Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Love Migrant

A young lady once said she admired me because I had given up everything, including my own country, to marry the man I love. I felt a spiritually maternal pang of worry although naturally there is a big difference between "giving it all up for love" when love doesn't come with serious and binding commitment and merely moving across the Atlantic to live with one's husband in his country. And I also felt a tad guilty, for it is not like I gave up a major career in Canada to come to Scotland. I wrote for both love and money then, and I write for both love and money now.

Still, moving three thousand miles away from home can do funny things to your brain, even if you are the most privileged kind of migrant, i.e. the love migrant who has simply married into the new society. Yesterday I was reading a published paper about the phenomenon of Polish grocery stores in the UK (unprecedentedly rapid within a four year period), and the behaviour of the Polish migrants seemed very familiar.

For example, in 2004, when Poles were allowed to come and work in the UK as if they were British (and British allowed to go work in Poland as if they were Poles), Polish migrants stocked up on Polish foodstuffs before coming to the UK, greatly hampered by Ryanair's 15 kg limit. After the rapid spread of Polish shops and the availability of Polish foodstuffs, they stopped using up their precious 15 kg allowance on cheese and juice and packed dishes made by their mothers instead. And, indeed, I do know a young lady who brought me a big chunk of meat cured by her own mother as a present.

"How very amusing," I thought, and suddenly remembered that I have a row of thirteen Tim Horton's coffee tins on top of my kitchen cabinets. And that both my mother and father brought me bags of Tim Horton's coffee the last time they were here, plus a box of Crisco and a tin of cookies made by my mother from her latest recipes. And when I saw the first coffee bag, I felt a split second of loss for the old familiar tin before reason kicked in and admired how this innovation makes Tim Horton's coffee so much more packable.

Food, says this article ("The Material Worlds of Recent Polish Migrants: Transnationalism, Food, Shops and Home" by Marta Rabikowska and Kathy Burrell, 2009", is one way migrants "practise home" in the face of a confrontation with "nonhome": To recognize home, one needs to first encounter a ‘nonhome’—a place and condition which contrasts with what was familiar before immigration. The home which is missed by immigrants exists only under the condition of exile and needs constant confrontation with a ‘nonhome’ over which they have little control. Practising home through consuming original food enables them to regain some stability and orientation in a host culture, or…it can be a means of affirming resistance to outside influences.

Personally I would argue that Tim Horton's coffee just tastes really good, but taste wouldn't explain why I keep the tins as fetish objects (in the original meaning of that word, people) on top of our kitchen cupboards.

Meanwhile, I visit the local polski sklep pretty often, although most often before Christmas and Easter, just like the Poles in the UK, apparently. And apparently Polish shopkeepers in the UK are particularly pleased when the native British visit their shops, so (if I pass for British among Poles) I am glad to be adding sunshine to my polski sklep shopkeepers' day. But as yet there is no study as to why a Canadian might take up Polish cooking as a reaction to migration to Scotland, although I would guess that it is because there are so few ways to express Canadianness in Scotland, and so few visible Canadians, that it is just easier to "go Polish".*

I shall never forget that moment of northern solidarity when I stood on a frozen pavement in Edinburgh with a Pole and we both gaped at the attempts of a Californian and an Englishman to get the latter's car de-iced and on its way. I don't even drive and I was appalled. Similarly, I sense in church-going Poles at dinner parties a similar sense of confusion about the attractions and politics of Anglo-Catholicism, i.e. Anglicanism/Scottish Episcopalianism. Like them I take Roman Catholicism for granted, and thus do not get all excited by orphreys or whatever. If a priest does his job, is orthodox and doesn't give scandal, then he can wear a burlap sack, for all I care. And fussing about the number of candles on the altar is just too, too Oxford Movement.

So I guess it could be a form of resistance, and as much as I love Edinburgh (I really do; see below) there are aspects of British culture that need resistance, especially if you are young and vulnerable. The benighted sexual culture is one of them, as is the widespread breakdown of the family, family coming all too often second to Great God Sex Life, and open drunkenness among all age groups (though not, of course, all or most Britons). The driving with two inches of snow on the roof of one's car and as if the roads were dry and ice-free when they actually resemble Montreal's rue St. Denis in January is also pretty bad, as is the lack of Bobcats to clear the roads overnight. I do my bit by refusing ever to call my husband my "partner", paint myself orange (except for Halloween), dye my hair, wear cougar gear or get drunk in pubs. I gave the Californian a combination ice-scraper/snow brush one Christmas.

But of course Edinburgh culture has serious advantages over Toronto culture (as I must say, or Hilary White will remind me that Toronto is not Canada). one of which being that Edinburgh has preserved and continues to preserve its architectural heritage. Also, it is still a Scottish city, with a Scottish soul, not a locus for mass immigration and state-encouraged multi-multiculturalism/multilingualism. In Edinburgh the vast (I estimate 98%) majority of residents speak English, Polish or Italian, and as I have those reasonably covered. I never get that sense of confused alienation I so often suffer on my Toronto neighbourhood bus. (If I hear Spanish, French or Russian, I can safely assume these are happy tourists, not homesick migrants.) And Edinburgh cares so much about its art collections, that its principal museums and galleries have free admittance. Edinburgh is thus a fantastic city--better than Toronto--for lovers of visual art. (For world-class opera, Toronto has the edge, though.)

I see that I have put a comma before "that" in the above paragraph--one of the amusing side-effects of studying and writing in Polish. A young Polish man once voiced his worry that B.A. might resent my interest in Polish stuff, as this must have been the last thing B.A. expected when he brought a Canadian wife home to Scotland. However, I think B.A. is relieved (if he ever thought about it) that I get along as well as I do in Britain and consider myself British anyway, being an anglophone Vimy Ridge Canadian. Not English (though I admire England) and obviously not Scottish (though I live here and my mother's grandparents were born here), but British. If I wasn't sure Alec Salmond's separatiste vanity project was doomed to failure, I'd be applying for British citizenship pronto.

*Update: That said, what could be more typical of a fourth-generation Torontonian than to become fascinated with someone else's cuisine?


Nzie said...

It's interesting to think about, practicing home. I have and have not, in my experiences living abroad. Last summer, I figured out how to make pizza and cookies on a stovetop in the Caucasus. I made up a great meatloaf recipe after a surprise craving (I never really cared for meatloaf before!) in Russia. But I also learned some of the local flavors in both places, and have sought them out for comfort back stateside. I've confirmed my thought that "white cheese" is almost identical to farmer's cheese (which I never had growing up), have a "blini pan", made olivier salad, and spent too much money on linden honey, priyaniki, and black current juice (which I fell for as a student in Poland) at the Ukrainian/Polish food store. And while I was in Russia and Poland, I got also a chance to taste flavors that were common in my Slavic family but nowhere in the Italian and Irish dense area of the US I live in.

I think in a way I've practiced home everywhere, even at home, with the places I've lived. I think with Russian/Slavic flavors especially I was so glad to find that Ukrainian food store (across from the Ukrainian church!) in the small town where I went for study. I really did a lot of growing up abroad, and so in a way those are also "home" flavors, from when I struck out on my own and did all my own chores and bills, etc., without family support for the first time.

I did bring peanut butter and fluff to Russia, and I don't think I even ate the fluff more than a couple times. I also overpaid for maple syrup... it was worth it. :-)

Sunnysaffer said...

I am currently working in Tunisia on rotation and came back from my leave with a whole suitcase full of food which I know I cannot get in Tunisia. I was really puzzled by this action but you have explained it very well. Surrounding myself with familiar jars and packets, smells and tastes does ease the homesickness a bit.

Similarly, when I am in the UK I often pop into the South African store (as I am from there originally) and just wander around. I don't actually buy that much, but I find the familiar packaging and foods from my childhood very comforting!

Julia said...

Hmmm. I wonder if my Chinese-Canadian friend, who moved to Australia for her Australian boyfriend, feels a hankering for Canadian food. I haven't noticed any in her flat. But maybe it has something to do with the fact that her parents and not her great-great-grandparents migrated to Canada.

Seraphic said...

Ask her how she feels about Tim Horton's.

Seraphic said...


Jo said...

Perhaps this is a peculiarly American thing, but one doesn't even have to get out of one's own country for this to set in. There are certain foods, household products, etc., that are only available in certain regions of the U.S. (until you've lived in at least a few different states, it can be hard to realize just how diverse regional cultures are here, if you can call them 'culture' at all). My absolute favorite salad dressing, with which I grew up eating in the upper midwest, is not available anywhere here out on the East Coast, which is kind of amusing when you consider how many other multi-national specialty shops, groceries, and restaurants abound in the DC area. I can find British biscuits and Vietnamese spices at my neighborhood grocery store, but not my midwestern salad dressing. Lucky for me, the dressing has enough of a following that there exists an actual online mail-order program from which you can get the stuff if it's not sold in your local grocery stores. And I definitely hoard all the dear-to-me midwestern things when I travel home for the holidays.

MaryJane said...

Having lived both abroad and in different parts of the US, I have to say I agree with Jo. The first time I moved away from home across the US, I was utterly shocked by the lack of coffee shops on any corner in big city. Coffee was just not a "thing" there. It was strange to me coming from a place where there was one on every block!

Overseas, even the basics like certain spices become a treat to hoard for special occasions!

(And does anyone else find this is also true for non-food items, like certain over the counter medicines or cleaning supplies?)

Lena said...

I remember traveling overseas with my parents as a youth and feeling at home in the hotel room because I was with my parents. Of course, visiting is different from living, but home was being with my mom and dad.

Stellamaris said...

Well, one thing I miss from Italy (though I am not a native) is that tomato paste is sold in tubes, not cans. This strikes me as quite intelligent. You can use a dollop without having to go through all the trouble of emptying the rest into a plastic container and freezing it, or whatever. On the other hand, while I was in Italy, I resented that peanut butter was so expensive. On the OTHER other hand, you can get perfectly decent wine for a euro a bottle. A euro!!!

Heather in Toronto said...

Ah yes, the mad patriotic passion of the Canadian for Tim Hortons. I went out of the country for a WEEK a couple of years ago (to Boston, so barely even out of the country) and was craving Timmy's when I got back. It's not like I even eat there every week! It was just the unnerving lack of it on every other street corner that got to me... So yes, I totally get the coffee tin hoarding.