, all the time.

This new bit of grimness stems from falling in Quebec all those weeks ago. I’ve damaged a muscle and need to lie around, my leg elevated over my head, icing it every couple of hours for the next few days. I need to get the swelling and inflammation down or I could be in trouble. Jamie’s been brilliant, emailing me back – out of hours – offering advice and reassurance. When I go and see him at Back To Health (here’s the number – I totally recommend him T: 604-742-0011), I appreciate that he takes the time to explain exactly what the issue is, why it’s a problem and what the plan to fix it is. He’s straight with me and although I might occasionally yelp at some of the adjustments that he does, (and wonder why he seems to heh-heh-heh cackle as he does the most evil of them) I always feel better afterwards.

Actually, I feel a bit better just writing this down too. OK, so I don’t have the circle that I had before, but if I think about it, I’m making a new one. And if moving here was a leap of faith then I suppose I need to apply that to living here too – trusting that things will work out and that strangers – and new friends – are kind. I guess that’s part of the expat experience, making that transition where you stop depending quite so much on ‘home’ and and start depending on those strangers who’ve become friends.

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