Life Lessons from a Cabbie

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The day before I would take the taxi ride that resulted in my learning the story below, I was in a fourth-year English seminar discussing The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. The professor talked about how the Orient tale was often used in the eighteenth-century as a fantastical narrative form by Western writers concocting stories that commented on their own domestic circumstances. Orient tales like Nights were then often abridged into children’s books imbued with bourgeois morals designed to educate Western readers on how to be good, upstanding Britons.

I don’t drive, and living in Toronto I’ve been happy to take public transit wherever I go. Yet my family doctor is in Oakville, so when I need to see her I go home for the weekend and take a cab to my appointment on the days when my parents can’t give me a lift. So it was that the day after my class I found myself speaking with a middle-aged cab driver who told me that he was from Turkey.

After talking for a while about his family and kids, he then asked about me. I told him that I was about to graduate from U of T in June.

“You are entering your donkey years,” he said.

I thought that I had misheard him, but when I saw him looking at me through the rear-view mirror, eyes smiling, I realized I hadn’t. I asked him what he meant, and he told me this story.

Once upon a time there lived a donkey, a dog, a monkey, and a human. The donkey, dog, and monkey each had a life expectancy of forty years while the Human’s was only twenty. Yet each animal had their unique grievances: the donkey was weary of a life spent working hard for others and being treated poorly for little compensation. The dog was weary of guarding his property and spending its days barking to protect it. The monkey was upset because all anyone ever did was make fun of how silly it was. Yet the human had no grievances  because it’s life was easy and pleasant; its only complaint was that it was so short.

Watching from above, God saw their grieving and transported them to Heaven. He listened the donkey, dog, and monkey’s complaints in turn before turning to the human.

“The other animals say that they wish their lives were shorter because their lives are so tedious and difficult, but your life is good,” God said. “What is then is your grievance?”

“Nothing; I only wish that my life were longer,” the human replied.

Thinking for a moment, God at last announced that he had a solution to all their grievances.

“The donkey, dog, and monkey are all weary of their lives and wish them to be shorter. So I will cut each of their lives in half, and give these extra years to the human,” he said.

The cabbie said that I was now, at twenty-one, one year out of my human years and into my donkey years. My human years were easy, carefree, and pleasant. Upon graduating, my donkey years would involve my taking jobs where I worked hard for long hours with little pay as I climbed my career ladder. When I turn forty, he said, I will enter my dog years, where I have made it to the top of my career and am now barking orders at people below me and guarding the success that I earned in my twenties and thirties. When I turn sixty, I will spend the rest of my life in my monkey years, when my grandchildren will make fun of me for being so silly.

“In all my life, I have never met anyone who was able to disprove my story. Can you?” He asked me. I said I couldn’t. He was exactly right.

When we arrived at the clinic I told him that I would share his story, and I did, with my family and friends. Now I am sharing it here, so you too can share the wisdom I learned from a cabbie.

Band Aid: A Lovesong for First Aid Kit

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Yes, they’re Swedish. No, they don’t sound like ABBA.

Sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg make up the remarkable folk duo First Aid Kit, singing their bittersweet, narrative-rich songs in tight, country-twanged harmonies. The pair skyrocketed to fame in their teens as an online sensation with their polished cover of Tiger Mountain Peasant Song in 2008. The sisters demonstrated their serious artistic chops with their follow-up album The Big Black and the Blue (2010), completed while Klara was still in high school. They followed this gem with The Lion’s Roar (2012), its lead single “Emmylou” noted as one of the top 10 singles of the year by Rolling Stone.

“Lots of people write storytelling songs…set to acoustic music and do pretty harmonies, but First Aid Kit transcends that cliché. Their songs sound like they’ve gone away and seen too much and come back tired but still alive”, writes Tavi Gevinson in Rookie.

Klara’s clear, voice-throwing lead vocals and finger-picking guitar lines are complemented by older sister Johanna’s rich harmonies and accompaniment on the keyboard and autoharp. Upbeat tempos drive mature, sometimes melancholy lyrics. Similar to how the 22-year-old T.S Eliot convincingly took on the persona of a self-conscious middle-aged man in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, the sisters (22 and 25 respectively) belt out tales of female characters coping with adultery (Tangerine), struggling to love again (Blue), and searching for themselves (Waitress Song) with a startling authenticity. As well, country music’s familiar trope of celebrating faith in God is both thoughtfully and provocatively undermined in the songs Hard Believer and Heaven Knows.

“We want our music to work as a means of consolation, as a way of making life a bit more bearable for people. A First Aid Kit for the soul,” the sisters explain of their group’s name.

Graduating from the minimalism of their début album (recorded in Johanna’s bedroom), their music’s wall-of-sound lushness soars in their third studio album Stay Gold (2014), proving the depths and versatility of the sisters’ talents. Together, they’re at the forefront of a revival in folk music appreciation for a new generation.

So go ahead. Take a chance on these Swedish sisters.

His Story: My Family and the Great Wars

A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943. NA 4105 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Keating G (Major) No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, a target for WWII Allied invasion in July 1943.

It’s during the holidays when families tell their stories. The cold and snow (or this year, rain) lure people indoors, silent nights filling with tales of those both present and long passed.

Having recently completed a course on the military’s role in shaping modern society, I wanted to learn more about the impact war has had upon my own family.  Over the course of a single one-hour conversation with my grandfather (we call him Nonno), I heard the story that I share with you today.

My grandfather was sixteen when Allied forces invaded Sicily.

His North-Eastern hometown of Francavilla, isolated from the combat raging in the South, was used by occupying Fascist and Nazi forces as a transportation hub for arms, food, and materiel. It was the Nazis that my grandfather spoke of as most cruel. They killed women and children who refused to part with scarce rations, and caged residents of entire neighborhoods without food or water in livestock pens watched over by machine-gun carrying guards for days. Fascist forces accosted my grandfather as he picked oranges in his family’s orchard, demanding to know his age and if he was a defector masquerading as a civilian, a practice which grew more common as the war waged on.

The Allies announced their presence with swiftly-passing planes which bombed transport  vehicles and killed nearby civilians with each drop. Despite the carnage, the attacks on Axis supply lines were effective;  my grandfather described pairs of patrolling Fascist soldiers forced to share one rifle between them. Fleeing Germans passed through their town towards ships bound for the continent, blowing up bridges and planting land mines in their wake. Nazi reinforcements in the Mediterranean were met by Allied Jeeps and machine guns in their attempts to reach the Sicilian coast.

Frightened of the bombings and German scouts, my grandfather, his family, and crowds of townspeople hid in an abandoned train tunnel in the mountains, leaving its safety only to scavenge food and game in the hills.  A dead man had been sprawled on a sidewalk when the town made its flight; when they returned four days later, certain that the new forces they saw in town where Allies and not Axis, the body had remained untouched.

When the Allies arrived they swept Francavilla for remaining Axis soldiers, finding one Nazi in a countryside shack. The town’s cemetery, used by Axis forces to store drums of gasoline, was set ablaze. Pamphlets were distributed calling for hiding Fascists to surrender at the local church, the crowd which congregated there then taken prisoner. American GIs led the POWs on a side road toward an Allied base outside of town. Crossing one of the town’s few remaining bridges, a land mine was triggered and every man on it was killed.

My grandfather concluded his story here, adding that his family was lucky not to have lost anyone or have been solely dependent on rations, having a farm and livestock to supplement the 150 grams of bread allocated to each citizen per day.

Francavilla di Sicilia
Francavilla di Sicilia and it’s famous ruins of a Medieval castle

He went on to speak of his father, a World War One veteran. Having immigrated to Montreal in the early 1900s, his father answered his nation’s call to arms and returned to Sicily to serve in a volunteer Special Forces storm trooper battalion known as the Arditi (“daring ones”) on the Western Front. These troops were responsible for breaching enemy lines to pave the way for a broader infantry advance to follow. According to the Wikipedia, they “were successful in bringing in a degree of movement to what had previously been a war of entrenched positions. Their exploits on the battlefield were exemplary and they gained an illustrious place in Italian military history.” The Arditi were the most elite force in the Italian army. Some historians consider them to be the modern world’s first true “special forces”. Pretty neat.

His father often told him the story of the Special Forces mutiny which arose following a territorial advance that had quickly been reclaimed by the German line. Exhausted and only just returned to camp from their effort, their commander informed them of the news and demanded that they immediately return to the Front. In response to the ensuring rebellion, the commander lined up the battalion and executed half at random. Rather than quelling rebellion, it infuriated the surviving men who had been forced to watch their comrades die. They were eventually forced to fight by their commander, standing behind them with a pistol pointed at their backs.

The rest of his Special Forces unit was killed in a shelling attack, my great-grandfather surviving under the body of a friend. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Italian victory in WWI all living soldiers who had fought for at least six months were awarded the order of Cavaliere (knight) in recognition of their service to the Italian Republic, including himself.

A sample Cavaliere di_Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather's was issued July 30 1947 under the name Antonio Mazza.
A sample Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto Diploma. My great-grandfather’s was issued under the name Antonio Mazza.

I highly encourage you to ask your elders about how war has impacted their personal history. You never know what stories you’ll keep to commemorate for another generation.

The Best French-Language Films on Canadian Netflix

Netflix Canada boasts an impressive roster of foreign language films. But you already knew that (right?).

I watch French films to keep up my grasp on the language, which having left Montreal at age 14 I try with some success to maintain at an 8th-grade level. I love French films for their originality (compared to Hollywood’s endless stream of sequels and reboots) and startling array of strong leading ladies. To follow is my list of what I consider to be Netflix’s best, all of which feature English subtitles. In no particular order:

  1. Romantics Anonymous (2010)

Watch two incredibly awkward people who share a passion for chocolate fall in love. Sounds like every relationship ever to me.

“The tale of two pathologically shy chocolate makers who are meant for each other but are too afraid to connect is a mug of warm cocoa with marshmallow topping that produces a comfy feel-good glow.”- Stephen Holden, New York Times

2. The Intouchables (2012)

A runaway hit both in France and abroad, this film will leave you with all the feels and warm-fuzzies.

“In this sentimental feel-good saga of an ultra-wealthy quadriplegic and the petty criminal who becomes his caretaker, the chemistry between the two lead actors goes a considerable way toward elevating the broad-strokes culture clash. That’s crucial to a film that is, in essence, a love story.” Sheri Linden, Los Angeles Times Continue reading “The Best French-Language Films on Canadian Netflix”