Oh, Canada! Land of my dreams!

12/8/2011 2:40:28 PM

Irene O’Brien lives in Logy Bay, NL and is currently teaching at College of the North Atlantic –Qatar in the School of Health Sciences.

by Irene O'Brien

This year will be the first time in memory that I have been outside the country for Canada Day.  I was not prepared for this to be an issue. Back in Logy Bay, NL, my family has been flying the pink, white and green on July 1 for years in memory of the glorious fallen of the First World War, and certainly all those who have since made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of world peace.

This gesture also served as a subtle reminder that in the not-so-distant past we were a country in our own right, making significant contributions to things that mattered. But in spite of all the political, linguistic and cultural clashes over the past sixty-odd years, we really have come around to the idea of Confederation, having distanced ourselves finally from “Newfie” mania and a debilitating “have-not” mentality.

Making waves
As Newfoundlanders we have become not exactly belligerent, but certainly noisier than we used to be, and maybe even a tad insufferable – an unfortunate trait often found in the nouveau riche.  We secretly like it when people don’t understand our inside jokes, quirky politics, dark humour, inscrutable expressions and indecipherable accents.
Other Canadians suspect that they might be outside the NL loop instead of the other way around for a change. “What’s up with this?” they may very well ask. For a province touting a population the size of a small Canadian city, we have become contenders instead of pretenders, making waves and getting noticed! We now seem to enjoy being different (if not separate!) from the rest of Canada. 
Canadians in Qatar?
To be honest, as a Newfoundlander I never used to root for Canada all that much, unless Danny Williams, Teddy Purcell, Ron Hynes, Rick Hillier or Brad Gushue were in the line-up. Lately, I have had occasion to change my tune considerably.
Currently, I am living/working in the Middle East, seconded to College of the North Atlantic’s world class campus in the State of Qatar. Funny where life may lead you, even at my age.  
It is here in this tiny desert emirateits thumb of a peninsula jutting out into the Arabian Gulf – that I have come to value my own worth as a Canadian.

Amazing as it sounds, I had to journey to the opposite side of the globe to discover the true significance and worth of my Canadian passport and credential. As is so often the case, this revelation came to me through the eyes of others.

During my time here, I have been made more keenly aware of the esteem with which the Canadian perspective on equality and justice is held. I find myself wanting to identify with the unique role Canada has assumed in world politics. I am proud of our reputation as peace-makers who bring calm to the dialogue and help develop both long- and short-term solutions to problems.

Canadians are always ready to step up. We are polite. We smile a lot. We rarely refuse. We line up, read directions, and take turns. We don’t always get it right, but usually are concerned less about enhancing military capability and more about improving the quality of life for ordinary people.

We don’t necessarily swoop in and proceed to “build a better mousetrap” for those we deem to be in need of one. Instead, we strive to bring knowledge, demonstrate skills, model attitudes and encourage judgements whereby people can formulate their own design. And, we don’t honk our horns – in traffic or otherwise – except during the playoffs. Go Canada!

Canadians – warm and fuzzy
I will always remember the first time I experienced a warm and fuzzy feeling over being recognized as a Canadian. My husband and I were making the best of a two-day layover in the Netherlands en route to the Turkish Rivera resort town of Marmaris.

I knew the Port of Amsterdam only through a song of the same name, but I was nonetheless delighted at the prospects of an encounter, however brief, with Anne Frank and Van Gogh. The story of Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and Canada’s role in ensuring her daughter Margaret’s birthright during the Second World War was a vague memory from either a high school history teacher or a bus tour guide from Ottawa.

I was therefore mildly bewildered by the genuine warmth and welcoming smiles we were afforded once we landed at Schiphol and had been identified as Canadians. It felt good at the time. It still does now. I remember vowing to read more Canadian history, or at the very least Google “Ottawa tulips” before the next Canada Day celebration rolled around.
Our home and native land
Canada is widely acknowledged as a truly wonderful place that not only tolerates but embraces diversity. My Arabic students, with whom I share a heritage of strong oral tradition, love to hear stories about life in Canada, especially when similarities are easily identified and parallels are quickly drawn.

For instance, we each live by the ocean and share a deep, visceral connection to the sea. Family is everything and education is highly regarded. We work hard, and party hearty with ethnic food and music.  We are a people of faith who trust in one God, and are defensive of everyone’s right to believe in that which brings personal meaning and inner peace.
During my time living and traveling abroad, I have interacted with people from every corner of the world and every strata of society. Old women making lace by hand in a village high in the hills of Cyprus, street vendors in Bangkok, kids on a school trip in Tiananmen Square, a museum curator in Cairo, a camel herdsman in the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum and a sales clerk in Kuala Lumpur all smiled when I said I was from Canada.

I am often asked about snow, and how cold does it really get. Less often, I am asked about quality of life, freedom and opportunity, as these intangibles are known to be a given in my country.

Land of my dreams
One of my most vivid memories of Marmaris is of a young Turkish lad trolling the beach for the more obvious tourists who might purchase a boat ride. We were considering a day of snorkelling off the nearby Greek island of Rhodes, which turned out to be an astounding “Finding Nemo” experience.

During the transaction, we discovered that our painfully handsome salesman, in his early twenties but not looking a day over sixteen, had a university degree and spoke five languages fluently. His summer job was coveted by many, according to him, and when the tourist season was over he would visit his family and village before returning to his studies in the fall.

When we gave him our passports, his eyes lit up, and with a mixture of recognition and longing, he blurted, “Ohhh! Canada! Land of my dreams!”
I am dreaming a lot about home myself these days as the academic year winds down and the mid-June temperatures here in the sandbox are pushing 50 C most days.

I need an unhurried roam around a supermarket where tins and jars have familiar labels. I need to become reacquainted with the mindless bliss of a boat swing, a tall sweaty glass, and an unabashedly un-cerebral novel.

I want to hear Chris Andrews’ booming gravel voice inquire if there are any Newfoundlanders here tonight.  I am craving a cool ocean breeze and ­­a driftwood fire on the beach in Outer Cove.
I am breathless with anticipation of a sunny morning on a sparkling Bonavista Bay aboard the Phoebe and Jean with our friends the Hawcos and Lucy, the chocolate Lab.

Lastly, I am pining for a real Jigg’s Dinner (greens, peas pudding, and mash the turnips please!) followed closely by one rafter-rattling social gathering on a moonlit deck which affords a view of either the north side of Calvert or Clode Sound.

Land of my dreams, indeed!