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Glasilo Magazine Excerpt:
Mushy Bread and Apples

by Anne Urbancic: Canadian Slovenian Historical Society

This article was published in the September / October 2005 issue of
Glasilo Magazine. Our magazine helps build community. We value your support.

A mysterious fire broke out on a rusty old ship moored near a scrap yard factory in La Spezia, Italy. Nothing could be done to save her. The dark smoke billowing through the lazy summer clouds of an Italian July day in 1982 announced the passing of a magnificent mechanical creature, a powerful sailing vessel that, even as she died, would be remembered by thousands of recent Canadians for having brought them to a new life in Canada. The ship was the Leonardo da Vinci, a modern, sleek liner whose precious cargo of new energy, new attitudes, and new immigrants began arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1960. With each Atlantic crossing, she carried more than 1300 passengers, more than 1300 fears, more than 1300 hopes. On September 12, 1966, when she docked at Pier 21, the famous point of destination for so many new Canadians, among those passengers was a thin young man, arriving from an internment camp in Italy. His heart held no fear; his eyes shone with the hope of a new beginning. He had no money, only a suitcase, some bread and some apples. His travel documents identified him as Valentin Batic.

Almost 40 years have passed since that day, when the first nips of early Canadian fall welcomed the young Slovenian man. Recently, on an evening announcing the first cool touch of another autumn in Canada, Fr. Batic, celebrating 25 years of ordination and service to the Canadian Slovenian community in the Toronto area, recalled those first few months in Canada and retold the story of his arrival to his adopted home.

The sea passage from Naples had been tiring, but not uncomfortable. The ship arrived in Halifax early that September morning. The young man took deep breaths of the clean, fresh smell of Canada, because the crisp air reminded him of Europe. He had immediately decided that Canada would not be some strange land for him, but truly home, so he couldnít wait to board the Toronto-bound train to begin his new life. As soon as the Leonardo da Vinci docked, he impatiently grabbed his suitcases and hurried to the head of the document processing line. He bustled past the long column of tired and bewildered fellow passengers, absolutely certain that his first steps in Canada presaged a fantastic future. He was an auto electrician by trade and although he could not speak English, he had no doubt that he would soon find employment; but the RCMP had other ideas. They quickly stopped him and sent him to the back of the document processing line to wait his assigned turn.

The line-up of exhausted travelers seemed endless. At long last, when evening had already fallen, he boarded the train for Toronto. It didnít matter that the train was unbearably slow, it didnít matter that there were no other Slovenians on the train, it didnít even matter that the bread he had bought with the $20.00 government allowance (meant to see him through his first few days) was mushy. He traveled all night, awake, excited, like a child. The train stopped at Montreal. Hungry again, he spent some money on a salad. But what a salad: what viscous coloured gunk was this poured over it? Where were the vinegar and oil he was accustomed to? His first Canadian meal: mushy bread, apples and mystery salad. Never mind, this was a new country, a new life, despite the unusual bread and odd salad dressing. He eagerly looked forward to meeting the people waiting for him when he arrived at Union Station.

It was almost midnight when he put his bags down in the cavernous hall of the Toronto train station, looking hopefully around him for friendly faces. Finally, he found the one person still left in the meeting area. It was the night janitor slowly sweeping the marble floor, no one else. Hesitant but undaunted, he approached the custodian; realizing the difficulty the young man found himself in, the older man promised that when his shift was finished he would direct the younger man to a nearby hotel. The following day, refreshed by a nightís sleep and undeterred by the fact that his government allowance was quickly disappearing (the hotel bill came to $11.00), the young man decided to go on foot to the Immigration Bureau, some 3 or 4 km. away, carrying his bags in order to save cab fare. Sure enough, once there, his situation began to improve. There was a room for him in a household whose members were Greek/Jewish/Serbs (He still remembers that the meals there were so piquant and spicy that tears ran down his cheeks each time he ate with them). At the immigration office they also had a job for him, but not exactly in his line of mechanical expertise, so he began to work in a glue factory in the far west end of the city. Well-meaning clerks there tried to match him with an employee the young man could communicate with until he learned English, so they assigned him to a Polish supervisor. But even if the work was back-breaking, and his Polish language skills non-existent, he refused to become discouraged. One day, as he worked in the shipping area of the factory, a familiar voice called out his name in Slovenian, a voice he remembered from the Italian camp. How surprised he was as he looked up and met the friendly eyes of Mrs. Marija Cusin, who had visited the camp. She immediately invited him to her home to meet her husband and family.

He began to learn English, and had to change jobs in order to be closer to his school. The days grew shorter, the nights colder. He didnít have the proper clothing; even the long sleeved shirt he had bought at an Italian outdoor market just prior to his departure turned out to have short sleeves when he took it out of the package. He felt alone. His homesickness was especially pronounced when he thought about the mountains of his childhood. He had little money for entertainment, so he passed his free time by walking through the streets of the city. He came to know Toronto very well thanks to his walks. He was especially fascinated by the endless supplies of fresh fruit on tantalizing display at every greengrocer he passed. Even in the winter, there were bananas, pineapples, cherries and grapes. Life would have been almost too perfect if there had also been figs, but in the mid - 60ís, Torontonians had not yet developed a taste for them.

As the beautiful autumn deepened, he looked forward to the snow, remembering that on the ship there had been a movie about Canada. The film had described it as a land of snow, and of vast open spaces, and of more snow, of deep green forests, of even more snow. But the gorgeous fall of 1966 belied those images until, finally, one day it did snow. White. Cold. Just as the film had shown. He went alone to City Hall, enchanted by the skating rink and the twirling skaters, fascinated by the crisp slash / chink of skate blades catching the frosty glints of the winter sun. He couldnít believe his ears when he heard the Oberkrainer music of Avsenikís Ensemble coming over the loudspeakers, clear and so familiar above all the city hustle and bustle.

Christmas drew near. He had made a few friends and someone invited him to Christmas services. He leaped at the invitation, eager to join the choir in their Christmas hymns. But as he clambered up the choir loft steps, the choir director pointed out that only members of the choir could join in. Then he discovered the Parish of Our Lady Help of Christians on Manning Avenue. The choir welcomed him, the church welcomed him and the parishioners welcomed him. And much as he had predicted, hoped and prayed for when he landed in Canada on that crisp, beautiful early fall day some three months before, Tine Batic had come home.

Congratulations, Fr. Batic, as you celebrate the Silver Anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood. We wish you much health and much joy as you continue to minister to the Slovenian community in the Toronto area.

Perhaps your family arrived in Canada on the Leonardo da Vinci or on another ship, or by plane. Let us know the story of your arrival. The CSHS gives all Canadian Slovenians an opportunity to cherish their stories forever. We invite you send us your family documents, or pictures or artifacts or your stories. Originals or copies are acceptable and will be placed in a special box identified by your family or organization name.

You can help carry on the important work of the CSHS by becoming a member or by donating documents and artifacts of your own or your familyís immigration history to the Archive.

You do not have to be famous to be important to us and to Slovenian - Canadian history.

You may contact the CSHS at: Canadian Slovenian Historical Society c/o Dom Lipa, 52 Neilson Dr., Etobicoke ON. M9C 1V7 or by email: cshs@look.ca, or through our website: www.slovenianhistorical.ca.