We were so grateful when we finally made it to Canada as official Permanent Residents that we wouldn’t even cross the street until the “walk” sign came on, even if crowds of natives were shoving past us. We used to wait at the corner of Cook Street in Victoria, repeating our mantra: “We must respect the laws of the B.A.L.” “B.A.L.” was our code for “Beloved Adoptive Land.”
Nine months later, we walked down the same street in a blizzard, looking for Victoria’s Salvation Army Shelter, hoping to find a warm place to spend the night. And when we finally found it, we were turned away for being a “mixed couple.” It was a men-only shelter.
In Victoria, the most twee, cutesy-greeny city in Canada, we fell through floor after floor of poverty, right down to actual Dickensian privation, where you’re cold all the time and don’t have anything to eat. We thought we’d be good immigrants because we had experience. We’d lived in Moscow for two years, between 2002 and 2004. After Russia, how could we help but think that British Columbia, where people were nice and spoke English, would be anything but a cakewalk? As it turned out it was a cakewalk, in the Baghdad sense.