His name is Fadi. I was evaluating his level of proficiency in French for future classes at a company which manufactures skin care products.
Fadi is young. Clearly. But he has the kind of face that won’t have changed very much when he’s forty-five. An old-young face. Curly pale hair combed back and off his forehead, exposing a hairline that wants to recede.
His look was « conservative office » : serviceable shirt and trousers, neat but bland, no jacket.
What struck me was his nervous intensity. His mouth was dry. His serious eyes widened every time he spoke—softly, but also rushed.
Why he should feel such a sense of urgency still bothers me. I learned that though he only arrived in Montreal a month ago, he has already found a position as the I.T. guy in the office.
An Armenian Syrian, he left Aleppo with his three brothers and came here to start a new life. He is, in fact, an electrical engineer, and I imagine his brothers are highly educated as well. But their parents stayed behind, unsure and afraid to leave their home.
As he explained this, I could almost feel his tie to his parents pulling painfully hard on his chest. And thought again about his home country being bled of its youth and its hope.
When I asked him what he would do if he won 15 million dollars that very night (usually, a lighthearted means of testing a student’s grasp of the conditional tense), he answered in French, without hesitation : I would use it to bring peace to my country…I would help others in my country.
When I asked him if he would go back to Aleppo, he said Yes, but I would also live in Canada.
And within the turmoil of his earnest answers and my own desire to reassure him, was the problem of home. And what’s referred to as le mal du pays, in French. Homesickness. Fadi is suffering the first stages of it. Yet still, he wants to stay here and make a new life.
Though I’ve never lived more than a twenty minute drive from the place I was born, I felt instant empathy for Fadi. Far from home is a difficult place to be.
I’ve had three true homes in my life.
The first was an upper duplex in Lachine, just around the corner from the house where my husband was busy growing up, though of course I had no idea at the time (we would meet years later, as teenagers, in a different city).
My family left that duplex when I was three to move into a brand new semi-detached, two story house in Pointe-Claire, but my grandmother moved into the space we left behind, and stayed there for years, so it never lost its familiar and settled feeling for me and remains etched in my memory.
I left my parents’ house to go live with my husband when I was 22. We nested temporarily (2 ½ years) in a 4th floor apartment right on the lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, where we made our twins, providing us with the incentive to take the biggest plunge of our lives into a depressed real estate market (well, maybe the 2nd biggest plunge : having two babies is tough to beat).
Decades later, we’re still here. Our house is a 10 minute walk from my mum’s.
You see? I call her house «my mum’s», though it’s the same semi-detached house I grew up in. I think I began doing this when my twins were born, because from that moment on, my home was the place where our children were.
I can rattle off the postal codes of all of these places without hesitation, like I’m pinning them onto a mental map. And yet, I’ve come to realize that my attachment to our battered but cozy A-frame house is waning. I’ve also noticed that the objects in it mean less and less to me.
Does this signal an important change in me? Maybe. Over time, I’ve felt more and more weighed down by the familiar objects that I once loved for the memories I believed they held, or the comfort I thought they gave me. If you live long enough in the same place, you can become buried alive.
In a quirky and beautifully designed small book compiling the hundreds of photographs that first appeared on his blog, Foster Huntington asked the question : If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door ? and then set about curating all of the answers he received.
It’s a great question, and answering it is also, I think, taking steps toward defining not only what we value, but what « home » really means.
When his house in California was burned to ash by a wildfire, Pico Iyer, the British-born essayist and novelist perhaps best known for his travel writing and nomadic life, came to the realization that from then on: «My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me. » It was, he said, a terrific liberation.
Someone once told me that home ownership—the notion that we « own » a property and that it’s ours—is a delusion. He said that no matter how many papers we sign at the notary’s, we’re still just passing through; just temporary stewards of the building. Three families lived in our home before us; I wonder how many more will after we leave it. Surely, no one will stay as long as we did.
An eye-catching piece popped up on Facebook a few months ago, about a Japanese artist who uses a 3-D printer to create architecturally ingenious plastic shells for hermit crabs, that support miniature, identifiable cities (the tiny crustaceans appear nonplussed, but their shells wowed me).
The whimsy, technological brilliance and beauty of these little works of art are dazzling, but I wonder if the more important message isn’t found among the hermit crabs themselves—tiny squatters of nature who scavenge their homes from the floor of the sea and discard them when a better shell comes along.
Sometimes, though, there are no shells.
Last summer, the results of Montreal’s first official homelessness census were released.
- The census takers were able to find 3016 people living on the streets.
- 76 per cent of homeless people in Montreal are men.
- 93 per cent of the people who sleep outside, in Montreal, are men.
- 44 per cent of people experiencing homelessness were born in Montreal.
- Immigrants represent 10 per cent of the homeless population.
- 10 per cent of Montreal’s homeless population is aboriginal, even though less than one per cent of Montreal’s total population are indigenous.
- Veterans represent six per cent of Montreal’s homeless.
Homelessness in the city’s suburbs is disguised as «couch surfing » in the basement of a friend.
Fadi’s anguish stems from trying to create a new home here while pining for the one he left behind. He is part of what Pico Iyer refers to as « the great floating tribe» : the hundreds of millions of people living in a country not their own. His problem is the result of the movement we call migration.
But as Pico Iyer says: « Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep, it’s the place where you stand. »
Before she was two years old, my granddaughter Penelope became sick with a flu. She got the very best of care; was held, cuddled, given medication, read to, and sung to patiently by her mama and papa. Still, at a low moment, clutching her blanket as she lay on the couch, she looked at her parents and said, in her tiny soprano voice : « I want to go home.»
We all understood that to this brand new little person, home already meant that place where there is happiness, where there is no worry, and where there is safety and security.
“I wonder if it will be—can be—any more beautiful than this,’ murmured Anne, looking around her with the loving, enraptured eyes of those to whom ‘home’ must always be the loveliest spot in the world, no matter what fairer lands may lie under alien stars.”
If you’re interested in reading about the migrant experience, you can take a look at this blog post: YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.