The longest journey

Photo by Jerry Cvach

Just like many others before us, one day we left home to improve our lives. The reasons vary. It is usually either for religious, political, wars or penury reasons, but the result is the same. We didn’t know that by emigrating we were embarking on the biggest and most educational trip a person can make. Vacation trips no matter how long and interesting, please, step aside!

We have been observing, adjusting and learning for 52 years now. With our life experiences formed in inflexible and static European society, steeped in history and in a very small country, we flew on a jet plane in short ten hours into an entirely different world, to Canada. It was a Bizarro World! So much of what we saw was the exact opposite of what we had known. Besides of learning a new language, a huge effort in itself if one wants to become reasonably conversant, there were many thought-provoking, surprising and even amusing experiences that have made this still ongoing trip of discovery so fascinating.

Canadian lifestyle is governed by practicality rather than by conventions or traditions we had known. Here the house is not necessarily something to last eternally, built from brick and mortar. Canadian wooden houses “best before” time is hundred years henceforth. The benefit is that they are contemporary, easy to renovate and maintain. The sprawling cities created a new religion called automobilism, or was it the other way around?

North America is the land of flexibility and opportunity where an upward movement is encouraged. Although there are class differences, one can actually move up if determined, has a little bit of ability, a great deal of impudence and some luck.

The enormity of this continent with just two countries, three if counting Mexico, on it is shocking. It flabbergasts the new arrivals. Besides the distances we were also surprised that at thousand meters above sea level Calgary was not yet in the mountains. We had to adjust to long drives and services being sparse in the west as in “please check your fuel gauge, there is no gas station in the next 150 kilometers.”

My mother and us at Mt. Rushmore when we were driving from Kitchener to Calgary.

After four years I was transferred to Kitchener, Ontario. It took us four or five days to drive the 3,500 kilometers and we were only in Central Canada. By comparison English Channel is 1,100 kilometers from Prague in Czech Republic that is Central Europe.

My mother was visiting us when we were transferred back. We decided to drive through the USA for a change. From Kitchener we drove to Windsor, through Detroit, on to Chicago and through southern Minnesota without much stopping. My mother sitting next to me seemed confused.

“We have been driving for eight hours for the third day now, right?” she asked.


“Then, when will the cornfields end?”

“By tonight we’ll cross the Missouri River. After that we’ll drive for another two, three days through North Dakota and Montana, up to Canada all the way to Calgary over the prairie, it’ll be just cattle, grass and some wheat.”

If the distances intrigue the modern man, it had to be an even bigger shock for the travellers in 1900. Recently I came across a letter describing immigration adventures in 1906. These people also left their homeland in a quest for a better future, and their plan vas as vague as ours was in 1968. They were courageous, hardworking and tough people! They were also a bit undecided, just like we had been, where to settle and kept adjusting as they went.

In 1906 an immigrant crossed Atlantic Ocean by a ship and then travelled to the Promised Land by train where they could start farming, but the first things they had to cope with were the distances and open spaces.

The shipping company asked us where we want to go and I said to Nebraska, but they were suggesting to go to Canada where you can get a farm for $10.00 and become a farmer instantly, so I looked up Winnipek (sic) that was a beautiful big city.

In Hamburk (sic) we stayed a week so we had time to see everything because we missed the sailing by a day. They put us into a hotel free of charge food included. We sailed for 14 days. All people from our group of 24 including the children, were sick. I was healthy, my wife was sick two days and the others the whole week. I had slivovitz from home that kept us healthy. We disembarked in Halifax in Canada.

My eyes were coming out of sockets as I looked at those rocky hills, nothing but boulders, woods and big lakes without end, tunnels through mountains and water and rocks again. I stopped liking it and was telling myself that if they will kick us off the train here, what we were going to do! On the third day, it started to look better and suddenly the train stopped on the edge of the woods and we were all getting off where there was a big building for all of us to stay overnight.

The next day the train came back for us so we boarded it and we arrived in Winnipek (sic) which we liked. The conductor, Polish guy, came and said that we can’t stay at the station and took us to his home for the night for ten cents each but the trickster didn’t tell us that there is no heating and that we have to make our beds with whatever we have with us, so everyone did wherever they could.

This Polish fellow was giving us a bit of good advice to go on further west. Regina is located in a pleasant flat country and it was a wasteland on which human leg hasn’t walked yet….

For us getting “here” was just the beginning. In 1968 Canada was a refreshingly easygoing country with minimal bureaucracy. The best example was the identification document. In Communist countries, it had been a booklet like a passport. In it was all kinds of information, including our nationality, ethnicity, citizenship and even place of employment, useful if one wanted to avoid being charged with vagrancy. One had to always have it on him, even when picking mushrooms in the woods.

Canadian most potent piece of identification was, and still is, the driver’s license. For us, it was hard to believe. This most powerful of all documents with which one could cash cheques, be identified when dealing with the government, banks and so on, was a bland-looking little piece of slightly heavier paper the size of a credit card. There was just one’s name and address on it with a number and expiration date that made it official, but not even a photograph. What about people who didn’t drive? Well, there weren’t that many, as we soon found out.

But there was one thing the driving license couldn’t do. Shortly after I started working in an office, my English still bad and accent horrible, I had to answer the telephone one day. US border guard from Coutts Montana was on the line. They had my colleague Ted there. He had forgotten his birth certificate at home and tried to cross the border with just the driving license.

The agent asked me if I knew Ted. I did. Can I confirm that Ted is a Canadian citizen? I said I thought he was as he had told me he was born in Lethbridge. That satisfied the officer, even though I certainly couldn’t sound credible with my English and the poor accent! I could only imagine how Ted and I would have been laughed at on any border crossing in Europe before the EU was formed.

Shopping for groceries was another enigma, starting with large supermarkets! That part was great and we soon mastered it. A few years later “grandpa” was our first visitor from “back home”. Soon we took him grocery shopping in Safeway. It would be, we thought, quite intriguing for him to see the abundance of merchandise, while in communist Czechoslovakia shopping was still nightmarish because of shortages. The failings of the Five-Year Economic Plans by which their economy was run were legendary. When one time they forgot to plan for toilet paper it was unobtainable. People would cut newspapers into little squares and crumple them up to make them soft. It wasn’t actually working that badly, except for the ink smudges.

Our first house, bought in 1971, only three years after arrival – better than the 1906 prairie models!

It didn’t take long before we lost grandpa. I found him in the aisle with household goods studying a four-level shelf in front of him.

“What is all this stuff?” he asked, incredulous.

“Rolls of toilet paper”. Toilet paper was sold folded in packages in Czechoslovakia so I thought that was confusing him.

“That’s what I thought. But why does it come in so many colours?

”Well, you may want to match the colour scheme of your bathroom”, I said.

“Hmm. But why are there another four shelves of the same stuff next to it again?

“That is a different brand if you don’t like the first one. Softer one, maybe”.

“Incredible!” It looked as if the toilet paper situation in Czechoslovakia hadn’t been completely resolved yet.

Another thing we were intrigued by was the exciting world of investments, stock exchanges and apparently an easy way to become rich with no effort at all. Just by “playing the market”.

One Saturday we met our Czecho/Canadian mentor, an old-timer Dan. He was just about to make few easy bucks. We were curious about how that would be done.

On Monday he was going to get up at 2:00 AM to call his broker in England and buy Husky Oil shares. The company announced late on Friday that they bought huge leases up north and would drill for oil. Because of the time difference, he will still buy at Friday’s closing price when buying in England. Their shares will go up on the Toronto Stock Exchange when trading starts on Monday.

I thought, how devilishly clever! What a country where one can make money easily if one is savvy enough! But right now, we needed to buy bread, not oil shares, but we were learning.

Two weeks later we met Dan again.

“So how did it work?” I asked.

“How did what work?”

“You know, that time you called London Stock Exchange and bought Husky Oil?”

“It didn’t work out, as a matter of fact, I lost quite a bit.”

“How come?”

“What happened was that concurrently with the announcement about new leases, it was also reported that Husky had suffered a loss in the previous quarter. The market reacted to the negative financial report, not the positive news about the drilling.”

Once bitten twice shy! Luckily it was Dan who got bitten, but it was I who became shy. So, this is how investing is fickle! Fifty years later I’ve yet to call a broker because playing the market is still one of the many things, I know nothing about. We have financial experts to handle our money and gladly pay their fees.

The journey of discovery continues from one lesson learned to another. 52 years later, maybe, we’re getting closer!

I often wonder what it is like for immigrants from Southeast Asia, Africa or South America? It’s surely just as fascinating and the learning curve different. The result is the same, though. This is a good place to be.