One of the pleasures/ challenges of changing countries a few times is learning a whole new vocabulary and set of cultural/political/economic/historical references.
This always strikes me when I visit Canada, where I lived ages 5 to 30, and feel comfortable sharing references there that my American friends would never get — the same issue applies when I cross the border and head back to New York.
Mounties (and stuffed teddy bears that look like them)
Public Lending Rights Program
The Canada Council
The Privy Council
portage (verb and noun)
how to pronounce Yonge Street
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
peace, order and good government
Order of Canada
Je me souviens
Queen Victoria’s birthday holiday
wearing a poppy pin on November 11
In Flanders Fields poem
Banting and Best
The people’s house
the BQE/LIE/ Route 66
a full ride scholarship
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
a Hail Mary pass
calling an audible
the thrice-folded American flag presented at military funerals
Only once — decades ago — had I ventured this far into northeast Quebec, writing a feature story when I was a Montreal Gazette reporter.
Jose and I planned a Montreal visit, our visit in 3.5 years, but were also lured to Charlevoix, a mountainous region bordering the St. Lawrence on its north shore.
We decided to try it on the recommendation of a travel writer and came to Le Germain, one of many hotel properties developed across Canada by the Germain family; I’d stayed in one of their first, in Montreal, a long time ago and loved its chic, minimal style.
When I looked at it on the website, it didn’t woo me. The buildings are large blocks of glass, metal and wood and the landscape didn’t seem that compelling.
It’s a four hour drive from Montreal.
But the room rates were excellent — $215 Canadian/night (right now about the Canadian dollar is 72 cents to the U.S. dollar, a serious saving for American visitors like us.) Most hotels have really jacked up their prices to painful levels. We also arrived right after Canadian Thanksgiving, when their rates were about $75 more per night.
Our room was small but the views were amazing and it had a small balcony with two chairs and a lovely wooden rocking chair in the room.
We loved our five days there: our second floor room offered incredible views across the valley south to the St. Lawrence, cloud-wreathed hills still filled with fall colors, two lunchtime visits to Joe’s Smoke Meat, where they go through 10 to 15 slabs of 26 pounds of meat every day.
We savored the hotel’s spa and heated outdoor bathing pool.
We loved waking up to the unlikely sights and sounds of mooing of longhorn cattle below our balcony and the baaaa-ing of stampeding sheep as their morning feed arrived — there’s a small working farm on the property.
Lavender beds directly below our balcony were done for the season.
We arrived at a slow time for the hotel and town, so the hotel was blessedly quiet and we had the large dining room mostly to ourselves at breakfast and dinner, and enjoyed its excellent morning buffet. (A wedding party of 150 arrived the morning we left.)
There wasn’t a lot to do or see, but we enjoyed that, as it gave us both time we needed and appreciated to nap, to enjoy slow mornings, to read, to take photos.
Most people speak English but it’s been great to speak French again every day, several times a day. I miss it!
We drove further east to Les Eboulements, a series of small villages tucked into the hills, most houses with the distinctively curved metal roofs typical of rural Quebec. We drove to the very edge of the St. Lawrence and visited a gorgeous paper-maker in St. Joseph-de-la-Rive, where we each bought 10 sheets of home-made paper which we’ll likely use to print photos on.
Quebec, of course, is heavily Catholic, with many double-spired churches.
The hotel staff told us many Germans and Italians like to visit here as well. It’s a timeless landscape with some very steep hills and dramatic views of the river — and we saw several freighters going by.
The hotel also sits right beside the town’s train station and bus station, with service back west to Quebec City and upriver (not very far) to La Malbaie. It was fun to see and hear the small train arrive.
I especially treasured how silent it was, and the delicious smell of woodsmoke.
We will miss this morning view, and look forward to a return visit.
It’s a conversation I’ve had with other people who chose to emigrate, leaving a country behind where they likely grew up and were educated, leaving behind easy access to their childhood home(s) and earliest memories. In my case, leaving behind a thriving career as a reporter and writer, since I moved to New York at 30 — with no job, no connections and no American educational credentials, (in a city where Ivy League degrees proliferate.) It took me six months to find my first job, as senior editor of a national magazine, aided by my French and Spanish skills.
I’ve now lived in New York longer than I lived in my native Canada.
Some of my Canadian friends, some who stayed home their whole lives, have risen to stunning heights of achievement, one of whom runs the CBC; she and I used to argue ferociously as university freshmen in our philosophy class. Maybe not surprisingly, we followed oddly similar paths, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, and I kept bumping into her along the way.
If you spend your entire career in the same Canadian city, you don’t have to re-invent or explain to Americans that U of T is not Texas but Toronto…
I recently met up with a fellow Canadian who’s also lived in New York for decades, also a writer and editor.
And, as we did, I guess predictably, we wondered what would life be like had we never left — who (if anyone) would we have married? Where would we be living? Would we, as most of my friends now do, head for the cottage every weekend between May and October? Would we attend our high school and university events and reunions? Would we have regretted not leaving and trying for our American dream?
There are no do-overs!
And yet she and I actually own our own NY homes, apartments, in a place people assume is only for millionaires — we were both very lucky to buy ours decades ago and each of us aided by an inheritance. There is nothing anywhere in our native Ontario now we could afford to buy, including in remote northern towns. That decision to stay in NY, alone, has proven a lucky and fortunate one.
We don’t regret our move, and both love living here; unlike many parts of the United States now, New York City and environs remains largely diverse, liberal, full of work opportunities and interesting, high achieving creatives. People are not legally allowed to own or carry guns; (there has been a frightening uptick in stabbings and shootings in the city, especially on public transit.)
I left Canada for a variety of reasons:
I could, thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. I was able to easily obtain a “green card”, to become what’s now as an alien (!) I renew the card every decade.
Canada has only a few major cities, and I’m usually a pretty urban person. They’re very different in character, history and climate and the only truly affordable one, Montreal, has brutally long winters and, even for a bilingual Anglophone reporter, limited longterm job prospects.
Half my family — my mother’s side — is American, some highly accomplished. I was always intrigued by them and their lives. Ironically, I never see any of them and am only in touch with one cousin, in California, in her late 80s.
I wanted to see if I had the skills to compete in a larger, tougher place. Canada, with only 38 million people, has the population of New York State — and one-tenth of the U.S.
I had always wanted to live in New York; I’ve lived, instead, in a small historic town 25 miles north of it, its towers visible from our street and easily reached within 45 minutes’ train or drive. Works for me.
I was bored of Toronto and its intensely vicious media gossips. I knew I couldn’t take another few decades genuflecting to the same half dozen people in power. New York journalism has plenty of its own drama, but — as I like to joke — I’ve clawed my way to the bottom of the middle. I have enough access to the people I want, but I remain powerless enough to avoid attack, slander and sabotage. A few people even lied and gossiped about me in Toronto; if that was the price of local success (as it was), thank God I had good options to leave and never return.
I wasn’t emotionally close to my father and his wife or to my mother, so no need to stick around for emotional reasons.
We head back to Canada today for a visit to Charlevoix, a region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence — ironically with lots of local advice from a fellow Canadian I knew when we were both baby reporters in the 80s, who became a U.S. network news reporter for decades. Then four days in Montreal, seeing friends and eating at our favorite restaurants and savoring sights both new and deeply familiar — I lived there for a year at 12 and for 18 months at 30 as a reporter for the Gazette.
I love speaking and hearing French, seeing familiar foods in the grocery stores — butter tarts! Shreddies cereal! — and once more being around people with whom I can share political and cultural references, even specific words, without explanation. Because, for anyone who’s an immigrant, there’s a lot your friends, neighbors and colleagues in your new country will never understand or even ask you about.
We’re very fortunate that Canada’s border is within 5.5 hours’ drive so, when and if I want to go back, it’s easy. That, or a 90-minute flight. I do miss it and I miss our friends especially.
I may have raved previously about this series — the most expensive German TV production ever made (2016) — “with a budget of €40 million that increased to €55 million due to reshoots” says Wikipedia — but am now re-watching it for the fourth time, both savoring the smallest details I missed or misunderstood before and the comfort of favorite scenes and moments.
It’s a neo-noir detective series that starts in Berlin in 1929, during the Weimar Republic, a period of incredible tumult and change.
And Season Four starts next week in Germany — not sure when we’ll have it here.
The many characters are indelible, including:
Charlotte Ritter, young, broke, working her way into becoming the city’s first homicide detective but working at night as a prostitute because she’s supporting an older sister and her deadbeat husband and their two infants, a younger sister, a mother and grandfather — all sharing the same squalid flat.
Gereon Rath, a cop who comes to Berlin from Cologne, both innocent and hardened by his WWI PTSD. He’s a “trembler”, much mocked by a colleague for his ongoing post-war trauma.
Helga Rath, his sister-in-law, with whom he’s been having an affair for a decade, with his soldier brother MIA.
Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Walter, whose heart harbors both compassion and terrible, deadly ambition.
If you’ve never seen it (on Netflix), 10 reasons why it’s worth your time:
To understand the many currents of Weimar Germany — intense nostalgia for The Fatherland, humiliated and broke after WWI, terrible poverty, unemployment, major new cultural changes like cinema and women joining the workforce.
2) To watch Gereon’s face as he takes his first airplane flight, moving from terror and disbelief to wonder. Magic!
3) To appreciate Charlotte’s blend of innocence and optimism in the face of relentless poverty and odds against her, and her toughness and determination.
4) To enjoy the long slow simmer of love between Gereon and Charlotte.
6) If you’ve never been to Berlin, to get to know it a bit through location shooting.
7) To feel as though you’re living their life with them, in all its complexity and fear and small joys — like a sunny afternoon swimming in a local lake (Berlin has more than 50! I spent an idyllic afternoon at Schlactensee.)
8) To travel to Berlin vicariously — without a mask or jet lag!
9) To keep unraveling so many layers of deceit and betrayal — and surprising loyalty and generosity.
Last spring, Jose and I were chatting about doing a possible book, a sort of guide for fellow freelancers, as millions of people are now eager to try this way of living and working.
Over July and August we worked really hard and, writing it together, produced a full book proposal which we shared with a pal in Toronto who worked for years in book publishing and now teaches it. She liked it a lot but made some very specific suggestions to improve it.
We did that and started submitting it to agents, with a few rejections.
Then — yay! — we found an agent quickly, also in Toronto, my hometown I left decades ago. So we are now officially represented and very excited. She won’t be submitting it to editors until early November after we take a badly needed break, (Jose’s first for 2022), to Quebec and upstate NY.
Then, all digits will be crossed!
It’s a wild notion to be co-authors after 22 years together, and Jose is a photographer and photo editor and photo archivist — not a writer! But he writes very well and has been a good soldier with all my demands for revisions.
I haven’t sold a new book since September 2009, when I sold Malled, so am eager to rejoin the fray. The industry has changed a lot since then, and getting tougher, of course. There’s been a lot of consolidation so fewer places to submit to. Then the nasty fact of payments in 25% increments…the first payment (- 15% to the agent, standard every time) upon signing the deal; the second upon acceptance of the manuscript; the third upon publication — up to a year later then the final one (!) a year after that. Unless you get a huge advance, which few do, it’s not a way to make a lot of money!
But we know for sure there’s a global market for this subject and we’ve read some of the “comps” — comparable books, a must for every non-fiction book proposal. I won’t get specific yet, but ours has at least six very distinctive features that competing books just don’t offer.