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?”
“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.
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.
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