A web of international like and dislike

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Greg Rusedski was luckier than the people of Scotland. He was allowed to choose which nationality he adhered to without all the political parties shouting over his shoulder and telling him what to put down on the paper. Considering that the devolution vote was a matter of leaving it to the people to choose, you got the feeling that the parties were not, in fact, happy to leave it to the people at all but insisted on turning it into another party political thing.

Rusedski had an easier time of it, even though he had a harder choice. He had grown up in Canada of a Ukrainian father and English mother, so he must have felt part Canadian, part Ukrainian and part English.

This is a position I could not have begun to appreciate had I not met a Ukrainian Canadian earlier this summer. My wife and I were staying in Vermont at this small hotel called the Inn at Craftsbury Common, which not only cooked extraordinarily good food but had an extraordinary dining policy. It made everyone sit at the same table and talk to each other.

This meant that instead of doing what we usually do, which is to spend the whole meal wishing we knew who the people at the other tables were and what they were like, we spent the whole meal wishing the people at our elbow were at another table and that we didn't know quite so much about them ...

No, it's not true, actually. We met far more interesting and nice people than the other sort, and one of them was a charming young Canadian dentist who was called Len, which I suspect is a diminutive of his original Ukrainian name, because although he had no trace of any other accent but Canadian, he said that he spoke Ukrainian fluently. "I was born in Canada but I never spoke anything but Ukrainian and Russian in the home. My parents and I can all speak English, but it still feels very odd when I talk to them in English."

I asked him if he had ever been to the Ukraine.

"Yes, I went for a trip after the fall of Communism. It was quite strange going abroad to a country where you spoke the language fluently. It was like having a secret power which I used straight away. A guy at the station thought I was American and offered me a taxi ride for $10, in bad English. I told him in the best Ukrainian that he must be effing joking, and he was so surprised that I beat him down to 10 cents!"

At this point a French-Canadian at the other end of the table, who turned out to be an orthodontist from Montreal, cut into the conversation to talk about teeth, but I hauled him back from this after a while to get some advice on the speaking of French in Canada. Was it spoken with a Canadian accent? A French accent? "Normally, neither," he said. "There are so many different accents even in Canada. Look, you say something in French and I'll show you."

"Je veux voyager de Montreal a Toronto," I said.

"Now, if you were a working man in Quebec, you'd pronounce that this way," he said, and demonstrated unintelligibly, and then went round half a dozen guttural accents, all of which sounded like incredibly provincial French. In fact, when I got to Montreal a few days later I found that many people had pretty good French accents as well, but the orthodontist, although French-Canadian, was not pro-French. "The French? You can keep them," he said. "They come over here to Canada and strut around as if they still owned the place and as if we were a bunch of colonials. God knows why they look down on us - we've had to come over the Atlantic in two world wars to rescue the French and have we ever heard a word of thanks from them? Never!"

Yes, the web of international like and dislike is bigger than we think, as this enlightening conversation suggests. More of it tomorrow ...

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