Monday, May 30, 2011

Where does your loyalty lie?

It’s the Winter Olympics 2014 and we’re sitting down to watch the Gold Medal hockey final. All of Israel is talking about the unbelievable meteoric rise of Team Israel from total anonymity to becoming a leading contender in the hockey world. Years of dodging Katyushas on the only Olympic-size ice rink in Israel alongside the Lebanese border, mixed in with hockey skirmishes on roller blades during the summer months, have finally paid off. It  all comes down now to the battle of the stars: Team Canada’s Sidney Crosby against Team Israel’s Gabby Cohen (AKA “The Rocket Cohen”).

Too far-fetched? Perhaps. I really don’t expect to have to choose any time soon between the hockey tradition which has shaped the core of my being and the little David who has traded in his slingshot for skates and a hockey stick.

But what if I had to? Where would my loyalty lie? How can an Expat remain loyal to countries old and new? The closest I have come to having to choose was when Celine Dion represented Switzerland in the  Eurovision Song Contest. It wasn’t even Canada competing, but she was Canadian, nonetheless. And Israelis take their Eurovision seriously, much too seriously in fact. But I was let off easily when it became apparent that Israel had no chance of winning (Israel finished in 7th place that year). So I was allowed to root for Celine in the nail biting finish.

I don’t know how Canadian expats living in the States manage, though. The States and Canada are up against each other all the time, and sometimes it can get quite ugly. And apparently about 80% of Canadian expats live in the States. I can see it now. Canadian expats tucking their folded Canadian flags into their pants and drinking their Molson Canadian beer out of brown paper bags, while watching the U.S.A. and Canada square off in the 2010 Winter Olympics hockey final. That is nothing, though, compared to the NHL hockey players with dual American and Canadian citizenship who have to decide which team to play for in the Olympics. There was one notable case where one brother went to play for Team USA and the other brother went to play for Team Canada.

Loyalty is a difficult fish to fry. Look at what happens after you get married. Suddenly holiday celebrations become a balancing act between blood relations and in-laws.

In most cases, such questions of loyalty are not a matter of life and death, unless both countries decide to go to war with each other. Then loyalty to the enemy country is quite frowned upon and you may find yourself jailed as a spy or enemy sympathizer. But I see no sign of Israel and Canada going to war soon and I think Americans have given up on seeking revenge for the War of 1812 - although I may be mistaken. But I can’t speak for the rest of you spread out through the world.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry about loyalty. Does anything really deserve our blind support? Why not be selective in our choices and go with what feels right. Whether it be Molson Canadian or a Budweiser, Creemore or Goldstar, an American dropping “r’s” or a Canadian with dangling “eh’s”, English, Hebrew, trees or sand...  let’s just celebrate who we are - even if one night we are cheering on The Rocket Cohen and the next night Sid the Kid Crosby.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Home is where the Heart is

“There is no place like home! There is no place like home! ” Dorothy exclaims, clicking her heels together three times,  as she is magically transported back to the Kansas farm she calls home.

I grew up in the same house in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, for the first 18 years of my life (minus the first 18 months in Belleville where I was born). This was the only home that I knew throughout my childhood and teen years. And when, years later after I had left Canada, my parents informed me that they were thinking of moving to a place further north, I was shocked at their news. This was my home they were taking away from me!

It didn’t matter that I barely made it back for a visit once in every five years, because of the constraints of being a kibbutz member at the time. The little house in Scarborough was still home to me. Probably even more of a home than the kibbutz where I had lived for over ten years. I think this feeling was augmented the first time I took my three small children to visit. I saw the world I had left behind, and memories from my childhood, through their eyes. And this awakened the Canadian in me, more than anything else has ever done.

If my parents had moved, would my concept of home have moved with them? How much does home belong to the heart and how much to things that we must touch and hold?

“I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home, only to no home I'd ever known. I was just taking her hand to help her out of a cab.”
~ Sleepless in Seattle

Why would some of us be tempted by the World of Oz to stay, while others never lose sight of their roots? Is every person who travels abroad for the first time a potential “expat”? Or are expats genetically wired differently? I don’t think an expat ever expects to live abroad for the rest of his/her life. It starts out as an adventure and somehow way leads on to way, and then there appears to be no way back. This is the main difference between an “expat” and an “immigrant”. An immigrant plans to live the rest of his/her life in a foreign country from the very start. Of course there is always a “physical” way back, even for an expat. But the heart has changed, somehow.

And then some of us may lack a real heart and go out into the world searching for one, just as the Tin Man did. But it may not be about the heart. It may all be about the journey.

I never felt completely at home in Canada, even at an early age. I felt that something was missing, as if I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose that I romanticized the notion that there was a place out there for me. I just had to go out and find it. So, after finishing high school, I was ready to set out. My plan was to travel through Europe for a few months and then go to a kibbutz ulpan in Israel. “I have no idea when I’ll be back,” I told people.

Europe came up empty. It was the last place I could ever call home. And then, one day, I arrived in Israel. The flight had been delayed because of security concerns and I missed the last bus to the kibbutz, so I slept on a bench in the airport. I should have been uncomfortable there and quite nervous. The bench cut into my back and kids my age walked by me in army uniforms, touting guns. But I felt more at home, at that moment, than I had ever felt before. And this feeling stayed with me for quite some time on the kibbutz. I often wondered if I had been somehow genetically programmed to find my way there, perhaps a lingering gene from a missing generation. If I had been Jewish, this might have made more sense.

I quickly discovered, though, that people are still people - the same everywhere. Well, I didn’t discover this all that quickly. I had to learn Hebrew first. When Israelis stopped trying to speak English with me and gave into Hebrew, I knew I had reached that threshold where I could properly gauge where I was and what to expect. But my most important discovery was the revelation that you can’t run away from yourself. You can change continents, language, culture... but things will catch up with you in the end. It may take months, years, or decades. But we are what we are.

This led to a sudden epiphany, one day while walking with my wife along the Palmachim beach.
“I’ve realized something,” I told her.
“The reason why I have stayed here all these years. The reason why I probably will never leave.”
“I have to hear this,” she said.
“Well, before I came here, I never fit in well. Not in Canada. It was as if I was a foreigner in my own land. I thought that if I could find the right place, all this would change.”
“And this the right place?” she asked.
“For a while I thought so. But slowly things caught up with me. I don’t feel any more at home here, now, than I did in Canada.”
“So why do you stay, then?”
I sighed, staring over the vast expanse of sea.
“Because, I have an excuse, here. I am a foreigner. I am not supposed to fit in easily. Back in Canada I have no excuse for being such a misfit.”
“You aren’t a misfit,” she said. “You have fit in. You have become very Israeli and most people  have no idea that you aren’t Jewish.”
I nodded, but she wasn’t fooling anyone.

Maybe it all is in the mind... or in the heart.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Google ate my homework

Google has just come out with its Chromebook, an inexpensive lightweight laptop which runs on Google’s Chrome operating system. This operating system connects the user to the Google cloud on the Internet where every user will have access to countless applications and more than ample room to save data. Moreover, this data can be accessed from any computer running Chrome and will be protected by layers of security. The system will be continually updated without the user needing to do a thing. The standalone computer will become a thing of the past and Windows… well, Windows will be nothing more than an unpleasant memory. This, of course, requires that you be constantly connected to the Internet.

I don’t know whether it was simply a coincidence, but shortly after Google announced its Chromebook this week, its Blogger platform went haywire. The first sign was a notice on Blogger informing users that it was in a read-only state. Then all blogs posted in the previous 24 hours disappeared. Over the next 24 hours, notices were continually posted claiming that the problem would be solved “shortly”. And all you could do was go and make yourself another cup of coffee and come back and stare at the screen. This wasn’t as critical an issue for me as it may have been for others. Although it did temporarily disrupt my earnest attempt to redefine my Canadian roots and create a platform through which the next great Canadian novel will be published. But it did make me think back to Google’s announcement of its Chromebook, which it hopes to sell both to private consumers and companies, and wonder what would have happened if a company had lost access to its whole computer infrastructure for such an extended period of time?

We live in a digital world where we depend more and more on our digital access to information in order to function. Soon we won’t be able to even read a newspaper or new book if we can’t connect to the “cloud”. On the one hand, we appear to have become slaves to the systems we have created. Do you remember Hal in the 2001 Space Odyssey? But on the other hand, we have access to more information and knowledge than ever before. And all this can be accessed through something as small and portable as a smart phone. Knowledge is power, so we could just as well claim that the systems that we have created have empowered us.

Which do you think is true? Have we become slaves to our own inventions, or have we discovered a newly found empowerment and independence? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

And - for the teachers among us - do you remember that classic excuse which has passed down through generations: “The dog ate my homework.”
What if a student came up to you now and said: “Google ate my homework.” Is this really that far-fetched?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Canadian Passport Blues

I've got the blues and they're definitely Canadian.

This all started with the realization that I will soon have to apply for a new Canadian passport. One wouldn't think that this should cause too much anxiety, and it didn't, until fairly recently.

There was a time, when the Canadian Embassy was still on Hayarkon Street by the Mediterranean Sea, that getting a new passport was quite a simple affair. There was a simple form to fill out and the photo could be taken almost anywhere. I remember walking into the embassy and informing the person at the desk that I had come to apply for a new passport. She phoned upstairs and soon a kind elderly lady appeared. We sat down on two comfortable chairs and she went over my application. She seemed surprised that everything was filled out so properly, as she said most people were always missing things. But she didn't realize that an OCD like me would have gone over the form countless times before submitting it, even then sneaking a few peeks at the completed form on the way to the Embassy.

So, I didn't expect any problems when I helped my son apply for his first Canadian passport many years later. After helping him fill out the form, I printed out the photo instructions, which had now become quite detailed and were only in English, and told him to go over them with the photographer at the photo studio in Beer Sheva. When he brought the photos to me, I checked them and everything looked alright. Armed with the completed form, guarantor signature and photos, I headed out for the long two and a half hour journey to Tel Aviv. By now the embassy had left its cosy location by the sea and was perched high above in a sterile, modern building close by the Nokia (Yad Eliyahu) Arena. Gone were the comfortable chairs and friendly lady, and instead I was ushered into a small, bare room where a rather stern and haggard individual stared at me from the other side of a heavy glass window. He motioned to a small turntable in front of me. I placed the form and photos there and he swung them over to his side. He barely glanced at the form, as he went directly for the photos. By this time I was pulling out the money for payment, still totally unaware as to what was to come.
"Not so fast," he said.
"What?" I asked, looking up, just a little perturbed by the ominous sound of his voice.
"These are no good," he said, shoving the photos back onto the turntable and swinging them back to me.
I had never suffered rejection before from a Canadian official (from Israeli, yes, many times), so my response was one of surprise and consternation.
"Why not?" I asked feebly, picking up the photo and scrutinizing it again. I knew the measurements were right. There were no shadows to be seen. Noam wasn't smiling. His profile was facing straight at the camera, totally in focus. The photo paper was right, and there was a clear white background. What was I missing?
"His mouth isn't closed," he said.
The man gestured to the photo. I looked back down at it.
"It looks closed to me," I said.
"His lips aren't together."
I looked at the photo again. There was the slightest gap between his upper and lower lip, just enough to let him breathe. I shook my head and looked up at him with a beseeching look, thinking back to the long journey there.
"You're rejecting it just because of that?" I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.
"Yes," he said, "It's my job to be sure that everything is in order. I know that they won't accept this, so there's no point in my accepting it."
My Israeli side urged me to stand up and scream, but I told myself that he was just doing his job, and being the good Canadian I was, I packed up my things and left. I stopped short of telling him I was sorry, though.  My Israeli side just wouldn't allow me to become that Canadian again.

So my son went through the whole photo taking process again and brought me back the new photo. This time his lips were so closely pressed together that it looked as if they were stuck together with super glue. But the embassy accepted the new photo and that was all that was important.

Wondering if others had gone through a similar experience, or if they were just picking on me (did I mention paranoia in addition to my OCD?), I checked the forums where I discovered tales of  faint ghostly shadows visible only to passport personnel, profiles slightly off centre, and philosophical discussions about what constituted a smile (Mona Lisa definitely would have never been awarded a Canadian passport). If I had thought this was solely an expat issue, I soon discovered that even people who had their passport photos taken by reputable photo studios in Canada, had had their photos rejected. There was even a well-known Canadian photo chain which promised to take your passport photos again for free if they were rejected by the passport office. Note that they didn't guarantee getting it right the first time.

So, a year later when it was time to apply for a new passport for myself, I was understandably on edge. I don't handle rejection well, and wasn't sure I could go through it again. So I decided to write my English Teachers network mailing list, asking if anyone knew of a photography studio in the south of Israel that could take a proper Canadian passport photo. I didn't get any suggestions at first, but I did receive a slew of passport horror stories. One man even had to have his passport photo taken five times in Beer Sheva until it was finally accepted at the Canadian embassy. And then finally someone told me about a small photo studio in Raanana that was recommended to her by a friend at the embassy. Raanana is close to a three hour drive from my home in the desert, and  you may think me crazy to even consider driving all the way there for a passport photo, but I didn't have to be told twice.

Why do they do this to us then? Why do Canadians, who are generally thought to be polite, apologetic and down to earth – adopt such bureaucracy? Getting an Israeli passport is a much simpler process, even though Israeli security concerns are much greater. Are the Mounties behind all this?

I guess I shouldn't underestimate parted lips and a smile. You never know where they will lead. And it could be much worse, as in the case of my grandniece, who had to get a passport when she wasn't even one month old. My nephew and his wife were taking her with them to his brother's wedding in Chicago. And they had to get the passport process expedited in order to get to the wedding on time. Look at the advice given by a baby site, regarding the taking of the passport photo:

"Your baby can't sit up let alone keep her mouth closed and eyes open on demand. Passport Canada requires a full front view of your baby's head and shoulders but your hands or arms may not be seen. Try dressing your baby in a sweater so you can crouch below her out of frame and hold her up with your hand under her clothes. Another suggestion is to lay your baby on a large piece of white paper and have the photographer stand on a stool and take the picture from above."

Are you still with me, or have you turned to drink? There was mention, though, that Passport Canada might be somewhat lenient regarding the expression of a newborn. Whew! At least that. And just when we thought that it couldn't get any worse, they were informed that the expedition process would take an extra day. Why? Now put your glass back down and get ready for this… the passport office had to perform a security check on the less than one month old baby. (And we bad-mouth the Americans.)

Anyway, I had hoped that my talking about this would lessen the anxiety. But no, I can still sense it eating away, fueled by the image of a stern official studying my photo with disdain. Maybe I should just travel on my Israeli passport, eh?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do We Deserve to be Happy?

Today is Memorial Day in Israel, in remembrance of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Ceremonies are held all over the country: in public places, at gravesides, in the privacy of the home.  And as families and friends mourn, the country is shrouded in quiet reflection.

And then suddenly, at 8 p.m. in the evening, we welcome in Independence Day. In a fraction of a second, we are supposed to switch from mournful reflection to noisy celebration. I have always found it difficult to understand why these two things are so closely interrelated. I suppose it is to remind ourselves that we can only celebrate because of the sacrifice of others. But I must also ask myself if it is not saying that we really do not deserve to be happy, as our lives are built on lives lost.

There are many ways to mourn and many ways to remember. I think this can be best said in the following poem:

"You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she's left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on."
-- by David Harkins

Maybe this is the answer as to why Independence Day so closely follows Memorial Day; why we are asked to celebrate so soon after we have mourned.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How many political parties are needed to run (ruin) a nation?

Canadians woke up yesterday to a new political reality. The Conservatives won a commanding majority, the Liberals were almost annihilated, the NDP almost tripled their seats in the House and became the official opposition for the first time, and the Bloc Quebecois more or less disappeared from the political map.

Israelis can only look on with envy at a country where a majority government is still very much the norm. In its 63 years of statehood, Israel has never had a majority government. And if the electoral system doesn't change, it never will. We are blessed with an abundance of small parties, each wanting a much bigger slice of the pie than its size warrants.

Israel is so fragmented that even a coalition made up of two or three parties is very much a wet dream. 33 political parties ran in the last Israeli election, but only 13 parties received more than the 2% of votes needed to enter the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Israel is governed by proportional representation and the number of seats a party is awarded depends on the percentage of votes it receives. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and the present coalition government required a coalition of 6 of the 13 parties in order to obtain a majority of seats (66).

In Canada, the situation is quite different. There is no proportional representation where candidates enter the House of Commons simply because they are high enough on the party list. Rather, they have to fight tooth and nail in their constituency (riding) in order to win a seat in the House. Here they are much more accountable, for they have a constituency to respond to after they are elected and are just not another number on a party list. This is apparently why small parties have so little influence in Canadian politics. It is one thing to collect votes throughout the nation in order to build up your total percentage of votes. It is quite another thing to obtain enough votes in one specific riding to defeat the candidates of the big political parties. The Green Party did it in one B.C. riding in this election. They put all of their efforts in getting their leader elected there. But while that one seat in the House will provide more opportunity for their voice to be heard, they still have little leverage.

You’d think that Israel would have learnt its lesson by now and would be ready for an electoral change to help it out of this political quagmire. But there is no sign that this will happen soon, and I will let you in for a little secret as to why it won't.

Israelis love to argue. They will do anything for a good argument. It is said that if two Israelis argue, there will be three opinions. A two or three party system offers too much stability for the Israeli mentality. How could the whole Israeli population fit itself into just two or three political parties? Where is there room for the chaotic diversity that Israelis are so fond of? Israelis have a natural flair for creatively creating infrastructures which will ensure discord. And the Israeli electoral system is just one example. If it didn't exist, they would have to invent it.

You might think that Israelis would think twice about voting for a political party that has little chance of passing the 2% threshold. But just try to tell them that they are wasting their vote and see what an argument you'll get. And while Canadians have apparently voted for stability, there appears little room left for argument. Now where's the fun in that?