John Ruskin attached a tower to his bedroom on his mountainside estate, Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water in Cumbria. Unlike Sackville-West’s, his tower room windowed on all sides, almost a capsule, offered a corner in which to escape from recurring nightmares or to watch the stars.
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Three, by Felicia Mihali15 September 2012
No matter how poor you are, you should not hesitate to invite people over for a meal. Coming to a poor man’s table is an act of goodwill. Your new companions will be proud to spend time with people of such humble means. It will make them feel like Jesus.
“If you tell me who your friends are, I’ll tell you who you are.”
This is an old saying that’s not worth a whole lot in Canada. First, you’ll never have the friends here that you really want or deserve. You’ll be hanging out with people you have very little in common with. This is not a good reason to shy away from them, for you can learn a lot even from people you admire little and disagree with profoundly. You can learn a lot even from people who drive you round the bend. Just try not to think of them as friends. These are your companions on the road.
The people you get to know at the outset will be the first to drop you, which is hard to explain except that it’s human nature. If you do well in your new life, these early companions will hate you; if you do badly, they will despise you. In any event, they will avoid you.
Of course, it might just be that you yourself will be the one who will want to shake them off when you finally make it. If they ever gave you a hand, they will expect your eternal gratitude. And they, of course, know all about your humble beginnings here, witnesses of your missteps and of your poverty. They have seen you eating clear broth and sleeping on the couch so your children can have a bedroom. They have seen you cooking with a lot of onions and very little meat, which is how people back home make the amount of meat Canadians cook at a single barbecue last an entire month.
They have seen you turning off the heat to save a few dollars – and even staying cold so it will feel more like home. They have seen you counting your pennies at the cash register. They’re the ones who know how you used to wonder if there would be enough hot water for your shower. They’re the ones who know about that time you got lost downtown and couldn’t even ask for directions.
In the meantime, though, you can have a fairly good time with them. No matter how poor you are, you should not hesitate to invite people over for a meal. Coming to a poor man’s table is an act of goodwill. Your new companions will be proud to spend time with people of such humble means. It will make them feel like Jesus.
Your apartment may be modest and furnished with other people’s cast-offs, but you should act as though it’s the Palais de Versailles. This is your abode, and you fill it with your kindness and your soul. Do not apologize for your poverty. You will in fact never be freer or better off than you are right now.
If your guests are from your own country, they will seem to appreciate everything that comes from home. When they arrive on your doorstep, they will love the smell of what you have been cooking. This is a reminder of home, and they will find it exotic even if they come from the very same village as you. Don’t be surprised if they pretend to have forgotten the name or the taste of certain dishes; this is just their way of showing you that they arrived here a cow and have now metamorphosed into a bull.
If your guests are from a different country than your own, they will appreciate the new culinary experiences you can offer them. When they see how you live, they will congratulate themselves for coming from a better place than you. When they start acting weird, the reason is not that they ate too much of your couscous or your curry.
Do not hesitate to spoil your guests. Spare no expense. Nothing goes to a guest’s heart faster or more effectively than a good meal. If it costs you a bomb, look on it as the best investment you can make. With nothing more than meat, vegetables, and spices, you can prepare a spread fit for a royal wedding.
Put your best culinary expertise into these meals. So many people here regard cooking as a primitive and contemptible activity best relegated to ill-educated housewives. Their love of prepared and frozen foods proves that Canadians are a more enlightened species than you. It’s true that cooking is time consuming. And of course busy people prefer to eat fast and ready-made foods. How else would they ever find the time to spend in fitness centres burning off all those extra calories?
What they will appreciate most when they come to visit is the homey atmosphere in your apartment. This is what people here miss most. Your guests may have gone through an expensive divorce. They may have fallen out with old friends and lost touch with family. They may see their kids just once a week. They want to be reminded what family is all about, so make sure your kids are sitting at the table and not playing video games in their room.
If you talk politics over the meal, do so in the most amusing way imaginable. Politics can be such a trap, and you don’t want to end the relationship with your guests in the middle of dinner. Ask them about their experiences. Ask them what they think. If a guest turns out to be an asshole, don’t argue with him. Just keep on being nice and welcoming. What you consider nonsense today might make a lot more sense to you tomorrow.
Your guests will invite you back to their own homes, and this is a good way for you to meet new people and learn new ways of being Canadian. In no time at all, you will have a whole circle of new companions. People like being generous when little is asked of them. Besides, they all want to show you how much better off they are than you.
People who have been here for years will be eager to display their house, their new furniture, their stainless steel appliances, their backyard. If you feel envious, just think of it this way: the real owner of these earthly possessions of theirs is the bank.
Don’t hesitate to accept invitations. Nothing is more comforting than talking with people. Conversations with others will help you to assess your own capacities and articulate your dreams. It will also help you to start finding fault with this new country of yours. It’s when you start seeing that some things here are too good to be true that you’ll realize you’re finally on your way.
Your new companions will give you insight into the Seinfeld syndrome. You, too, will have bad friends you can’t live without. Deal with it. What you need from your companions is not their individual experiences so much as the way they reflect the mainstream. Their wisdom can be measured by the length of time they have been in this country; the longer they have lived here, the more you should listen to them. This way you can learn what you will have to avoid later on.
Be open to the advice they offer you, and thank them for it -- but think hard about it once you get home. Be in no hurry to express your own opinions and doubts, and refrain from criticizing the choices others have made. Nobody likes to be told they’ve made a mistake, and you are too new here to be able to afford to have your own views. Every time you succumb to the temptation to criticize, you will lose a friend.
Don’t criticize your new country, and don’t criticize your old one, either. People left their home country for the same reasons you did. They dreamed of accomplishing the same things you dream about. But somehow, they are still in love with home. Most of them will never be able to cut the umbilical cord.
When they left home, they cursed the social system, the politicians, the corruption, and the backward traditions. Right now, though, after a few years over here, they talk about the beautiful landscapes of home, about folk traditions and stories, and about the old country’s impressive history, After spending years denying their old identity, they have figured out how hard it is to acquire a new one. If you have too much praise for your home country, they will think you naïve. If you are too critical, they’ll see you as a traitor.
So keep your mouth shut, even if you think the old country is a rat-hole. If you lived in a country of losers, you yourself must be a loser, and no one wants anything to do with losers. As for your new country, some say that being an immigrant is like landing in a barrel of honey topped with a thick layer of shit. Before you sing the praises of this new country to your gracious hosts, just be sure they made it to the honey.
New companions who have cars can help you transport heavy items, and they can take you for a ride in the countryside. When invited to a picnic, you should avoid eating too much. People are dying to see how you will react to the heavenly abundance they can provide. They may well make fun of you wolfing down hot-dogs and doughnuts and washing it all down with Coca-Cola. They too have had an appetite for this kind of junk. They know that back home it’s associated with wealth. Warn your kids to take it easy, too, even if there’s food going begging. Better not to put on weight in the weeks after you land; you’ll never be able to shed those extra pounds.
You’ll soon find yourself invited to birthday parties. Here, the most important thing is not to stint on the present. Most immigrants are shocked by the amount they spend on birthday gifts. They try to duck the problem by regifting unloved items they themselves were given, which they keep careful track of, writing down the date, the occasion, and the value of the present. You may remember what it felt like to unwrap that dollar-store clock, scarf, jewel box, candle, scale, necklace, mascara, bath oil, body lotion, pink purse, red nylon pans, or flower-power bag. You may remember that your first impulse was to throw the item into the garbage and cross the couple who gave the offending article to you off your list forever. You may even remember what you said about them to your partner. If so, you might want to avoid getting the same response from this new birthday girl.
Scrape together enough money to buy a decent present, not too expensive but certainly not the cheapest thing you can find. The impression you make on your companions is worth far more than the money you spend. You will henceforth be invited to all their parties. They will consider you a dear, important, and irreplaceable friend. Hard as it may be to believe, people like stuff they can keep and show off to others. The quality of their belongings equals the quality of their entourage. Why would you want to forego all this for just a few bucks?
When it comes time to drop someone, who do you think will be the first name crossed off the guest list? Someone who doesn’t care how cheap he looks is not a valuable friend. Someone else, who has a better grip on their image, is far more trustworthy.
Don’t feel sad when you lose your early companions. Just ready yourself for new ones and move on to the next step.
© Felicia Mihali, 2012
Photo: Martine Doyon
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012).