Wednesday, 1 July 2015

It's "Oh, Canada!" not "Ouch, Canada!"

July 1st is a big deal to me.

Yes, I certainly know how to roll my eyeballs while checking the weather app before clutching my morning coffee mug and pressing ON on the blue-light lamp that wonderfully dispels my Seasonal Affective Disorder nearly half the mornings of the year when a deep freeze decides to couple with gloomy grey clouds. But really, I do love living in Canada.

I vividly remember the day when the thought of “leaving one day” nested into my conscious, never to leave again. I was 16 and in Grade 10 in one of Belgrade's elite high-schools. The teacher for our last period called in sick and the school dismissed us ahead of schedule for not having a substitute teacher. A sunny spring day at noon meant rushing home, kicking off my shoes, blasting the stereo and enjoying our two-bedroom condo all to myself until the rest of my family started gathering in the early afternoon. WOO-HOO! The Serbian working hours of 7 AM - 3 PM worked for everyone other than moody teenagers in search of some privacy. At 3:30 PM when my parents arrived from work we would prepare a family lunch, the biggest meal of the day. Since working for many years in the field of diabetes, I have come to believe that having the biggest meal of the day so early played a big part in Serbia’s being a lean and healthy nation, superior in many sports. The day was also young for doing homework and chores but also socializing; we were beautifully oblivious to which day of the week it was – TGIF did not exist.  The social life went on regardless of how many school/work days were left in the week, for both kids and adults.

I flew up 2-3 stairs at once, rushing home to my uninterrupted “me time” when I heard someone call my name. Ignoring this, I continued climbing.  Who could be there to call me? My neighbourhood friends were all still in school and my sister in university. 
“Marina!” - I heard it again!
Annoyed to no end, I noticed my father waving at me, gesturing for me to come closer. He was standing in front of the grocery store.

Our "big deal" day in 2002
He was beaming and said with relief:  “Excellent timing!”  - “Sine (Serbian fathers tend to endearingly call their daughters “Son”), stand here in this line, so we can hold the spot - I will just run home to get the tickets. The truck is on its way!”  he half-whispered excitedly. A friend of our neighbour’s, the grocery store clerk, had tipped him off to the imminent arrival of a flour truck so he had left his work early. 80kg bags would be distributed in exchange for ‘flour tickets’ and money this afternoon. My father was a resourceful man, a true provider – just this past month, he had managed to get the maximum allotted amount of both sunflower oil and sugar, cashing in all our tickets. Coupons, tickets and schedules were a normal part of growing up in Serbia. Something was always lacking - electricity, gas, food. Becoming resilient and street-smart, über connected, was mandatory and part of the very fibre of my being long before the takeover by social networks.

I observed that the line-up in front of me was comprised mostly of elderly people and a few moms with young children. People stood and conversed, bending the line so they could all get some relief from the sun under the shade of a tree. Someone brought a tray of Turkish coffee; a few women sipped from the small china cups while they chatted and laughed. A few people read the daily newspaper, Politika, commenting on the crooks that were leading our country.  Two old men played magnetic chess while smoking and enduring the comments and teasing from the onlookers.

Rascal, made in Canada
My father returned, coupons in hand: OK, we are ready. I glanced at my watch. I had been there 35 min. Thirty-five minutes I will never get back. Arghhh! But I was a polite kid. So I stayed with my father waiting. 80kg bag of flour is not something that could easily be carried upstairs. Not with his health. I chatted with our neighbours. Played with a few babies, making them giggle. Made faces at a toddler who was sticking his tongue out at me, hiding behind his mother’s skirt. This made him shy. Then much bolder and obnoxious, the little rascal! 

A sudden commotion announced the arrival of the truck at the bottom of our street. With clinks and clanks, the china was put away. The newspapers folded. The chess crew, too engrossed in the crucial next move, kept playing, oblivious to the anticipated arrival of the white cargo. Starting tonight, smells of rising yeast and homemade breads, simple vanilla cookies, apple pies, cheese bourekas, croissants and crepes, would fill the kitchens of the neighbourhood of Konjarnik for the next several weeks. Plates with treats covered with white starched kitchen towels would travel from floor to floor, from door to door, treating each other with the taste of the latest recipe. I sometimes forget how amazing it was when we knew ALL of our neighbours, sharing our lives with them.

The line-up was moving up slowly, with 3-4 people in each row, fumbling through their pockets and wallets, then each dragging a giant brown paper sack, trying to awkwardly hug it and lift it to one arm. In one of many attempts, one bag slid off a shoulder and splattered in the middle of the street. A cloud of white powder engulfed the man who stood there helplessly as his newly-acquired treasure literally disappeared into thin air. Then a few people from the side of the road came, lifted it all up and helped the poor man to his home, a line of flour marking their trail.
The person in front of us had a 20-something year old son, so he effortlessly lifted the bag as his mother was paying.

My father and I moved up one step as soon as they left.

“That’s it for today!” - “We should have a shipment sometimes next week or so - if the government approves opening the federal reserve.”

The sheer horror of understanding that all of this, ALL of these 97 minutes of standing and waiting were for nothing, started pounding in my brain.  A few swear words and loud grumbles chimed in behind us. I actually didn't even like bread - I couldn't have cared less for the 80kg of stupid flour not coming home with us. But I felt used and stupid and cheated out of my fun few hours of freedom. I wanted my ME time, dammit!

Then I looked at my father. He hadn’t been one of the men who swore or grumbled. The look of utter defeat lasted for only a moment - then he put his hand on my shoulder and said - “Let’s go home, Sine. I know who to call to find out exactly where the truck will be next week.”

There is a group of social media users I call ‘awfulizers’. Yes, they are friends or acquaintances, and they are nice folks, but they tend to announce when things do not go in the desired direction. A lot. With the 2015 Pan Am games just debuting in Toronto this summer, these are the people already criticizing the temporary HOV lanes on the GTA highways. We find out about the atrocity of every TTC and GO train delay. And the endless injustices done by the parking service.

Canada flag breakfast crepes
I have days too, I admit, when I would rather be driving down Coconut Rd and not Confederation Parkway. Because nothing beats the breeze of Florida life!

But we do have it good. We have it so good. In Canada, we all have it so good, we should feel very privileged and very chosen. And perhaps just today we could also feel greatful and festive. In a few hours, I will do a little mini ritual of the past 16 years - throw some steaks and veggies on the b-b-q, pop a cold beer open, wink and whisper to myself: I AM CANADIAN! Happy Canada Day! Živeli! Cheers!

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