Saturday, 23 July 2011

Ch.11 Arriving in Ottawa-assimilating into society.

Ottawa City.

At the railway station he confidently asked for a ticket to „Ottawa”, but it was a struggle for the proper pronunciation of the word. „AA- TOVA” repeated the unfriendly French Canadian cashier, which was not even close to the Hungarian, that is, phonetically pronounced, word.
The new language, particularly its pronunciation had caused great difficulty for most immigrants. The more sensitive souls were maybe embarrassed, or slightly peeved , but many had reacted aggressively in delicate situations, and for them melding into society had become quite difficult. Their language frustrations have exaggerated the many cultural differences between Europeans and North Americans. Some have rebelled against making advances in their language skills over the most dire necessities. Refused to change their lifestyles, were reluctant to even try new dishes. In the extreme cases some looked down on anything that was not somehow „European” in style, taste or presentation.
From salted butter to the huge , but very weak coffee everything seemed second rate and unacceptable. The accumulated frustrations and the refusal to accept local customs and forms like slowly administered poison was effecting some immigrants. The worst conflicts were between the so called „old Canadians”, immigrants who had already spent some years in the new country and the „new Canadians”, folks who had just arrived.
Like most immigrants in Canada or the USA, in a relatively short time, every diligent and ambitious newcomer had achieved a fairly high standard of living. Thus the „old Canadians”, who had most of the initial difficulties behind them, were justly criticizing the grumbling and impatience of the newcomers about accepting life in society. The misplaced refugees of the second world war who made up the largest part of „old Canadians”, unlike the refugees of the 1956 Revolution, often spent long years in camps until they could get visas and fares paid for by some charitable organization.
However, during the splendid train ride from Quebec to Ottawa, problems of assimilation into Canadian society did not cause any mental anguish to the 19 year old. In a few short weeks, this was his second ambitious undertaking in his new homeland, moving to Ottawa, to be with English speaking natives! He had gotten off the train with high expectations. Since the station was in the heart of the city, he had a great chance to do his first sightseeing having but a small bag all his luggage.
Other than the majestic Parliament buildings , the center was quite a disappointment, it resembled more of a small, but up and coming provincial town than the capitol of an immense country. While passing through Rideau Street there were a few dozen or so people in , what seemed, a large empty store, listening to an intense looking gentleman, with an impressive baritone, obviously making some sort of political pitch. Peter could not have understood a single word but the speech seemed convincing and emphatic that was delivered by the gaunt and straight backed orator.
This was his first, if passive, participation in a free, public and democratic opinion expression. Peter happened to be witnessing a campaign speech preceding the 1957 fall elections, where he had experienced, with awe, the participants’ various and amazing reactions to the statements of John Diefenbaker. There were catcalls, too, amid the enthusiastic applauders, cynical remarks and laughter, people in pairs arguing with each other while the speech was being delivered. All kinds of behavior! Only one thing was missing, not a policeman or secret service man to be seen anywhere.
Not the center of the capitol, not the splendid stores on Rideau Street, not the elegant hotels that grabbed Peter’s attention in these first hours of his arrival in Ottawa.
The unfolding, live democracy , people’s open expression of their likes or dislikes as they have reacted to the politician’s words was what seemed so utterly wonderful!
This is, then, a free country!
He could not have known at that time, that the sympathetic orator was to become Canada’s prime minister that fall, and that several years later he would have two personal meetings with Mr. Diefenbaker. One of those meetings happened in a hotel in Saskatoon, as he was having an early morning breakfast. John Diefenbaker called over from his table, asking to join him if he was alone. The eventual winner of several elections and having been prime minister more than once, was just sitting there without any bodyguards, inviting a total stranger to his table! Then and there he had to tell John Diefenbaker the event from Ottawa in the first hours of his arrival, which deeply touched the former prime minister and warmly shook the „new Canadian’s” hand.
A rooming house, full of Hungarians , was run by the „old Canadian”, Mrs. Mitro, was his new home. The Mitro family had immigrated to Canada even before the war, the children were all born in the new country, but to the family’s merit, they all spoke Hungarian. This was even more appreciated by Peter and his friends when subsequently met other Hungarian families whose Canadian born children often did not speak a word, or very little, of their elder’s native language.
So the parents who managed to teach their Canadian born children their ancestors’ tongue were held in great esteem as it was a very difficult and frustrating task.
The Mitro house gave home to mostly single, young men and it was easier here to wrestle with problems of loneliness and the strange, new ways of society. On the other hand, it was to everyone’s disadvantage to be with Hungarians when the English language demanded daily practice. While in their simple work places like cleaning, dishwashing, construction there was some limited chance to practice English, their free times should have been passed with English speakers. Fortunately, the Hungarian rooming house was only a short stop as he had found new employment immediately, in the Royal Ottawa Sanatorium, quite far from the Mitro house. As an „experienced” dishwasher and general kitchen helper he had started to work in the wing of the ambulatory patients, those recovering from tuberculosis.

The Royal Ottawa Sanatorium, August 1957
He had asked for and received temporary quarters, a room near the power plant of the hospital, which he shared with an older Ukrainian immigrant working in the plant. The man spoke almost zero English, but insisted telling Peter his life story every night, in Ukrainian, when he had found out that Peter knew some Russian from his school back in Hungary.
Fortunately, they only met at night, when under the excuse of fatigue he could escape most of the Ukrainian’s endless monologues.
His work had become much more interesting. The ambulatory patients came to have their meals in the large dining hall, all dressed up, which was portioned out by two immigrant women and served by Peter. The meals had arrived from the main kitchen on steam containers on wheels.
Within days a rather pleasant and enjoyable relationship developed between him and most patients, who appreciated the young man’s effort and enthusiasm. This work had the human touch, encouraged the development of relationships with people, particularly with people on the mend from illness.
He learned, and was encouraged, much to his surprise, to call most of the patients by their first names, regardless of age or sex. It was already difficult to do away with the polite form, an essential element of most languages, and now on top of that he was to call these ladies and gentlemen by their first names like “Jim” or “Mary”. He had kept on trying for a while with the Mr. Jim’s and the Miss Mary’s, but the patients have insisted, with a few exceptions, that he is to call them by their first names, that soon enough he was used to this straight forward, natural form of communication, not well practiced anywhere in Europe.
Back in the camp in Melence he met and befriended a young man from the nearby village to Baja, eventually becoming chess partners. Mike had been sent straight to Ottawa, after landing in Quebec. He had worked at construction awhile, but the extremely cold Ottawa winter had chased him to the much less profitable, but warm work environment, the Sanatorium. That made it possible for the pair to seek and find their own flat, close to their workplace.
They have rented the half basement of a simple Canadian house, right next to the washing machine and not far from the furnace. The “flat” consisted of a large bed, a wooden dresser, and they paid 3 dollars weekly, each. But the rented place was close enough for getting to work on foot and it was spartan but warm. There was entertainment, too, besides work and that was provided by Mrs. Sutherland’s weekly language class, in a classroom of the local secondary school. The workplace and self-study brought some progress in this field, but the difficult English pronunciation made real conversation still difficult. Daily language frustrations were plentiful. When they were convinced that they have made some progress, some incident would happen to take their self-confidence away in the field of the mysteries of English pronunciation.
Like it happened one Sunday afternoon, when Peter caught some little kids of the neighbors peeking through their basement window. Forever ready for any practice opportunity for the use of English and always very grateful when native Canadians were to be engaged in conversation, especially kids who are always sincere and well meaning! With great courage he had walked up to the little window, mustering all his language skills and with a broad, encouraging smile he said something like:
“Halo, kiidsz, verr iiiz juur fadderr?” to which the kids answered in unison,
Peter‘s lips and tongue now in their most coordinated position possible, very slowly, carefully formatting the treacherous and foreigners gravest sound enemy, the “r”s, softening their rough edges, he had repeated the question.
The little kids looked at each other, then the oldest and wisest said:
“We don’t speak French!”
Unavoidably, situations much more humiliating happened due to lack of language skills. On one occasion, when Mike and Peter were traveling on a local bus, they observed that those passengers wanting to be let off at their stops have signaled to the driver by pushing a little button near the door. They also saw that getting off was from the rear. Confident in these important bits of familiarity, the new Canadian passengers coming from the rural areas of Hungary not really having been on any public transportation in the fifties, now felt confident and signaled to the driver that they would like get off the bus at the next stop. The bus stopped and they have patiently waited for the door to open. Since it did not, Peter had pressed, once more, now longer and firmer the little button for the driver. The driver looked up in the rear view mirror and with just a bit raised voice he had said something to them. The door still would not open.
By then the driver was gesticulating with both hands, what’s more now a passenger or two also got into shouting, but the boys still could not figure out the puzzle of opening the door.
The driver then, after pulling roughly on his hand brake, had rushed towards the rear with aggressive steps, and then stepped onto the last step of the door and as if by magic, the door opened. The driver’s less than complimentary remarks were still audible as they were rushing away into darkness.
There was no other solution; they had to start a formal language training course, designed specifically for new immigrants. The evening course led by the very kind Mrs. Sutherland was populated by a rather motley group of new immigrants. From the 50 years old German engineer to the almost illiterate, young shepherd boy from Sicily, there were immigrants from every conceivable nation and age. This multicultural group was to be thought by the ever smiling, patient and brilliant literature teacher, Mrs. Sutherland. This mixed background and nationality was the best asset of the class, as the pupils had no other choice but to communicate with each other in one language only, English. Here, nobody was afraid of making a mistake in pronunciation, or committing a grave grammatical error, everybody was in his or her natural awkwardness for the ordeal of communicating in English. And Mrs. Sutherland achieved results, because most of her charges had enriched themselves to the tune of their own language aptitudes and openness.
The fall season came and that also meant for all Hungarians at home and in foreign lands, that one year passed since the most proud and also the most tragic autumn, the one in 1956.
The Hungarian newspapers, written and printed in Canada, were also available in Ottawa and after Sunday mass they would buy them at the Hungarian church. These became their sources of information from home and the world. Soon the papers were calling all Hungarians in the West to get ready for big protest demonstrations on October 23, the anniversary of the Revolution, in front the various Soviet Embassies. Every able Hungarian was there, with candles in hand at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. Peter and his friends came with several bottles of red ink, which were tossed at the building’s walls. There was some mild police interference, but not before the building was full of the ugly red marks, reminding the world of the brutal and murderous assault by the Red Army on Budapest a year before.
These demonstrations took place in every major Western city, with exactly the same results, bringing the world’s attention back to the events a year before.
The work in the sanatorium’s serving kitchen was pleasant, particularly due the patients’ kind and appreciative disposition; however it has been a nagging concern for Peter that after all he worked in the ward of patients suffering from tuberculosis. He would not even dare write to his parents about it, since his right kidney was removed in Budapest just 2 years prior, due to an infection with TBC. One can live with one kidney for many years, counseled the famous surgeon, Professor Babics, who during the revolution became the Minister of Health of the short lived revolutionary government. But without any kidney, in the fifties, meant death. The salary in the sanatorium was also lower than out there in the open “market”, so he had decided to seek a new job.
By the time their first, really cold winter had arrived around the beginning of December Peter was already working in the newly built Westgate Shopping center on the edge of town.
The Simpson Sears department store had a large cafeteria which shoppers and staff frequented, and the “experienced” young man was hired in the kitchen of this cafeteria, ran by the huge local bakery, Morrison Lamothe. In addition to dishwashing he had been given extra duties, the daily collection of all the garbage bins throughout the store, daily, before the night cleaning brigade had arrived.
The kitchen chef was German, his assistant Portuguese, the waitresses mostly French Canadian women. The unofficial, but well known “second class” citizens and immigrants made up then, and even today, the serving-cleaning needs of Canadian society. And among these the poorly spoken newcomer Hungarian became the “last” man of the department store. However, it seemed like a promotion, that unlike in the previous job, here he was given every morning a freshly washed and starched white shirt, with not so stylish, but useful striped pants. These little perks counted a lot in the life of immigrants. However, those dirty nails on his hands were hopeless, full of tiny bits of food particles that seemed so difficult to clean, causing great vexation.
The staff of the cafeteria was friendly. They would have their morning coffees together, just before opening and it was impressive for Europeans to experience a uniform acceptance of everybody at the tables. No privileges or exceptions in terms of rank or position, everybody sat with anybody, everybody calling the others by their first names! At least at work, society was without pretenses and formalities.
Around Christmas of 1957, the season’s songs were being played non-stop during opening hours, among them many rock inspired Christmas songs. All that seemed so new and interesting, every experience, every new English word, every new custom, behavior, rock number had continually and incessantly evened the road toward assimilation into society. The initial difficulties and uncertainties, the real and imagined hurts had slowly, very slowly been softened, exchanged for the satisfaction of salaries earned from daily labor, the momentary joys of a successful English dialogue with someone. Just before Christmas the company running the cafeteria had organized a party for the employees. This was his first experience being a guest in a better Ottawa restaurant, served a splendid dinner by - other immigrants.
Even Christmas gifts were given to each employee, a British Columbia commemorative silver dollar, the province where he was originally to be sent from the boat!
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