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

tumblr_m0yc8bdwXC1qjfqe4o1_1280  the-burning-house

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.

quote-home-is-not-just-the-place-where-you-happen-to-be-born-its-the-place-where-you-become-pico-iyer-73-18-06

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.

3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-1 3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-6

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.

IMG_2211
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. »

269242_10152670715750111_822498053_n
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.

******************

tumblr_nmxsv09o741qanwe4o1_500
There’s no place like home.

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_2184

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.