I went looking for purpose… but did I find it ? (part 1)

So, here we go. I’m attempting it. A three part blog post on looking for purpose.
Here’s the topic for part 1: “suffering is a universal, human condition. Its forms and depth vary.

I will now explain what I mean.

It’s 2014, and I’m living and working in the Caribbean. It’s November, and it’s hot. I’ve left snowy Canada with a suitcase filled with skirts and shorts. To the outside world my life is milk and honey. I’m 25, young, healthy and curious, and on a Canadian-funded internship in Haiti where I’m meant to help out local farmers better market their fair-trade coffee. Sounds fun, right? For the first month we young interns (there are 2 other Canadian girls there with me) are meant to integrate into village life and learn Creole. We all speak French, but the villagers don’t. It’s warm, the local coffee is yum and we spend our hours meandering about the Haitian bush attempting to chat with other young women while munching on sugar cane. Chew, chew and spit out the cane. Sweetness in my mouth. Except that further inside, I’m not OK. Actually, I’m deeply disturbed by what I’m experiencing. I’ve never been to a place this poor before. It feels like I’m in a parallel universe. I keep telling myself that it’s the 21st century and the people around me are often illiterate and pumping water from a well in the village square daily. Their houses are comprised of mud bricks and metal sheets. Their loos are holes in the ground behind the houses. Dusty half-dressed kids run about and are fascinated by our white skin and unkinky hair. Beautiful palm trees sway in the breeze, and the drive down the mountain from the village into Cap-Haitian is lovely (if you divert your gaze from the piles of trash lining the road..). Everywhere people sit about gazing at us and I get the distinct impression that they are waiting for hand outs. I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone, and it’s agonizing. I have no idea how to sit with any of the paradoxes that I’m experiencing. How can a place be so similar to paradise and to hell all in the same breath? I’m feeling the next layers of my own naivety stripped away. For the first few months I cry myself to sleep at night while attempting to learn as much about Haiti and her history by day. The other girls have international development degrees and some experiences in Africa already under their belt, and they don’t look to me to be so affected by where we are. I’m either at a disadvantage with my cushy business degree, highly-sensitive, over-analytical or a combination of all of the above. I mostly feel isolated and alone. My supervisor at the Quebec NGO who we are meant to report to about our well-being chortles when I tell him that I need my own room because I have no where to practice meditation. I’m thinking that I’m going insane inside of my own head from trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible while he thinks I’m foolish to try to get any peace in hot, mosquito-swatting and villagers-hanging-about-everywhere village environment. He tells me to just relax and let it be. He might as well have told me to sit sit on hot coals. I actually contemplate ditching the whole project 3 months in (unheard of contemplation from the hitherto undaunted Katalina), but out of pure grit I choose to stay and see it through to the end of the 6 months.

Early on I meet a young Haitian man. He is someone unique and he also has something very precious to me. He has something that I want tremendously. He makes me aware of a need I didn’t even know I had.

He has purpose.

I have a degree. By then, I had travelled pretty extensively throughout Europe and North America. I have loving parents and good friends. I have opportunity. But I sure as hell have no idea what to do with my life.

He and I strike up a friendship. A deep friendship. While my privileged story unfolds (for regardless of being a Polish first-generation immigrant in Canada, I still consider myself a participant in the privileged layer of society) he makes me aware of things hitherto unknown to me. I learn about the third passport I had no idea I had: my white skin. I see that I am treated differently because of it everywhere I go in Haiti. This preferential sort of racism disgusts me most of the time although I’m the first to admit that it is occasionally highly useful (jumping the line at the Cuban medical clinic when I get typhoid or getting a seat in a busy restaurant). We chat, we get to know each other. He’s young too, but he knows “the other world” well, he has spent over 8 years already in Montreal, only to return to Haiti to pursue his purpose – building business and bettering his home country. A deep envy grows inside of me, for despite all of my privilege, despite all of my education, travel and advantages in life this profound sense of direction and usefulness to the world eludes me. I want purpose, I desire it with all of my being. I begin to wonder whether I’ll ever find it. There are so many choices. I’m not clear on what my talents are. But what I do see, what I do recognize, is that there is great need everywhere around me. Maybe I can make myself useful here. Maybe Haiti is my purpose.

For a while, I dive into a better understanding of the visible village life around me. Not having enough money, enough to eat, or a decent home to live in are certainly very uncomfortable states of being. The local medical clinic is terribly under-equipped and understaffed. I hear of stories of women about to give birth who have no other choice than to get on the back of a local moto-taxi and make a 90 minute journey to the nearest hospital to give birth. What an ordeal. Our village doesn’t even have electricity yet, and only those with extra means can afford generators and the gasoline to power them. And yet I observe the people to be generally calm, pleasant and smiling. They have each other, and no one is ever alone. There are even 2 or 3 “village crazies” as we call them, mentally sick individuals, who meander the streets often talking to themselves or shouting. They are mostly left alone although they are not excluded. They receive food from neighbours and they are even respected – local superstitions often link their altered mental states to those of the Spirit world. There are no asylums here. How curious. Oftentimes in the morning I can hear the teacher next door expound very basic lessons to her young charges comprised or repeating Christian prayers and French verbs, it all seems quite useless from an educational standpoint, but the kids are happy and laughing and playing together. No one is excluded or bullied or left alone in a moment of sadness. There is a sense of relaxation, peace and togetherness in that village which, in some ways, makes it feel like the safest place on Earth.

While I stay in touch with the “developed” world and my friends and family in Canada, USA and Europe, I start seeing the contrasts in what people are struggling with. These are the so-called “first world problems” we laugh at. They are trivialities such as a slow high-speed Internet and the wrong type of cheese when you order your fancy meal at a five-star restaurant. I scoff at these problems. But I don’t scoff at the mentions of depression and isolation. So many people are deeply sad, and they feel caught up in a painful, money-powered system that they can’t get out of. So many people, much like myself, have lost the something intangible, beautiful and nurturing – that sense of purpose. They aren’t even sure they ever had it to begin with.

***

Fast forward 2 months later, and I’m in our NGOs office in Cap-Haitian enjoying a local coffee and chatting to our gardener. He’s a bright, middle-aged fellow and eager to exchange with the “blancos”, as we are often called there. As so many Haitians do, he begins our conversation with asking me how I like Haiti. I tell him that I like it very much, at which point he says, again in typical Haitian fashion, shaking his head in sadness “ah yes, but there is so much misère“. I pause, for something inside of me is urging me to steer this conversation into a different direction than usual. I nod once, looking at him. “I don’t deny that there are many problems in Haiti”, I tell him, and I take a deep breath and plow on “but please understand that we also have many problems in the West”. He gazes at me, and I continue. “In the West we don’t generally have the same kind of problems. Many people have enough water, and electricity and food. But many people also feel lost and sad and isolated a lot of the time. There is a problem called depression, like a long-standing, deep sadness, which is on the rise.”, I explain to him, and I add for emphasis, “we also have some people who are so sad and feel so hopeless that they commit suicide.” He gazes at me, the eyebrows rising. “Suicide almost never happens here.” he states, and then he asks me “why are your people so sad if they have so much?” I smile to myself at the simplicity and depth of this question. “I think it’s because we are overwhelmed by choices – because we can do everything, we are unsure of what to choose, of what is best for us and our families. It’s very difficult to know what to choose.” and I continue, scanning the courtyard strewn with sunshine and flowers as though searching for my own answers, “and I think we feel isolated because we are taught to value our own individual success and so we easily feel separate from others.” I finish. The gardener nods wisely and reflects. Then he adds: “Here we have big families and always there is someone to talk over your problems with. You never feel alone.” he smiles at me. and I tell him that I too have noticed this and I value it very much. I also thank him for taking a moment to chat with me about this.

While this conversation took place over 6 years ago, I have often thought of it.

While it is a beautiful pursuit to improve the lives of those who do not have enough material means, I no longer think that it is a nobler or better pursuit than other pursuits. Ultimately, suffering exists everywhere, only its form varies slightly. Ultimately, intentional kindness and service to others brings value whether we are feeding bellies or we are feeding souls. We humans need to intake nutrients on many levels, and we need it regularly.

I went to the “third world” searching for my purpose and while I don’t regret a single minute spent in either Haiti or in Senegal, I no longer see my purpose as being tied to a place or to an action. I see it now as tied to a meaning – and for me that means healing and opening human hearts, everywhere and in every which way. The “how”of how that happens is secondary. At least I found my Why.

Inshallah-ing my way through life

I’ve been reprogrammed. I recognize it and.. I like it! At least this one specific program which has been rewired within me.

And the root of this wisdom lies in the Arabic term of “Inshallah”.
Literally translated it means “If God wills it”.
Translated to life it means that you can do everything right, you can be the best you can be and yet.. and still.. you have no guarantee that you’ll get what you want.
You may end up where you want to go or you may not. You may even end up in a very nasty situation despite your best intentions and efforts. Aha, you say: “C’est la Vie”..
aha, I say.. “Ça… ça c’est l’Esprit”

Please allow me to explain the rewiring process.

It began in Haiti with the Creole expression, one of the first I learned back in 2014 and it goes something like this: “Si dye vle”. It means, once again, “If God wills it”.

Naturally, as so much of what is beautiful and pure on this planet this wisdom has been abused. Myself, like most Westerners working in Haiti, found it incredibly frustrating to hear from a team member “Si Dye Vle” as an answer to a seemingly basic question: “Are we having the meeting tomorrow at 10:00” or “will you be here for the presentation next week”. A simple “yes” or “no” would suffice.. we would say to ourselves angrily. Referring to God’s will when your own will seems to be enough looked to me like a fancy excuse. No one ever said “I never made it to that meeting because God did not will it” and yet that’s how we were meant to interpret a no-show?.. Oh my…

Many developing countries function in survival mode and insecurities around everything from politics to the economy run high. The Western world however lends itself to the illusion of control over one’s own life and destiny (great organization and functioning systems can do that to you!). “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up” and variations on this theme are expounded to us daily, especially in America. While I’m all for self-actualization, I also recognize the deep Mystery and Spirit that pervades all and that has a schedule far different and far greater than our small self-centered understanding of our lives. I once heard a quote that goes something like this “Woe and misery come to the one who gets everything that he wished for”. Analyze it for just a second and you’ll see that there is so much truth to that. I have countless examples from my own life when I thought I knew what I wanted and something far different, and far better, came my way. Thank goodness! – said I. Thank goodness there is a wisdom and a Spirit far wiser than my own limited mind that cares for me always and carries me forward.
Side note: I now do my best to remember to wish upon others (and myself) all manner of goodness and blessings, but not necessarily what they think is best for them but what is truly in their Highest Benefit.

Which is why “Inshallah” is now a consciously added element to my own intention setting.

After 3.5 years in Senegal I’ve heard it used and abused quite as often, if not more, than the “Si dye vle” in Haiti. Then again, I have also seen it used wisely, by deliberate, intelligent people who have plans and a strategy to their lives. They move forward with purpose, they find the information and the contacts they need in order to succeed. And yet, through all of this, they remain humble. They state a project and a plan and follow it with a gentle… Inshallah. They take time to acknowledge that which is powerful and that pervades all – the ether, the Spirit, the Mystery within all that ultimately, plan or no plan, strategy or no strategy, will determine whether the tree bears fruit this year and whether your plans will come to harvest.

This rewiring of my own Western programming by spending significant time in more God-fearing lands such as Haiti and Senegal is a strength to me, a sobering element within me that reminds me as always that there is much beyond our control. It allows me to see beyond the systems designed for our comfort, and to continue to see just how much all of life hangs by a string. So fragile, so temporary, so fleeting. Most importantly it drives the message home that despite our best intentions things don’t always turn out as we thought (or do they ever?).

And you.. what is your version of “Inshallah“? How do you make sense of the unpredictability of life? How do you feel you are being guided forward by that which is truly best for you?

***

Image courtesy of Urban Howl.

Africa is born within you

I’m going inside.
The cold means an internal and an external “turning within” – to fire and hearth, to bundles of scarves and wool. There’s a subtle tenseness to the skin, as we turn towards our innermost thoughts.
Good thing I’ve made inside of myself a safe place to be.
The first cold we feel is the crisp, too-cool air in the plane. I’m seated in an aisle seat somewhere above the Sahara by night as we move from South to North.

It makes the skin turn inside itself searching for the warmth of the pumping veins.
The Heart is first and foremost an instrument of survival.
It’s a sensation I had forgotten. This crawling of cold on skin.
It is familiar,
yet unfamiliar.
there is a newness in this re-experience of the bite.
I choose to welcome it. Explore its layers.
Finding solace in an involuntarily pumping organ distributing warmth throughout the body.
The end of my nose had not been cold in many moons.
I hesitate to make my next request, but I don’t hesitate for long.
Hot tea and a blanket please.
The warm liquid and the covers wrapped close help the cold nose, and overall, the situation. I push my body deeper into the seat.
One needs to ease the tropically adapted self back into Northern realities.

“We are not born in Africa, Africa is born in us.”

I’ve heard this before.

The fire that burns through my veins today is not the same as years before.

It is fueled by the human, sun warmth of the dark continent where bodies relax, sink closer to the Earth and ease into each other.
This mighty talisman is the gift I carry out of that life school of several years of patient studies. There are no certificates given, no external accolades.
…but it’s towards this light that my skin turns inward now to seek nourishment from this far deeper layer of warmth. The only warmth that can soothe right up to the soul.

I find that my blood serves me better now that it is connected to the very cradle of life. It pumps my True North.

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

Look up, look deep and tell me what you see

I’m fixing up my résumé, and it’s not for the first or the last time. I also realize that what I want to write is not necessarily what I should write. They tell me that I’m meant to list, yet again, my education and work experiences. I want to write the whole truth. I want to show that the capacity to dream, to visualize and to see what is not really there is what has seen me through every change, every move and every downfall. That when I see the uplifted wings of a bird in flight in a passing cloud and I draw inspiration from it, and when I feel the wind in my soul that to you is only rustling the leaves of this birch in front of us, it is then that I realize that this lifelong friendship that I have cultivated with my imagination is my greatest ally. This faithful companion of all of my travels, real and imagined, can take up the space of the whole Universe and also fits easily, light as a feather, into my pocket or in the cusp of my hand. This breath that brings a smile to my lips when no smiles are warranted is the real reason for anything that I have the right to call my success.

I wish I could tell them that.

I wish I could explain that to them. That it didn’t matter so much that I was in a remote village then with no one to trust because I had white paper and my stories to write. And yes, there were also the mountains and sunrise climbs up to the top (because, obviously, mountain tops are even better for dreaming). That later on when I got home-sick I could go to the island and paint a maple leaf on a canvas. That in every colleague and every employee and every person what I first see is pure light and potential. That with near religious observance I dedicate at least several hours to my every Sunday for simply gazing into the deep blue sky and dreaming.

My imagination is my salvation.

The attitudes of all of the characters of all of the books and movies that I have ever loved live together there. And we romp alongside those people I love and who the world tells me are “real”. Tigers can backpack through Africa and grizzly bears are free to roam India. The elderly dare rock-climbing while toddlers ponder philosophy. Nonsense can be common sense if I want it to be. What is impossible in this world is an every-day cup of tea in mine.

I would describe how lonely I could feel except that I never do. Because with a deep breath and a look up I again connect with everything I see and everything that you can not. I could try to explain it to you but you see how crude it looks just by reading this post. Perhaps you see and you feel your own magic, I don’t know since I’m not living in your skin. Then again some of the time I’m absent from my own since this capacity to go so far beyond the body allows me to travel when I’m traveling and when I’m not.
They tell me that there are people who only see the here and now and the crude realities. My own imagination balks at the very idea; stops dead in its tracks. It and I are so close that it’s hard for us to imagine that other families can be broken.

With a blink and my intention I can also easily come back to this seat and the firmness of the laptop. Imagination is the least demanding of all of my loved ones, never asking for more than I need.

In my résumé I would quote Imagination as my education and also as my most influential and supportive work partner in all of my professional experiences. I would work its ideas and colour into every line of my whole life history. I would sit back, smile and admire my own daring. Then, in my final act of impudence, I would replace it for my street address and see if they understand my understanding of home.

***

Image source: http://wallpapercraze.com/wallpaper/Imagination-Realm/

Blood stream

It’s nighttime and past my bedtime but for a day like today it’s worth sacrificing a little bit of sleep time. A perfect day. One of so many perfect days in Dakar. I like to practice managing annoyances wisely. Many hours sitting in car traffic equals a growing appreciation of audiobooks. My current audio lecture on Buddhism is so good that I’m pretty sure all the cars and horse-carts in Africa could come to a halt and I wouldn’t care. I’d be happy sitting in my car while listening and nodding my agreement. Humanity is the same everywhere. We get peeved, we get excited, we feel love pressing at the insides of our hearts wanting to get out. I’m pressing in the shea butter now inside a tiny wound that is healing on my ankle. It was disinfected by the ocean. It was caused by the loose leash of a surfboard. The very fact I’m surfing has given me strength I’ve never felt before. As I rub in the shea I think of a friend who mentioned that sacred shea here claims to have special properties. And that it also absorbs fully into the skin and even goes into the blood stream. Newborn babies are rubbed all over with Shea here.

I wonder what else is in my blood now after nearly two years of dust and ocean baths in Dakar. Patience, have I practiced it enough ? Is it part of me more

now ? Being a manager here I feel like I lose my temper much too often. How many excuses can I listen to ? But then we burst out laughing and my Senegalese team teases me and I them and we remind each other of how much we care about each other. Today a colleague mentioned in one breath “You know how fond we are of you”. Candlelight flickers next to my electric lamp. I guess that if the power were to suddenly go out, I wouldn’t mind so very much. Perhaps that’s half my secret to happiness right there, and it’s encapsulated in wax and earphones: have a Plan B. Have an audiobook ready when you hit traffic and keep the candles burning bright. Have a joke up your sleeve and memorize a witty idiom in Wolof to use as an icebreaker. Carry an extra t-shirt with you on the hot days. Hog change. Always have a pot of pure shae butter by your bed. Don’t refuse Attaya. And rub in every part of Dakar into your wounds and into your healthy bits as you let it absorb right down into your blood stream.

A pretty blouse, another tear masked

Stories about appearances.

A year ago, in my day-job in Dakar, we were having a horrible time coming to terms with a jumble of various damaged rice bags belonging to different receivers. Imagine thousands upon thousands of bags, some in containers, rotting, others thrown into warehouse corners covered in cobwebs their colourful logos faded with dust and water, containing caked, dirty, wet and dusty rice in various degrees of unfit-for-human-consumption. As insurance surveyor it was my responsibility to try to determine what was what, belonged to who, and to propose depreciation rates at which the damaged goods might be sold. So far we were having limited cooperation from the handling company. Granted, I’m sure the sight of me in their warehouses drawling on about how poorly they had sorted and kept the merchandise to arrive at such a level of mess was enough to make anyone resent the sight of me. But they didn’t…they couldn’t help but like me. As the warehouses coordinator herself exclaimed the first time she met me in person, after many months of email exchanges centered around our unhappiness with mixed-up and damaged merchandise..she could not believe that her mind now had to associate the curt and cold emails my work demands of me with the young, friendly, smiling woman before her. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived in their office on a Friday morning many weeks later, dressed beautifully in a long dress of blue African material that I fully understood the importance of appearances and being well groomed. Everyone who I knew from the field was pleased to see me. Until then we had only interacted in the warehouses where I’d be wearing jeans, t-shirts and sandals, given that I’d often need to climb on top of dirty piles of rice to estimate quantities and check for additional damages. It was my practical attire for the messy field-work. Covered in dust, my hair astray, I would then cheerfully ask for the handling company’s inventory lists and be kindly refused. Of course by “refused” I mean that they would say “Yes” to everything, after which I would in reality receive nothing. That Friday, my office and well-groomed self kindly requested stock lists and received them instantly. I stepped out into the sunlight of Plateau, papers gladly in hand, a moment of business victory mine, and I marveled at the power of appearances.

Humans are such visual creatures, as predators our eyes set firmly forward, like those of a lion or tiger, a biological sign of relying so much, too much perhaps, by what we see before us. We need forward vision to hunt, to achieve, to move through the world. Knowing that we observe and are so observed by others we step out our front door and, whether or not we realize it, we tell a story of who we are today.

I wonder if this may even be more true of women than it is of men.

Six years ago I was teaching French in an elementary school and living in Granada, Spain when my long-time boyfriend and I broke up. Not for the first or the last time I’ll add since our long-distance relationship went through many ups and downs before ultimately collapsing. At the time of course I took it hard. Undying romantic that I am, I was hurt and I felt it was a clear ending to a life chapter. What better way to begin a new chapter, I reasoned, than by showing through my appearance my internal, emotional evolution. So I cut off all my hair. It had been quite long and now it was very short (I was inspired by Emma Watson who had finished filming the Harry Potter series and had cut off all of her hair too). I had left school as myself on a regular Tuesday afternoon and arrived on the Wednesday morning someone new amid shocked looks from my 10 and 11-year old students. The boys gaped and then got back to their activities. The girls just gawked at me.

I’ll add that short-hair styles for women in Spain, at least at that time, were a no-no. I can confidently say that I was one of very few white women in Granada with boy short-hair. My students’ varied reactions were unforgettable. Their beloved teacher had clearly gone mad. Some were shocked while others were impressed. “Why did you do it?” they asked me, “your hair was so beautiful”. “I wanted a change” I said. Some of the girls shook their heads and told me they did not like it. One girl, named Africa, came up to me at the end of our class and told me in whispered confidence, “Madame, je pense que vous êtes très courageuse. Et ça vous va très bien les cheveux courts”. I remember the gleam in her eyes, the look that says : do what is right for you who cares what others think. She thought me strong, courageous. Inside I was quite a mess because I missed my man. But at least the outside world had taken notice that I had turned a new page.

Last week, I chatted with one of our Senegalese secretaries about this very thing. She complemented me on a nice ensemble I was wearing. I smiled, thanked her and remarked that although it was not the case this time, it was often when I was feeling my worst inside that I dressed my best. With my hair and make-up done I could more easily access my courage to face the day. She said, a wide smile spreading across her face, “You know when I wear a simple dress and less make-up and you look at me concerned, and ask if all is well”, she asked. I nodded. I was so used to her beautiful clothes and elaborate make-up (Senegalese women in general dress beautifully and take great pride in their appearance) that I wondered if a more sober look meant that she was feeling ill or unhappy. She laughed saying that oftentimes the days of her more humble attire were the days when she felt her happiest and her best.

We women are emotional creatures. It’s easy to get caught in an internal struggle of wanting to be seen in our truth, in our depth of feeling and so too in our vulnerability…and the strong need to build walls and to protect ourselves from those who would use our openness against us. We play with appearances. We change our outfits, our hair, our colours in order to communicate something to others about our values, about who we are or how we are feeling. The feminine exists to feel. So too it makes sense we want to share some of that feeling with others too. The trick is not to get too caught up by what your eyes alone can see..

Dakar to me, like many women, is a city of appearances. I often need to look at something or someone for a long time, and closely, before starting to see its truth. Beautiful villas hide behind high, grey and rough cement walls. Just like pretty exteriors may open up to messy, uninteresting interiors. In so many ways, things are simply not as they first appear to be.

A story for a Senegalese friend

The phone rang on a Friday afternoon several weeks ago from a woman I knew from work. She is Senegalese, a manager in a logistics firm responsible for handling a large part of the rice imports (and other soft commodities) into the country, and I’m the rep of a French survey firm contracted by the insurance companies insuring that merchandise. The nature of my job puts us oftentimes in antagonistic positions…it is my duty to call her and let her know when merchandise is improperly handled, calls which are often followed by the formalities of emails and official letters of protest. It is easy to dislike me in that role, understandably so, yet despite all of this a friendship had kindled between this manager and I from the very start. We were able to quickly see beyond our work responsibilities and to look directly at the women that we are. She is friendly, curious and open-minded just like me and we speak the common language of generally happy, young people interested in the world and finding our place in it.

As a foreigner in Senegal I get asked every single day (many times a day!) about my experience of living in Dakar as the people around me want to hear of my positive experiences of their homeland. Ironically, I am almost never questioned about my experiences in Canada (or in Haiti, Spain or Poland where I have also lived) and how things work over there. Considering that the majority of the Senegalese population harbours the dream to leave their country, to build a “better” life in Europe or the Americas…I find it surprising that they don’t want more information of the outside world when meeting a foreigner. I imagine there are many reasons for this; nevertheless, I find it strange. In over a year’s time living and working in Senegal, no local had asked me to detail what I know or understand of other places to them. At least, not yet.

I answered the phone that Friday afternoon expecting a business call, as had been our habit with this manager so far as we had known each other.

“Hello, Katalina? I’m wondering if you can spare a few minutes. I have a few questions for you… it’s nothing related to work this time.” She sounded eager and excited on the other end of the line.

I was intrigued. I had the time for the call. Friday afternoons (especially after the men get back from afternoon prayer at the Mosques) are generally relaxed in the office in Dakar. I agreed, and she promised to call me back in a few minutes for our chat.

She proceeded to tell me that her husband, who works as a lawyer in Dakar, had found a way via his personal connections to get both himself and his wife work in Quebec, in Canada. She confirmed what I already know to be the frustrating reality of many, that their current jobs pay very little (consider a generous monthly wage in Senegal to be around 300 Euros) and with their two young children they felt pigeon-holed into a reality that allows them to survive month to month and do little more beyond that. She was concerned about their children’s future, their education, and her own opportunities for growth. She asked me what so few ask me in Dakar, she asked me about my experience of Canada and my opinion on her moving there – if not for forever, at least she would go there with her family for a certain time.

My first thought was that I too am an immigrant to Canada, as my family is Polish and I was born in Poland*. I laughed with her over the phone over how ludicrous it is that I could be categorized at the same time as an immigrant (in Canada) and as an expatriate (in Senegal), all based on economic status (perceived or actual) and the reasons for migrating.

Canada is a clean, well-organized country much more receptive and accommodating to immigrants than Western Europe. We talked about this for a while. The Americas in large part are based on people of various backgrounds leaving their homelands to build a better life in the New World – immigration is the backbone of society. This is not at all the case in Europe which has been settled and fought over for many centuries already; it’s a contributing factor to their ongoing problems with immigration in my opinion. I told her how much I love my second, adopted country especially the diversity of people living and working together in peace and relative prosperity. It’s a pretty harmonious mishmash of races, religions and backgrounds which no other country that I know of can parallel. I count myself as one of the luckiest on this planet given the amazing childhood and education I received. I had flashbacks of school field trips to the forest to draw and study the birds and trees and the large, open spaces we have in Alberta: my elementary school has a lawn and sports area the size of a professional football field.

Then she paused in our conversation to voice a question that I’m sure has been on her mind since the day she met me…”But what on Earth are you doing in Senegal…if Canada is such a great place to be???”

Great question.

You see, I’m on a personal mission to understand the world, and myself, just a little bit better. The truth that I discovered is that there is no such thing as a “developing” and a “developed” country. Developed, in the past tense, as a thing accomplished and completed, does not exist**. The economically wealthy countries we deem “developed” have plenty of problems too. I’m not going to get into details here about issues like climate change, corruption in politics and corporations and religious extremist groups threatening security. What immediately came to mind are my peers in Canada. I look at the young people who are dealing with depression and suicides, and who are lost and confused and drowning in an avalanche of choices that seem impossible to make. Young people want purpose and self-actualization in their lives and at work and yet the quick-fix culture and the Internet make it difficult for many to commit, to be patient, to work hard and make their dreams come true. We live in the information age, yet many forget that wisdom is just as difficult to come by as always. We live in such levels of material comfort that we take it all too often for granted. I too shared my part in this confusion and spending time and working in countries like Haiti and Senegal shook me awake in many healthy ways out of my own self-pity and into a far deeper gratitude and sense of responsibility for my own life and the true impact my actions can have on others.
Much of this went through my mind as I answered her in a more succinct manner: “It is important for me to travel, to experience people different from myself and to see the world. It helps me to understand myself and who I am. It also helps me to appreciate Canada in a whole new way.”

Besides, I continued, my reality in Senegal (for better or for worse…) is very different from the Senegalese people in Senegal. As an expat I have an expat’s salary which is comparable to the salaries my peers earn in Europe or Canada. This paired with the fact that I am single and do not yet have any children, means that I have the time and the funds to invest in my hobbies and passions and to rest and relax. I live very well and comfortably in Dakar.

She murmured her agreement.

Try to remember that there is no such thing as an ideal place. There is also no such thing as an ideal person or a perfect well, anything. Since nothing is perfect and everything has its good and bad sides then what matters most are our own values and the experiences we choose to have in our lives. My Senegalese friend had mentioned that the work contract in Quebec required her husband and herself to come first to Canada without their children (who they could leave in the care of their grandparents in Dakar) for the duration of 6 months to a year. That could prove difficult to manage. Yet even if you are together as a family you face the reality of leaving your home country, the culture, people, customs and habits you know and understand for a whole set of new variables. It’s easy to underestimate how overwhelming this can be, yet the truth is that everything from a visit to the doctor’s office to going to the bakery will, at first, be new and unfamiliar.
I advised her to take the time for honest reflection on her own values and what is most important to her and to her husband before making up their minds. She mentioned several times that they both saw it as a temporary solution – an opportunity to earn better wages and improve their skills while planning a likely return to Senegal after several years. Perhaps afterwards they would then start their own business in Dakar.

My friend’s question and her incredulity that as a Canadian I should choose to spend so much of my time in Africa spurred me to greater reflection. I realized that a year and a half after moving to Senegal I am a different person. Time and life alone work their magic on us regardless of geography, of that I am certain…yet Senegal has played her part in my formation. There is a strength in the elements that I experience in Dakar which is new and inspiring to me, and a connection with the Earth, the sun and the ocean in all of her moods which move me to my core***. The colours of the African fabrics, the entrepreneurship and drive of the Senegalese people have sparked a whole new level of creativity. I also enjoy the experience of living in a collectivist culture…even if it sometimes drives me crazy that the locals don’t understand my need for privacy and for time alone! I also need the sun, heat and carpe diem attitude to balance out my workaholic, over-intellectualized upbringing**** 🙂 Senegal balances me, humanizes me, lights me up and hugs me close to my own truth every single day.

My friend had paused over the phone listening to me sharing my experiences with her.

“Whether or not any of this is relevant to you and to your family, I cannot say”, I told her, “It’s all such a personal journey.”

Nevertheless, she was grateful for our conversation and she ended by reminding me how much she appreciates my openness and friendliness. She had felt intuitively that it was OK to call me about this and ask her questions. “It’s a Canadian trait to be this friendly.” I told her, laughing to myself, before hanging up the phone.

On the beach near the Mosquée de la Divinité, Dakar 09/2017 (photography: Nathalie GUIRONNET)

*Another missive on this : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2014/10/17/la-polonaise-canadienne/

**As a side note, my father informed me this morning that Poland, according to some kind of American economy ranking, has now officially been recognized as a “developed” country – Ha!

***More on the elements here : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2016/07/06/greetings-from-two-months-in/

****yes, mom, that was a somewhat sarcastic comment 😉

A Saturday description

As I’m sitting in my living room, I look around myself, all the way around, and I tell you what I see.

In front of me are the windowed doors to my terrace, on the terrace are the plants, new plants too, I brought a baby, baobab tree home today. I was told white blossoms on a baobab are rare; what I know is that they are beautiful. Across the street in front of me a new construction, grey, half-done, cement block, typical of Dakar. It won’t go higher than 4 stories, few buildings here do. If I step out unto the terrace and look to my right my view extends over the houses and palm-trees here, greens and beige and the bright, blue ocean only a few steps away, reassuring me. Back inside, the flight posters belong to my roommate, a pilot, reminding me there’s always more to see of Senegal, always more.

Jasmine green tea resides in a beautiful Moroccan tea-pot, a gift, patiently steeping. A collage of Vogue fashion and African images created several months ago hangs above the fan, turned off, and the light, unplugged. There’s plenty of light and breeze here now. Colouring crayons and a colouring book of mandalas next to me, an immensely colourful textile collage hangs behind me. Yet somehow, colour feeds the need for more colour, and I can’t wait for the next white lines and shapes to become undone.

Curtains flutter in the cross breeze between open terrace and open window, and I hang a pink scarf there too, so it can flutter along also, and it does, happily. My mosquito netting in the windows is splashed with the mud carried by the heavy rains during this past rainy season, you see, dirty. Somehow, it doesn’t bother me. Cushions line the bed-like sofas, our indoor baobab perched between. Books surround me, journals and personal planners too. Somehow it’s important to remember what’s important to me, you see, since anything is possible here, yet anything is not what I’m looking for, something special, particular and perfect for me is what I need.

I’ll bring a mango and messily eat it here, in a few minutes.
I’ll fill my pages with more colours, a few minutes after.

.. and then, I’ll take some time to relax even deeper.

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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!

Where is home…or where is my home next?

I recently met a Dominican, born and raised in Santo Domingo, my age. Early on in our conversation it came up that his mother is considering selling the house he’s living in now.  This in itself is not a problem… but it’s the very same house he grew up in and in which he “took his first steps”.  It has a lot of sentimental value, he reasoned. I paused to state what I thought to be the obvious “You’ve lived in other places since; every home carries sentiment with it”, he looked surprised and said “No, I haven’t. All of my life I’ve lived in that house.”

You can imagine that as an immigrant and a traveller, the idea of sleeping every night of my life under the same roof is as foreign an idea to me as is a day without rice and beans to a Dominican. Thus taking a moment I began to wonder about these places I have made my home, and the sentiment…

What is the strangest place you have ever called home?

The refurbished chicken coop in Alberta, the summer of 2013, takes the prize.  It’s also one of the homes I was most fond of, one of the quaintest and prettiest places I have ever lived.  I was living and working on a small farm that summer, and I can remember the day that the farmer, Nolan, texted me that he had located an abandoned chicken coop on the neighbour’s lot.  He sent pictures of the run down little shack with a note saying that the neighbours are aghast at the idea of my sleeping there and welcome me to their own home in case of need. I fully trusted Nolan and knew that he would transform it into something amazing.  The result was a charming room, comfy bed, with sloping roof and a little desk and chair where I fancied myself a real writer and wrote down my thoughts by the golden, setting prairie sun. Read: Oh but to live in a chicken coop again.

Where was it most beautiful?

Granada, in the south of Spain.  Some days it still feels like a dream to me that this beautiful city in Andalucía was my home for the 10 months, the duration of a school year that I lived there.  The streets and the squares comprised my home; it was my first experience living in a southern culture where lives take place outdoors, in the cafés, in the parks and in the plazas.  Weddings, families, learning, playing, everything happened in front of my eyes while taking in the warmth on Plaza Nueva or meandering through the Albaicin. My flat was special to me, and looked out on a beautiful, old style courtyard filled with sun and light.  With my roommate, a Slovenian student who became a good friend, we shared so many conversations about Granada’s charm, its essence, its magic.  The same magic that led many travellers to rest their backpacks for good and stay there.  My flat was primarily my bedroom, my resting spot, the corner where I first tinkered on a new guitar and tried to make bits of music while the melodies of the flamenco guitareros in the streets rang in my ears. While my life played out-of-doors, as I discovered my favourite nooks, visited the Alhambra, and explored much of the big park behind the Alhambra also, so my eyes were filled with and mesmerized by the beauty of that Moorish city.

What makes a home a home?

There’s some kind of tipping point in the quantity and quality of relationships and memories made in a place that etch their mark, and thus transform a resting place into a home.  I spent a memorable month in Bolivia, in 2012, volunteering at a little organic farm in Tarija where fantastic stories including “Bolivian army helps us weed our garden” and “Permaculture presentation in Tarija” came to life. But I can’t say that that dear place was a home to me.  Not compared to, for example, the summer of 2009 in Montreal, Canada where I came for a four month summer internship.  A beautiful stranger became my roommate and transformed into a great friend today – the most wonderful gift anyone could hope for.  We spent hours that summer talking and cooking (and eating) while enjoying our first taste of independent living, our first time also in Quebec.  I remember the Jazz festival so well, the surprise visits from my boyfriend, the long, very long, bike trips through and around the island city.

Something about the kitchen and cooking my own meals also makes a home, a home.

What about Haiti?

Privacy is a foreign concept to Haitians.  Understandably so when you consider how many family members usually live together in close quarters.  When I’m out in the street, at work, at a meeting or going for a jog, most of the town and my neighbours know where I am and what I’m doing.  To them, I am another form of public property and I’m rarely left alone.  They think I’m expressly there to talk to, ask questions, ask favours and generally be engaged in what ever is going on.  Being a visible minority also makes me very, well, visible (“Letter to the white person in Haiti”).  So my homes, my corners of Haiti that I have called my own, have been a safe haven like no other.  My space where I am not the blanc, or the director, or the friend, or the anyone or anything. Just where I can rest and recharge my batteries and wake up to another hot, blazing day in the Caribbean.

Read: “Every house its own kingdom, ever man for himself

So, where is home now?

Home is always where I am, although for the next few months I will be without an address.  In the coming weeks I’ll be finishing up my kite surfing course here in the Dominican Rep., and move on to visits with friends and family in Europe.  In September I’ll be walking part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  My home will be my backpack, my writing, my iPhone, myself.  You might say that the exciting question is, where will home be next?

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.

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(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.

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(Castle in Lublin, August 2014)