Sunday, 3 July 2011

Ch.10 Arriving in the New World

Quebec City,Canada,June 30,1957

The long train was full of Hungarian refugees, coming from several camps in Italy, transporting them to Le Havre, France, where a bit aged, but newly painted ocean liner was waiting for them.
While everyone was excited that finally they are on their way to the new homeland, leaving the continent proved to be very emotional to most, as they had tears in their eyes, realizing that, now, their lives are definitely and drastically changing.
The Italian registered ASCANIA made just one more stop as they have left Le Havre, before charging the open Atlantic, briefly mooring in Southampton and taking on British emigrants, bound for Canada. Peter was standing near the main bridge in the early morning darkness , when had heard the first really British English, which was so very different from the English that was attempted to be taught by a couple of Italian language teachers, just before they were leaving for Canada ( with very poor results). Shortly they were on their way.
Most passengers were present for breakfast that morning in the main dining hall, but as they were heading out to the open sea and the waves were becoming increasingly huge, for most, the voyage had become a new experience that they just as soon not have had! By lunch-time less than half of the passengers were present for the meal and by dinnertime, only a handful of the nearly 400 on board were brave enough to even think about eating. Peter had taken a few oranges to his seriously ill friend, with whom he had become friends since Melence, but the poor soul was just lying on his bunk bed with the greenest of faces, and wanted to die.
The next few days were pure hell for most of the passengers.
They could not eat, became weak, and the waves of the ocean were not getting calmer. It was taking the better part of 6 or 7 days by the time when most passengers have somehow acclimatized themselves to the ever present swaying and dared to show up on deck. Then on the ninth day they caught glimpses of the rather big chunks of ice formations as they were floating by in the mouth of the St.Lawrence where their ship was now steaming to its destination. While it was towards the end of June, the passengers, seeing the ice floats, were expecting the worst as they were getting ready for the June 30th arrival. Every conceivable warm clothing they could find in their meager luggage they put on, including heavy winter socks to brave the docking in Quebec City, it seemed they would be landing on the North Pole!
By the time they have arrived in the early morning hours, the thermometers of the Port signaled near 85 F! Added to this was a humidity index that made the 85 much worse in terms of comfort.
The arrival formalities were conducted still on the ship, they were given temporary id cards, documents. The Hungarian refugees were sorted out according to profession and need for labor in the various parts of the country, and then train tickets were handed out and finally everybody received 5 dollars.

Peter’s Entry Visa and destination in Canada.

Peter was directed to Vancouver, given train and meal tickets that were valid for several days and in his i.d. card they wrote „General labor”. He thanked them and asked the immigration officer where this Vancouver actually was in Canada. The obliging Canadian led him to a huge wall map and showed him the city on the foremost Western part of Canada. In answer to his question they have explained that, by and large, Vancouver is as far away from Quebec City, as Quebec City is from... Budapest!
The very moment within which he had decided that he will not go „that far”, that is „ farther” even from Budapest than Quebec , came back to haunt him for many, many years. Every time he realized that he made a hasty and unwise decision in such a fateful situation. If he knew what were to become the result of this quick decision , surely then he would have accepted it. However, he had declared, almost heroically, that he would rather not go to Vancouver. They accepted , without a word his decision, received his 5 dollars, and informed him that he was to stay in Quebec, there is no other alternative. They offered him temporary shelter in the sailors’ dormitory at the Port until he found a job and living quarters.
He had a quick farewell with his new friends from the various camps in Europe, who were sent to various cities of Canada and looked for his new living quarters in the Port.
He was quickly assigned a top bunk in the dormitory and within minutes he was climbing the steep road to the old center of the city which was just above the port, high up a hill.
This was the summer’s busiest long weekend, both from the Canadian and American side, and the French Canadian city was one of the most popular on the continent. Huge luxury cars were sparkling in the summer heat, throngs of people everywhere, shops, parks, streets. There was noticeable joy and happiness on the people’s faces, music blared from the cars, rock and roll was just coming into vogue that summer of 1957.
Peter had no destination point, but had already made some specific short range plans back on the ship before disembarking. It was not difficult to assess the possible skills and talents that he had to offer, but even if he had any marketable skill the lack of language would have rendered these unmarketable. Lack of both English and French meant the pursuit of an occupation which required no speaking or writing.
His only consolation was remembering the famous stories of (mostly American)millionaires who had started with nothing and through perseverance and a little bit of luck made it to the top, often becoming fabulously wealthy. If on this first day of his new country, a hot and humid day, he was not dreaming of millions , an inner force was pushing him towards the most elegant part of town, until he found himself in front of the famous Chateau Frontenac. One quick look at the hotel and the doorman, who looked like a colonel in full army gear, was enough to discourage him of trying his luck there. But opposite the hotel, on the other side of the corner of the square stood a very elegant restaurant, called the Old Homestead.
The Old Homestead restaurant, side street staff entrance, in 2005, after 48 years.

Awkwardly, but with some gusto he had entered through the main entrance and a well dressed, bearded, smiling man rushed towards him, with what looked like a bunch of files in his hand, and said something which did not sound English or Italian. Peter tried to muster at least some of the English words he had learned.
„Hallo, job, I make...good work.”
The Greek owner, who spoke only Greek and French, took a good look at the entrepreneur and without any ceremony he had nodded to follow him. They went directly to the kitchen at the back through the happily chatting and eating crowd of people. The man put a large apron on Peter, led him to a huge sink full of dirty pots and pans.
„OK, you start now.” said the Greek. He never even asked his name. The three young chefs were also so busy that they could not devote any time to the newcomer. The task seemed simple enough. When he had finished washing the big pots, the waitresses were already showing him how to sort out the used dishes brought in from the dining hall, how to feed them into the monstrous washing machine at one end, how to rack them up when the freshly washed and steaming plates and glasses came out the other end. Within hours a certain routine established itself, much like in some wholesale factory. Peter had to smile when he thought of his dad , often admonishing him because he was reluctant to help his mother at home washing-up the few plates after their meal! Well, there was some washing-up to do now!
Was this 19 year old, on a new continent, without language or skill, able to create and sustain an existence?
Fresh off the boat, the young immigrant, in spite of his youth was not unfamiliar with physical work. The fifties in Hungary did not allow too many young people to escape hard work. His mother’s wages were enough only for the basic necessities. What his father could send home from his various jobs in the country was also too little to clothe and school the kids at home. It was evident that if he wanted to go to school in the fall in decent clothes and shoes he had to earn this during the summer. This is how he got a job far away from home, in the newly built „socialist” city of Sztalinvaros.
The communist leaders had planned to change the country from a predominantly agricultural land to an industrial power. The economic base for this scheme was to be able to „purchase” (at high prices)from the Soviet Union raw materials, then turning these into finished products „selling” them back(cheaply) to the Soviets. Buying dearly and selling cheaply was the most blatant exploitation of all the Eastern European countries in the fifties.
The reigning government was ready for any sacrifice to make this insane idea successful. People came from every part of the country to the town named after Stalin, because there was work and the pay was better than anywhere else. So Peter had signed up and became water boy for a team of transporters. The team worked hard, 12 hours a day, with very few days off. They emptied freight ships on the Danube, railway cars, transported cement and bricks and so on.
The boy, still in his puberty, had started learning from the school of life, perhaps somewhat too early in his life, how men had lived off manual labor. He had learned to smoke as the others did in the brigade, heard the first curse words and vulgarisms and saw up close how men, far from their families had behaved, often unfaithful to their wives. He was growing up quickly, indeed.
The weekly good-times had started often even before the week was over, at times his water container would be filled with beer or wine from taverns on the way.
This was how he spent the summer of 1951, from the first day of the school recess to the last days of the summer vacation.

Page from his diary in 1951:”…I got to love people. Now I know what it means to be a worker. I appreciate them more than any other…”

The following summer he had arrived as an experienced „worker” in Sztalinvaros and secured a job as surveyors’ helper, carrying measuring sticks and equipment for engineers. This was a real promotion, but alas less money although he was now a year older.
In the following year, 1953, a new „socialist dream city” was emerging in the North, Kazincbarcika. So the summer school vacation was now in a new venue, even much farther from his home. Here, too, engineers’ helper was the job, now with hands on experience. He lived in workers’ barracks, his window opened up to the courtyard of the adjacent forced labor camp, housing political prisoners, building the „socialist dream”. Every dawn began with the guards’ deafening shouting as they were organizing the ranks of the prisoners, getting them ready for the day’s work. Among these abused souls were priests, university professors, merchants, former army officers, judges, the so called undesirables, class enemies who supposedly threatened the dictatorship of the proletariat!
This is how he spent three summer vacations. But during school year there were some chances to earn some pocket money, too, thus helping the family to cope. The neighbors all relied on him to carry in the wood, coal in the fall that was just dumped in the front of their homes. He had an ongoing job at the house of one his well off friends, too, pumping full with water, once a week, the water tank of their bathroom. The weekly 4 hours of pumping by hand assured him that he could continue his favored sport: swimming and water polo. Since his hometown had no indoor pool for the winter, their practice took them on Sundays , by train, to Pecs, some 100 km's from Baja to the university’s swimming pool.

The junior water polo team, Bajai Honved,1954-front row:+Csere Robi,+Bánhidy Tilu,Galántai „Guszti”,back:Urbán Péter,Szepessy Kálmán,Krikovszki Józsi,Szepessy Laci.
These all day trips came free with train tickets, but food was the responsibility of each participant. The simple, one dish, home cooked meals could not be brought on trips like these, and cold provisions were too expensive for his mother to buy. But with the pumping job he earned enough each week that allowed the purchase of cold cuts and bread for these trips.
In spite of the many months of idleness in the various refugee camps and the hard choice that had to be made on disembarking the boat, it seemed incredible the ease, or perhaps the sheer luck with which , on his first day , at the first chance he could find work! There was no time to be afraid , to be lamenting the difficulties of a new world, strange language , the frustrations that should have surely followed within a short time. If there ever was the first step toward the BIG DREAM, toward life here on the new continent, then right there, in the old town-centre of Quebec, in that restaurant, it was taken.
Within a couple of hours , when the chefs found a little break, they checked out the tall, skinny guy from some strange land. With various sign language, and some words they could share they found out where the new dishwasher came from. Once they knew he has from Hungary, he immediately became a hero! The most famous Hungarian soccer team of all time, in 1954 , had carved into the hearts of ardent fans admiration everywhere in their world by coming second of all nations, barely losing to Germany in the World Cup final.
Peter was celebrated as if he were a member of that famous team. And the 1956 Freedom Fight and Revolution had substantially increased people’s admiration for the tiny country and her people.
The chefs had immediately begun work and within minutes they had Peter sit in front of a long table laden with every imaginable food, most of which was totally strange to the newcomer. After the so called fruits of the sea appetizer, boiled lobster claws, and what looked like raw, bloody slices of beef was served. Peter was able to eat some of these strange delicacies, but others he had to leave due to their bizarre consistencies, not well known to a Hungarian lad on his first day in North America.
But the friendship was instant and warm, which made these first hours on the job very pleasant. The hours were flying by, as more new customers came in for supper and everybody was busy with their tasks. When the last guest was gone, Peter still had the big pots to do, and towards one a.m. in the morning the owner showed him how to sweep and wash up the main dining room while he was busy with the cash register.
By 2 a.m. the newcomer had everything ready, but the owner insisted that he stay the night. They went behind the kitchen, to the storage room where from potato sacks and blankets a makeshift bed was made, being in July the cool room was a welcome change from the hot and steamy kitchen.
There was just one more “new” discovery left on this, for him, historical, day: in the storage room there were boxes and boxes of Coca Cola! The communist government and party in Hungary in the fifties had tried with every means of propaganda to depict the “imperialist West” as the devil. It meant to throw at it the worst possible criticism, whether in politics or culture. Thus the capitalists had used Coca Cola to drug and stupefy the poor working people. Well, Peter had found himself, alone, with boxes of Coca Cola, of which he had heard only bad things, that is, from a teenager’s point of view, exciting things, but never ever tried! He could not resist the temptation and opened a bottle, but after just one gulp from the strange tasting , lukewarm liquid he had enough. Poor imperialists of the West , he thought, you will never succeed with such a dismal tasting “drug”.
In less than 24 hours, the European, “landed immigrant”, said his document, had found, according to his qualifications, employment, friendly co-workers and even without knowing the amount, a salary, he apparently had room and board: what more could an East European guy have hope for in the New World in 1957?
He had tried in the next few weeks to get in to several Canadian Universities via the Immigration Office in Quebec via interpreters, but there were no answers, not at least until he was in Quebec City. Universities and colleges in Quebec had declined to take him on, with full room and board, without tuition fees. They had advised him to try other provinces.
In the meantime days were spent at the Old Homestead restaurant in the French Canadian capitol, from 3 pm until closing, for $25 weekly, plus all the delicious food he could eat and even a place to sleep if and when he wanted.
On his days off, Mondays, he was off to see the few English language films which were showing in the original, with subtitles for the French.
During his short stay in Quebec city only one embarrassing incident happened that remained in memory for a long time. On the second Sunday, before his afternoon shift at the restaurant, he went to mass in one of most beautiful churches. The huge church was full of worshippers, a magnificent organ led a truly amazing choir. He could only find standing room at the back. After the sermon, all of a sudden he had found in front of him a collecting box with a tiny bell attached to it, held by a straight backed and serious looking gentleman. The little bell that rang was sudden, but he had realized instantly that he should now produce some coins and place them in the box. However, only some banknotes were in his pocket that represented to the immigrant a rather big value, his stipend from the work in the restaurant, without any coins.
He could not do this, could not permit himself to take any of those dollar bills and donate them to the church! The man with the collecting box had now stepped closer to him and the little bell had signaled that he should give some money. Embarrassed, but he shook his head. The determined collector was not deterred and shook the little bell once more. With a red face, Peter did not react and the man passed on with a scornful face.
He felt ashamed and did not dare to go to church again in that city.
After some weeks he had said good bye to the Greek immigrants’ restaurant. There was an emotional farewell from his co-workers, who had retained rather bizarre memories of him. They smiled at his method of learning English during working hours by attaching a new list of words to his long dishwashing machine and reciting these words , loudly, each day. They have tried to understand his country’s political history and the recent events in 1956 during their coffee breaks, which he had presented with a mixture of English and Italian words. They understood his reason for moving on so that he could be exposed to a totally English speaking environment, it was his choice. Ottawa, however, did not seem right to them, but they did not mention this to him.
There was one important visit he had to make before getting on his train to Ottawa, in the city of his Canadian arrival. As in many other days, he sought out the most open space in the Port, where the huge ocean liners were docking, and sat on the most comfortable piles of ships’ rope. His eyes were searching, in vain, for the continent he had left behind, so long ago it seemed, in the far distance. Searching for the country which was once again surrounded by barbed wire and minefields, shot away from the world and the revolution’s victorious two weeks. These were painful and homesick hours, the acknowledgement of stark reality, that he was thousands of miles away from his family, friends, from all that gave him his identity so far. To bid good bye to Quebec City, which was his first home on the new continent, in Canada, seemed now almost as bitter as walking out of his hometown on that rainy November day. He recalled his walks here among the big ships during the mornings, before he went off to work, how often he was seriously considering sneaking up on a Europe bound ship and hiding as a stow away!. The loneliness, the strange environment, the daily frustration with the language, and that which was the most difficult to fight, the homesickness that all immigrants feel in the beginning, that had caused many to despair. Those without families and friends had a tougher time in the initial stages of a strange country.
Maybe Ottawa would help to get out of this dark mood!
blog comments powered by Disqus