WHERE IS HOME ?

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.

My home

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.

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.” ― Robin HobbFool’s Fate

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Man begging at the underground entrance of the Centre de commerce mondial de Montréal.

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. »

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Penelope, feverish, cuddling with her mama, Anne.

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.

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of the Island

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.

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There’s no place like home.

 

 

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STUDENT OF WEATHER

Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015
Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015

In my last year as a history undergrad at Concordia University, I wrote a paper about Canadian identity, specifically about our «northern-ness», and how the North—more than any other criteria in the «What-makes-Canadians-Canadian» debate—defines us and has shaped our culture.

I think back on those years and smile. Undergrads can churn out essays like nobody’s business. And if memory serves, the ideas were far less important to our professors than how we articulated them (that was a big verb in those years) and structured them.

 

Even as I handed it in, I remember feeling that it was a purely intellectual exercise. My belief that there is such a thing as a Canadian identity was still far more visceral than rational. And yet, that’s among the papers I remember most clearly.

It’s presently 6:23 on a cold winter morning. The sun won’t be rising for another hour. The walls and windows of the house crack and make subtle banging noises as hot-water heatingIMG_2487 pipes, frames and panes react to contrasting heat and cold. The furnace has been running for hours and hours, on and off but mostly on, because it has been very cold, minus 17 ° Celsius (1 ° F) and this old house just can’t keep in its heat.

It’s pitch black, but it isn’t. And you can’t understand that unless you understand northern winter skies, which are never completely dark. Because the night sky over my house is actually white: dark white, which makes no sense until you see it. But it is. And in spite of the fact that there’s still not a hint of sunlight in it, you can see the clouds that overlay the basic whiteness of the sky. Dark blue whiteness.

Winter sky over my street.
Winter sky over my street.

It’s beautiful.

My IPhone camera just can’t do it justice, which disappoints me.

I wrote about our Christmas Eve weather in a previous blog: about how the temperature climbed up to 17 degrees  (63 ° F). That was crazy weather that’s nevertheless slowly entering our climate-changed collective consciousness here.

Not long after that though, normality returned. A snowstorm blew in and dumped 40 cm of fresh white snow on the ground. It’s gorgeous. Tree branches, rooftops and even roads were covered. White streets are just the prettiest thing.

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People shoveled driveways and front walks. They cleared the snow from their cars. Those who live closer to downtown found their vehicles buried and jammed-in by packed, plowed snow.

Many people in Quebec hire contractors to come clear their driveway in the winter, usually getting together with their neighbours for better service (and a better price!). This didn’t exist when I was growing up, but I like the industriousness of it (a few entrepreneurs understood that you can establish a decent business doing this) and the job creation. But it says something about our changed lifestyle too: no one has the time; everyone is pressed to get to work, to school, to daycare. Or isn’t fit enough to shovel.

Christian in his Northern NInja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm
Christian in his Northern Ninja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm

 

My wonderful neighbor John revved up his big, heavy, noisy snowblower and cleared his driveway, then his next door neighbour’s, then ours. He kept going till he was too tired to continue. Such kindness is the stuff of angels. Or Frank Capra movies.

Earlier this morning, I heard the voice of Mike Finnerty on CBC radio (he’s fantastically good at his job) explaining that temperatures are now on the rise again, and that by Saturday, we’ll be back to +5° C.

 

 

That means that my furnace will get a bit of a break (and my Hydro bill too), but that we’ll lose a lot of the snow that adds beauty to the landscape and provides acoustic peace in a leafless winter world.

It also means a temperature swing of 22 degrees in a few days.

What kind of people live with these kinds of major shifts in the environment they blithely walk around in most of the time?

Canadians do. Well, almost all of us. Except for the folks on the lower West coast, and Torontonians—historically at least (recent meteorological history has destabilized them too).

A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn
A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn

 

A lot of our culture comes straight from the U.S. Most of it, probably. But not our weather culture. That’s 100% ours. And I’m pretty sure that no one, anywhere else in the world, does weather the way we do.

Weather—or météo, as it’s referred to in Quebec—is one of the most important modules in beginner level French classes for adults. Understanding forecasts is crucial, and newly arrived immigrants need to pick up the skill fast. Being fluent in «weatherese» means knowing which clothes and how many layers you’ll have to put on or take off during the course of the day; what your children need to wear to school (especially in the schoolyard) ; how long your commute will be and how many public transit delays are likely. It also means being able to start a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

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Montreal winters can get so cold that people migrate below ground and work, stroll, shop and socialize in the heated underground city (actually, an indoor city); and Montreal summers can be so hot and humid that the same climate-controlled spaces beckon once again. It’s a wonder there’s anyone in the streets. And yet, outdoor terrasses everywhere are packed and lively.

Many years ago, in late March or early April, I wrote a letter to my younger sister who lives in Coquitlam, BC. It was a year when winter was long and spring’s arrival was incredibly swift. I must have waxed poetic about everything going on outside in « the weather ».

Not long after, I received an email from her, which read like a long sigh, asking me to keep writing to her about these thing, telling me that she missed the changing seasons and longed for those natural rhythms and shifts.

Surely, we’re changed by the climate and the weather we live in.

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A winter gale brings the skin pain and bone-deep shivering of «wind chill», but on a steamy summer day, you can find a shady spot, close your eyes and feel the strong, cooling wind on your skin, hear it hissing in the trees, and feel truly happy.

 

There are summer days when the scorching sun—that even my South Asian students are distressed to feel burning their skin—is so merciless that the only place to be is at the shopping mall or in the water. But on a frigid winter afternoon, when the sky is the clearest, driest blue imaginable, you can find a sunny spot at home, by the window, and sit there like a happy cat, soaking up the warm rays, your face turned, flower-like, toward the golden light.

With each equinox, our homes become bellows as we shut our windows tight in the fall to keep the chill wind out, trapping the smells of harvest cooking, only to fling them wide open in spring to let in fresh air and birdsong.

Every summer, sitting outside on the lawn and listening to the birds (and a lawnmower or two),  I have a moment when I look around me and think:  I can’t believe that in a few months all of this will be gone and I won’t be able to sit out; there’ll be no leaves on the trees; I’ll be spending my days indoors, and going for a walk will feel like an impossible memory.

And then, in early spring, I’ll look at the trees and I’ll will them to sprout the leaves I love so much, while dreaming of green, green, green;  and I’ll feel like bursting with optimism when the first flock of migrating Canada geese flies over the house.

What have I learned from the weather? Adaptability, I think. Maybe that’s part of my Canadian, northern identity.

An acquired acceptance of change?  The ability to shift my perspective?

I hope so.

To everything there is a season.

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THE HUMAN FLOCK

Just recently, I found myself at a small company located in a commercial-industrial zone of Montreal that sits under the flight path of Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport. One of those ugly, boxy single story brown brick buildings with flat roofs that cause nothing but trouble in our snowy climate and all look the same from the outside.

I was there to evaluate a group of men for French classes.

It’s always fascinating to find out what goes on inside these places.

In the conference room. Photo taken by me.
In the conference room.
Photo taken by me.

The company makes molded plywood seating products. A dozen men came to see me, each in turn. They work as machine operators. Most were close to the end of their shift and covered in a fine powder that looked like sawdust.

They divided up pretty evenly into three groups: Filipinos, Armenians and Sri Lankans. This often happens. Through networks that most of us know nothing about, new arrivals to the city—people who have no contacts and who have very little money—are funneled to companies like this one. Maybe it’s better to say that they follow trails left by compatriots and transmitted by word of mouth.

Many were brought by a supervisor to the door of the conference room where I sat waiting. I could feel their unease. This wasn’t their environment.

One of the first people I saw was an older Armenian man. He, too, was covered in dust and flecks. It was in his hair, in his mustache and stuck to his skin. He was a big, fleshy man but not, I think, a big strong man. He had a large, round face and sloping shoulders. And sad eyes.

He spoke no French at all, and barely any English. Just enough to tell me that he had been here for three months and that he had a wife and an eight-year-old son, which surprised me and caused me to recalculate this man’s age; he looked too old to have a child so young.

He also told me that four weeks into his new life here, there was a fire in the building he was living in, and he and his family lost everything, including all of their papers, I.D, his old drivers’ license …everything. Everything. And I thought: is it possible to start lower than from scratch?

Then I learned that he had come from Syria, fleeing Aleppo. I marveled that he has made it this far, and wondered at what cost. He seemed so weary. I thought of his heart beating in his chest and wondered if it’s strong enough.

Ceiling fixture in the conference room Photo taken by me
Ceiling fixture in the conference room
Photo taken by me

Not all living creatures are migratory. I’m not. I grew up just a short distance from where I now live. In the same town. At this moment, my three sons and their loved ones are all close by. But that has not always been so, and could change again.

This is the way the world works and has always worked. Our migratory patterns are determined by opportunity, history, necessity and urgency. For some, there’s also a sense of adventure.

Three days ago, Anna, a former student of mine who’s now simply a friend, sent me a link to a piece by Helen MacDonald in the New York Times titled «The Human Flock». It’s a stunning, poetic piece.

Anna introduced it with the words: «Cranes flying south for winter evoke the people seeking refuge below. »

The starting point of MacDonald’s essay is the annual southern migration of Eurasian cranes from Russia and Northern Europe through the Hortobagy region of northeastern Hungary, which she has witnessed and which attracts hundreds of tourists; an experience which mirrors the murmurations of English starlings as winter approaches, and the mass migrations of Canada geese over much of the autumn skies of Quebec.

MacDonald is fascinated by the movements of flocking birds and her depictions of these are exquisite. So, too, are her descriptions of the human emotions this phenomenon evokes: wonder, joy and fascination, certainly, but also something at times overwhelming and fearful.

And it’s in those darker feelings that she makes a true connection between the avian and human worlds, saying:  «No starling wants to be on the edge of the flock, or among the first to land. »

There is apprehension on both sides.

And of course, the reader immediately sees the parallels with the Syrian migrants on Hungarian soil, facing a cold and angry welcome and gripped by a fear of fearful people.

Canada geese resting in the safety on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec. Photo taken by me 08/12/15
Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec.
Photo taken by me 08/12/15

 

Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec. Photo taken by me 08/12/15
Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec.
Photo taken by me 08/12/15

 

Me photographing the Canada geese.
Me photographing the Canada geese.

MacDonald ends her piece by saying that the moment individual beaks and wings and tail feathers become distinguishable among the flocks, the dizzying, rushing patterns of the migrating birds begin to dissolve. Nothing seems as chaotic or confused.

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There is a beautiful symmetry in my friend Anna’s thoughtfulness: a former student of French drawing my attention to the plight of potential future students.

Anna and the cranes have reminded me how important it is to bring as many human migrants as I can into the centre of the flock—to safety.