Thursday, June 30, 2011

Barney the Beaver & Canada Day

So, Barney the Beaver and I are going to celebrate Canada Day together. It is not that we are enamoured with each other’s company, but there doesn’t seem to be anybody else around to celebrate with. That is, nobody with an intricate sense of Canadiability, as compared to those who simply try to politely empathize with our Canadian sentiment. The problem, it appears, is that I am way out  here in the desert, and Barney... well Barney made a wrong turn somewhere. I mean, when was the last time you saw a beaver in the desert? And unfortunately, contrary to common belief - and this may surprise you - beavers don’t really know how to party.

I thought balloons would be a nice touch, but Barney vetoed that. Something to do with the death of a family relative. And even though he knows that I don’t like to drink alone, he just wants some wood to chew on. That wouldn’t be all that bad, if it weren’t for the splinters I found in my whiskey.

So, how does one celebrate Canada Day down in the desert? Actually, Canada Day is rather new for me. When growing up, we called it “Dominion Day”, and the real celebration with barbecues and firecrackers was on Victoria Day. We were still struggling for a Canadian identity at the time. But we can see how far we have come now that the newly wed Royal Couple are coming to celebrate Canada Day with us - on their first international visit. (Barney has a secret crush on Kate, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

You do miss out on things in the desert. I’d actually sell out my soul and celebrate the 4th of July here with Americans, if only for the hot dogs and baseball in the park. But all of the Americans seem to be on holiday, and there is no softball sized park. Barney claims that he is known as “homerun Barney” because of the wicked swing of his tail. I don’t think we will be putting this to a test, though, any time soon.

I discovered last year that I could listen in to some of the celebrations live - straight from Canada. The only problem is, these celebrations start late evening - Canadian time - which is the middle of our night. And Barney told me that he is not staying up past 10 p.m. - our time. Something about getting up early to build a dam. I told him to be sure to hurry, for it could rain again in October. That’s another thing about beavers: no sense of humour.

But still, it is good having Barney around to celebrate Canada Day with. He is dressed appropriately with his Canada scarf and Canada tuque. He also knows quite a few Canadian ditties, although his voice does tend to screech, at times. A case of wood indigestion, from what I understand.

I hope the rest of you are getting ready to party.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tearing down memories

They are tearing down my old alma mater. I guess I should shed a few tears. The thing is, I am trying hard to remember what the school looks like, both inside and out. David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute, on the corner of Brimley and Lawrence, in Scarborough, Ontario. Well, at least I have a point of reference. The only picture I have of the high school in my mind is from a recent drive by, when visiting my mother in the old homestead. How is it that I have shut out almost all memories of my high school years? Were they that traumatic?

Actually, I would say that the opposite was true. They were so bland as not to deserve remembering. Washed away in the flow of time.

A few memories do remain, though:

- The school newspaper that we put together in Mike Jackal’s basement while listening to Cat Stevens, a newspaper that quickly went underground when we chose to bypass the school censor and hand out birth control pamphlets together with it. Probably my only ever visit to the principal’s office, where the school censor appeared scared, the principal ended up talking about the Kennedy assassination for some unknown reason, and somehow the matter was closed. It didn’t appear that anyone knew what to do with so-called revolutionaries in a Toronto suburb.

- My best friend and I, bored to tears in Math and Physics classes, deciding to keep what little was left of our brains alive by unscrewing and removing all of the handles on the Physics cupboards underneath each student desk and storing them in our locker.  It took us at least a week to remove them all, all done during regular classes, and another week before this was noticed - the Physics teacher bringing the no-nonsense Vice Principal in to view the situation during one of our classes. We shifted the “merchandise” to an undisclosed area just in case they decided to do a locker check. Locker checks were quite unusual at the time. Drugs hadn’t yet become much of a problem in Scarborough, and no one appeared to want to enter into the grey area of constitutional rights over Physics desk handles. I think we had more fun putting the handles back, bit by bit during the Physics classes. It simply drove them crazy, and that was the whole point.

- Then there was the intellectual discussion over whether it was possible to make love in a sleeping bag - a literary critique of one of Hemmingway’s books - to the chagrin of our teacher. Another English teacher thought my comparison of “A Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies” was brilliant and announced to the class that I would “go places”. That shows how much he knew, although I did make it to Israel.

- One of my most creative moments was when I wrote a paper for my Physics class disproving the existence of matter. I got a very high mark. Apparently the Physics teacher didn’t understand a word, and was still shell shocked from the disappearing cupboard handles.

- Another less demanding creative moment was when I went beyond the usual strategies of writing a book report without reading the book, by making up a title of a book, publisher, date of publication and storyline. I got a very high mark for that also. Best composition I ever wrote. That was before the days when a teacher could easily check such things through the Internet, if they knew how, and instead had to depend on their own common sense.

- My best friend and I, looking for new ways to amuse ourselves, took a creative approach to an English project by providing a tape of musical appreciation. Those were the days of cassette tapes and old tape players where we could attach a microphone. We would tape the beginning of a song, then come in with our own commentary, explaining the song’s meaning, history and relevance. These were all popular songs that we grew up with and we had a great time, rolling on the floor with laughter at times. The English teacher surprised us by giving us a mark of 100, and we never did see the tape again. I guess it is one of those treasures that teachers like to lock away. I guess we were surprised because we never thought that we were supposed to find learning that much fun.

- One of my warmest memories is that of a scholastic history class, run by Mr. Brown who played the devil’s advocate while we explored and compared the great revolutions: Russian, Chinese, French... I owe many of my critical skills to him. Yet, it was the same Mr. Brown who warned me about going to Israel when he heard of my plans to learn at an ulpan there. “I know you, David. You won’t be able to keep your mouth shut about what is going on over there and will probably end up in jail.” He must have seen the picture of me that had appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail, a few years earlier,  where I appeared in the front ranks of a demonstration at City Hall against the War Measures Act imposed by Prime Minister Trudeau during The October Crisis. Ah, those were the years when I still saw things in black and white, and didn’t understand that most of it is grey, and still more grey. My “liberal leaning” friends also weren’t appreciative of my going to Israel. Most of them disowned me long ago. Not that there were many. Friends, that is. You know, that thing that we used to have before Facebook Friends took over.

So they are tearing down my old school, freeing up a choice piece of real estate, as the school merges with a school nearby - or so I heard from a fellow Thomsonite through facebook. The other school received notoriety not long ago when one student stabbed another. Long gone from the days when underground newspapers and birth control pamphlets were the main concern.

For some reason, the thing I remember more from my Scarborough years is my elementary school - Knob Hill Public School. I still visit it, each time that I am back to visit my mother, when I go with my other best friend on the “neighborhood walk”. Leaving Danforth Road, we go up along Barrymore and then down Miramar Crescent where she lived. Turning left onto Gage upon passing the United Church, which keeps adding on new extensions, then over to Seminole and up to the school. At the back of the school I can still envisage myself playing foot hockey with a tennis ball during recess on the same small outside basketball court, which has changed little.  Then herded back into the school  by Mr. Wolf.

And what about the faces? It seems that the only faces that I remember, or recognize - when flipping through the old D&M Thomson yearbook - are the same faces who were with me at Knob Hill Public School. One day I tried looking up a few of those faces on Facebook. This may not be the best idea, for our saved image of people is nowhere near to what they look like now. And if they have changed that much, then what does it say about us? But we are tough. We can take it. So, you Thomsonites out there  - if you want to drop me a friend request, I promise to accept, and we can talk over forgotten times. I hope your memory is better than mine.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What is an Expat like you doing in a place like this?

One of the best things about growing older is that people tend to stop questioning your life choices. Maybe this is because they don’t see you as having much of a life left. The expiration date has passed, and they figure that you are here to stay.

But old expat habits die hard. When do we say enough is enough?

Ruth wrote (in a comment to my blog) : “I never felt 100% at home in London, either. I lived for a year in France, and though I was completely fluent and had learnt French from the age of 5, I never felt even remotely at home there. Then I made aliya, and I also felt in some mysterious way that I had come home here. But now after 30 years I am restless again and want to move somewhere else. I have learnt how to be Israeli and now it's no longer enough for me. It's like the Wandering Jew thing. I want to learn another culture, be the outsider trying to fit in all over again. Can't explain it but I do think that becoming a citizen of the world, especially since the advent of the Internet, has become more important to me than any religious or national identity thing could.

I have learnt how to be Israeli and now it’s no longer enough for me. I can identify with that. But do I want to be the outsider trying to fit in all over again? How many times can we reinvent ourselves, and all that surrounds us?

Purple Cow wrote: “So where do you feel that you belong? Where is your Ithaca? Or does it just keep shifting on you every time you happen to find it? I, too, relate to you... born a minority Greek in Istanbul, moved to Australia and now an "Australian" in Athens, but always a hybrid.

The ground has stopped shifting. Does this mean that I have finally given up trying to find where I  belong? How many expats share our experience? Perhaps our reflections are just some sort of romantic notion of a modern nomadic culture that we have made up in our head.  How many of you out there were restlessly driven to voluntarily leave country and culture behind with no idea where you’d end up simply because you had to be some sort of outsider trying to fit in, or find a part of yourself which was greater than all one country had to offer? Or did you simply become an expat out of work opportunity or convenience, never quite knowing that there may be no way back? Does it matter how we started in order to explain where we are now? And where we may be tomorrow?

So, what is an Expat like you doing in a place like this? Do you dare tell us the inside story?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Not a proud day to be a Canadian

Vancouver is ablaze. Rioting in the streets. “Canadians rioting?” people in other parts of the world ask. And at that moment you see the flicker of respect for Canadian character disappear from their eyes. You know then that you will never again be able to convince people that Canadians are uniquely different from Americans. And why? Is it all about a hockey game?

Hockey is our national sport. It is in our blood. One might say that in a way, it defines us. When Sidney Crosby scored the magical overtime goal to win Olympic Gold for Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics, the whole nation (including us expats abroad) rocked with joy and proud patriotism. “Can it get any better than this?” we asked. And then came the seventh game showdown between Boston and Vancouver, in Vancouver.

Actually, the ugliness didn’t begin then. It had begun already a few games earlier, when a Vancouver player sent a Boston player to the hospital and out of the playoffs. Until that moment, I had been  enjoying this season’s playoffs, thinking it was the best NHL hockey I had seen in years. It reached its highest point in the 7th game of the semi-final round between Boston and Tampa Bay when not even one penalty was called and it was just about the hockey. But it was all downhill after this. The Boston-Vancouver series started out with a slew of penalties, then we had the Vancouver biting incident, and finally the inexcusable cheap shot that sent a player to the hospital.

But this shouldn’t have come as any surprise in a game where TV sport announcers glorify each hard hit, where the most enthusiastic cheers from the fans come from crushing blows rather than spectacular plays, and where injuries are often blamed on a player not keeping his head up, rather than the clear intention of the opposing player to cause pain and intimidation. How do we expect to have great play makers when players have to spend most of the time with their heads up, worrying about violent hits, rather than concentrating on the puck and skillful strategy? Sydney Crosby, perhaps the greatest play maker of this time - missed the last half of the season due to a concussion caused by a cheap blow to the head. He apparently was more concerned in playing hockey than in worrying about being hit.

Hockey has become a gladiator sport. Should we be surprised, then, that it spread out into the streets after the seventh game loss? Riots aren’t something new to sport. Sport harnesses herd mentality which often brings out the worst in us. As we saw in “Lord of the Flies”, it only takes a moment for the social checks and balances to break down in order to bring out our most primitive instincts. Yes... also in Canada.

So, what do we want to define us as Canadians? The riots of Vancouver 2011? Or the warm hospitality of the Vancouver populace in the  2010 Winter Olympics? And when your small child puts on skates, grabs a hockey stick and heads out to the pond in the back yard to play with neighborhood friends, who do you want him or her to emulate?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kibbutz by the Sea

Last week, standing on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, I watched as the sun began its slow descent into the sea. The air was quiet, the colours of the kibbutz slowly changing into an evening hue. Fourteen years. Fourteen years mixed in the salty air, the sound of seagulls, the faint sound of a tractor in the distance. Fourteen years, as I looked over to the row of white houses built into the steep hill running down to the beach below, our house second to the right.

I have visited many beautiful places in my life, and have also been fortunate to live in two of them. One of them is where I am living now - Midreshet Ben Gurion, perched high above Wadi Zin (Zin Valley) in the Negev Desert, reaching towards the red mountains of Jordan.  And the other is Kibbutz Palmachim, resting on the Mediterranean Sea, squeezed in between Tel Aviv and Ashdod, with Rishon Le Zion sneaking in from the rear.

“How could you have left a house on the sea?” people ask me. Yet no one asks anymore, “How could you have left the kibbutz?”

I never expected to leave the kibbutz, but then, I never expected to be there in the first place. And if it hadn’t been for my reading of “Walden Two”, I probably never would have.

For a long time, I identified with Thoreau’s “Walden”: isolating myself from society, both mentally and emotionally,  in order to obtain a more objective understanding of it; my way of achieving self-reliance. But Skinner’s “Walden Two” suggested an alternative: a utopia of communal interaction where self-reliance is attained at the community level. In such a community, one must become  a participant, as well as an observer.

Like most things, this would have never gone beyond philosophical masturbation had it not been for a friend of my sister who told me about the ulpan program on the kibbutz.  Not only was there suddenly a place offering itself as a testing ground for such theory, but it was a place I could easily go to for six months.

I don’t know what I expected to happen once I was on the kibbutz. I certainly never expected to spend the next fourteen years of my life there. But I felt that I had found my place. Milking cows, learning to drive a tractor, moving irrigation lines, going to university, starting a teaching career, teaching myself computers in order to computerize the kibbutz school, marriage, three children, and filling most of the key administrative positions on the kibbutz - fourteen years may not be a lot for some, but it was a key period of my life.

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave the kibbutz. My wife, who was born and raised on the kibbutz, had already wanted to leave for a number of years in order to try something new. But it wasn’t until I filled the delicate position as the head of the members’ committee that I was faced with such discrepancies between what the kibbutz was and what it professed to be, that I decided it was time to leave also.

It was while being on the kibbutz that I discovered that I could be both a social hermit and an active participant in the running of the community. So, it was only natural, upon discovering the Internet in the early nineties, that I use this tool to create virtual communities through which the members would provide mutual assistance, while I remained in the background, helping to run things quietly. In my English Teachers Network, which contains over 1,700 members, I have personally met only a few members face to face, although I answer scores of messages every day. I am sure that there are those who believe that I am simply a virtual creation who is online 24/7. And you know what?  I am quite content with that assumption.

Standing on the cliff, looking out over the sea, the last half of the sun slowly sinks into the sea. I do not feel sad that we left. Some of the memories I relive, some are totally forgotten. But there are things that are not lost... a Canadian, a kibbutznik... things that I still take with me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

You want to leave Moskva!

“You want to leave Moskva!”
I can still hear Boris’ words, echoing in my head, the sweat running down the small of my back. Even though more than ten years have passed, it seems like it just happened yesterday. And I remember all this because a friend asked me if I had ever been to Russia.

It is the late nineties. I had been travelling with two teachers from Oregon to diverse locations around the world as a part of our 21st Century Schoolhouse project, where we gave teachers and students a one week workshop on working with international environmental projects through the Internet. We were now on our way to Kyrgyzstan, after having just given a workshop to a Palestinian school in Ramallah (things were quieter then). Andy and Molly’s travel agent worked out the route - the first leg to Moscow, where we had to change planes, then on to Kazakhstan where we were to be picked up and driven to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

Actually, there is not much Russia in this scenario. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are now independent countries. My only real claim to being in Russia is the Moscow Airport.

I really didn’t know where Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were, before our flight. I used to be quite good in geography, but that was before the world was reinvented. Peking became Beijing, Bombay became Mumbai, Czechoslovakia split up into The Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Yugoslavia into five, possibly seven countries (depending on who is doing the counting). West Germany and East Germany reunited when the wall came down, but Pink Floyd split up. A large part of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut and Quebec never did split from Canada. I threw out my school atlas long ago. Actually, I didn’t really throw it out, as I am a horrible hoarder. But it is somewhere in my pile of useless things. Together with most of my other reference books (dictionaries, technical manuals, etc.) which have been rendered obsolete by a rapidly changing world.

No wonder people get onto a plane nowadays and end up in the wrong country.
I guess I can understand how countries split up and reunite. But why change the name of a city? Aren’t things confusing enough? I imagine that it is just a matter of time before Toronto becomes “Rogerstown”. And no, it isn’t that far-fetched. Remember what happened to the Skydome. And some cities never stop changing their names. Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad and then Volgograd. Any bets on what name it adopts next?

Which takes us back to our flight to Moscow. Let me tell you about the landing. We landed first on the right wheel, and then on the left, screeching to the right and screeching to the left. The plane shuddered, and I’m sure I heard something drop off. But somehow we came to a stop. I think the plane just ran out of gas. This appeared to be nothing irregular to the people around me, and I was still under the influence of two cans of very strong Russian beer, so it took a few minutes for my brain to catch up to my eyes and ears and by then we were already stepping out of the plane. I think this Russian airline is no longer in operation. Something about running out of parts.

I was travelling on my Israeli passport, because of something to do with the Kyrgyzstan visa, but I didn’t expect any problems at passport control. Andy and Molly went through first, and disappeared. I brought up the rear and handed the woman my passport. She looked at my passport and then up at me.  I offered my best Canadian smile, but all she saw was Israeli. The first indication that something was wrong was when the red light on the top of the booth started flashing. We waited until a heavy built, angry looking woman army officer approached the booth. The  woman handed her the passport and said something in Russian. The officer looked down at the passport and then up at me with an accusing glare. I tried my smile again. Not a good idea. She said, “Kazakhstan” and pointed to my visa to Kyrgyzstan, which somehow didn’t make sense. I mean, I get them mixed up, but the Russians? And then finally I realized that they weren’t happy that my flights ended in Kazakhstan, but that I had a visa only to Kyrgyzstan. The infamous Oregon travel agent had told us that we didn’t need a visa to Kazakhstan. “Me no need visa to Kazakhstan,” I said loudly, talking like an idiot, as if this somehow would help them understand. “Someone is driving me to Kyrgyzstan,” I said, pretending to be behind a steering wheel, driving recklessly along a road in Kazakhstan. At that point I was wondering whether Andy and Molly would come to visit me in jail. But by the time I had finished with the steering wheel,  the officer considered me to be much too stupid to be a Mossad agent, so she let me go. Not before she said something juicy in Russian, which had both her and the other woman laughing.

I found Molly waiting at the door leading out of the building.
“There you are,” she said, “Andy has gone on ahead.”
“To that building over there. This building is for international flights. That building is for local flights.”
“Local? But isn’t Kazakhstan a separate country now?” I asked.
“Yes, but don’t tell the Russians that.”
By the time we got over to the other building, Andy had already filled out his transit card, the instructions of which were all in Russian. Apparently someone had helped him, but that person was long gone.
“Get that guy to help you,” he said, pointing to an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike who sat at a desk blocking the exit to freedom on the other side.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. This guy made the woman officer look like Mother Theresa.
Andy only laughed. “Come on, the guy’s probably a pussy cat.”
That was the difference between Andy and me. Andy was naturally confident in such situations, but with me they could smell the fear.
I walked up to Boris (to me he looked like a Boris, and I am sure that was his name), and showed him the transit card. He scowled at the empty card and gestured over to the desk where the pens were.
“It is in Russian,” I said slowly. “I don’t understand.” Again, I thought that if I raised my voice, I would be better understood.  “Do I really need to fill it in? We are just changing planes.”
That is when it happened.
“You want to leave Moskva!”
I swear that the windows shook and a few people dived for cover. Even a Canadian knows when to retreat.
“Finished?” Andy asked.
“No,” I said, still shaking.
And then I noticed that Molly had already filled out her card.
“Hey, how did you get that filled out?” I asked.
“Andy helped me,” she said, matter-of-factly.

So, that was Russia. But not the end of the story.  Andy and Molly flew back to Israel a day after me. They were planning to catch a charter flight at Ben Gurion airport to go for a vacation at some Spanish island. Israeli security gave them a really difficult time at the airport, and as they sometimes do, asked for the name and phone number of somebody in Israel who could vouch for them. I then received a phone call.
“This is security at Ben Gurion airport. There are two passengers here who say that you know them. A Mr. Andrew Goldstein and a Miss Molly Kellar.”
“Andrew and Molly who?”
For all I know, they may still be there.