A stranger’s bed

for Sarah

We lay in a stranger’s bed.
Just the two of us, an old
painting hung behind our heads
and listened to the stories, my
awkward hands, limp on the mattress.

I watched the freckles dance on
your face when you laughed. Before bed we
both removed our glasses.

Between sentences we studied the other,
our naked faces learning a new
language. All over again.

On the second night, I was worn
down by work. Your voice trickled
in excitement, turning each page of intimacy.

I tried to stay awake and listen to
your stories. My eyelids rocked open and
shut like an old boat.
I did not make it to the end.

I asked you in the morning about
it. You said I slurred a sentence like
a sailor, and then nothing.

You turned in the current of duvet, and
waited for waves of sleep.




Canadian nuances – Part 1: The abrupt silence

You move to another country. This means many of your possessions and friends have been stripped away. You’re thrown into a whole new culture. Everyone may still speak English like you do although the longer you sit and soak up the language of a new country, the more obvious and bizarre their differences seem to be.

I’ve been in “canuck land” for a little more than a year now, and I’m starting to realize that the little things matter. I remember in the first few months I arrived I would listen to a conversation and many brand names or names of places would just zoom over my head. In a previous job of mine, one of my managers said something like “There’s nothing better than going with your family to White Spot and getting your money’s worth.” He carried on talking for a while but then I interrupted him and asked him “What is White Spot?” He had this look on his face like someone had never heard of KFC before…utter disbelief. I then found out that White Spot is a buffet style restaurant (also a franchise) that has apparently been around for years. That reminds me…do you know what else has been around for years? Assumption.

Certain things seem to annoy the crap out of me, some differences make me laugh, and then others just piss me off. I thought I’d start to write about them in the hope that I can shed light on certain things other South Africans struggle with (or maybe you’re a Canadian immigrant who can identify?)

If you talk with enough Canadians, sooner or later there’s going to be an “abrupt silence”. This is how it happens… You speak English, but with a different accent. You may be talking to a waitress at a restaurant, or some guy from Fido asking you about your cellphone account. There will be a part in the conversation where they don’t understand the what you’ve said (partly because of your accent). Instead of them asking what you mean, they will simply stop talking.

When it first happens it feels really rude. I’ve been brought up that if I don’t understand what is being said I “reach out” and say “Sorry could you explain what you mean by that?” or “I’m not quite sure I understand what you said.” Keeping quiet on the spot is just rude. This is what I thought initially but then I came to realize that even people who were fairly well mannered in other parts of the conversation also did the same thing. The exact same thing.

Here’s a simple illustration. My father and I where sitting down at a pub, having a meal fuelled by a few beers. We were trying out different ones. (The place is called Bier Craft, it would be a way too mundane to just guzzle the same stout all night). We were half way through the meal and had just ordered another two new beers.

The waitress returned with two more, and we had a brief little chit chat with her. I can’t recall the exact words I said, but I remember complimenting either the food or the beers we’d just drank. I passed a comment like “This is one of the best stouts I’ve had for miles.” She clearly didn’t understand my pronunciation of “stouts” or “miles” and couldn’t make sense of the sentence and just kept quiet on the spot. Just like that. After she left the two of us started discussing this. We were still puzzled by the fact someone keeps quiet immediately without asking us to explain what we really meant.

A few months later in, I was in a sales job and something unexpected happened. I was speaking to a customer over the phone and they were asking me for some information on one of our products. I understood the majority of what they were saying, and then they said something I didn’t understand at all. Guess what I did? Yup, it was my turn to give someone the abrupt silence treatment. I simply stopped talking. What followed was a pause in the conversation and then the same customer saying “Hello, hello…are you still there?” Fortunately I managed to save the conversation, but afterwards I felt a little embarrassed. I had unconsciously absorbed a part of the Canadian culture that infuriated me so much in the beginning.

Putting the feelings you experience aside, you start to ask yourself a more obvious question…why the hell do they do it? After I had dished out the same treatment to someone I did a little bit of introspection and realized why it happened. If you ask an immigrant why it happens, they won’t know but their closest guess will be “Well, they probably scared to say something because they are scared they offend you.” It is true that many Canadians are very politically correct, although I think the real reason goes deeper. The abrupt silence happens because the person you are talking to at the time, believes they are being considerate. Confused? Allow me to elaborate…

If you are ever in a public park, a local community centre, an ice rink and so on you have probably looked at signs that explain all the rules of the certain area. What you will often notice is that is there almost always a reference to “Please be considerate” or “No speeding. Please be aware of other skaters.” Now think of that time when you are about to enter a restaurant. There’s a stranger trying to enter at the same time as you. What happens is you both hover at the entrance doing (what I call) the dance of gentlemen.

“After you.”
“No no no please after you.”
“You were here first, you go on ahead.”

To understand the abrupt silence enigma, you have to apply this situation to a more verbal one. How I see it is…you’ve just said something a Canadian doesn’t quite understand. They pause and say nothing because (in their mind) they are being considerate and waiting for you to explain what you mean. I’m not quite sure they understand the flip side and think that keeping quite is coming off as rude. In their mind the pause they give is, in fact, giving you space to say what you’d like to say.

The other reason I’m writing this is to give advice to others for experience this silence in a negative way. Or perhaps I just want to grab my former self by the shoulders, shake them, and say “Try not to be offended, they are just waiting for you to explain what you were saying.” If you’ve been in Canada long enough, your ear learns to listen to those pauses in the conversation and to just repeat what you’re saying until you see the light bulb of recognition fire up in the other person’s eyes. Sometimes, it’s the only way.




Cramming that difficult gap

People are born with holes in them. Nothing visible, with blood flowing from it, but in a mental sense. I work in retail, and many Sundays I spend watching families shuffle through the mall at a semi-conscious pace. Usually the teenagers are in tow with iPods glued into their heads.

I think perhaps we are frightened to be alone with ourselves. So we need the stimuli. Something visual. Something in blister-packaging. Something you’ll put on the shelf and smile at for an hour. You slowly sink into the sofa, allowing the electronic hum of the television to lure you to sleep.

I’m quite radical. I don’t own a TV. I remember my one land lady’s eyes bulging out in horror. I had crossed a social taboo of sorts.

“How do you follow the news?” she asked.

“I buy the paper.”

I explained that TV just makes us lazy and we end up watching pointless programs that we didn’t invite it. I think I’ll make that a rule in my house. Vampire Logic. No demon, sprite, winged or web-footed creature is allowed in my house unless you have the decent to request permission.

I suppose this is the British form of restraint coming out. We have to learn to hold ourselves together…stop…and listen once in a while. Just like to have to ask to enter my house, when in company you should treat silence as a person. Give silence a chance to show herself before you drill opinions into our heads.

This is a slightly angry rant at the bull dozers of quiet company. We need to stop our yammering, complaining, and whining. I’ve listened to too much of it. Most people that moan about a problem have considered making a difference…and that is our weakness.

poetry, Thoughts


If I’m not a modern man,
then I’m just a
post traumatic heretical fleabag,
a rebel with a cause, just one that’ll
involve a plate load of legal tendons
and a chance to cut
the argument to the bone.
Nature should feed itself with the slow
decomposition of human consciousness. Even
Queen said ‘who wants to live forever’ and
right now they’re still a bunch of fags, all
grey on top and wrinkled in the middle, their
seams slowly splitting.

I believe in the unbelief that binds us to our
inner systems. Religion has it’s own
dark matter, it’s a beast that does not come
to slay the world but rather rot the fertile
minds from the inside pages of their own book.
It’s like that time when the string of a yo-yo
snapped in the middle, it could only spin
and weave through the world at half the speed
until it staggered to an abrupt halt in
a foreign hand.

I’m off drugs for the most part. I mean the ones
that really dirty the exhaust pipe of time. We’re
not clever to use water in cars, so why should I
stop smoking? The last time I checked we were still
making fast food inflate those fat fuckers, and cheap
enough to fill any hungry beggar with a dizzy dose
of carbs and maybe a tearful of vitamins.

I’m pre-packed with pathos. The pub does that when
you’ve been there long enough and watched that fairy
in the glass, not the one of allure, but the one telling
you there is a wife at home with a warm body buried in
bed, and a toddler climbing through the clay in his head.
Maybe it’s time you had one more gulp to saturate the
sobbing behind your eyes, only the real people can see.

Every night I get home that rocking chair on the porch
greets me. I can imagine my old man sitting there watching
my poor choices and smoky clothes. Parents can look at you
in a deeper way where time slows down to a syrupy slur. I
only see him at night when that house opens out it’s
gentle vernacular of foibles and whispers. I like to
think it’s helping me grow into that armchair of life,
and leave behind a smile for the photographs.