Birthplace: Belgrade, Canada
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 18, 2009 12:00AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 10, 2009 1:11AM EDT
On a sunny spring day in 1985, the immigration officer at the Canadian embassy in Serbia looked carefully through my permanent-resident visa application.
"There is a mistake here," she said, pointing to the entry where I had written my address and birthplace. "Kneza Milosa 75 is the embassy's address, not your birth address."
"Well, it is both," I said, happy that the half-hour interview that would determine the continent where I would live for the rest of my life had started with an ice breaker.
The Canadian embassy in Belgrade was built on a piece of land where my family lived when I was born. The townhouse project, with a dozen stacked apartments spread along both sides of a narrow yard, was demolished in the mid-1970s to make room for an impressive, modern, white-marble structure that is now a piece of Canada in Serbia.
I never seriously believed in theories claiming that the things that happen to us are not truly accidents and coincidences, but rather the products of synchronicity (C.G. Jung) or spontaneous fulfillments of desire (Deepak Chopra).
But then I, born outside Canada, lived from the beginning on a piece of land that was to become Canadian territory. Coincidence or not I liked it, and later I used convenient social opportunities to brag that "Canadianship" was bestowed upon me by my birthplace rather than by my good score on the immigration interview.
During the interview, I couldn't help but think of how unusual it was that I was talking to a Canadian embassy officer in the same space where I once lived and played.
The embassy's reception area was where I played soccer on a small paved yard built on top of the project's winter storage cellar. The large window of the interview room looked down to the main boulevard where we used to gather to greet Tito as he returned from his "peace trips" to fellow nonaligned countries. The ambassador's office was roughly where a long narrow terrace shared by all the tenants had been, and where the boys gathered to tell stories about the Westerns that had started to invade Belgrade cinemas in the early 1960s.
The immigration officer was inquisitive and polite, a true Canadian. She wanted to know a few facts from my background before popping the big question: "Why Canada?"
The same question later followed me through my new acquaintances and friendships in the True North. Why Canada? I always had a feeling the question sounded more like: "Why Canada of all places?" Maybe even: "Why on Earth Canada?"
But I invariably saw a touch of humour, self-doubt and innocent curiosity in the manner in which the question was asked. It was as if it were meant to convey to the respondent: We are serious hard-working people but deep down in our souls we know we are just explorers of this vast space in the north entrusted to us by providence, merit or accident, or maybe by our collective migrants' spontaneous fulfilment of desire.
Most of us who are new to this continent know very well why we are here. At least we do until we settle, find a job, buy a house, send our kids to school, learn to trust the institutions and stop honking every time a moron in the car beside us makes a wrong move. After we accomplish all of that we tend to become forgetful. We start seeing flaws that would have hardly bothered us before, and we accept the True North with a mature awareness of its imperfections.
Some of us even start asking newcomers: "Why Canada?"
Well, it isn't because of the climate, most newcomers think to themselves, watching in bewilderment as their fellow countrymen have fun skating on outdoor ice rinks or ice fishing on frozen lakes in mid-February. It takes time to get the True North.
Getting used to its often wicked climate is part of the deal. I first shovelled snow on my driveway with a shovel I bought at Woolworth's in Sudbury, soon after I started a new job there in the early 1990s. When my neighbour Bob, whom I had not met before, saw me pass by with the shovel, he said, "You're gonna need a bigger one that that." I laughed. It was a good piece of advice from a fellow True North explorer with experience.
But the True North is also an enormous sheltering sky and an abundant space that humbles, puts things in perspective and gratifies those who comprehend it with a feeling of unrestrained freedom.
The divine silence and the perfect calm of a lake at dawn are spiritual. The pink stone that pops up between endless rows of evergreens in northern Ontario is a piece of art. These are the unexpected and heartwarming gifts for those who are courageous enough to see their spontaneous desires materialize.
Novak Jankovic lives in Ottawa.