Who We Are, and How We Got Here
25 August 2016
We are Romanian Canadians. After the 1989 anti-communist Revolution in Eastern Europe, a lot of ethnic Germans left the country so there were a lot of houses for sale. We bought one, and started an auto repair business. It was fine for a couple of years, but there were so many inspectors coming by and fining us for so many things, after a while it was almost not worth trying to do any work. I was also concerned about my son having to do the mandatory army service, plus there was a lot of tension in Yugoslavia, and I felt I need to get my son out of the country so he does not end up drafted in a stupid war if things escalate in Europe.
We decided we had to leave. America was not really to my liking, Australia was too far, so we decided on Canada.
So we went to the Canadian Embassy in Budapest (closer than Bucharest) and applied for permanent residency in Canada. To our surprise, they approved us in three months!
We then sold my mother in law's apartment and moved her into our house; also sold our Mercedes to come up with the required cash amount of $16,000 we had to bring to Canada. Packed two suitcases with stuff that proved later on to be useless (220V hair dryer) and left Timisoara on November 15, 1993 by train, heading to Bucharest to catch a plane to Prague, then the connection to Canada. My husband and my son left in tears - having the whole family and friends come to say goodbye at the railway station did not help either - while I was looking forward to the "adventure". We literally froze on the train, the heat-making thing was broken as if our country wanted to bid us a proper farewell. Luckily, there was plenty of hot water at the hotel in Bucharest and we had a very nice "last supper".
The next morning we took a cab to the airport, presented out travel documents thinking all along that they may find something that was not in order and may not let us leave. To our surprise, we made it on the inside. We sat there for a few hours, watching sparrows fly inside the terminal until we finally got on an Iliushin and took off. Because we did not push our way into the plane, we ended up being seated apart from each other and 10 minutes into the flight the plane shook and the stewardess spilled all the cognac glasses she was carrying on her tray onto my husband's lap. Of course, he thought it was because the plane was going to crash and freaked out, but that is something "we" do not like to talk about :)
The landing in Prague and the subsequent take off was uneventful, the new plane was an Airbus with plenty of leg room and I don't remember much about it, except my son's sad face...
Ahhh, Toronto... It was dark. As the plane was circling the city, we saw white and red rivers of light underneath, later identified as being from the cars driving on Highway 401, the busiest one in North America. We deplaned and were directed through corridors by uniformed guards until we reached the immigration desk, where a Sikh wearing a turban greeted us (or at least we think he did as I could not understand a word he was saying). I could not take my eyes off his turban, his beard in a net and his pointy moustache. Eventually, after demanding to see our stash of cash (we had to have it upon arrival), he gave us our "landed" documents, told us to hold onto them for dear life and let us out into our new country. God, all was huge, the buildings, the roads, the cars!
We were picked up by some friends of friends and taken to their apartment located in a building which was dubbed "the Romanian building" as the majority of the tenants were Romanians from the post 1989 exodus. They fed us and we went to sleep on some mattresses on the floor in their living room. That was our home for a couple of weeks as it wasn't easy to rent a place. Because we had no jobs and no established credit history (duh!) we had to have a guarantor AND prepay the first and the last month rent. Security deposits were required for everything, water, electricity, telephone, cable TV. Our friends' aunt was willing to co-sign our rental agreement and on December 1, 1993 we moved into our empty apartment in the very same building, put our two suitcases on the floor, sat on them, looked at each other until finally one of us asked: "Now what? What are we doing here? What the hell were we thinking when we decided to do this?".
But, once we established that what is done is done and we have to push on, the quest to furnish our new place was on. We were lacking everything, including the proverbial pot to pee in.
We managed to locate two mattresses by the garbage bin behind the building, amazingly enough they were not stained (sorry for the graphic image I undoubtedly put in your head right now) and smelled OK (picture me sniffing them :)) and we proceeded to drag them to our place. Being both queen size, one for us, one for our 15 year old son - there you go, sleeping problem solved.
Our building was located next to a mall and there was a K-Mart inside it. They were selling all sorts of stuff, so I went to buy plates and cutlery, bed sheets, pillows and comforters. On my way to this mall, a woman stopped me and asked "Do you have the time?". So, me being the smart girl that I am and knowing that the proper way to ask is "What is the time, please?" I immediately assumed that she needed my help for something and wanted to know if I have the time to assist, so I took a deep breath and said "I am in a little bit of a hurry, but if you wish I can spend half an hour with you" while carefully controlling my accent. For the longest time I wondered why she took off running while constantly turning her head to see if I was following her...
The next day a friend told me that I should not have bought anything from the mall as it would be cheaper at the dollar store so off we went to buy pots and pans from there. She came along to show us how to get there and mainly how to get back. I took the bus for the first time and found everyone to be very polite, no pushing, no copping a feel. If you wanted to get off at the next stop you had to pull a cord, a bell would ding and the driver would open the exit doors. So far so good.
I ended up buying a set of pots and pans for $35 from the dollar store. Took it home. Made soup. The inside coating bubbled and came right off. Ended up throwing out the soup and the whole set I just bought. No refunds, no returns at the dollar store, $35 less in my pocket. Went back to K Mart and bought a new set for $99, which I still have. Huh!
A few days later, someone at the townhouses across the street threw a bed frame along with the matching mattress. Under the cover of darkness (boy, were we ashamed!) we went and carried them home. For the first time since we came here, our son would sleep on a bed. As for us, we piled the now two mattresses on top of each other and we kind of had a bed too.
Eventually, we clued in that people sell all kinds of stuff through classified ads, but we needed a car to haul the whatever lucky purchase. Now that we learned how to travel by bus we started to look for a car. Somehow, we ended up in the East end and at a dealership owned by a Greek guy. Sensible to our situation, he offered us a gold coloured K-Car for $1,000 and asked if we had insurance. Errr, no? So he sent us to another Greek who was working for an insurance company and my husband got coverage based on his existing driver's licence from Romania. But, now we found out that he needs to get his Ontario driver's licence and that he would have to start from the beginning. How to do that when he spoke no English?
There was a place called the Ontario Welcome House who could help newcomers to Canada find programs available. They sent my husband to a language assessment place. Because he said hi when the guy said hi to him and sat on the chair when the guy pointed to it, they decided he should be in an advanced English class and his fate to never really learn English was sealed that day. I ended up having to do his homework while he wasted his time sitting in a classroom without having a clue what they were talking about.
Our son went to the high school, where he got assessed too and they pushed him up a year to Grade 10, even though he only completed Grade 8 in Romania. No big deal, really, as the math they were doing in high school here he has already done in Grade 6 back home.
As for me, I was trying to get a job and couldn't as I needed a resume and I had no idea how to do one up and had nothing to print it on. I ended up paying some $300 to an employment agency to get a few copies. Having a resume did not help whatsoever, nobody cared that I had worked at AEM Timisoara for whatever number of years and I got no interviews. Pissed off, I marched into OWH (see above) and they sent me to the Women's Employment Centre. An olive skinned woman with a head scarf interviewed me and could not understand why am I frustrated after only one month of being in Canada. But, nonetheless, she was willing to help. After she carefully looked up in a book what "mechanical draftsperson" means, she wrote a phone number on a piece of paper, told me to call it and I will get a job and sent me on my way. I was so happy I could fly! Could hardly wait to get home and call so I can start working. Well, with my heart pounding I dialled the number...only to find out that the olive lady gave me a job at McDonald's...I cried for an hour. Is that why I spent 16 years of my life getting an education, to flip hamburgers in Canada?
Christmas came along, and the New Year. It was the saddest week in my whole life.
In January 1994, there were signs posted at K-Mart looking for people to do the store inventory, so both of us went and got our first job. It was only 6 hours, one night only. We had to be there at 9 pm and they showed us how to count the items in the store and label each shelf, it was quite simple and we pushed on. But by the time we left in the morning it was COLD. Even though our apartment was not far from the K-Mart, we drove so that we would not have to walk back at 3 am. Luckily, the car started so we got in and drove off. When we got home and I pulled the metal handle from the inside of the car to open the door, my finger stuck to it, it was so cold it burned my skin. In the morning, we learned that the temperature overnight dropped to -46 C.
The same morning, my son's watch froze onto his wrist (underneath his gloves and winter coat, while he walked to school) and left a red mark on his skin.
Then the snow came, enough to sink to my waist in it as I tried to cross the street before realizing how deep it was.
After a few days, we got paid for the work we did at K-Mart: $56. We bought food.
Fed up with not having a job, I went back to some government agency and they decided I needed....more education. Because the registrations for the winter semester were completed, they enrolled me in a school that still had some seats open: Burnhamthorpe Collegiate in Etobicoke, an hour and a half away from where I lived. Courses started at 8 am, so I had to be out the door around 6 am, catch the Sheppard bus, then the Yonge subway, then the Bloor subway, then the Burnhamthorpe bus (expensive trip). All this to get a piece of paper indicating I know AutoCAD - which I knew already since I was using it at work in Romania. Six months later I passed the exam with 98%, got my diploma, and still nobody cared.
So, we went on welfare - or social assistance, the most humiliating experience in my life. Every two weeks I had to present a detailed report showing how many jobs we applied for, name, address, phone number and details of contact (sent resume, got call back, got interview etc.). Then somebody said volunteering is a good way to get a job, people get to know you and if there is an opening you are already there. Well, no place that used AutoCAD wanted volunteers and believe me, I tried.
Every time we would apply for a job, we were asked if we had "Canadian experience", but how can we ever get Canadian experience if we cannot get a first job?
In the meantime, my husband got fed up with the whole load of crap. One morning he told me to get in the car and we went to the industrial areas looking for auto body shops (even though he was also a car mechanic, he could not work here without a Canadian licence, he tried the exam three times with me translating but I did not know the technical terminology and he failed all three times). Went door to door all day, only three places asked for his phone number so that they may call and only one actually called him the next day and offered him a job for $15 an hour. The guy who hired my husband was an immigrant from Guyana.
In the summer of 1994, with one of us now working, things were slowly improving and we were no longer receiving welfare benefits. Still, rent was over $1,000 per month and his $15 an hour before taxes was not amounting to a lot.
Still trying to get a job, I went to the Volunteer Centre to see what they have and I got Doctors Without Borders (you know who they are) and YMCA First Stop (community outreach at the Bus Terminal). Those were short lived. DWB needed somebody to research countries they were going to - food, customs, language etc. and they made it clear it will never lead to a paid job, and the YMCA First Stop had me hand out condoms to homeless gay people in back alleys behind Bay Street.
Next, I went back to some government agency and got another volunteering opportunity, this time for a food bank and community services place. I spent my days sorting canned food and making packages for the needy, most of them being better off than me, as I was coming to work by bus, and they were coming to pick up their free food in taxi cabs.
Then, I got "promoted" to updating the social services directory but still without pay. One glorious day in October 1994 the executive director came from a meeting with other United Way agencies and told me an agency needs to hire someone immediately. I went to meet with the director and I got a job for $7.50 an hour.
The place was called Coping In Tough Times and was providing budget and credit counselling to people living on or below the poverty line (in other words we had to teach welfare recipients how to stretch their pennies to make ends meet) and by now I was an absolute expert in that (I still cannot eat bananas, after eating a lot of them for the first six months in Canada because they were dirt cheap). After three months my pay increased to $9 an hour.
This job was at Eglinton and Midland, an area of Scarborough known for its subsidized housing. We were partially funded by the United Way with the balance to be made from a charity casino we were running. I managed to stay out of the casino business as I did not have a car at the time and thus no way to get home at 1 am. A colleague, Maria, ended up having to do that. One evening when she left our office at about 6 pm she was robbed at gun point in the lobby by a black guy wearing dark, baggy clothing and a hoodie. Good luck identifying anybody with that description in a line up. She lost the casino cash, her wedding ring and all her ID cards but she was lucky to keep her life as she actually grabbed the barrel of the guy's gun trying to point it away from her face. A few days later her empty purse was found in a dumpster nearby.
In the meantime I was busy mingling and charming the members of the Board, behind my new boss's back as she forbade any contact between staff and the upper echelon. Meh! Eventually, one of them asked me if I was interested in moving up and out of there, of course I did so he put me in touch with a company called Comprehensive Business Services, an accounting franchise. I took a sick day off so I can go to the interview and they also had me take a psychological test to see if I was prone to going on a killing spree - I understood why later.
This new job was paying $10 an hour and I was hired as an assistant to the company's accountant and my pompous title was Assistant Controller. Please! But I liked my new job, everybody was elegant and things looked pretty good. I bought my first car ($750) - already had my driver's licence - and I started to feel right. The owner was a 70 year old World War II veteran of....Romanian descent by the name of Leo G. Lauzen. He was a charismatic individual with a bipolar personality who could (and did) make grown men cry. But, he was a war hero and he got away with a lot of crap. I eventually rose through the ranks and my pay increased to $42,000 a year but I had no life. Lauzen was like a giant leech sucking you dry, constantly calling you at home, evenings, weekends and holidays to discuss business.
I fought with this man every day, never backed off, never let him win an argument. He apparently loved my courage, plus he said I looked like Marlene Dietrich and yelled at him like only his mother did. Ha!
All went well until his much younger wife died of cancer, he lost his focus and the company began to slide. I stayed on as long as I could out of pity but I wasn't getting a paycheque and that could not go on forever. I left the company in October 1999, after exactly five years, and moved across the hall to a company I still work for, a Chartered Accountants firm.
Because I had no formal accounting training they sent me to college to complete the necessary courses and paid for the tuition but not the books, which cost almost as much as the tuition itself. But, nonetheless, it was great help.
Having a life was important to me, especially since we were beginning to discover boating. Bought a 17 ft open boat with a 90 Hp outboard engine and a trailer and traveled to every body of water we could, dragging the boat behind our Ford F150 pick-up truck. I learned how to fish and would go fishing whenever possible, even evenings after work. Just loved it. But the boat was too small and could not accommodate us to spend the night. We needed a bigger boat for sure.