An Englishman, a Welshman, and two Scotsmen are sitting in a bar. The Scotsmen are wearing kilts: they're about twenty, bellies full of assorted alcohol, and they want everyone to know where they're from. The Welshman looks like a painted drunk, red-eyed, red-nosed, and pear-shaped.
The Englishman has already passed out.
I'm sitting at the next table with a group of drunken Aussies who seem determined to be down under the table by the time we reach England. The bar rocks as we cross the North Sea. Actually, they aren't all Aussies; two are Kiwis, and New Zealanders are no more fond of being lumped with Australians than Canadians are of being mistaken for Americans. In place of kilts, the Aussies advertise themselves with abrukas and other weather-beaten hats. I wear a hat myself, so others in the bar likely assume I'm one of them; from a distance, they might not notice my Canadian flag-pin.
We're drinking beer, but Theo passes around a bottle of bourbon he's smuggled in. Theo's an oversized Aussie of Greek ancestry. When travelling, it's not a bad idea to get to know a few guys who you'd want on your side in the event of a barroom brawl. Travelling companions share few secrets, and any reference to Theo's genitalia by this point constitutes a witty remark.
The bourbon's smooth.
Graham has opted to remain out on deck. Graham works as a debt collector in Sydney, but his passions are foreign lands and musical theatre. He finds the obvious Aussies embarrassing when they get hammered. If you're not careful, travelling can reinforce your worst ethnic stereotypes. Back in France, in fact, after a day of wandering the Champs-Élysées and dodging cars at l'Etoile (the pedestrian tunnel to l'Arc de Triomphe should be more clearly marked), we stopped by a nightclub. A comedian who appeared trotted out a pantheon of ethnic stereotypes in a routine about people finding money on the street, with plenty of officious Germans, stingy Scotsmen, hard-drunking Australians, loud, overstuffed Americans, and camera-clicking Nipponese. The audience lapped it up; you know how xenophobic the French are.
Over at the next table, one of the Scotsmen pours a little beer on the Englishman's nose. He muttermumbles like the Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party.
My official travelling companions sleep below decks. Eve I've known for five years. Born in Ontario, she inherited unobtrusive surname from her father and exotic complexion from her mother. Helen emigrated from Hong Kong when she was ten, grew up in Toronto, roomed with Eve in university, and currently resides in England. She's acquired a bit of an English accent. That's Helen. She speaks, to varying degrees, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French-- and if a foreigner coughs across a crowded room at breakfast, she begins to break down the basic phonemes of their mother-tongue and will have worked her way by sundown to could you direct me to the women's lavatory?
The guides to historic buildings and hawkers of cheap souvenirs have no idea what to make of Helen. They apparently have one experience of Asians: roving mobs of Japanese tourists. Ko-ni-chi-wa? they ask her, hoping they've got the correct pronunciation. She politely explains she's Canadian.
I gave her my reserve flag-pin, but she's going to be in Europe for awhile, so she's started to learn Japanese.
The blokes at the table are talking about sheilas now, but they're polite enough to avoid remarks about Eve or Helen. Paul, an outback-hat wearing chef from a sheep ranch references Theo's dick and heads are thrown back with guffaws.
Since I'm the least raucous person at the table, I'm (hat notwithstanding) pegged as typically Canuck. But what on Earth does that mean?
My mother is English. Actually, her ancestors were Irish, Scottish and only a little English, but in the neighbourhood where I grew up, people of a certain generation referred to those whose last name lacked many vowels and religion lacked a Pope as English. So despite her marriage to an Abruzzese and conversion to Rome, if I said English everyone knew what I meant.
Her mother's family is the most Anglo-Canadian of my ancestors. My Great-Grandfather was a Methodist preacher and his daughter remembers bundling up on Christmas Day and crossing by horse-drawn cutter the snow-covered St. Mary's River to visit relations in Sault Ste. Marie.
Her father claimed his Scottish heritage and though he never wore a kilt, he joked often about his frugality. In fact, his ancestry was mixed. It's reputed to include one Irish farmgirl who was raped, got pregnant, and resisted familial and community pressure to marry her assailant. In any case, her descendant grew up in the northern bush country, and that, more than anything, was his ethnicity. His mother died when he was young. His father, as best as I can gather or pass along, took a shrapnel wound to his soul and never quite recovered. My grandfather lived with his father's parents and, as they had little wealth, he left while still a child to work in the kitchen of a lumbercamp. In 1929, he had found work in the Sault as a baker, married the preacher's daughter, and acquired a piece of land in the unfashionable end of town.
The unfashionable end of town meant, of course, unfashionably close to the Italians.
My mother's ancestors had the rough pioneers and the Currier and Ives Christmases. My father's family has the other origin for people who emigrated by choice. You've seen the photographs: the graven torch over Ellis Island and the sepia-tone crowd on the deck. That Mediterranean peasant, standing to one side with the worn, gatsby hat-- he's my grandfather. He left his wife and daughter behind and came to America, promising to send for them once he had the funds. A community of southern Italians had begun to establish itself up north, in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, hired hands for manufactured steel. That's where he went and worked and, indeed, sent for his family after a few years had passed.
A mixed community: Italian political unity (such as it is) had arrived in his father's generation only, and to this day Italians identify their ethnic heritage by province. Where I grew up, you know who was from Abruzzo and who was Calabresi. The controversy over ethnic stereotyping that broke when The Godfather was released could not touch us; we all figured the film was an accurate portrayal of Sicilians.
My father met my mother. They dated, broke up, dated again and, amidst much controversy, wed. Some former classmates congratulated my mother when they saw her ring. Others asked her what the problem was, couldn't she find a white one?
Times change. By my childhood, I think the local Orange Lodge was considering renting practice space to a Tarantella dance group. My "English" mother baked piazelli. In '67 the parade that passed on Queen Street for the Centennial saw waves of assorted Canadians waving assorted ethnic flags, including the flags of our own neighbourhood, Italian and Polish and Irish. What was it Shane McGowan wrote?-- "where'er we go we celebrate the land that made us refugees."
So I'm a Canadian, sitting with a bunch of Australians and a couple of New Zealanders, sharing alcohol and cultures descended from people who were displaced to lands that were built by the expediency of displacing other peoples. In fact, the Englishman, the Welshman, and the two Scotsmen could make the same claim, since the Saxons had chased out the Celts and the Picts and all of them had to deal with a variety of Normans and Scandinavians and history's terrific truth seems to be, "and then the ancestors of the people here now held off dying awhile longer than the ancestors of the people who might have been."
Ethnicity? I'm not certain what that means.
Over at the next table, one of the Scotsmen has for some reason been inspired to an impolite flight of rhetoric. Helen remains belowdecks and I lack the linguistic skill to decrypt his accent, but we all hear quite clearly through the barroom cacophony that his flourish ends with "you Welsh bastard."
The Welshman rears up. His hands strike tabletop, gesture of force that also buttresses drunken body. His red eyes meet the Scotsman's.
Theo finishes his beer.
One Welsh hand remains planted and another points across the No Man's Land of the wooden table, and he says, "You're fucking lucky you called me Welsh."
They both sit down again and the room shakes with laughter.
This is based on notes in an old travel journal, and first appeared in this form (more or less) in 2000, under the title "Ethnic Joke: A True Story," written for a southwestern Ontario writers' reading series.