CanadaSent November 30, 2004, to an email thread called ‘On Moving to Canada and Ethnic Tensions’:
On Fri, 12 Nov 2004, Ms —— wrote about moving to Canada and asked:
What is your history with Canada, David?
The question has caused me to reminisce and to produce the following:
My family visited Nova Scotia when I was 11. The four of us drove in a VW beetle from Alexandria, Virginia, to Portland, Maine; took the overnight ferry to Yarmouth; then drove along the Bay of Fundy to my godfather's cottage. The cottage had sinks with running water, but the toilets were in outhouses. The place was roomy though, and from it one could see the bay and hike down to it.
The memories are tantalizing. I enjoyed myself, but was not old enough to appreciate the setting fully. A couple of years later, I would have been a sullen bored teenager. Later than that though, I might have found the place heaven.
I do remember walking with my father along the shore. We aimed to reach a place called Deep Cove. Then fog rolled in, thick enough to make it hard to find a safe way to scramble across the rocks. I remember my one look at the cove as if it had been a dream. The water was surrounded by great blocks of stone, glimpsed briefly through a thinning of the clouds.
In 1994, I spent four nights camping in Ontario, since one leg of a bicycling trip took me from Fort Erie to Sarnia. My last night in the US was in New York. It was Independence-Day weekend, and I was in a public campground on Lake Erie. I hadn't yet learned that I should avoid trying to sleep in such places, since the other campers were there to carouse, especially around July 4.
Next day, I bicycled along the lake past vacation homes and derelict industrial plants. In Buffalo, I passed a jailhouse with women lined up outside, waiting to see their men. I had a bit of trouble finding access to the Peace Bridge to Canada.
The Canadian border guard looked suspiciously at this guy with a lot of luggage on his bike, but she took my word that I wasn't carrying liquor, and she didn't make me unpack. I took the shore road north along the Niagara River. I gawked at the falls with all of the other tourists; then I turned inland.
The Ontario provincial campground where I ended up that night was practically deserted. Perhaps the only other people there were…some Americans, in a van, on their way to hear Pink Floyd in Toronto.
Even in Canada, Americans robbed me of some sleep. My neighbors left open the door to their picnic-table canopy. A raccoon got in and couldn't find its way out, so the humans yelled to each other about what to do.
Next morning, in the nearby town, I found a shop selling food in bulk. I stocked up, and the manager's husband told me about his hitch-hiking trip, years before, from Europe to Afghanistan.
I bicycled past tobacco fields and orchards. Sometimes strange sounds came from over the trees; I supposed they were designed to scare away birds. I didn't see many people; but one person I did speak to warned me that a hill was coming up. This was not a problem to somebody who had just bicycled across the Appalachian mountains. I did not notice the hill.
My last night in Ontario was on Lake Huron in a fairly crowded campground. There I started to learn that Canadian English was different. I was asked at the entrance if I wanted hydro. I figured, Sure, I wanted water, though I didn't need running water right at my campsite. But they meant, Did I want an electrical hook-up. Hydro to them meant hydro-electricity, hence any kind of electricity, no matter what the source.
Insects did not bother me on the trip until the next morning, when I couldn't eat my breakfast for all of the mosquitos. One swat would kill several, and these were a fraction of those currently sucking. Mine was the only blood available to them at 6 a.m. I packed and left and ate my oatmeal inland.
I was to ride some ninety miles that day, the last of my trip. It was thirty miles to Sarnia. A young women at the eastern end of the Blue Water Bridge there said that I had to get a lift across, and it was the Americans' turn to give lifts; but she would take me since she had to lead a wide load over. She mentioned that she hadn't been able to communicate well with the driver of that load, since he spoke mostly French.
The woman drove me over the bridge to an office where she said I should announce my arrival in the US. As I entered, the woman at the desk exclaimed, “Why is a bike coming in here?”
I explained my presence.
“What's your citizenship?” she asked.
“American” I said.
“Then why are you coming in here?”
I proceeded into Port Huron without let or hindrance. I had spent the previous four days on lightly travelled, well-paved roads. In Michigan, heading north along the lake, I bumped along concrete roads that were breaking up at the seams. I had warm feelings for Canada, despite the mosquitos.
Somewhat over a year later, I learned that I could apply to be a student-member of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto. The Institute was having a year devoted to algebraic model-theory, which is what I was studying. It was fortuitous; I had been a student at the University of Maryland so long that I couldn't expect them to hire me as a teaching assistant anymore. I applied to go to Toronto and was accepted.
An officer at the Institute found a house for rent that I could share with another student. The house was in a Portuguese and Italian neighborhood, Becky said, at Bloor and Ossington. Becky said the owners were an Indian woman and Canadian man.
So, at the beginning of August, 1996, I rented a car in Washington and drove to Toronto with two bicycles on the back. I took some of the two-lane highways that I had bicycled on two years before. The skyscrapers of Toronto were a sight.
I also butted up against Canadian English again. Asking in Toronto where the Fields Institute was, I was told something about going past a “laneway”. I just didn't know what the man meant.
I did find the Institute and a place to park around the corner. I got my key from Becky, then found my new house. My roommate Matthias would not arrive from Germany for a couple of weeks. I found a note from the owners explaining that Katsky was terminally ill and could be put down if I thought it was time.
Among the owners' many books were the complete works of Marx and Engels and Lenin. Katsky was the feline resident of the house. Matthias and I had got a reduction in the rent for agreeing to take care of him. His disease hadn't been recognized at the time.
I didn't like the idea of having Katsky put down. On the other hand, the owners did think it might have to be done, and they knew Katsky, so I should go along with their wishes. After a few days, Katsky seemed very low, and I thought his time might have come. Fortunately I could consult a friend of the owners. He came over, had a look, and thought Katsky still had some life in him.
The owners themselves came from India after that. They were Himani and Mike, and they were on their way to Vancouver, but meanwhile they would stay in their finished basement. That too had been in our agreement.
I didn't invite Himani and Mike to make themselves at home in their own house. I was shy, or else I didn't want them to look critically at how I was occupying their space. Once though, I found Himani in the living room. “Oh David” she said, “you don't mind if I sit here do you? It's so dark in the basement!”
Mike took Katsky to be euthanized. He told me about it afterwards. In the vet's office, Katsky had started purring. But there was no hope, and the deed was done.
Despite what Becky had said, Mike was an American-Canadian who had left the US because of Vietnam. He was considering recovering his American citizenship for the sake of Himani's daughter, who might then have an easier time living in the US as she wanted.
On one side of the house was a man from Czechoslovakia. He told me his name was Radic, “as in Radical.” He seemed to live alone, but at all times of day he had male friends hanging out drinking in his back yard.
On the other side of the house was another eastern-European man, but he had a Chinese wife. I never saw the wife; Himani told me about her later. To her husband, she was a slave of an inferior race, and their son was starting to show the same attitudes. Himani herself had been threatened by racists when she came to Toronto years before; to intimidate them, she gathered a multinational group of tough-looking friends (including Black Panthers, I think).
But I learned about these tensions only later. I never saw any problems while I was living in Toronto. I bought food supplies from several shops down the street or around the corner: one run by Arab people, one by Japanese from Peru who could also speak Portuguese with their customers, one by Italians, one by...well, I don't remember everything, but I thought it was great that if, in the middle of cooking, I needed a head of garlic, I could walk a few doors down to buy it.
Living in Canada, I would contemplate how I was no longer under the protection of the United States Constitution. This didn't seem to be a problem. The Canadians seemed to have worked out their own decent way of living.
The greatest thing about Toronto was that I met the love of my life there. Around Halloween, my mother was visiting and was sharing a hotel-room with a friend from Chicago. Having dined with them on Saturday night, I was walking back to the Institute along Baldwin Street. (This is the most charming street in Toronto, by some accounts.) Sitting outside at one of the cafes were Ayşe and two other of my fellow students. I joined them, but after a while Ayşe caught me looking at my watch.
“You want to go back to your office and work, don't you?” she said. I acknowledged that she was correct.
A year and a half later, I was a post-doctoral fellow at another institute, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. I had sent out some job-applications for the following year, but not very enthusiastically; I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to produce more mathematics beyond my dissertation. I hadn't had any favorable responses. I told Ayşe that I would just come to Turkey and see what happened.
Then Canada came into my life again, in the form of an offer of a two-year position at McMaster University. The offer came in person, from one of the professors visiting MSRI; it came late, since somebody else had been offered the position first, but had never responded.
I said I had already promised to go live with Ayşe; could I go to Turkey for a few months before going to Ontario? This was acceptable. I moved to Ankara until Christmastime, then visited my family. It was at the end of December, 1998, that I moved to Hamilton—this time with just one bicycle on the back of the rental car. Snow was on the ground and kept falling; it set records that January. I learned that an efficiency apartment was a “bachelor,” and that's what I got, furnished by Ikea. I learned to put my bicycle in the shower to wash off the snow and salt.
A friend of mine from Toronto had gone to McMaster University as an undergraduate; he had found that Hamilton exceeded his low expectations. Well, in Toronto, I had bicycled all over the city on both of my bicycles; but I had never seen neighborhoods like those in Washington that seem to have suffered aerial bombardment. In Hamilton, I did see such neighborhoods. But my apartment was in a more well-kept area. Perhaps it had been built for the managers of the steel-plants, rather than the workers. It was also an area of architectural interest; through my window I would see students studying the houses and taking notes. Two of the friends I made in Hamilton were a new professor and his Australian-French girlfriend, who shared an old stone house around the corner. We were a couple of blocks from the city center, where there was a year-round enclosed farmers' market and the very nice Art Gallery of Hamilton.
I visited Turkey that summer, where I told people that I was from Canada. That's where I had flown from. One person said he hadn't heard of it. Later I applied to join Ayşe's department in Ankara, and I was accepted. So, at the end of June, 2000, I left Canada again. I couldn't get a one-way rental from Canada to the US; so I got a friend to give me a lift to Buffalo. Jeff was American and had been a post-doc like me; but he had found a job in Toronto, whither I had just helped him move.
Some weeks before, an American mathematician had given a talk in our department. He was old, and had probably given the talk many times; but he was extremely funny. At least I thought so; but Jeff observed that only the Americans in the audience were laughing. He claimed the Canadian sense of humor was different.
We had had a funny math talk by a Canadian—a French-Canadian visiting from Montreal.
When we drove to Buffalo, I was wearing the jeans I had bought in Hamilton at a hemp boutique. Approaching the border crossing at Niagara Falls, Jeff warned me not to mention my pants to the customs official.
After a long wait in line at the Buffalo airport, I got my car and drove to my mother's house. A few days later, I packed what I could into a couple of backpacks and flew to Paris for a logic conference at the Sorbonne, where a hundred years before, David Hilbert had announced the Problems that inspired a lot of mathematics in the ensuing century. I flew from there to Ankara, where I have lived since then, although I continue to get bank statements about the Canadian account that I haven't decided what to do with.