Returning to Canada, not as easy as I hoped

Christmas day in Norwich was abnormally warm. The temperature rose to 14° C and it was possible to walk around without even a coat on. It then turned very cold, with a layer of ice on the car in the morning, and much scraping before we could go anywhere. I was quite pleased with this. I had cut up a lot of wood for our wood burner in the lounge, so I was able to use some of it. In addition to this, one of my Christmas presents, which I must stress I actually asked for, was a couple of sacks of coal. I had such fun building and tending the fire.

My sister Gill came up from London to spend the festive season with us. Apart from the usual Christmas activities we went to see the film ‘A United Kingdom’. This is the story of Seretse Khama and his English wife Ruth Williams. In brief, Khama was the heir to the chieftainship of the Bamangwato tribe in Botswana. His parents died when he was young and his uncle took over as regent. Seretse was sent to the United Kingdom to study, and thereby be trained for the leadership. However he met and fell in love with a young English woman. The British, who ruled the country at that stage, bowed to pressure from the South Africans, where the Nationalist government had just been elected, and would not allow Khama to return home. However his uncle was also shocked and appalled by the marriage and felt it made him unfit to rule.

The film was a BBC production and had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016. It was based on the book Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation by Susan Williams which was published in 2007. I have written about this book in a previous blog. It was a moving film. The Khama’s eldest son Ian, was sent to Waterford, and although he is some years older than me, we overlapped. He is currently the President of Botswana, and came to the 50th Anniversary celebration in 2013. The moment when he was handed a Waterford blazer and said, “I think this still fits” as he put it on, will stick in the memory of everyone in the hall for a long time. For the record it did fit!

I returned to Canada just before the end of 2016 as my main teaching term is the winter one. Strangely I quite enjoy teaching at this time as it allows me to focus on the students and read and write. There is not a huge temptation to go out, although is my intention to try cross-country skiing, if there is enough snow.

Getting back to Canada was not easy. I was scheduled to fly from Norwich to Amsterdam to connect to Toronto on Thursday 29th December, thereby having time to get my head around what I need to do in Waterloo. Of course the fog rolled in on Wednesday. I looked at the forecast and thought there would certainly be problems for travel. Sadly I was right. Although Norwich was clear and sunny at the time I was scheduled to travel. It was a different story in Amsterdam and so the flight was delayed leaving Norwich by nearly three hours. This meant we arrived in Amsterdam too late for me to get the connection. I went to the lounge and the staff on duty sorted my travel out… but!

Flights from Amsterdam had already been affected by fog on Wednesday so there were lots of passengers needing rebooking. The KLM staff offered me a flight to Toronto via New York later in the day but looked quite relieved when I said I would rather wait until Friday. So the new booking was Amsterdam to Montreal and then on to Toronto. I also had to use my air miles and get an upgrade to even get on that plane. The airline booked me into a hotel near the airport and told me to take a shuttle bus to get there.

When I got to the bus stop the bus was just pulling away. There were a number of people waiting. I asked a few which hotel they were going to – the same one of course – the bus stop should have been a giveaway. I suggested we share a taxi as it would be cost effective- so there were four of us for an €24 ride, and as I was given two lots of €10, my ride cost me just €4.

I had, at that time, no idea who the people were – other than the snatches of conversation. One was an American who works as a helicopter engineer for Bristow helicopters in Nigeria in the oil industry. He had been talking, judging from her accent, to a Spanish woman. The third was an Eastern European woman who was trying to get to Montreal to see her grandchildren, and who only had a short holiday period in which to do this. The American said he did not care if the flight was delayed; the Spaniard’s attitude was ‘Que sera sera”, and I was phlegmatic about it. These things happen and I had time in hand.

The airport hotel was okay from the point of view of the rooms. The airline provided supper at the hotel, a very mediocre buffet with bland, carbohydrate heavy dishes. The tables were set up in the ballroom – obviously the standard practice when there are many passengers having to be accommodated who are not going to complain about the food. There was no alcohol available though. The ‘Spanish’ woman from the taxi bumped into me and I said I was going to go to the bar after eating and would be happy to have a glass of wine with her.

What happened next was great fun. She and the helicopter engineer came in and we sat and talked for nearly three hours. It is quite possible they will read this blog and as I don’t have their permission to write about them I am going to use pseudonyms. ‘Tatiana’ is Hungarian and was on her way to a small town in Norway where she intends to make a new life. She already speaks five languages, has a university education and is in her 30’s. I did not get a sense of how well travelled she was but certainly she understands geo-politics and the global crises.

‘Dwayne’ the engineer had been in the Marine Corps, working on aircraft carriers, before moving back to the USA. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and three children and would love to be a farmer. This is in the family line. Interestingly although his family has been American for generations his name was very Yorkshire. His politics and views were unexpectedly liberal. The conversation was wide ranging, covering the Trump victory, the need for a sustainable planet, what makes people care and what our roles and responsibilities are.

We wished each other goodnight and I thought about the conversation and came to some conclusions. Dwayne is from a community that does not really know what is going on in the rest of the world. He mentioned an uncle, a professional educated person, asking him what the capital of Africa is. This is increasingly the case! One of the reasons, he explained, is that when he was growing up there were only a few TV channels and so people inevitably saw news. Today, with cable, no one has to be informed of anything and most choose not to be. Tatiana lives at the cross roads of Europe and so has a sense of history and threat but she is not at all sure of her place in the world.

So the question is how one links the deep concerns of different people. We met in the most unlikely place, a taxi queue; we, unusually, had a longer conversation that was deeply interesting and revealing for the things we shared, not the differences. But we are the top one percent of global citizens, the fact that we had flown into Amsterdam, were (hoping) to fly out the next day, and had been given accommodation by the airline, puts us in that bracket. The good will is there in global citizens, the leadership is not.

This blog is going to be sent from Amsterdam for the usual light edit and posting as I need to leave the hotel in the next couple of hours for a long journey. I don’t think I will get to it again before the New Year. The chances of getting to Waterloo before midnight local time are not great and Sunday sees the start of 2017. Thank you to all who take the time to read this and let me wish you a really Happy New Year.