Always one day before the end of the month, the welfare office deposits 1173 dollars into the bank account of Konstantin. Another payment of 526 dollars, ‘child benefit’ as it is called, is paid on the 20th of each month, Canadian dollars of course. So after paying rent (just increased to $914), telephone, cable, credit card debts, car insurance and gas, hydro costs, kids’ savings plan and bus tickets, 392 dollars are left for the family of five to make it through the month. March had 31 days, so they had to get by on $12.64 a day. Recently, such calculations have made Konstantin think about his luck.
This is Canada for sure, their new home, a vast country that looked good from the outside looking in. Once “inside” the family quickly learned that “opportunity” is a deeply ambiguous term. Back home in their urbanized village, some 65km from Bucharest, Romania, the Ilyanov’s would have called it a “class” concept. Low-income people, here as there, live in low quality apartment buildings; the difference here is that these buildings mainly house immigrants. Where you live plays a big role on the quality of life, here as there, with the good neighborhoods privileged with the best schools and social facilities.
“Opportunity” has different meaning for those with well-paying jobs and for those who don’t have work or who work in the countless fast-food franchises and convenience stores. The word “Opportunity” translates into a different meaning for those who have property and who hold “liquid assets”, thus allowing them to access and enjoy the natural and cultural richness of the country. Opportunities become real for the “haves”; for the others, they exist as quickly changing images on TV or in travel brochures of faraway places (excluding Romania). Opportunities are just unfulfilled promises, mere fiction.
For now, real life demands careful, often hard choices: what grocery items to buy, which brands to choose and which products to skip. The abundance of products shelved and lined up in the super-market only poorly conceals the fact that quantity and quality do not go together. If you buy the kids’ cereal on sale for $2.99, you get a big box of low nutrition, high sugar loops. The high fiber and nutritionally balanced cereal is never on sale: half the amount would cost you $4.69, more than a third of your daily budget. Buying meat is no different: pork and “regular” high fat beef is always cheap. Nobody informs you about the way this meat was produced or how many hormones were injected into the animals.
In the village back in Romania, no farmer could afford hormones. Although meat was not on the daily menu, when it was served up, it did have a healthy taste. Over here, fresh fish is unaffordable on a regular basis. So opportunity actually means that poor people in a rich country can eat plenty of tasty low quality food. But it is best not to think about the eventual health consequences. If people were only half-aware of the food-health relationship, they might decide to avoid growing overweight (more than 45% of Canadians and well over 50% of US residents are considered too heavy). They could also avoid having to wear ill-fitting clothes from discount retailers or used clothing stores. If the high carbohydrate diet makes people obese (and worse, given that a lot of processed food is saturated with hormones, preservatives and other chemicals) and leads to bad teeth too (dental plans are not easy to come by), at least people are supposed to revel in the freedom of choice between some thirty plus fast food joints on Merivale Road.
Another disgrace and insult to the poor is that pizza delivery drivers have to use their own, rusting and crumbling cars to do their underpaid jobs: jobs that so dearly depended on tips from junk-food consumers without dental plans. But at least, as long as they have cars, they can do more of their own grocery shopping at the cheaper, big supermarkets, avoiding the hefty price “premium” of the neighborhood grocery store. Nobody can explain what is convenient about those stores. Perhaps a pizza delivery guy can average $31.38 a day, minus car costs. Sometimes of course there is extra pizza to take home, but the kids no longer get much excited at the prospect of left-over pizza, five times a week.
Konstantin had promised to write home, by e-mail of course. He still does, bet less often than in the first two years since their arrival. It is hard to not be positive in his e-mails about how good he and his family have it here. If he’d describe the social and economic realities he has been thrust into, most relatives and friends simply would feel insulted. How could he, as one of the lucky ones who got away from the backwardness and bleakness of life back home, complain of hardship and lack of genuine opportunity? Of course, he has occasionally doubted himself, thinking it’s his own fault that he does not have a ‘good’ job, with benefits, and doesn’t own a nice little house (he is still under the illusion that being bound to a mortgage for 25 years, somehow equates to home-ownership). If they were given an immigration visa, all of his day-dreaming family and friends would come to join him here, ready to seize their ‘chance’ too.
In August, he will turn 50. If by 55 he can make a down payment on a semi-detached house, he would be 80 by the time he owned his abode; in any case, an old dwelling by then. He has begun to project his hopes for a better life to his children, the oldest now sixteen. For Konstantin and his wife, opportunity is just a lottery ticket away.
Story written by Glenn Brigaldino
Glenn Brigaldino is an independent political analyst living above the 49th parallel. He was a contributor to the 2002-2005 Newtopia Magazine venture and remains loosely affiliated with the new project.
In the early 1980s he was an active member in the German Green party, until it became absorbed in the political mainstream. As a specialist in international cooperation, he has worked for aid and relief organizations in Africa, Europe and elsewhere.