I was born to European parents who immigrated to Canada and they raised my siblings and I with European customs, traditions, and foods. Settling in a major city, as many immigrants did, it was easy to maintain their European way of life. Ethnic foods were easy to find, as were the social clubs and organizations that made Europeans feel at home. They created their own ‘little Europe’.
My husband and I relocated 17 years ago, to Canada’s east coast where the population is substantially smaller, and diversity almost nonexistent, so finding the foods that were familiar to me was difficult and sometimes impossible. I didn’t appreciate my European connection until I lost it and I often wonder if I wasn’t meant to live in Europe. Could it be I was born on the wrong continent?
It’s funny, as a young girl in school I shunned my European heritage, I just wanted to fit in – to be like the other girls, but I, like other immigrant children, was different. Our names weren’t as simple as “Smith” or “Jones”, our parents all had heavy accents; many spoke no English at all and our food was very different. When the other kids at school ate peanut butter sandwiches on white bread with chocolate milk, I had liverwurst on rye and a thermos of buttermilk.
Christmas Eve was the holiday of celebration – we ate raw pickled herring, and while we did observe the Christmas tree, the hanging of stockings for Santa to fill was not a familiar custom. We embraced Thanksgiving more because the ‘harvest time’ was universal, nothing to do with any Pilgrims, and Halloween was foreign to us. Social gatherings always included homemade hooch, an abundance of cake, and an accordion, and they invariable ended with everyone breaking into song (ethnic song)
So fitting in for all immigrants was (and still is) a challenge and the creation of their own little communities is how they stay true to their roots. I miss my rye bread, plain sour yogurt, and traditional ethnic foods. I miss the folk dance. I miss the language. I miss the music. I even miss the accordion blasting out a foot stomping polka. As a kid I used to cringe when my father pulled out his accordion to play for my friends – it was so ‘ethnic’, and I didn’t want it then.
Funny how as we age, we return to our roots. Suddenly those very customs that made me feel embarrassed are a source of pride now. I have searched out where to find a good European rye and in the last few years my local grocery store started importing liverwurst and European salami. (could our numbers be growing?) I’ve learned to cook my favourite ethnic foods and thanks to the internet I can download international music whenever I need to reconnect to my people.
I have a stronger respect for all immigrants. They left behind all that was familiar and comfortable and if I, a first generation nonimmigrant, can feel the longing for the homeland I do, I can only imagine the void they must feel. When I find myself questioning whether I was born in the right place, I need only look around to see the growing faces of change, and I feel the connection. Home is here.
Diversity is a wonderful thing and we are so blessed to be in a country that supports and encourages it.