How an immigrant girl fell in love with Canada

Marika Robert April 23 1960

How an immigrant girl fell in love with Canada

Marika Robert April 23 1960

How an immigrant girl fell in love with Canada

Within every big city stand islands of New Canadians, each with its own separate language, color and customs. Here’s the moving story of how pretty Marika Robert first sought their shelter and then, almost without knowing it, suddenly found she was a Canadian


Marika Robert

IT HAS TAKEN ME almost nine years to become a part of Canada, and I imagine that this (to quote an expression once unfamiliar to me) is par for the course. There are some who do it in three or four years. There are others who take nineteen or twenty. T here are some who arrive in the New World and are instantly at home, but they are very few. There are some who arc never at home — and they are not so few.

After nine years, I think, J am finally part of it all; part of the skyscrapers and slums; the superhighways and department stores; the lack of esthetic beauty and the abundance of comfort. 1 find that I say our mayor, our new city hall, and our liquor laws. But for many years, like thousands of others, 1 have been staggering around like a Gulliver in the frightening land of Canadians; a land of hope and heartbreak; a land of plenty; a land of unfamiliar dimensions.

After almost a decade in Canada 1 have only vague recollections of the years when every move seemed to be an experience; when my days were filled with nightmarish and hilarious discoveries. Today I don’t notice anymore the hideous uniformity of the houses and porches; I don’t feel as though 1 were walking on the streets of a pest-ridden city if 1 happen to be in downtown Toronto after 10 p.m. on a weekday; and a piece of melting ice has to fall on my head to remind me that Canadian cities don’t tuck their power lines underground, but wear them as a tiara.

In his own eyes the new immigrant is a person who has lost everything except his accent. In the eyes of others he is that strange animal with an unpronounce-

able name, with unusual customs, and a way of speech that is cither cute or irritating, depending on his age and sex. Liked by some, disliked by many, the immigrant is a statistical figure, the subject of arguments, interviews and articles. He is also the hero of a tragicomical adventure which few Canadians understand and which after a certain time he himself is apt to forget.

My own adventure started on a humid summer day in 1951 when the SS Columbia docked at Montreal. The ship’s upper deck was jammed with people waiting to be cleared through customs. 1 remember 1 wanted to hide in one of the cabins, in the warm security of the boat, my last link with the past.

Ever since school in Czechoslovakia, where 1 first learned about its existence and geographical position, Canada to me meant snow piles, icy air. men dressed like fox hunters on a masquerade party in high boots and greasy hats, trying to find their way in the constant snow flurry. The day 1 arrived, however, things were different. The air was filled with a gleaming heat, and if the clothes of the bootless fox hunters did seem to be damp it was not from snow but from sweat.

"At least they should give us something to cat,” someone remarked after three hours of sitting on our baggage. "This landing might take a long time.”

And it did. First they cleared all the Canadians. Then they cleared all the other British subjects. Then they cleared the Americans. And then the French and Germans and Persians and Madagascans. And then all the Zulus. And then—and only then— the DPs.

"DP” was a new term to me and a new status to get used to. Theoretically I had been a displaced person ever since I crossed the border of my country. Yet I did not feel like a DP in the cities of Europe^ they were not my home, but they were part of my universe. The real border was the staircase leading from the ship to the shore. Whatever I had been in my previous life was like a shoe that remained on the Greek liner. I stepped out of it the minute 1 put my foot on the first step, and on the bottom of the stairs a new pair of shoes was waiting. I put them on and wás immediately transformed into that clumsy, sometimes funny-looking, sometimes pitiful monster: a European newcomer.

“Where are you headed for?” the customs officer asked in French.

“Toronto,” i replied rolling the o’s of that romantic-sounding name that brought pictures of Indians with colorful feathers sitting around their wigwams or canoeing down the river.

“Toronto?” he asked, and it did not sound romantic at all the way he said it. “Whatever for? They don’t even speak French there. Why don't you stay in Montreal? This is almost like Paris.”

But it was not like Paris at all, with its many small houses that had their staircases glued on the outside, and its incredibly long main street that had snatched away most of the stores from the rest of the streets and offered a multitude of gigantic cars on the road, and gigantic TV sets and washing machines and refrigerators in the store windows, but not one tiny little statue. I had to live in Toronto for three years to be able to exclaim on my return visit to Montreal: “What a wonderfully gay spot! Why, it’s almost like Paris!” The one day I spent in Montreal was filled with exciting new experiences. The first happened on the streetcar, where my heart went out to that poorest of the poor, the unfortunate driver. On any streetcar or bus I had boarded before, there was a regular driver, whose duty it was to operate the vehicle, and another man in a uniform with a black bag around his waist to whom you handed the money, got a ticket in return. But here, when you give the driver the money and he gives you the ticket, it is just a tease ticket; don’t ever try to keep it! It has to be returned to the little box of the driver, who by that time starts to feel sorry for you and hands you another ticket called a transfer, just so you won’t go empty-handed to your seat. Actually it is not a bad game for you, holding five pieces of luggage in one hand and trying to stabilize yourself with the other while 250 pounds of human flesh are being piled on your feet in different sizes and forms. But that poor driver, he has to find the time for driving, too.

The other big event happened in a restaurant that I visited with friends from the boat. We were seated at the counter, opposite the hot plate on which some strange thing was happening.

“Look,” I said to my neighbor, “what is that? A bun with ground meat and cheese and now he is putting onions on it; terribly exciting.”

“Also tomatoes,” he said, “and relish. I think we must try that exotic dish. We might never have another chance to find out what it is.”

And so we ordered four cheeseburgers.

The next surprise was the train to Toronto: its size, its massiveness and, more than anything else, the sleeper. I couldn’t help associating it with those wagons used for transporting wild beasts to the zoo. The two rows of cages above each other and their unfortunate inhabitants having to undress in bed and listen to the snoring of numerous strangers, divided only by curtains, made me wonder CONTINUED ON PAGE 40


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whether all that has been written about the advanced comforts of North America wasn't just a pack of lies.

As it turned out it was not. The coach seat to which my meager means entitled me (I had just peeked at the pullman) was most comfortable, although it did not open into a bed. which according to the rumors circulated on the boat it was supposed to do.

The night was long and I had enough time to reflect on the first day spent in the land of promise: this wonderful country with a great future. I examined my new shoes and found that they did not fit. A wonderful country, 1 thought, but for whom? How many years have I got to assimilate and become part of that great future?

The train was running through nightblack fields; I looked at all those alien faces around me. hiding behind huge papers or lying on the pillows the porter supplied for a quarter, the potential shareholders of that great future: my new brothers; and 1 felt lost and out of place, homesick, not for the little town where I happened to be born, but for the Continent; my smashed, ruined, corrupted and demoralized Europe; my home.

Viewed from the exit of Union Station. Toronto looked very impressive. My eyes devoured the skyscrapers, the trademark of North America in all European minds. Satisfied that I had come to the right place after all, I decided to leave my luggage at the station and take a walk to purchase some aspirins.

A young couple walked by carrying their son in a canvas contraption with his two little legs hanging out from two holes.

"Excuse me,” I stopped them, “ could you tell me where 1 could buy some aspirins?”

"There is a drugstore just before the corner,” the woman said. "Can you see the sign?”

She pointed in the direction of a

blue neon sign and I thanked her.

“You’re welcome.” she said.

Welcome? I looked at my clothing and wondered whether it was by this that she could tell I had just arrived. In any case, I thought, it was nice of her to welcome me.

Bay Street was crowded with rushing people. It was around nine o'clock in the morning. Carefully made - up girls in clean, neat cottons passed me. with every hair in place, as if they had had an early morning session at the hairdresser’s and had put on their Sunday best for the rare and festive occasion of walking on Bay Street.

The busy businessmen getting in and out of huge cars, occasionally in the company of a well-fed briefcase, were a poor contrast to the immaculate females. They wore sloppy suits that gave the impression of having been constantly washed and rewashed in big washing machines. Their shirts, however, made up for the shapelessness of the suits. With their hard, unbending well-starchedness, they gave me the feeling that if their owners were to drop suddenly out of them, they would still continue to walk along with a proud, rigid step.

I reached the blue sign saying “Drugstore” and looked bewildered at the rubber elephants, birthday cards and nylon stockings in the window.

This couldn't be it. I thought, looking at the sandwich-serving waitresses behind the glass. But after the shock of the first moment I discovered a display of revitalizing medicines among the cameras and the wrapping papers and the colorful pocket books, I recovered my hope that they might even sell drugs in a drugstore.

After I consumed two aspirins that surprisingly enough were just like the aspirins at home, I boarded a streetcar and showed the driver the dirty slip of paper which contained the address of the only person I knew in Canada. She was a middle-aged lady who had emigrated a few

years ago and who. I hoped, would help me find some suitable accommodation.

To my great disappointment the streetcar soon left the lovely skyscrapers. The houses w'ere getting smaller and smaller and the streets more disorganized. On the corner of one I saw used refrigerators and second-hand rubber boats displayed on the sidewalk. I w'as already cursing the good lady for moving to the end of the world. I would never do such a silly thing. I decided: I am going to take a room in one of those nice skyscrapers and stay close to civilization.

But my only Canadian acquaintance did not approve of this plan.

"People don't live downtown.” she pointed out. “they just work there.”

This seemed highly impractical. Why shouldn't people live close to their working place, I wondered? My father, a physician. used to work next door to his living room and seemed to be very satisfied with this arrangement. But perhaps I was insensible, perhaps it made more sense to have physicians' streets and lawyers’ streets and department-store streets and live in the neighboring village, where there are no stores and no doctors and no sidewalks and you have to drive an hour to get the package of cigarettes you have forgotten to pick up with your chicken and carrots.

Anyw'ay, 1 gave up the idea of sharing a flat with the Imperial Bank, and to reward me the good lady gave me two strange sandwiches. One of them consisted of a slice of tomato between two lettuce leaves and the other was salty peanut butter covered by sweet marmalade, both embraced by something white that reminded me of absorbent cotton, but was supposed to be bread. But it did not laste like bread, and certainly did not look like bread, not even in its original form — weightless, tasteless stuff robed in w'hite paper with little blonde girls smiling all over it.

After this exotic meal 1 was offered one of those half-ton newspapers that could be only read lying on the floor and even then required the patience of an ox from any reader wanting to follow' any of the articles, cut to bits and pieces and scattered all over the fifty pages. All 1 wanted was to find a furnished room.

There were plenty of ads offering suitable accommodation, most of them in the Huron-Madison rooming-house district. I decided to take a trip there right away.

There are many such rooming house districts in Toronto, and in other Canadian cities for that matter. 1 doubt that most native-born Canadians really understand that in each big town there are little islands existing within a greater ocean of people. (In Toronto, for instance, there is an Italian island with 120,000 inhabitants: it is as foreign to me, a Czechoslovakian, as Rome or Milan.) The inhabitants of these island-communities live in closed circles cultivating their own languages, dishes, customs, even stores. Some of the bigger islands pride themselves on having their own movies and restaurants. Most of the islanders leave in the mornings to fish for their daily bread but otherwise their contact with the ocean is negligible.

The Huron-Madison island consisted of a few perfectly alike streets with perfectly alike houses, giving in this way the same impression as most of the other parts of Toronto. The only difference was that everybody, from the occasional passer-by to the landlords and landladies doing their nightly porch-sitting, conversed in foreign languages.

Here, in houses once inhabited each by only one English-speaking family, bedrooms w'ere transformed into kitchens, living rooms into bedrooms, and the

single bathroom served as a shrine in front of which numerous believers lined up every hour of every day.

I met various landladies of various sizes and nationalities, who looked me up and down as if 1 was a prospective professional. It turned out. however, that this was not the idea at all. because the obligatory sentence "and no male visitors at any hour" never failed to emerge, follow'ed by all kinds of other rules and questions—"no cooking, no smoking, no bathing. no staying in the room during the day,” "Are you a Roman Catholic. Do you like cats, Do you ever use the toilet at night?”

Finally I managed to find an oblong cell with a wall-paper design that I would have called “Dance of the dying bed bugs”; but the bed looked clean and comfortable and Mrs. Landlady did not object to my using it every night. She even promised clean sheets once a week.

There were eight or nine other cells in the house and one bathroom for all of us including Mrs. Landlady, a fortyish peroxide blonde with dangling earrings, who also worked as a waitress in a downtown tavern.

For a few' days I walked around to get acquainted with the town and to put in some of the time that I wfas not allowed to spend in my room for ten dollars a week. “I hope you've got a job." my landlady had remarked when I handed her the first week's rent. "The girl before you used to lie around in her room all day. 1 told her to get out of here and find another room. This is no sanatorium." Sometimes 1 climbed on a strange streetcar and got out at the eleventh or twelfth stop to discover to my greatest horror that it was the same street where I had started my journey — or at least looked like it. For weeks I had the feeling that I would never be able to tell the streets apart: one was so much like the next.

Another nightmare was the language. Thanks to the work of a childhood governess. 1 w'as convinced that I knew enough English to make myself understood. This misconception was fortified during a short visit in England. Every bus driver in London seemed to understand what I wanted. But the little girl behind the counter in one of the Honey Dew's looked at me with blank eyes when 1 asked for a glass of milk.

"I would like to have a glass of milk,” I repeated patiently.

"Beg your pardon?”

"A glass of milk."

"I'm sorry, 1 don't understand.”

1 was just going to give up when I spotted a big white bottle behind her back.

"A glass of milk,” 1 said pointing to it, "this, there.”

“Oh, milk,” she said surprised, "of course.”

She said it in a slightly different way, I will admit.

The following week I found a job, and then a second job. The first one did not last long. After I had ruined the same letter for the eighteenth time my boss took the liberty of doubting the thorough typing experience I claimed to have on my friend's advice. ("No matter what they ask you, you say you're experienced,” she had instructed me, but it did not work.)

I tried to sell my nonexistent competence to various laundries, hairdressers, restaurants and supermarkets without much success before I found a kindhearted woman in a small office who was finally willing to buy it.

Now I was equipped with all the necessary features of an immigrant: a horrid room, an unpleasant landlady, noisy,

inquisitive neighbors and a job I knew nothing about. I was set to start melting, if not into the Canadian, at least into the New Canadian world.

I he world of immigrants is more complex than any outsider would suspect. There are the old immigrants and the new immigrants, the political immigrants and the economic immigrants, the Western immigrants and the Iron Curtain immigrants; and they all snub one another.

Eor, like a regular society, the immigrant world, too, has its upper class and

middle class and proletariat. On the very top is the aristocracy of the English who differ from all the others, not because they would refrain from criticizing everything and finding it lacking, but because they are criticizing their own dominion. The lowest parts are reserved for those who came from the communist-occupied countries and consequently are not allowed the luxury of bursting out once in a while: "One of these days I am going to leave it all and go home."

That was where I found myself; trotting in the cold morning to a job that I

loathed and trotting back at night to a cabbage-smelling room that I loathed even more. The truth is that I would have loved to burst out many times if I could have afforded it. I could not. There were no reserves to fall back on; no country to return to. This was the only place that wanted me. And so I did learn to like and appreciate it and to accept the fact that Canada was made for the Canadians whose size it fits perfectly. If it did not fit mine all I could do was to change my own measurements.

I began to pick up new expressions

and new habits, new tastes and new in terests. The first job w'as followed by second and a third; all with the samt company and each one a little better than the previous. My growing bank accounl enabled me to get a better room with better smells, and then a flat, and even tually even a bathroom which I could use as often and for as long as I pleasetl

By the time I had reached the top steps on the office ladder and could retire to a self-contained apartment, I had for gotten most of my grudges and everything that once seemed odd and incredible became a natural part of my life. Today I wouldn't want to trade my shoes for any other pair. I find they fit me very well I have learned to walk in them.

This, however, is not something that you can force or hasten. In due time it happens to almost every immigrant. Slowly, gradually the Gullivers assimi late. They grow fringy Indian jackets over the Italian shirts and bolo ties below the Russian hats. They still keep to certain districts; they group on the street; they sip espresso, chew sunflower seeds, prefer goulash and tortas to milk-fed baby beef and Jell-O; and discuss their prob lems with their own people in their own language. But the problems are different problems and they themselves have become different people. They sleep on airfoam mattresses, they drive automatic cars, they like air-conditioned restaurants, they pay with cheques (that sometimes bounce), they buy on easy terms, they go for a drive instead of a walk on Sunday afternoons, treat their children to hamburgers and Popsicles, allow their slim jim-clad daughters to stay out late with side-burned rock-and-roll kings, they don't own half of the things they use, and they save money for a home instead of a return ticket".

I hey still call themselves Czechs or Poles, but the name doesn’t quite fit anymore. They may say “I am a Czech” or “I am a Pole”; but they no longer think like a Czech, no longer speak like a Pole. I hey have acquired new expressions, a new way of thinking, new eyes to see with and new purposes to strive for.

Every week, thirteen hundred immigrants across Canada become citizens. They have a short chat with a pleasant judge; quote provinces, capitals, and a few dates; they take the oath; sing the National Anthem; obtain a Bible and a fancy document. But these formalities do not make them into Canadians; this is not the big moment.

The moment comes later, or earlier, with less fuss and more unexpectedly. It comes after Canada has beaten the country of their origin in hockey and they jump three times around the table, yell ing, "We won! We won!” It comes during a discussion of politics when suddenly they hear their own emotional voice explaining, "Our foreign affairs . . .” or "Our prime minister . . It comes writ ing a letter, "We Canadians have long winters . . .” It comes on a trip behind the border. "Back home in Canada . .

It comes suddenly and unintentionally a message from the subconscious: the process has been completed.

It comes — as it came to me — on a Toronto-bound plane, after a vacation in Mexico, watching the toy bricks grow into rows of uniformed houses and porches, and big stone mansions, and apartment buildings, and shacks; and the little ants grow into cars and people; and knowing for the first time where you are going and why you are going there, and that it may be good or bad. esthetic or ugly—it is the present and it is the future it is home. Jc