The In-Between World of a Toronto Reader in Slovenia

The In-Between World of a Toronto Reader in Slovenia

Five years ago, in a café, in a town called Izola, by the rippling waves of the Adriatic, I settled into a comfy wicker chair on the sun-drenched patio, ordered a cappuccino, and complimented the waiter on his nipple. He was less happy than I felt he should have been. I later replayed the exchange to my wife, Alenka, and we got to the bottom of things. Join us mid-conversation:
“So, you’re saying bradavica rarely means ‘beard’?”
“Jason, it never means ‘beard.’”
“Maybe just once in a while, like when used in the singular?”
“Never.”
“Is ‘nipple’ all it can mean?”
“It can also mean ‘wart.’ Why were you even talking about his beard? Why can’t you just order a coffee like everyone else does? You Canadians…”

The back-story: I was born and grew up in Toronto, moved to Slovenia ten years ago, and now spend much of my life tongue-tied and trying to start conversations with the wrong topics.

This is my own fault because somehow I’ve set up a little Canadian colony, with six Canadian magazines coming to our apartment – Chatelaine, Chirp, Literary Review of Canada, Queen’s Quarterly, The Walrus and some kids’ science magazine that confuses me greatly when I read it to my six-year-old. In terms of reading I’ve become more Canadian since leaving home. (However, I still refer to the “Skydome” and I’ve never heard a Justin Bieber song or seen Canadian Idol.)

Canadian literature also upsets my internal compass, my sense of the here-and-now. Again, my fault because most of the books I buy are Canadian – I don’t order them out of some early-70s-style cultural nationalism but because I know I’ll never find certain Canadian books in the local library. I do not, however, delude myself that reading a Newfoundland novel actually puts me in Newfoundland, any more than a John LeCarré novel puts me back in the Cold War.

But occasionally a book zips back to a very specific Toronto place at a very specific time. In David Gilmour’s non-fictional The Film Club he takes “a shortcut through the Manulife building on Bloor Street” and runs into a former prof. This scares me. Why? Because I also remember running into a former professor at the Manulife building. Spookier still was that I had a few superb classes with the same guy (whom Gilmour cruelly calls a “smug little prick” “wander[ing] off in search of a pair of new oven mitts”).

Good writing speaks to you directly, but this was a bit much. It was like Gilmour was addressing me, probably his sole Slovenia-based reader, intentionally freaking me out on my daily commute between Celje and Ljubljana.

Alice Munro pulled the same trick last week, peeking over my shoulder as I read Too Much Happiness. The story “Deep-Holes” describes “a dramatic fire in Toronto … a block of those nineteenth-century buildings was being wiped out…” This had me thinking of the 2008 fire that took out Duke’s Cycle, which, I learned a few lines later, was clearly the model for this fictionalized version: “Oh fuck, now [the reporters] are doing that same old guy they talked to before, his family owned some business for a hundred years.” I worked at Duke’s for a summer (as the worst salesman and slowest bicycle mechanic in their ninety-seven-year history) and for a few uncanny seconds I was back there. Or here. Or somewhere. Else.

About Jason Blake

Jason Blake is the author of Canadian Hockey Literature and Slovenia - Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture. He translates a lot and moans about it even more.