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A Friend Who Saved The Day (And My Sanity)

12 May

I met my friend Fran about fifteen years ago. We met more or less by default: my boyfriend and her boyfriend were old high school buddies. We always got along well enough, but we didn’t really become firm friends until just over two years ago, when Fran emailed me to tell me she was moving to Canada. By then both of us had long split from the boyfriends who had been responsible for us meeting in the first place.

Despite living on the other side of the country, since Fran came to Canada she has visited me in Toronto several times. During her first visit we ran a race together. I did the 10km race and Fran – running in her first race ever – did the 5km. During that same visit, she assembled an outdoor grill that I had been given and that had me stumped. This is why you have friends who can put helicopters together. Seriously. That is what Fran does for a living.

During Fran’s visits, we always seem to go through an inordinate amount of wine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Most recently, Fran came to my wedding. I can safely say that if she hadn’t been there, I would have been lost. She arrived three days before the wedding, when I was roughly halfway through a week-long nervous breakdown. By this point, she had already helped immensely, having offered to play flute music at the wedding ceremony (Fran can fix helicopters and play the flute like an angel).

On the day she arrived, Fran and I went driving all over the place, picking up the guest favours, sorting out a camera for the as-yet unconfirmed photographer, buying crafty stuff to make the guest favours look pretty.

The following day, while I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off and doing frantic last-minute shopping, Fran calmly took charge of the guest favours. She spent the day wrapping them, putting ribbon around them and even adding a bit of hand-written calligraphy to finish them off. They looked gorgeous.

I have to pause at this point to give credit to my Mom. She helped with the guest favours too. Enormously. For a day and a half the two of them – Fran and my Mom – were at it, working hard to make everything look perfect. If it hadn’t been for them, I honestly don’t know what I would have done.

Fran also helped keep me from unraveling completely at the seams. During the day, she was offering practical help with all kinds of things. During the evenings, she kept me supplied with wine, good humour and great conversation.

On the day, she drove back and forth to the reception hall with her friend Corrigan, dropping off things that needed to be dropped off and helping keep everything in line.

And of course, there was the music at the ceremony. It was beautiful, it was personal, it made the ceremony complete in a way that some random organist could never have managed. The musical interlude continued at the reception, where Fran and Gerard’s cousin Liam played a wonderful set of Celtic music. They played together effortlessly, despite having met and practised together for the first time the previous day.

Then there was the photography. We had a number of people present with cameras, many of whom are very capable photographers, and Fran was one of them. She took hundreds – literally hundreds – of fantastic pictures that are a wonderful record of a perfect day.

Fran, if you’re reading this, thank you does not begin to be enough. You came through for me in so many ways at a time when I really needed it.

Next time you’re coming to town, let me know and I’ll stock up on wine.

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Being An Alien In A Strange Land

24 Jan

The date was August 14, 2000.  I have no idea what time it was, but it was already dark, I had had a long day, and my head was several time zones to the west.  Even though I was sick with exhaustion, I felt the exhiliration of having arrived.  After months of planning and finding my way through bureaucratic tape, after some last-minute logistical crises, I was here, ready to start my new life.

The man behind the counter came back from wherever he had been, handed me my freshly stamped passport, and with a smile said, “Welcome to Canada”.

Well.  This was a nice change from the way airport officials had treated me in the United States earlier in the day.  This was back in the time when South African nationals were allowed to be in transit through the United States without a visa (I’d bet my left arm that this is no longer the case).  I had been made to sit in a departure lounge with security guys watching me from the doorway, as if I was about to take off and make a run for it.  The fact that my friend Kane had come out to meet me helped me ignore their suspicious gaze.

I mean, honestly. I was a smallish woman, bogged down with enough stuff to weigh down an elephant, and I had just travelled across seven time zones.  What damage did they think I was capable of?  I was barely capable of beating an egg.

But anyway.  Now I was in Canada – had been WELCOMED to Canada – and I was allowed beyond the confines of the airport.  I picked up my baggage, paid a visit to the foreign currency exchange desk, and caught a cab to where I would be staying for the first six weeks.  It was dark so I could not see much, but all the way to the rented furnished apartment I peered excitedly through the window like a little kid looking out for his first glimpse of the ocean.

By the time I got to the apartment and checked in, it was well past midnight.  I was tired, but the time change had played silly buggers with my mind, so sleep was out of the question.  I unpacked, called my parents to tell them I had arrived in one piece, and then spent the rest of the night poring over my travel guide.  I fell asleep at some point in the early hours of the morning.

I had a week to explore and find my way around before I was due to start my new job, and I got started right way, the day after I arrived.  My first venture into the City of Toronto is an experience I will never forget.  The apartment was located right in the city centre, so I reasoned that it would probably take a day for me to explore my immediate environs on foot.  I would tackle the subway system the following day.

Armed with my map, and with my camera hanging around my neck (face it, I may as well have had the word TOURIST stamped right on my head) I stepped out from the apartment building and started walking.  When I turned a corner not far from where I was staying, I saw a life-sized fibreglass moose, painted in bright colours.

I thought this was pretty cool.  I mean, a life-sized moose in the middle of Toronto. For someone who had just landed in Canada to see something so symbolic of – well, Canada – this was kind of neat.  I liked it.

It had the added bonus of being a handy landmark.  When I see the moose, I thought, I will be close to the apartment.

Four very confusing blocks later, I sat in a coffee shop reading an article about Toronto’s project to put brightly coloured moose sculptures on almost every street in the city.

So much for my landmark.

By the time I wanted to go back to the apartment, I was thoroughly lost.  Those damned moose!  I felt as if I should have sprinkled cookie crumbs in my trail so I could find my way back, like Hansel and Gretel (although look what happened to them – probably not the best example).

Eventually I found my way around.  I learned how to tell one moose from another, and I became proficient at travelling around on the subway.  It took a while for me to really get to know the place, and to build up a social support network, but as the saying goes, I got by with a little help from my friends.

It is strange to think that more than ten years have passed since then.  In that time, a lot has happened.  I have met my life partner and husband-to-be (and YES, it’s the same person!).  I have had two kids.  I have left one job and started another.  I have run races, made friends, weathered a financial crisis, travelled home to bury my father.  I have become a Canadian citizen and for the first time,exercised my right to vote in a Canadian election. A lifetime seems to have happened in the last decade.

It would be easy to reflect on the ways in which my life would be different if I had not packed my life into checked baggage and left South Africa. But that would be pointless.

It is enough for me to know that I have held onto cherished family relationships and friendships from my previous life, while forming some new ones here in Canada.  I feel like I have the best of both worlds, and I am exactly where I want to be.