Peace, Order and Pretty Good Normal
– Nonfiction by Lis Jakobsen –
Runner-up in the Dreamers Creative Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home
Hamid told Ava he was standing at the corner of King and James when a goose dropped like a flailing accordion out of the sky.
She put her pen down. “A goose?”
“Honest, a big fat one.”
“Fell out of the sky?”
“I swear it’s true,” he said, laughing, holding a hand over his heart.
The bird had plummeted onto the hood of a car going through the intersection, bounced onto the road, righted itself, seemed okay and then waddled to the sidewalk where startled pedestrians rushed to comfort it.
“Do birds just fall out of the sky in this country? Is this normal?”
“No, Hamid. That’s not normal.”
“It could’ve got caught in a wind tunnel,” he reasoned, peering up through the library’s massive, two-story windows at a confusion of falling snow. “I guess the sky isn’t always perfect.” He smiled. “Even in Canada.”
“Yes, but most of our Canada Geese do enjoy peace, order and good government.”
“Meanwhile,” she said, snapping her fingers in rapid tempo, “Their American cousins are held aloft by a much jazzier breeze, namely—life, snap, liberty, snap, and the pursuit, snap, snap, of happiness.”
The lines in his brow deepened.
“All right, then.” Her fingers stopped mid-rhythm. “Could be time for a civics lesson.”
A volunteer tutor at Hamilton Central Library, she spent almost as much time explaining the Canadian way of life to her English learners as she did grammar and vocabulary.
Her Chinese student, Haixia, had been perplexed by small talk. “Is it correct to talk about the weather all the time?”
“Always safe and expected here, sweetie.”
“Why do the fruits and vegetables here have no taste, just seem full of water?” Amal, a Yemeni, asked.
Ava had no answer.
“Why my husband is such child?” wailed a newly arrived Croatian.
“Why is my husband such a child?” Ava corrected. “Remember, the verb comes after the interrogative.”
Tears splashed the grammar book, open at a page lionizing English syntax.
“Here, honey,” Ava said, offering a tissue. “Marika, sometimes marriage is a lot of work. No matter where you live.” It was her stock answer. Every woman she tutored cried to her at some point about her marriage.
Hamid hinted his wife wasn’t happy here, but offered no details. Ava had tutored him for six months by then. When he arrived from Iran his English was already very good and he didn’t need more instruction. But his job search was at a dead end, so he continued his lessons, mostly to have a place to go two mornings a week.
At 35, he was a seasoned insurance manager, but with no Canadian experience, he couldn’t wedge a foot in the door. “It’s a chicken and egg thing,” she agreed. No experience, no job; no job, no experience.
It also meant a long wait for employment, possibly not in his field, and at a level way below his expectations.
A tutor since retirement five years ago, she’d heard the story from other newcomers. This was normal. At first she didn’t tell him that.
By February, she’d lost count of how many interviews he’d gone to. Without success. Though less buoyant, he remained hopeful and keen to learn about Canadian culture.
Valentine’s Day is banned in Iran, though many Iranians celebrate it under the radar. In his new city it screamed from every store front and florist window weeks in advance of the date. “Get her some flowers and chocolates—lots of them,” she exhorted, as if telling him how to apply a tourniquet. There was no report back about the result.
Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day passed. Still no job. At loose ends, he walked downtown where he saw a street preacher shouting at everyone that Jesus loved them.
A woman stood listening, eyes closed, swaying in rapture. Hamid, a lapsed Muslim, stationed himself beside her, fascinated.
Next came a disheveled man with a cup of coffee in his hand. He watched and swayed too, but mostly because he was drunk. After a few more bulletins about who exactly loved him, he reared back, “Oh. Yeah?” hurled the cup and roared, “Well, fuck you, Brother Holy!”
God’s appointed messenger, graced with Christian forgiveness, wiped coffee from his face and never missed a beat.
“Pretty normal,” she assessed, adding, “For downtown Hamilton.”
Many other cultural mysteries were explained over time. He was invited via email to his first Canadian party. “What does BYOB mean?”
She explained it meant you were to bring your own bottle of alcohol to the party.
“So people invite guests to a party? Then they tell them they need to bring something to drink?” He tilted his head as if the sense of it might pour in through his ear.
He came from a country where you had to buy booze from the back of a trunk in the dead of night, but this party custom seemed odd to him. Still, there was cause for celebration. At least here you could go to the store to get some wine.
“So I bring the bottle to the party. Then what do I do with it?”
“Offer to share, but drink most of it yourself.”
Big smile. “Such wonderful Western decadence.”
After he’d been in Canada a year, things didn’t seem so wonderful.
“You help me learn English. There’s freedom to scream in the street about whatever god makes sense to you. You can be an anarchist or a monarchist or anything else. That’s all okay; not the government’s business. You can drink alcohol until you’re unconscious if that’s what you want. Everyone is decent and nice even if you have a foreign accent. People say they’re sorry if I bump into them, and, ‘Oh so sad; oh so sorry,’ when they can’t hire me.”
She told him this was a normal phase. Frustration was inevitable. “Keep at it.” Again she contacted anyone she knew with the slimmest thread of connection to the insurance industry for advice or news of opportunities.
He was disheartened by unemployment, but there was worse. His wife was so depressed he feared for her. She said food here tasted of nothing but water. When people invited you to parties they told you to bring your own drink. The weather was biting and relentless and that’s all anyone seemed to want to talk about. She missed her friends and family. Her marriage to a highly qualified, but jobless man made her cry. In spite of everything, he’d embraced this country—to her mind, an incomprehensible confederation of harsh and bland.
Springtime has a way of warming and coaxing off what’s thick, raveled and misbuttoned. In May he landed a claims adjuster job with a large insurance company. He went to work, grateful for a new start. His wife went back to Iran.
At their last lesson, he thanked Ava and she wished him well. “May the wind be always at your back.”
He processed that for a couple of seconds then chuckled softly. “You too.”
They promised to keep in touch and hugged good-bye.
She gathered her grammar books and papers, hooked her umbrella on her arm and searched the high library windows until she found a hole in the clouds that brought sun and water at the same time. A chevron of birds flew past.
I am a volunteer English-language tutor at a Hamilton, Ontario public library. Ninety percent of this story is a fictionalized rendering of actual of events and based on my experience of newcomers to this country. All of these characters, with one exception, are real, though I’ve changed their names.
About the Author – Lis Jakobsen
Lis Jakobsen is a retired public relations consultant who did a lot of professional writing over a long career. She’s returned to Hamilton, Ontario, a hometown of old truths and new fictions.
Read all the winning stories and poems from the 2019 Dreamers Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home.
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