emigration, new experiences, travel, the witness

The privaledged outsider

We emigrated to Canada from the UK on a Polish cruise ship in 1979 called the  stephan Batory.  We boarded it in Southampton England. It was when there was still Communism in Poland.  We crossed the Atlantic and sailed through the area where the Titanic sank, eventually landing in Montreal, Canada.  A highlight for me was seeing an iceberg.  The crew went out to the iceberg and cut out a huge chunk of ice and served baked Alaska on it in the dinning room.  The authentic polish food was incredibly delicious.  I remember my parents saying they gained 14lbs over the ten-day crossing.

Crossing the Atlantic was rough. At dinner we hung onto our plates of food, otherwise they would have slid down the table.  I have photos of my parents; my mum dressed in an evening gown, and my father in a tux hanging onto a pole on the dance floor because of the rough seas.

As a teenager,  I thought the boat ride was fantastic.  The waves in the pool slammed you against the side, as the water synchronized with the ocean tide.  I used to entertain myself in the bottom of the ship playing the grand piano, in the theatre below deck.

We arrived in Montreal, Canada where everyone spoke French.  Most of the Polish crew jumped ship and declared refugee status.  This left no crew to unload the cargo from the ship.  We  waited 12 hours for another crew to help us disembark, and go through immigration.

Coming to Canada was part of my father’s “mid life crisis” he and my mother were 42 years old. We arrived in Sudbury Ontario, Canada which was a small rough mining town in Northern Ontario.  At that time there was no internet, so my father’s only information on Canada was based on television.  In England we watched the tv show Grizzly Adams, and we believed that all Canadians lived in log cabins, and hunted for their meat.  Convinced we would encounter wild animals my father had us get three rabies shots,  to prepare for the wilderness.

We arrived in a very civilized suburb of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and my father was all set to hunt and gather.  Except we were in a suburban middle class neighbourhood, where people bought their meat at the store.

This did not stop my father, he joined a powder rifle club, took archery, and made us practice archery and fencing on the driveway.  He got a hunting license and managed to kill a deer. He decided he was going to skin it on the driveway and learn to tan hides.  After all this is why he came to Canada to experience the wilderness. The fact that the suburban neighbours stared at the dead carcus skins-salted and drying on the driveway did not sway him. He was “the proud Canadian hunter”. If we were not obviously outsiders with our accent, the tanning hides certainly indicated difference.

As a kid I was used to being the “outsider” we were stationed in different countries every 2 years with the British Air Force.  Before coming to Canada we moved countries 14 times in 16 years.   I adopted the stance of being a witness in life.  Observing people and cultures, realizing that I am a guest, an outsider, that I clearly did not belong.  I believe I have internalized the “outsider stance”, the witness stance, into my psyche as a way of being, always holding back a little bit to observe rather than throw myself into life full force.

As an adult I find myself drawn to the outsiders in any culture or community.  I have spent the past 20 years in Canada, working for those individuals who do not fit in.  Who function on the periphery of society such as addicts, homeless, new immigrants and youth.  I have advocated for the underdog in many different situations.

I believe years of being the outsider in many cultures made “outsiders” familiar territory for me.

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