Wednesday, July 01, 2009

In my mind I still need a place to go, all my changes were there

I've been living in Japan for a dozen years and I've only been home to Ontario a handful of times, so obviously I don't miss my home and native land that much right?

Wrong. Tonight I have a lump of homesickness that is sitting in my gut like a double order of congealed poutine.

Homesickness comes and goes, especially at the holidays, but Canada Day is always a tough one.

You see, one of my earliest jobs in the newspaper biz was at a little local weekly on the shores of Lake Erie - the Port Dover Maple Leaf - a nice little family owned and operated paper, which last I heard was being operated by the third generation of the Morris family. I was the only reporter for the paper - I actually lived over the Main Street office two blocks from the beach - and pretty much ate, slept and especially drank Port Dover 24/7/365.

(A brief digression: There is one good thing about being the only reporter for the only newspaper in town and that is that everyone in town knows you. There is one bad thing about being the only reporter for the only newspaper in town and that is that everyone in town knows you. The hour are very long and no matter how generous your boss is, he can't afford to pay you much wages. I didn't do these kinds of jobs for eight years across Southern Ontario because I was getting rich. 'Nuff said)

Port Dover, Ontario, perched (no pun intended) on the edge of Lake Erie, about an hour up the highway from Hamilton, is a summer town. It was, back in 1990 when I was there, the largest freshwater fishing port in the world. (See Stan Rogers "Tiny Fishes for Japan") and the fish they caught was the perch. The perch is not exactly a great sport fish. They don't get very big or put up much of a fight or require a tremendous amount of skill to catch with a rod and reel once you find them -- but cleaned, battered and deep fried when fresh out of the lake they are about the tastiest thing that swims as far as I'm concerned and I ate my share of them in Port Dover.

Aside from the fish, the town is a tourist trap. Back in the 20s and 30s it had been a big deal and all the steel barons from Hamilton and the rich folks from Toronto used to have summer homes there. Al Capone owned a mansion there during prohibition with a secret tunnel that led down to the lake for running rum across to the U.S. side. There were regular ferries from Erie Pa. and a big pier with a dance hall that was still a going concern when my parents were teenagers in nearby Brantford in the 5os an even into the 60s. There's a decent beach, a little hotel, a couple of bars and restaurants, a bunch of cheesy souvenir shops. Back when I was living in town, there was a great summer theatre too, and cherry blossoms in the spring, but the big attractions were the Friday the 13th Biker summits and CANADA DAY.

Friday the 13th promised excitement and noise and drunken partying and a sense of danger. I could sit in my front window and watch the fights in the parking lot of the Commercial Tavern across the street and see the bikes roar up and down the main street.

Canada Day promised local musical favorite Doug Feaver at the Norfolk Tavern, the Lions Club fish fry and beer garden and a huge parade right outside my front window. I entertained a lot in those days, with friends coming down summer weekends to drink beer, eat perch and hang out at the beach but Canada Day was the best. I'd have to shoot photos all day and night for the newspaper, but on a day like that people are glad to see the man with the camera and the notebook and just want to make sure their names are spelled right in the caption. Between the floats sponsored by local businesses, service clubs, church groups and politicians and the marching bands and the clowns and the school kids and the 4H kids and so on half the town marched in the parade and the other half - and thousands of tourists- lined the streets to watch them. Short of an isolated island in Algonquin Park with a bottle of Canadian Club and a few guitar-playing, canoe-paddling kindred spirits, it is by far the best place to spend Canada Day that I know.

Do I miss it? Would I swap working at the world's largest newspaper amid the bright lights of one of the world's greatest cities for covering planning council meetings in a hick, one-horse, backwater, struggling resort town in the middle of the South Ontario countryside?

This is not a good day to ask me that.

Let me ask you something - I've been gone from Canada longer thanAbousfian Abdelrazik - so long that Canada's New Government has changed the law to say that I can't vote in Canadian elections without moving back to the Great White North. I don't own any property in Canada. I don't even have a Canadian bank account. Am I still Canadian?

Let me tell you something:
I still remind American co-workers why the White House is white. I am the go to guy in my Tokyo office if you have a question about French (though I barely scraped through high school French). I know my way around a canoe. I have a visceral loathing of American beer. My Japan-born-and-raised kids say "eh" when speaking English and blueberry pancakes with maple syrup is their favorite breakfast. I get cravings for peameal bacon and still call french fries "chips". I got drunk and argued politics one night at the Norfolk Tavern in Port Dover with Stompin' Tom Connors - my shoulder and left arm were even in the TV commercial for his "A Proud Canadian" album that they shot in Port Dover. I grew up playing hockey in Sault Ste. Marie when native sons Phil and Tony Esposito were huge stars and Wayne Gretzky spent a year at my high school while playing Jr. A for the Sault Greyhounds just before he turned pro and while the holy Montreal Canadiens were winning the Stanley Cup every year. I remember the windstorm that blew our neighbour's chimney down the night the the Edmund Fitzgerald sank a couple dozen miles away on Lake Superior. I've polka'd to Walter Ostenak live at Oktoberfest in Kitchener. I spent my 17th summer planting trees and clearing canoe portages northwest of Kenora for $10 a day. I cook tortiere at New Years from my aunt's recipie. I've seen bears at the dump. I spent a couple of St. Patrick's Days getting hammered and singing Stan Rogers songs with cadets from RMC at the Wellington in Kingston. I was once the editor of the oldest community newspaper in Canada. I've eaten moose and seen them up close in the wild. I've seen the Habs at the Forum and eaten smoked meat at Schwartz's, Ben's and Dunn's. I've slept under a beached canoe after watching the Northern Lights on a late summer evening in the middle of the bush in Northern Ontario 100 miles from anywhere. I've made maple syrup. I've eaten lobster bought right off the dock in Peggy's Cove. I've played hockey with my grandfather on a frozen pond. I've chased raccoons and skunks out of my garbage. I've eaten fresh smoke salmon in B.C. and salted dried cod in the fortress of Louisbourg. I am one (very small) part Mohawk. I've had my pipes freeze. I've called in sick to work because I've been snowed in. I've had beers with old soldiers at the Legion on Rememberance Day. I've heated my home with a woodstove. I've seen Neil Young at the Ex and Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn at Hamilton Place and the Cowboy Junkies and Murray McLaughlin at the Festival of Friends and once met the Tragically Hip in a boozecan in Kingston. I've been rained on in Vancouver. I've jumped off the roof of my house into snow deeper than I was tall. I've been told to evacuate a provincial park in BC because there was a forest fire coming over the hill a mile away and closing, hell, I once fought a forest fire. I was in Montreal for the big "please don't separate" march before the last Quebec referendum. I was once a member of the Montreal Expos Battery Bleachers Fan Club when they still played at Jerry Park. I had a subscription to the original Captain Canuk comic book. I've been ice fishing. I own both and audio and a video cassette of the last Morningside with Peter Gzowski. Pierre Elliot Fucking Trudeau once asked me if I wanted to be Prime Minister when I grew up. I have tears flowing into my glass of Crown Royal and Canada Dry as I write this, but goddamn it Canada - There is a town in North Ontario with dream comfort memory to spare and Icould drink a case of you and how I wish I was in Sherbrooke now.

Oh, Canada....

(a special tip of the touque to Rina for telling me I must move back immediately last night and to all the other expats who are pining for home this week)

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