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Rewriting stories with an accent

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You will notice an accent in my writing.

My English experience spans the second half of my life and it went from nothing to something. I'm resigned that English will be forever my second language.

I did not come here looking for greener pastures and, in that sense, Canada was never the promised land.

I fled Chile in 1976, at 26, after working in the underground for three years, working against the Pinochet regime installed after the military coup of 1973.

Somehow the group I worked with got caught. I have no idea how. And for six months everyone start disappearing. Three survivors, I think 24 dead.

I decided to leave the country, in a hurry and in danger.

In my long trip from Santiago, contingency plans took precedent over the pain of leaving behind my two little guys, my wife, my memories, and my life.

I thought of thousands of scenarios and I felt kind of comfortable thinking nothing would surprise me, Plan A, B and C were mapped out. Ten minutes before landing, I had the brutal realization that I was 10 minutes away from being illiterate.

Back to square one.

So began what I call my black hole.

Three years after, in a movie theatre, I savoured the saline taste of tears making its way to my lips. The dark veils of illiteracy were slowly fading away: It was the first time I was not translating; I noticed I was thinking in English.

There are words that avoid saying: "Sheets'" is one, because it sounds like "sh--" so I say "pages" instead.

My co-workers graciously understand me, most of the time that is, because in situations where work demands high standards and either I'm not able to get a point across or I perceive that I did not, it is not funny anymore. Often it is the latter.

I cannot help to remember with nostalgia my factory days, where the production line freed my mind and where I "wrote" an amazing number of still-born stories, essays and impossible-to-categorize pieces of "writing."

There was a wonderful line in a movie I watched recently: A young American in Rome meets a young woman whose final destination was Paris. He asks her not just to abort whatever plans she had, but also to spend with him a night in Rome. Predictably he is turned down. In a last-ditch attempt he said: "Listen, 15, 20 years down the road, you may experience a downturn with your husband and in this moment of loveless, disenchantment and despair you will ask yourself, 'What about if... ' "

The line captured a juncture of my life where the "if" scenario has always haunted me.

I started my current job, after a gruesome "do-it-all-over-again" marathon: full-time university (again); part-time work; cold-turkey English immersion at the commerce/economic programs (not the ideal place for ESL); kids, including my baby third boy; and on top of that, solidarity work with Chile.

Then I was invited by the CBC to a boot camp literary workshop out west. The idea was to translate one of my stories into a movie script.

I failed.

But there the CBC was, taunting me to follow, much like the young American taunted the French woman to follow him to Rome.

I decided to "stay in Paris" and take additional computer sciences courses instead.

There was a price to pay, my life shrunken, figuratively speaking, to getting the semicolon in the right place (programming language).

It was not easy, but then angels came to my rescue.

My angel major, my wife, and in the work context: Evelyn Shapiro, internationally well-recognized for her contribution in health policies.

When I was feeling sorry for myself, either because I felt inadequate or because I felt I had constantly to prove myself, she would recollect that in her younger years there were strict quotas for Jews at the University in Montreal. Then, laughingly, she would say to me: "You are the new Jew."

She was the one who in the original interview waived my poor marks (and handicaps) because she understood my case, as it was remarkably similar to the stories of her parents, particularly her father's perennial feeling of inadequacy with is new language. More important, brandishing facts, she prevented the government attempts to privatize home care. Since then, I have seen my work as an analyst at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy having a real impact on health policies.

In an intricate way, my work connects with the almost deadly affair I had with policies in Chile (and invariably politics), and yes, we wanted to have a health system much like Canada's.

I am 62. Retirement is on the horizon; I may get back to the country my wife still thinks is ours. The kids are in other parts of the planet pursuing their lives and careers, and if I ever go, I'll leave Canada much I came, reluctantly.

I'm ready to enjoy the hues that my (our) autumn may bring, and I started doing this by writing this piece, the first since the detour I never took and I have enjoyed it immensely.

I have to confess, I have stories to tell. I may write them, I may not.


Bogdan Bogdanovic fled Chile in 1976, leaving behind his family and a senior management job with Codelco-Chuquicamata, the world's largest copper mine, to escape the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J6

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