Making inside of yourself a safe place to be

As I embark soon on a new adventure to a new place, one which is very likely to be less comfortable and entertaining from a Western perspective than my previous home base, I feel completely at peace with my decision. Driving around Calgary yesterday morning I imagined chatting with a local teenager about my choice and explaining to them the amenities that I will soon be without as I settle into typical town life in a West African country. There will be no shopping malls, no cinema, very little diversity in restaurant food and certainly no luxuries such as Apple Stores and Cirque du Soleil. I’m visualizing instead sunlight, warmth, a simple home with a simple office and some dusty roads to get from one to the other*. These images brings ease to my heart. I could imagine however that it would make my hypothetical teenager cringe in distaste. She would then turn to me, bewildered, asking “How the hell are you going to survive out there ?!?” wondering why on Earth I would choose to move to a place like this, and do it willingly.

When I think of the many forms of entertainment and distractions that my Canadian reality currently offers me, I consider why they exist in the first place. For some reason, ever since I’ve arrived back here from Africa earlier this summer, the topic of mental health here in Canada has often been on my mind and shared in discussions. I am told that after an economic downturn when Calgarians were earning the big bucks working for oil & gas firms there has been a slump, many lay-offs and consequently many people moving from a place of personal financial power to what can be seen as a fall in the ranks. They are dealing with life’s ups and downs, as we all do, and some are letting go of how things used to be with less grace than others. Depression and its extreme cousin, suicide, have already been present for a long time, and now, or so I am told, they are finding a stronger foothold. Calgary has been an economic powerhouse for many Canadians (and many immigrants) and has drawn people from outside of the province for a long time. Migration for the chance of better economic conditions happens all the time and everywhere, and it can also bring with it a lacking sense of community and belonging. If so many of us are from somewhere else and we have all essentially gathered here in the pursuit of the dollar, does this common purpose actually bring us together in any real, community-building way?

Human beings desire meaningful and lasting relationships with other human beings. No amount of facebooks, instagrams or facetimes can ever substitute our basic human needs as the social creatures that we are. If you think they can then I think that you are kidding yourself. Yes the online tools can be useful in so far as we can share basic communication and ideas with those who are far away, and with those who are nearby, at least in my humble opinion, they can serve to plan an actual face to face meeting.

Art, literature, entertainment, great food and beautiful shows can add richness and beauty to our lives, yet whether or not they can be a part of our long-term happiness depends on why we reach for them in the first place. Our own emotions and experiences of life can feel so overwhelming at times that all we want to do is to escape, and for that, I am unhappy to report, we have already found a million and one solutions. Consider every addiction ever heard of and every experience where we are stimulated and lose all sense of time – and therein we have found an escape. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying we need to be aware of it, and to be aware of why we are doing it. Escape once, escape twice and continue reaching for something to numb that which is alive and real in you and you are in many ways cheating yourself. This can be a calculated cheating and please believe me when I express my heartfelt empathy for all those facing huge losses and traumas in their lives. Nevertheless, my attention comes back to whether or not what are doing is done with awareness and if, with that awareness, we can begin to glimpse the consequences of these escapes. The less we feel safe with what is present now in life, the less that we can trust in a mysterious unfolding of events that so often we can not comprehend, the less we feel safe within ourselves.

What I felt like saying yesterday in this conversation with the Canadian teenager in my head, is that what allows me to live in places devoid of what some people might consider good living and good entertainment is that I have created – and I continue to create – safety within myself to be with myself. I realize now that any practice I have ever practiced in being gentle with myself, in being kind and considerate with myself in any struggle that I am facing has created a place of softness and relaxation within me. This softness allows me to breathe, if even just a little or for just one second more, and to be with myself as I am and to be in peace. If a situation still feels overwhelming I can choose to escape into a movie, a book, take a trip or grab a bottle of red and go dancing (yup, sometimes it’s the best solution!) then I do so consciously and not without acknowledging that I have taken the time, sometimes nothing more than a short minute, to practice finding safety within myself first. Practice, practice and practice more and what unfolds is a mind and an internal universe which is a place of comfort. It is a place where I happily go and I visit it not to judge, hurt and scream at myself but instead it is where I retreat inside to find understanding, to connect with peace and, as is often the case, simply to breathe, accept and to let it be. This place has become sacred and, over time, even enjoyable so that when I’m done connecting within and I’m reaching for entertainment I reach much more often now for that which will add beauty to this internal universe as opposed to reaching for something or someone who will help me to escape it.

Up to now I never fully considered what all of the readings and teachings in buddhism, yoga and meditation – everything that I learn and practice which rings so true in my heart about surrender, acceptance, non-violence and non-stealing – would really mean when put together. What I have recently discovered is that this trust in the Divine, the trust that I have in my own path and the understanding of how things truly are coming together to form an internal place of safety and light that serves me in any time and through any storm. And because this special place is within myself and always present I take it with me everywhere that I go.

I can only add that I would wish such a place of safety would be uncovered and accessible inside each and every person.


*That’s not to say that markets and musical concerts and shows in my African town don’t exist, because they do, but they certainly won’t be presented in the same way as we would expect it in Canada. This makes them interesting, yes, but rarely restful.

Image: practicing a 3-legged dog at yoga teacher training in Canada, summer of 2018. Photo credit to Inspired Yoga Institute

The 4 biggest differences when working with the French (and Francophones)

French is the official language in nearly 30 countries around the world. France was busy colonizing many parts of the New World and Africa…the remaining effects of which are the spreading of France’s language, culture and mentality to many nations around the world.

It is my pleasure and honour to have discovered several Francophone (meaning French-speaking) countries and regions while pursuing diverse personal and professional projects. Today, I continue this discovery while living and working in Dakar, Senegal. You could call me a true francophile (meaning one who loves French and French culture).

I started learning French in school when I was about 12 years old. The first time I actually found it useful was when I was 15 years old, on holiday in the Caribbean, and able to converse in French with a cute boy from Switzerland! Perfecting and fine-tuning the language began in my early 20s when in 2008 I spent a semester abroad in Bordeaux, France. Since then I’ve worked alongside both Quebec and French nationals in work, volunteer and personal projects in Canada, France, Haiti and Senegal. While these countries and regions are unique they all share a common ground, that is they are francophone – French-speaking – and thus influenced by France (and colonization) not only through language but also through culture, mentality and approach.

Indeed, there are many aspects of French culture that I adore. The obsession with good food, for one (reaches for café and croissant…) and an emphasis on participation in social and political movements, as a second. The Frenchies also have a love of culture and the arts which I find inspirational.

Nevertheless, I’m in more of a complaining mood myself now and in the need to point out what is different, and in my opinion, outdated and bothersome, in the French.

Arguably, complaining is also a French quality 😉

In any case, I’ve highlighted 4 points below in the ways of thinking and doing that are quite different from Anglo-saxon English-speaking Canada where I grew up (yeehaw, Calgary!!). Here, my observations. These are centered around work since my main experience with Francophones has, up to now, been in my studies and in the workplace.

If you also have experience shifting between Anglo-saxon and French work cultures – I’d love to hear your opinion.

1. Looks matter more than your results

In general, I find that my francophone colleagues pay more attention to the presentation of their work (fonts, colours, pretty folders) than they do to the real content of their work. Not to say that the quality of the content is necessarily poor…rather that when given the choice between a polished idea and a polished binder…they go for the binder. My Anglo-saxon reared self is more wired for efficiency and a get-things-done-right-at-the-core-no-matter-the-potential-messiness. As a manager, I’d much prefer to receive great content with some formatting to fix up.. rather than the opposite! Like cutting into a bright, red shiny apple which you later find to be a bit rotten at the centre… I prefer the slightly-bruised-on-the-outside, perfectly tasty and whole apple on the inside.

This adherence to image is also reflected in length of writing. On the one hand French, a language of diplomacy, is much more wordy than English, a language of science and efficiency. Then, also, there is a general fondness among Francophones for being long-winded and roundabout in their writing (or speaking, presenting, recording) approach. I was taught in my Anglo-saxon upbringing that the capacity to be succinct and express complex ideas in short, simple phrases is golden – and to that I hold. I find that some Francophones disagree.

It is easy to see other manifestation of the How over the What, the Form being more important than the Result in other aspects of life – for example, in fashion. I like to dress well, as much as the next woman, but I don’t swear by it. If I’m in the mood to step out in my pajamas to buy some staples at the shop on my street, I do it! I can understand and sympathize with the hypothetical American millionaire that goes out for a coffee in L.A. in their sweatpants. I think it’s OK and even commendable – a sign of being sure and confident in oneself without requiring outside approval every minute of the day. But this hypothetical billionaire would never do this were they of true French or francophone culture. In Francophone culture, image must reflect your quality and your social status, always.

This is the single, biggest cultural and professional difference for me coming from an Anglo-saxon approach into a francophone environment.

As Professor Higgins once rudely sang in “My Fair Lady” about the French and their obsession with proper French pronunciation “It doesn’t matter what you say…as long as you say it properly”.

Well, as in every cultural jibe…there’s some truth in this one too.

2. Being “diplomatic” tops being direct

In English-speaking Canada as in the USA good communication is understood to be direct and clear communication. We pay attention to verbalizing comfortable as well as uncomfortable truths so that everyone involved can have a clear understanding of the situation. We can be tactful – yes – while remaining direct. We think that good management and leadership includes these qualities of clarity, brevity and direction.

Here in the French-speaking world, yet again, form outweighs result and being diplomatic is often seen as more important than being direct. To be diplomatic though can be both helpful and harmful. It can mean the kind of diplomacy that helps to handle a delicate situation where many points of view and beliefs have to be respected, and it can also mean evasiveness, false flattery or outright lying. In Senegal, where people are conflict-evasive, this means that people will tell you exactly what you want to hear, while looking you straight in the eye…while never once having the intention to follow through on their words. Needless to say, this is tiring, confusing and undermines trustworthiness. The weight of our words is not viewed equally.

3. Reprimanding over rewarding

Perhaps I’m mistaken here… but I find the French management style singularly different from the American or Canadian model. The first places emphasis on highlighting mistakes and potential improvements while the former takes time to emphasize work well done and right attitudes. (Sarcastically) I have the distinct feeling that all the studies surrounding positive reinforcement, reward systems and motivations are made by the English-speaking and American community and remain there. Personally, I find it way too discouraging to continuously plod along in a cloud of could-have-been-better (of course things can always be better!)…I prefer to choose positivism, encouragement and reinforce in myself and others what has been done right.


4. Titles, diplomas and hierarchy

Here is another biggie – the idea of institutions and certificates firmly defining the personal or professional trajectory. Studies, titles and a properly planned career are fine… and so is the self-made man (or woman). The American dream lives on and its key component is the belief that time and energy invested towards an objective, any objective regardless its perceived outlandishness, reap the greatest harvests, always. My own journey of wildly changing career paths and interests in my 20s confirms that I really can do anything I put my mind to, whether or not it’s a field I’ve previously worked or studied in. In short, schooling, titles and career-climbing are OK, but it’s just one among many models for success and not the one true path. Here, Francophones are more rigid in their approach and prefer a traditional model. Titles are scrutinized and years of study and experience praised.

So, voilà. Feel free to agree and disagree, this is certainly a very personal list, nor is it necessarily complete.

If you too have had experience with working on the one hand in Anglo-saxon or English speaking cultures and also in a Francophone ones… would you agree with the above observations? Is there anything that you would add here? What do you find to be the biggest difference for you, the native anglophone, when working alongside the francophone?

Thanks for sharing – au revoir et au plaisir de vous lire!

Polko – Kanadyjka : )

Kocham lotniska.

Można powiedzieć, że są trochę jak igrzyska olimpijskie lub ONZ , gdzie wszyscy niezależnie od rasy, narodowości oraz statusu społecznego mogą brać udział w tej samej dyscyplinie. Tutaj na międzynarodowym lotnisku we Frankfurcie, naszą dyscypliną jest znalezienie kolejnej bramki, czy też bagażu. Z sukcesem zlokalizowałam bagietkową kanapkę oraz kawę, po czym przyjęłam odpoczywającą pozycję skierowaną w stronę okna i wydarzeń dziejących się na pasie startowym. Przyglądam się jak samolot linii Air Canada zaczyna powoli unosić się w powietrzu, a jego namalowany liść klonu znika z widoku wraz z ogonem samolotu. Czuję ogromny sentyment do mojego kolejnego kraju. Jest to takie ciepłe uczucie względem tego zimnego klimatu 🙂

To był wspaniały czas w mojej ojczyźnie, Polsce. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwa, ponieważ teraz jest ona dla mnie autentyczna… . Koncept pracy, zabawy, życia w Polsce, po polsku i z polakami jest teraz dla mnie namacalny. To nie jest już tylko wakacyjne wspomnienie z dalekiego kraju, z którego pochodzą moi rodzice… To żyjący, oddychający twór.

Istnieje kilka pozornie prostych, ale bardzo symbolicznych dla mnie wydarzeń, które zostaną w mojej pamięci. Podpisanie mojej pierwszej umowy o pracę w języku polskim, przejeżdżanie lub przechodzenie przez Puławską… to magiczna nazwa, którą często słyszałam jako dziecko, ponieważ moja rodzina miała w czasach PRL’u mieszkanie na tej właśnie ulicy. Pierwszego sierpnia stolica emanuje energią… W tym roku obchodzimy 70 rocznicę Powstania Warszawskiego. Spotkania odbywają się na Nowym Świecie. Jadę ze znajomymi krętymi, wyboistymi drogami, śpiewając po drodze ukraińskie folkowe piosenki. Piękna, ciepła, złota polska jesień. Piszę (a raczej próbuję pisać) po polsku firmowe maile. Jestem w nich znana jako „Pani Katarzyna” 🙂 Aczkolwiek te dwa ostatnie elementy najbardziej mnie bawią i sprawiają, że na mojej twarzy pojawia się uśmiech. Jako „Pani Katarzyna” jestem jak staromodna kobieta mająca we krwi grzeczność i formalność, a w rzeczywistości czekam cierpliwie na moment, w którym będzie można zakończyć te kulturalne uprzejmości i zaczniemy mówić sobie po imieniu. Jak człowiek do człowieka.

Podczas przyglądania się jak samolot linii Air Canada kieruje swój dziób ku pasu startowemu uświadamiam sobie, że moja tożsamość bycia jednocześnie Polką i Kanadyjką, będzie dla mnie nierozłączna jeszcze przez długi czas, a właściwie do końca życia – na szczęście. Będąc w Polsce jestem wyróżniana przez innych z powodu mojego kanadyjskiego wychowania. Będąc w Kanadzie jestem rozpoznawalna przez moje polskie dziedzictwo. To są wrażenia zewnętrzne. Wewnątrz nie ma potrzeby konfliktu czy wytykania tego palcami, tylko akceptacja. Mogłabym po prostu wybrać ulubiony kraj, tak samo jak mogłabym wybrać ulubionego rodzica. Oddzielenie siebie od jednego bądź drugiego kraju, byłoby jak wybranie tylko prawej ręki zamiast lewej. One się wzajemnie uzupełniają.  Moje etui na paszporty pasuje idealnie zarówno na ten bordowy jak i niebieski dokument.

Każdy z nich ma swoje miejsce w zależności od moich potrzeb na dany moment. Wybieram ten odpowiedni do danego celu.

Tak, piszę głównie po angielsku. Kilka lat temu musiałam podjąć decyzję w jakim języku pisać. Wybrałam ten, którego najwięcej używałam, który jest najbardziej chwytliwy. Mój umysł byłby jednak pozbawiony większej głębi i doceniania różnorodności bez znajomości innych języków. Elokwencja francuskiego, czy pierwotne tony hiszpańskiego… one również mnie uzupełniają . Nie być w stanie spontanicznie zażartować, zaśpiewać, czy opowiedzieć jakąś historię w moim ojczystym języku polskim… to by było rzeczywiście smutne.

Teraz zmierzam do niewielkiej nacji na Karaibach, znanej ludzkości głównie jako jeden z najbiedniejszych krajów na Ziemi; znanej mi, jako kraj rojący się od marzeń, nadziei i ciepła. Kiedy dotrę na Haiti, to wiem , że na pierwszy rzut oka będę dla haitańczyków jak ta kolejna „biała kobieta”. . W najlepszym wypadku mieszkańcy będą mieć tylko nikłe pojęcie kim jestem i skąd pochodzę. W porządku, nie przeszkadza mi to, naprawdę.

Jestem gotowa na rozmowę, o ile do niej dojdzie. Jeśli ktoś zapyta mnie skąd pochodzę… wtedy będziemy mogli porozmawiać o tych fascynujących miejscach i ludziach. O Polsce, o Kanadzie i o sile którą z nich czerpię.


(Zamek w Lublinie, Sierpień 2014)

la polonaise-canadienne

I love airports.

I guess it’s like the olympics or the UN in a way. Where everyone regardless of race, nation or social status is invited to take part in the same activity. Here in Frankfurt International our sport is finding our next gate, a piece of luggage. I’ve successfully tracked down a bagel sandwich and coffee and taken up a resting position facing the windows and the action on the runway. I’m watching an Air Canada plane slowly pull out, its maple leaf painted tail moving out of sight. I feel an immense fondness for my other country. Such warm feelings for such a cold climate : )

It’s been a blessed time in the homeland, in Poland. I’m so happy that it’s real to me now…that the concept of a working, playing, living Poland in Polish and by Polish people is a tangible thing to me now. Not a memory from holiday vacations nor that far off country my parents come from…she’s a living and breathing creature.

There are a few seemingly simple yet to me very symbolic events that stay in my memory. Signing my first work contract in Polish, passing or walking along “Puławska” street…a magical phrase I had often heard as a child because my family had a flat at that address during communist times. The heavy energy in the capital on the day of August 1st…where this year we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising. Meetings on “Nowy Świat” street. Driving with friends along crooked and bumpy country roads while singing a Ukrainian folk song. The beautiful, warm and golden Polish autumn. Writing (or rather attempting to write) business emails in Polish. Being referred to as “Pani Katarzyna” in a work context … 🙂 although these last two elements really make me giggle and smile most of all. It feels like an old-fashioned ritual in politeness and formality while I patiently wait for these cultural niceties to end so that we can simply speak to each other on a first name basis. Human being to human being like.

As I watch that Air Canada plane turn its nose towards the runway I realise happily that this identity, if we must speak of national identity, of being at once Polish and Canadian will be inseparable for me for a long time. Likely, for life. While in Poland I am set apart by others by my Canadian upbringing…while in Canada I am recognized for my Polish heritage. These are outside impressions; inside there is no need for conflict or pointing fingers, only acceptance at what is. I could just as soon choose a favourite country as I could a favourite lung. To choose one over the other makes no sense to me, as they are perfectly complementary. My passport case comfortably fits both the maroon document, and the blue one. Each one has its place and depending on the moment, I can draw upon either to serve my purpose.

Yes, I write primarily in English. I felt I had to make my language-of-writing choice several years ago and I chose the language most practiced, the one most malleable. But my mind would be bereft of a greater depth and appreciation for diversity without my other tongues. The eloquence of French, the earthy tones of Spanish and melodic Creole…my extended family. To never be able to spontaneously joke, or sing, or tell stories in my native Polish…oh, that would be very sad indeed.

Now, I am heading for a small nation in the Caribbean known primarily to others for being one of the poorest countries on Earth; known to me for being rife with dreams, hope and warmth. Once there, I already know that first impressions will label me as yet another “white woman”. That, at best, the locals will have only a faint notion of who I am or where I come from. And that’s fine. It does not bother me. Really.

Because the dialogue, were it to come, is ready. Were anyone to ask where I come from…well then, then we might talk about these fascinating places and people. Of Poland. and of Canada. And of the strength that I draw from both.

(Castle in Lublin, August 2014)

Oh but to live in a chicken coop again

Stories of home and hearth : central Alberta, Canada – June-Sept 2013

When the Fishers and I decided to work together last summer, I was to be living out at their farm near the town of Didsbury most days in the week, and touching base with the big city life in Calgary the other days of the week.

I decided it would be fun to bike commute one way by bicycle, about 100km across the open prairies in a day’s time, and would catch a ride with the Fishers back into the city on our weekly trips to the Farmer’s market.  In between, I would be working and living at the farm. The work would be divided between online marketing activities, farm work and food prep.  Ah, but living… that’s where we needed some luck: my lodgings.

On a large property filled with scattered farm equipment, old sheds and trucks and even a trailer or two the Fishers knew that finding me a spot to call my own would be more a matter of creativity than actual concern.  We initially toyed with the idea of using one of the trailers.  Then, when the flood hit in June, I had a little room to myself in the main house.  But finally, with a phone call that made me smile, laugh and shake my head (at the hilarity of my life) I heard the news from Nolan – “I just went to see the neighbours and they have this old, unused chicken coop that we could turn into a little cabin for you”.  I knew that Nolan was very handy in anything construction related, but I couldn’t help but repeat it back to him, “a chicken coop?”.  “Don’t worry”, he assured me “it hasn’t been inhabited by a chicken since before the war.  There’s no smell.  Actually, it’s in really good condition for such a historic structure”.

To top it off, the neighbours were aghast at the thought that I would be living in their old coop and even offered me a room in their own house instead.  I thanked them and declined their offer.

Nolan quickly sent me a few pictures of the weather beaten hut with the downwards sloping roof characteristic of poultry residences.  I was promised general maintenance on it, a fresh coat of paint (inside and out) and a few equally historic, and perfectly quaint, pieces of furniture for inside the cabin.  I mean chicken coop.  Sheesh. Honestly, we tried to rechristen it ‘the cabin’, but once a coop, always a coop.

And mine was a real class act.

the before shot (still at the neighbours property)

the before shot (still at the neighbours property)

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Some more Haiti after the fact – connections in Calgary

In the in-between land of Calgary, after leaving Haiti and before returning to my home country of Poland, I had the opportunity to share about my experiences in the beautiful, island nation that was my home in the Caribbean.

Mount Royal University - 24/04/2014

Mount Royal University – 24/04/2014

Firstly, at Mount Royal University Melanie Rathburn, an associate professor at MRU, and I were able to share about our coffee love in the world of Fair Trade and coffee cooperatives – my own in the North-East department of Haiti and Melanie’s in Honduras with the very impressive Café Capucas.  Thank you once again to the Diana Fletcher and Mike Quinn for organizing this event!

Also, the Haitian Association of Calgary (who were kind enough to help me prepare a few Haitian dishes for a private soirée organized for friends and family!) welcomed me to their general meeting to give those that know their own country best a quick update as to the Haitian coffee industry and the role of Fair Trade.  Also a great evening and a chance to exercise my Haitian Creole muscles (they insisted I could go easy and use French or English… but I couldn’t pass up such a great opportunity to practice Creole 😉

With the Haitian Association of Calgary - 26/04/2014

With the Haitian Association of Calgary – 26/04/2014

Calgarians: the Haitians in C-town are getting together for cultural events this summer where you can discover something more of the rich Haitian food, culture and music – stay tuned with