Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Oh Canada...

The Toronto Skyline
I got an e-mail last night from Zhanna, an old friend from here who I had not spoken to in a while. I first met Zhanna perhaps three years ago when I started to follow Egor's chess. Her son Kostya is a year younger than Egor but played for the same coach, Boris Kostin. (If you want to read a bit more about Boris Kostin, Kostya, Egor and Zhanna, have a look in the archives starting from June 28th 2005 until July 9th of that year)

Zhanna wrote to me from Canada, where she and her boy have been living the last few months. Now, I was under the impression that Zhanna was still here but that her boy had left to go and live with Zhanna's sister in Canada. I didn't know this information for sure, I had only heard rumors from some people who were around Zhanna that this was so. But now I get this letter saying that she is there also and that she is homesick for Belarus and that Kostya is now tearing up the Ontario chess leagues.

This last item by the way is a really big deal. Kostya came in 8th in the Belarusian state chess championships last year. At the time, Kostya was actually the favorite to win but instead another Pinsk boy, Roman Grib, won the whole tournament. But now Zhanna is telling me that Kostya is not only the Ontario under 12 champion, but that he is also winning prize money by playing in tournaments. If there is any complaint at all, it is that Kostya is finding the level of competition to be such that his pay is actually slipping. The actual quote was that he was "finding it hard to stay in chess shape".

Zhanna has wanted to get to Canada for a long, long time. Two years ago I helped her to write her resume and letter of introduction to the Canadian immigration board and she has been politicking for letters of recommendation and potential business invitations as well. I don't need to go into the reasons why. Or perhaps I do. There are many people, contrary to popular belief, who are happy with their lives here in Belarus. Yes, there is a lot of propaganda to the contrary and yes, it is very likely, should the doors be opened, that there would be a flood out of Belarus similar to the flood of people out of Poland- but nevertheless believe me that there are. And for all I could see, Zhanna had a pretty good life here in Pinsk. She was a teacher at the university, her father is the headmaster of an elementary school here in addition to being one of the town Chess heroes. And Kostya's father works for the border patrol. The family is reasonably well off, they have always had a car and seem to be as well connected in Pinsk as any. Why leave?

But as I said this was fist, last and in between what she has wanted. She has dreamed of Canada the utopia and her salvation forever. No conversation with her ever took place without asking what was going on with Canada, no conversation that involved talk of her current life ever failed to be measured up against what life would be like if she was only there.

So you can understand why the words at the end of the letter saying that she is homesick for Pinsk came as a bit of a shock. Is this possible? How can a person so pine for heaven and then ask to return to hell the minute they give her the wings? What is the truth? At this point, we just don't know.

I have another friend named Alex who also has been pining for Canada. Unlike Zhanna, Alex does not have any overtly useful skills such as Zhanna does with her translation skills to market. This is not to say he is a bum; far from it. He is as well put together guy as you would ever meet: He is handsome, he speaks English exceptionally well, has very high skills in electronics and welding and, for all intents and purposes, plays rock and roll guitar in as much the American style as anyone I grew up with. But these are everyman skills

But with Alex, it seems the full weight of Canada's rejection of Belarus has been resting right on his shoulders. And with events such as Prime Minister Sergei Sidorski's plane being refused the right to land for refueling in Canada being all over the news, it just keeps getting worse and worse. He has been thrown out of the embassy several times (euphemism) and has been told to re-apply for a visa (and pay the fees) on at least three other ocasions. Nothing seems to break the ice and the last time we talked about it, he said he was no closer that he was years ago. Still Canada or America is his dream.

So what is the truth here? Everyone, and I mean everyone here understands that those Belarusians who have left here for the states have inevitably sent back news that life in the USA is not what they thought it would be, that people are not real or even really in the conversation and that home was better, but of course for the money. This message has been around for so long it has made the thought of actually packing up and leaving at this stage of the game seems like simply breaking up the family without a good reason. I do know a few others who think of America as a real chance, but frankly, after all of the experience with them (and me) in their pockets, I am not sure if the thought really occurs to most people any more.

Is this because Belarus really has gotten better? Possibly. Indeed there does at least seem to be a lot happening and things do at least seem on the surface to be getting better. The roads cleaner, the houses painted, a bit more money in the hands. Or perhaps people have just adjusted a bit and the money from gas is allowing for actually some distribution of wealth. This is possible too.

In any case, over in Canada, Kostya is showing the Canadian kids how a real chess player handles a game and in the effort of doing so, might have financed already all or most of his college education. Meanwhile Alex is still here, working several jobs at once trying to make ends meet (and to break the $400 a month level) and playing a mean blues guitar on the weekends. What does all this mean? I really don't know. I really don't. Well, if anything, I kind of hope that Zhanna comes back because I wanted to read Lafcadio the Lion to one of her classes. I have recently gotten a couple of packages of marshmallows and as they are not available here to buy, I thought it would be kind of a cool treat. And of course, I am going to be singing a couple of songs at the Chanukah show and I am glad that Alex will be there for me to partner with on a song or two. And also because he continues to tutor Egor in Math and Russian. I mean it is good when the good ones are around to do things with. Don't you think?

More soon...


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