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My husband John and I were standing dispiritedly on a streetcar platform on Spadina in downtown Toronto. We had just returned from a succession of African postings – first to Ghana, then Ethiopia, and finally Zimbabwe – and the light overcoats we were wearing, so fashionable when we'd put them into storage 11 years earlier, were now hopelessly dated, their waterproofing and insulation long gone.
We were bone-cold.
It was one of those dim, late-November evenings, the kind that strum the mind, evoking memories of burning leaves and dank soil, and the baleful onset of a Canadian winter. Children were safely indoors, tucked up behind the comfort of curtains, waiting for their suppers. Shops were beginning to close. And the homeward-bound were pulling on their woolly toques and padded gloves, and rushing to catch their buses and subways.
John was shuffling the large shopping bags I'd weighed him down with, trying to rebalance the load.
"Remind me again," he said, "what were our reasons for moving back to Canada and not to the French Riviera?"
He sounded a little exasperated. Carrying two new winter coats can do that to you, especially if you're also lugging two pairs of boots and seven sets of long underwear, both uppers and lowers.
"I think it had something to do with money. Like not having enough of it," I said, my bone marrow starting to congeal.
Where, I wondered, was Africa's lambent sunshine when I needed it? And where was that darned streetcar?
"Did we fully explore possibilities in Greece?" I asked, returning to the subject of temperate climates, "Or Cyprus? Egypt? Algeria? What's a little upheaval when you're not shivering …"
But we both knew the truth: It was family and friends that had lured us back. And the promise of a good life in a great country. Thirty-six years in the Foreign Service had ratcheted up our pride and, dare I say it, our patriotism.
The platform was starting to congest. People from everywhere on Earth: Canada's legendary cultural mosaic made flesh. All of them jammed in with us on that long chilly concrete islet, looking into the distance for their transport home.
Just as my eyeballs were beginning to gather rime from the misty night air, I spotted a dazzling and familiar streak of kente – Ghana's iconic woven cloth. A man nearby was wearing it tightly corkscrewed around his neck. He had on a bobble hat, its ear flaps pulled fiercely down, and a pair of red knitted gloves, adorned with white maple leafs. His jacket – the kind I imagine a lineman would want if he planned to work on hydro poles in the high Arctic – was zipped up tightly. He was taking no chances with the weather.
To us, so recently back from Africa, he appeared to be Ghanaian. He was older, quite tall, with a kindly face and a stature that was effortlessly erect.
Nearby in the crowd stood a young girl – possibly Ethiopian, I thought.
I saw him glance down at her, then heard him click his tongue loudly and disapprovingly.
"Your coat is not heavy enough," he declared, pointing unabashedly. In most parts of Africa, elders offer advice without prompting, and younger people accept it.
But the girl stared back at him, lips defiantly pursed.
He was right in his assessment: She had on a distressingly thin pink jacket, more suited to late spring than late autumn; her spindly legs, jutting out from beneath a summer dress, were bare; and she wore flip-flops with rubber daisies on the toe-straps.
What was her mother thinking, I wondered, letting her out dressed like that?
The answer was immediately and trenchantly clear: Standing directly behind the girl was a tall, beautiful woman, her hair plaited with beads in traditional northern Ethiopian – Tigrayan – fashion, tight against her head in front, full and fluffy in back. She was clad in Ethiopian national attire: a short-sleeved white dress made of gauze-like cotton, embroidered with coloured crosses along the neckline and the edge of the skirt. Every finely woven thread of it was hopelessly inadequate against the cold. Even the natela she had elegantly arrayed over her slender shoulders offered little in the way of protection.
"You need a much heavier coat in Canada," the man with the kente scarf repeated more forcefully this time, turning slightly to include the woman in his admonition.
The young girl glared at him, still silent.
This was a standoff of deep cultural proportions.
Suddenly and without warning, she blurted, "Where are you from?"
The man seemed taken aback with her directness and curiosity.
"What do you mean?" he snapped, frowning.
"Well, are you African?" she asked.
He looked down at her, utterly speechless.
"I said, are you African?" she reiterated, somewhat boldly.
I watched his face turn from disapproving to disbelief, and from disbelief to frank offence.
It was a tense moment.
Then he pulled up his shoulders, and waving his maple-leaf-gloved hands in the air, declared with gravitas and visible pride: "I am Canadian!"
Now I'd like to be able to say that at that very moment a marching band appeared out of the darkness and struck up the national anthem. And that the entire platform erupted into song: our home and native land … true patriot love … with glowing hearts … we stand on guard.
But that, of course, didn't happen.
What did happen though was that for John and me, Canada just got a whole lot warmer.
Alena Schram lives in Amherst Island, Ont.