Edmonton Founded 1980

1. We landed in the city during a thaw, in February,
sun was warm and everything around melted, the snow
on the streets, the houses and birds and people’s faces.
That January was the coldest on record and City Hall had
offered certificates to those, who needed confirmation of their endurance.
We walked along Jasper Avenue, people smiled at us, at sun, they did not
wear hats and gloves, unzipped, unbuttoned, it did not feel like the North
at all. It did not feel like a city either, but a town with cars and buses, small,
low buildings and no bars. I needed coffee, a small espresso, and we walked
from block to block, bars were usually on corners, but here we found none,
and the word espresso did not appear in the vocabulary for the next ten years.
I had to make do with my “Bialetti” in the morning and, with so many other
things, one takes for granted in a large European city. This place had no
people strolling downtown in the evening, no promenade along the river,
nobody ate or drank at little tables along the streets. My eyes were hurt
by staring at building after building without character, by miles and miles
of greyish houses in suburbs , by river banks without granite, by people’s
clothing, by the dryness of the air. Nothing in this city talked to me,
my soul was as empty as it’s streets and smells. I had to twist myself into
a pretzel, that I went to hunt for in German bakeries, which still had
German bakers at the time, and faintly smelled of Europe, an unreachable
dream without shape across the ocean. The corners in the Pan American
motel room were so sharp. They defined the shape of this new world
in which we had been dropped and had to learn to speak, to work,
to smile, to live and to make a home from shreds of our past life and
gratitude to fate, for landing us in here.
First morning we crossed the street to a small drugstore
to buy toothpaste in English.

2. It changes slowly, you learn to live with it, not love, but at
first live, you learn about cold and snow, that there is often no spring,
and after winter the hot days come all at once and everybody
changes into shorts, and immediately the smell of BBQ
permeates the neighbourhood. You learn to have a nonchalant attitude
towards the thermometer, it does not matter what it says,
you go to work, you drive, you are an Albertan. You learn to eat steak,
say Hi to passers-by and appreciate that people try to understand
your crooked English, and slowly you find yourself as part of them,
at home, at one with open endless skies, with prairies,
with time that moves along canola fields, wheat fields, pump jacks,
bad lands, foothills and Rockies. You let time do it’s job, fill your
lungs with the air of this unknown city, your ears with the sound
of foreign language, and your nostrils with the smell of a land
you never imagined existed. Your eyes adjust, your heart starts
beating to rhythms of this new world.
One day, while driving back to city from afar, you say sincerely,
I am coming home.
These words startle you, you surprise yourself.

~ Ella Zeltserman

I came to live in Edmonton as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in February of 1980. The themes of emigration, loosing one’s home, finding a new home away from home, and homesickness are constant themes in my poetry.

When I emigrated, with my husband and my daughter, home became us. Wherever we were at the time was home. HOME on the other hand was what we left and as the years went by, it became bigger and bigger, expanding to include the streets, the buildings, the river, the bridges, the faces of people we left, the smell of melting snow, the color of sky at White Nights, the flowering lilac, and an endless other details, which merged into all encompassing HOME. It took many years before us and the physical space we occupied became part of Edmonton, dissolved into the fabric of the city. Edmonton, it’s streets, it’s smell, it’s sounds, it’s people became HOME. As the years go by Edmonton home also expands to become as big as the one we left.

Editor’s note: This poem is from Home and Away – a sequel to the bestselling Writing the Land (2007). Look for one poet to be featured each day as Alberta poets ponder the question “what is home?” and explore our complex relationship with working on, living with, exploiting and protecting our land and our home. For more information about the project, click here.

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