In grade five, at the precocious age of eleven, I was, to put it mildly, a problem child for my teachers. I talked too much, I wandered around too much and I wasn’t afraid to express myself. Often, in jaw dropping embarrassing ways, I would draw the eyes of my classmates and teachers to myself; not because I was an attention junkie, far from it – because behind the veil of pomposity and gregarious displays, I’m actually quite shy, rather I simply felt obliged to share my thoughts. The fact that I didn’t think the rules applied to me didn’t help one bit. At this particular juncture of my life, all my teachers at St. Dorothy’s elementary school were victims of my being me. But in particular, one teacher stood out as a sort of nemesis, his Captain Ahab to my Mobey Dick. Mr. Howell was my homeroom teacher in grade five and six, and from the first day I moseyed into his class, in that portable cluster, we were like oil and water. I had arrived at the tail end of grade four so I was still considered the new kid. The one with the long hair and the funny bounce in his step. I’m certain I heard the words “not living up to my potential” a couple of times and we always seemed to be dragging along the class in our head butting contests. I wouldn’t back down and he, being the Genghis Khan of the class, wouldn’t either. Neither of us yielded an inch. Of course it was my mouth that was the cause of most of the trouble; I never learned to keep my trap shut for the three and half years we lived in the John Garland and Martin Grove area. Like my spirit animal in The Outsiders, Two Bit, I just couldn’t keep my two cents to my self. Variations of this kind of experience played out many times as my parents shuttled us around the north west corner of Toronto.
I bring this up as a tiny illustration of how my parents immigrant experience manifested itself with me. We were always moving when I was growing up. When we first came to Canada we moved a lot, I’m not even sure how many times. And by the time I started grade one we were embarking on a seemingly endless two and half year moving cycle. Just as life was being normalized and solidified we would do the pack up and find better digs to unload into. Understandably, I hated the moving process and I really, really didn’t like leaving the friends I had made. But my parents didn’t ask me my opinion, they just moved us. Of course they did, what parent would ask a child for their opinion on such a monumental change? Pack your shit up, we’re moving.
As an unintended consequence, the constant change basically from the day I was born has inured me to the anxiety around full scale changes that can cause a great deal of stress. So colour me blessed I guess. I was born in France to parents that had met there but came from the former Yugoslavia. We came to Canada when I was 18 months old or so. We lived on a farm. Downtown Toronto. Somewhere else. Back downtown. Somewhere else again. And you get the picture. There may have been another place or two before moving to Jane and Finch for a few years. Than Rexdale. Than Willowridge. Than North Rexdale. And than I moved off to Nova Scotia and did some more moving. Considering I lived in Lunenburg the longest, 12 years by the time I was 40, you get the sense that there was a shit ton of moving boxes in my life.
So, this got me to thinking about how I am really from nowhere. I don’t have the pull of the family home that we all grew up in. I don’t identify as from one place or another because really, I am not from anywhere. I’m proud to call myself Canadian, but I am a naturalized one as opposed to being born here. My hockey dad wasn’t like your hockey dad. I was born in France but that, to me at least, was simply a matter of geography at the time of birth. And while I strongly feel the allure of anything European, I am not Croatian or Serbian or Hungarian like my family. I will never be considered one by the people that can claim that proud lineage. Just like I will never be a Nova Scotian, despite having lived here more than half my life, because of the Come From Away paradox – familiar to anyone from outside of Nova Scotia that now calls it home.
And that is all fine. I don’t feel slighted or disadvantaged in any way. From this constant upheaval I learned two important things that have served me well over the years. A) I learned from the best when it came to packing a truck or car. B) I don’t get phased by change. For me, it simply is the way it is and it probably is the same for a lot of people that have had the immigrant experience. Parents move, looking for a better future for their families. Whether fleeing conflict or economic despair, the opportunity to bring up children in a land where someone isn’t actively trying to erase you must be quite the draw. Imagine that. I think of what my parents have done in the search for better. Came to a country, dragging a young me with them, speaking no English, and starting from scratch they built a decent life for us all. They did it coming from France, not a disadvantaged land by any stretch, but the prospects were still better coming here than staying put. Working hard, learning to fit in and scraping up enough to, bit by bit, move the family into safer neighbourhoods. In my opinion, the unsung heroes of the boomer generation are the ones that worked their way from immigrant poor to middle class existence. They didn’t dream of yearly tropical vacations and a new car every other year. We were tossed into the back of the Chevy Vega for two week stints, staying at motels and driving the highways of Ontario. Because that was what they could afford. Eating mortadella and cheese for lunch at road side picnic grounds. No Disney vacations. No fancy hotels. 1000 Islands one year. Muskoka Village and Fort whatever the next? This was reality. And for all that, we had it good compared to many others. To this day I live in awe of what my parents accomplished by coming here to Canada. If you’re reading mom and papi – that was what I was referencing when I was on that gurney, high on dilaudid with kidney stones. You guys are awesome!
Back in the middle ages of my current existence, I bemoaned the fact that I felt like a fraud. Perhaps it was imposters syndrome – I didn’t deserve to be standing in the same company with some of the people I was with because I felt inadequate. Compared to their upbringing and level of education, I shouldn’t have been in the game with them. Looking back I know that was utter bullshit. And they had said as much. We all bring different gifts to the table and what we manage to do with them is what sets us apart from the next guy over, who happens to have his own gifts to play with. Nowhere Man? Yes, certainly I feel I am that. But the riches I have gleaned from the life I have led can be directly tied back to my folks doing their best to provide for me. I have a lot to be thankful for. The challenges I have faced help to give me a well rounded appreciation of the realities of life and the blessings I cherish offer insight into the lives of my brothers and sisters that walk along the road with me.
This Nowhere Man sends out his deep appreciation for the sacrifices and incredibly difficult things you have done in the name of giving us a chance. My sister, a respected doctor and me, an older but still mouthy kid at heart, wouldn’t be here doing what we do were it not for you. Love you both – Mama i Tata