BEAUTIFUL LOOPS: a narrative in three parts

Part One

With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012
With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012

I sat down to write this blog post in the afternoon of Friday the 13th.  I meant it to be uplifting. I meant it to say something about cyclical patterns that we all can observe as we live; about how rather than unfolding, time creates loops. I meant to talk about some of the beautiful loops; the ones that carry lessons learned and passed along.

But I was interrupted by the nightmarish carnage that tore into the social fabric of Paris yesterday. Which sickens me and which is an example of the other kind of loops. The kind that are amplified by their diffusion around the planet in a matter of minutes by this century’s information technology. The loops that fuel our predisposition to mistrust, to paranoia, and to knee-jerk reactions.  The kind that make the world instantly small, but in the worst possible way because they bring a feeling of menace to our doorstep. Because they nestle right inside our minds.

I’ve spent the first couple of hours of this quiet Saturday morning browsing online, looking for confirmation of what seemed likely last night, and searching out measured and thoughtful written responses that I’ll carry with me throughout the days to come.

They’ll feed my own meditation on the cyclical patterns that I wish we could destroy once and for all, but that instead fill so much of the space and time we occupy. On the heels of November 11th—Remembrance Day to some, Veterans’ Day to others—we seem to have learned nothing. We have so far to go and so many lessons to repeat and repeat and repeat before we have learned to live as one.

The Parisians and tourists who were at the Stade de France, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, or at the Bataclan watching Eagles of Death Metal (a group from California) perform, didn’t know that they would soon be caught in something bigger and more terrifying than they could possibly imagine. They were, instead, doing what humans do best—coming together to celebrate and share with others. In the huge and diverse city of Paris, they had likely experienced many moments of peaceful and trusting human interaction that day; evolutionary evidence that we are capable of learning better ways of living in community.

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Part two

Maybe it’s the right moment to tell you about one of life’s beautiful loops after all.

I’ve spent most of the past month traveling to different companies throughout Montreal to evaluate employees interested in taking French classes, supported by their employer

Icelandic passport
Icelandic passport

and sponsored by the Quebec government—my employer.

Ninety-five percent of them are immigrants. Most arrived recently, but some have been here ten years or more.

This week alone, I interviewed more that 70 people. They are, of course, as individual as their fingerprints. I met people from Iran, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Britain, The United States, India, Israel, Israel by way of Eritrea, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. I know I’ve forgotten a few.

It’s a counter-intuitive exercise.

A list of names is drawn up and handed to me when I arrive on site. I’m ushered to an empty conference room where I settle in with my stack of evaluation forms—one question grid per person.

I position myself facing the door, so that I can greet each of them with a smile.

Within minutes, the first candidate arrives. I have 10 minutes on average to assess their competency in French. The objective is to make sure they’re placed in the right group level so that they’ll learn, have a good time and won’t quit, and then go out into the office and the city and be able to live in French.

200px-Indian_PassportTen minutes is awfully short. You would think that it’s impossible to greet a stranger, make them feel welcome, put them at ease, create a line of comfortable communication, evaluate their linguistic ability and even give them a sense of excitement about learning a new language… in 600 seconds.

Amazingly, it happens almost every time.  We’re hardwired to connect, and in favourable circumstances, it’s almost as effortless as breathing.

One company stood out this week. It was the hardest destination to drive to, in a part of the city where the main arteries are a tangle of dead ends and strange exits. I was pulled over by a cop for driving in a lane reserved for buses (I was trying to read the addresses on the recessed buildings). He felt bad for me and tried to find the place I was looking for on his hand set. He couldn’t find it either.

I finally arrived, a little frayed, and was met by the company’s Accounts Payable Specialist who was visibly at least ten years younger than I had imagined him to be in our email exchanges. He greeted me with a warm handshake, a smile, and an offer of a cup of coffee or tea or water (many more offers followed during the three and a half hours I spent there).

Usually, I am then left to my own devices and simply wait for each candidate to show up. A system that often includes lulls.

But this time, my host took it upon himself to accompany each person to the door of my conference room as soon as the previous evaluation was done. This made things seamless and also invested the proceedings with a sense of solidarity and of importance.

When I was finally done, he of course appeared at the door, and we began to chat. It turns out that he arrived in Montreal as an eight-year-old child and found himself in Classes d’Accueil, the welcoming classes that help immigrant children transition into the regular French language school system here in Quebec, and the place where I began my career as teacher.

Once his French was good enough, he breezed through high school and college and university. I say breezed, but I know, of course, that he did this in his third language (he also speaks English and claims it’s better than his French, which is terrific!). I don’t know the circumstances that brought his family to Montreal, but I know that there was a period of culture shock and struggle.

And yet here he was: a perfect immigrant success story. In his mid-twenties and already managing a group of people a full generation older. Fulfilled in his Montreal life and fully integrated into Québécois society.

And eager to help the wheel make one more full turn for his colleagues.


Part three


Soon, as many as 25 000 Syrian refugees will arrive in Canada. Our newly elected federal government has made it a priority. Six thousand of these are expected in Quebec. Seventy percent of them are likely to settle in Montreal.

May they be part of a new cycle of community-building and acceptance; may they create a new and beautiful loop.

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