Monday 5 December 2022

Return of the Native

The first thing you should know is that I have had an "Overuse Syndrome" flare-up in my right arm, which is why I haven't been blogging recently. 

The second thing is that I got on a plane in Glasgow yesterday morning and was deposited, about 7.5 hours later, in Toronto. 

Pearson International Airport was neither as crowded or slow as reporters been writing for years--perhaps because it was Sunday, or perhaps because I was lucky. Before speaking with border security, I stood in front of a large machine and stuck my passport in it. The machine froze when I pressed the screen to admit that I was bringing in an animal product, so I hit "QUIT" and picked up the resultant print-out as instructed. I joined a rapidly moving queue to the human border guards and soon found myself confessing my 300 grams of Scottish cheese to a solemn, mask-wearing, pale South Asian woman of university age. 

I was pleasantly surprised that instead of telling me my cheese--a present for my dad, who apparently no longer drinks single malt--would be confiscated, the border guard asked me if I had anything else to declare, handed me a yellow slip, and sent me on my way. I gave the yellow slip to the last man who looked at it, and he made no protest at all. 

The airport staff were all wearing masks. I was wearing a mask, too, for a family member believes he got COVID from the airport and strongly advised me to wear one. Most passengers were not and, when I spotted my parents in the Arrivals waiting area, I saw that they were among the very few watchers sporting them. 

There were no official questions about COVID tests or "vaccination status" or anything health-related at all. 

The parking ticket machine was in its usual place, beside a bin divided in half for trash and recycling. The highways were the usual frightening snarl of danger, and as usual, my mother looked to see when it would be safe for my father to get into the right lanes. 

"I haven't picked up anyone at the airport for years and years," Dad said. 

Three years.

The flags--for Canada, for Ontario--were in the same places. The sun was strangely bright, and the air outside was very cold. The buildings were the same and in the same places. The signs for Algonquin Park still rather weirdly (if accurately) pronounced it to be 250 kilometres away. Yorkdale Mall--the height of schoolgirl glamour in 1985--was looking positively decrepit. The charming little houses in my parents' neighbourhood looked modest and unassuming and great places to bring up two or three children. However, each would cost about $1,500,000 before being ripped down to build a wasted-space, cookie-cutter behemoth.

The front lawn looked tidy. I got down on my knees and kissed the ground. It smelled green and tasted of chlorophyll. I thought belatedly of dogs, but oh well. Did John Paul II think about dogs when he kissed airport tarmacs? Very probably not. 

The kitchen was the same, and when later I made coffee the tablespoon was in the same little drawer in the spice cabinet it has been kept for 30+ years. When I sat in the sitting-room the view was exactly the same as on Skype. I momentarily felt as if I had suddenly appeared in the TV show I had been faithfully watching. My mother pointed out the latest cushions she had embroidered. Although new in themselves, they were not all that terribly different from whichever cushions were newly embroidered in 2019. 

The coffee, by the way, came from a 930 gram Tim Horton's can on the top shelf of the cupboards on the left, as I should have expected. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Three years is a long time, even at my age. I felt as if I had travelled back through time. 

I spent the afternoon looking at familiar things and sometimes touching them. The jadeite frog. The remains of the dolls' china tea set. My grandfather's cigarette lighter with "RED" scratched on it no later than 1975. I found the clothes I keep in Toronto to save having to bring clothes over from Britain. My blue flannel pyjamas are at least 10 years old, but they look almost new. 

My mother showed me the photographs tucked into my grandmother's old wallet: I was particularly charmed by the coloured one: my parents were in their twenties, going to a formal dinner, my pretty mother wearing the green-and-blue gown that's still in her closet and the both of them with round, soft faces. 

"I never throw anything out," my mother has said on occasion, which is not true of the garbage and the recycling, but is definitely true of the personal effects of her family, living and deceased. Fortunately, this is a big house, and six living former occupants have moved most of our stuff out. While looking for dumbbells, I found a ceramic plaque, a gift for me from Italy, reading Attenti al gatto  (Beware of the Cat). I imagined taking it back to Scotland and affixing it to my veggie trug to ward off, gargoyle-like, the neighbouring felines.

My sister Tertia arrived with her son and her dog for supper. The time machine effect dissipated as Pirate is now taller than his mother and has a wild shock of dyed black hair. Also, it was a novelty to hear this larger-than-expected pocket bully click-clicking over the ceramic kitchen tiles and across the wood floor of the dining-room. She hovered under the dinner table, shoving a hopeful snout under the crotcheted lace tablecloth. We ignored her hope, and we also ignored Pirate checking his phone under cover of the table. I have lost track, but I think he's 18. 

My sister and I talked about language-learning. Functionally fluent in Spanish, she was recently summoned at work to explain to two children from Central America why they couldn't bring Nutella sandwiches into the building. She had to look up the word for "hazelnut".  She laughed merrily about their conversation.

A wisp of a five-year-old memory of a badly beaten young Pole passed over my mind. He was in my husband's room at the hospital, and he wanted his clothes back, and the nurse was frustrated because she couldn't explain that the police needed them. 

"My wife speaks Polish," addled Benedict Ambrose shouted helpfully, and my heart squeezed with fear. But miraculously I could, in fact, say "The police need your clothes; they're evidence" and the young Pole nodded. 

But Tertia and I spoke about Italian, not Polish, and I was intrigued that after only a week or two of Italian classes, she had cheerfully chatted with a Roman cab driver, for this shows one essential difference between my sister and me: she is cheerful and relaxed about languages, whereas I agonise over every syllable unless I am in a psychological state in which I can automatically rattle out words.  

No account of a visit home is complete without reference to languages, so there it is. The first language story is, however, my father examining a page of Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, and murmuring, "Why did he choose the past participle instead of the aorist?" I did not know English ever had an aorist, but there you go. Every member of my family seems to have a vast, mysterious reservoir of specialist knowledge. 

I went to bed at 20:00 EST (or, my body thought, 1:00 GMT) and fell asleep over an old paperback. I woke up definitively at 3:58 AM, and now I have half an hour or so before I start work. 

A blessed Advent to all my readers! 

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