A play about Syrian refugees – it’s right up my alley, I thought when I saw the notice online. It ties in nicely with my research. I should see this. I emailed my friend Pattie and told her about it. It’s called The Opposite, I said. The playwright is a Syrian now living in Calgary – Sleman Aldib. It gets you thinking about what it would be like to be a refugee.
Pattie was game.
A couple days later I’m standing in a very small foyer of the West Village theater on 10th avenue, and it’s 7:05. The play was supposed to start at 7:00. Pattie and I are tired; it’s been a long day for both of us. I had a meeting that required a certain amount of energy, and I raced all day to finish a freelance article. I rode my bike to campus so my legs are a bit achey and I am hauling around my pannier with my computer in it, which is irritating the collection of knots I’ve been cultivating in my neck and shoulders.
Wasn’t it supposed to start at seven? Pattie asks.
Yes, I say, shifting the shoulder strap of my pannier so it put less pressure on my muscle knots.
We are startled to hear a voice behind us – a youngish man who looks to be of Middle Eastern descent, speaking in what must be Arabic. A young woman beside him begins to translate and it dawns on me that the play had begun. Is this how the play will unfold, is my first thought – with the 40 or so audience members standing cheek to jowl in this small, hot foyer? With me holding my devilishly heavy pannier with itsdevilishly heavy computer?
The man continues speaking in Arabic and the translator says something about Calgarians, finding out what it means to be a refugee.
And it starts to dawn on me that we are meant to experience some of the things, tonight, that refugees experience. I heave the pannier from my shoulder and set it on the ground.
Good grief. It’s not that heavy.
Eventually we are asked to approach the man and the translator and pick up a sheet of paper. A form, with writing on it which appears to be in Arabic, and some empty blanks to be filled out, presumably.
Once everyone has a form we are shepherded into the theater, down a dark hallway toward a lit performance space with a few chairs, some tables with people sitting behind them. The line of audience members slows and stops. I peer around the people in front of me.
It appears that we are being asked to sign in at the first table. A woman is cruising down the line-up, directing certain people to other tables where people sit waiting – they are actors, presumably, taking on the role of … some sort of office worker? Something to do with refugee processes, presumably. It’s a play about refugees.
The audience members gradually filer into new line-ups at the various tables.
A woman approaches me – she has very short dark hair and speaks in rapid Arabic. She gestures at my form, then at one of the tables on the other side of the stage.
Am I supposed to get in that line-up? I ask. I smile. It seems a bit comical; we both know this is not real. I’m playing the role of … a refugee, presumably. I have never acted before. I never even took Drama as an option, not even in junior high. I smile.
The woman with very short hair replies in Arabic, a bit more impatient now, and gestures toward the other table. She gives me a light but definite push on the arm.
There is something unsettling about her touch. It is not painful. It is not particularly aggressive. But it is unexpected. I am not accustomed to being pushed toward a line-up.
I make my way across the stage to the far table. It is manned by someone in a long white coat who appears to be performing some sort of perfunctory medical examination on the people in his line-up. I mean the audience members.
When it’s my turn he gestures at my form and says something I can’t understand. I show him the form and he seems unhappy with it, but I have no idea why.
Say Ah, he says, only he doesn’t say, “say ah.” Well, he says “ah,” but not “say.”
Is there something wrong? I ask, knowing he can’t understand me.
He says something in Arabic that leaves a definite impression of unhappiness. He puts a check mark on my form and waves me toward the other side of the stage. I look, and there are three tables there. My pannier strap has settled delicately onto the knot on my neck. The muscles begin to spasm.
Which table? I ask.
He speaks in Arabic, his tone is irritated.
Sorry, I say, but which…
He is already stepping toward the next person in his line-up.
I shuffle across the stage and choose a random table. A man gets in line behind me and holds up his form. He’s gotten two signatures and two check marks. Is this what we’re supposed to do? He says.
I shrug, grimacing as the pannier strap cuts into my shoulder.
I only have one check mark so far, I tell him. I don’t even know which station I’m supposed to be at.
We stand in silence, shuffling forward as the line advances. At length the very young man at the table nods at me. It’s my turn.
I offer up my form and he gives me a small square of paper with the number 3 on it. I thank him, even though I have no idea what the number is for. I decide that it will be important later, and tuck it between my thumb and forefinger, careful not to wrinkle it. The young man offers me some crackers and he may be offering water, I can’t tell. There are bottles of water and cups on the table but I’m not sure if he was gesturing toward them, or just the crackers.
I’m dying of thirst (well, not dying exactly), having had Indian food for dinner. I am normally very careful to drink my eight glasses of water per day.
I am unable to imagine putting a Saltine in my mouth. But the water…
He is saying something now, gesturing toward another set of tables.
Which one, I ask, getting a clear feeling of déjà vu. I know before he speaks that he will not tell me exactly where to go next.
He waves in the general direction of nothing in particular, and I shuffle away, choosing the shortest line-up. A man and woman get in line behind me. They are giggling. I guess this is where we were supposed to go, the woman says. I guess, the man says. My goodness, what a time we’re having.
A young man cuts through my line-up, ushered by one of the women working in this surreal office area I now inhabit. The young man is of Middle Eastern descent and I wonder if he is Syrian. I wonder if he has lived this surreal experience in real life. In Lebanon, perhaps, or Jordan. I wonder if he is having flashbacks. As he cuts through the line-up he rolls his eyes. None of us seem to know how to react. Do you laugh? Do you show respect by not laughing?
It’s a play, right? We all know this is not real. But the people working here – I mean the actors in this play – are taking it very seriously. In fact, here is one of them now. It’s a woman with thick, wavy hair pulled back from her face.
She says something in Arabics, grabbing my form. I reach out for it. It seems important that I keep it, that I take care of it. It’s mine.
I clutch my number 3 square. It is still smooth and flat between my thumb and forefinger. I decide I shouldn’t grab at my form so I fold my hands gently, taking care not to disturb my number 3 square.
You did not get a signature here, the woman says in English. Some of them speak English. She points to one of the blanks on my form. Where were you? Which station? Who did not sign this?
I look at the form. The writing next to the blank is in Arabic. The characters are lovely black squiggles and they have nothing to say to me, no matter how long I keep my eyes on them.
I don’t know which station it was, I tell her, and I feel foolish. Then I am traveling back in time, across the ocean, to a tiny village in the south of France. I am fourteen, it’s my first day at the lycée. You will learn French so quickly now, my father says. The principal is speaking to me, a stream of elegant syllables that rise and fall like Mediterranean waves. She seems to want me to go somewhere. A class, I assume. So I start to move, looking back at her questioningly. Am I going to the right place? Je vais ici?
No, not there, says the woman with the thick, wavy hair. Go to table four, and get a signature.
Then the other woman appears, the one with the very short hair. She looks at my form, then looks at me as if deciding if I’m worth the time and effort. Go over there, she says finally, gesturing at nothing in particular. Then come back and see me, so that you can … just come and see me. She gives me the slightest of shoves and is gone.
There is a place on my arm that is cool to the touch. The air brushes over it and settles.
I return to table four. It’s the one with the very young man with the crackers and water. My tongue sticks slightly to the roof of my mouth as I turn down the offer of crackers. You just need to sign it, I tell him, handing over my form. I lift my pannier over my head and settle the strap over my other shoulder, the one with fewer knots.
The very young man’s irritation bleeds into his words and he points to a signature on a different line.
She told me to get you to sign it, I say, but he is gesturing for the next person in line. He waves me back to the first table, the one where people were signing in at the very beginning. The line is very long.
My friend Pattie crosses the stage going the opposite direction and we exchange glances. We start to smile, then stop. She cradles her form in the crook of her arm. I remember her saying that she isn’t feeling one hundred percent. She has a bit of a cold. Or it could be allergies. I wonder if she is irritated with me. She is probably tired, and possibly cranky. She is a school teacher and tomorrow is a school day; she will be getting up early in the morning and the play started late.
I have so much respect for the families at my school right now, Pattie says. Many of the children in her class are from newcomer families. Many have escaped violence and other unimaginable situations to get to Canada. Pattie is not irritated.
I nod and we move along our respective paths.
I make it through the sign-in station and am sent to the photo station. A woman with spiky brown hair starts to take my picture, then stops. Points at my chest.
What? I say, knowing I am not speaking the right language. What is it?
With a toss of her head she approaches, takes the pendant of my necklace in her fingers, and tucks it gently beneath my t-shirt.
Oh, I say. Is “Oh” the same in Arabic?
I don’t know if anyone but myself has ever touched this necklace. The two pendants are small and round and silvery, engraved with the initials of my children.
My mother gave me this necklace. She has the same necklace but hers has three pendants.
I find myself thinking about my siblings, the fact that our names all begin with J. Is it a coincidence?
Smile, says the woman behind the camera, only she doesn’t say “smile,” she says something in Arabic and I smile. Do you smile for a picture like this? Is it for my documents? What if you’re not supposed to smile? Will I have to come back?
Was I supposed to… I start to ask her but she is nudging me along, away from the photo station, and I run right into the woman with very short hair.
You were supposed to come and see me, she says. She looks at my form with disgust. Or she seems disgusted. Or am I imagining that?
Oh, right, I say. I’m sorry.
She shakes her head and I travel back in time. I am in French class at the lycée. We have just written a dictée and I have been unable to decipher the words we were meant to write down as the teacher read out a passage from a novel, very slowly. The boy sitting behind me is marking my paper, which must surely be illegible to anyone who actually speaks French. I have written French syllables using my French fountain pen, but the pen has simply made lovely blue marks on the page. The French teacher has a very clever system for marking, though. Each student starts with 20 marks, and you lose one mark for each error. The boy behind me (I think his name is Salmon, which is funny because in English he is a fish) is putting up his hand. Madame, he says. What do I do now – la Canadienne, she has lost all 20 of her marks and we are only on the second sentence. I do not look back at Salmon; I tell myself that I am traveling in time, back to last year, when I was not la Canadienne, I was an honors student at Riverbend Junior High School. I was talking with my friend Sheryl in her basement, we were laughing. I have a hard time hearing the French teacher over the laughing but she seems to be saying: Eh bien, Salmon. You will simply go into the negative numbers.
Never mind, says the woman with very short hair. She seems willing, suddenly, to overlook the egregious errors I have made with my form. I feel terrible. I should have been able to figure out this system with its check marks and signatures. What is wrong with me?
Just sit over there, she says, pointing to a row of chairs. There are no empty chairs.
Just stand over there, she says.
I glance around as I walk across the stage, looking for Pattie. I can’t find her … is it possible she has gone home? Perhaps she has gone to look for the washroom? To get a drink of water? But no, there she is, sitting in a chair along the opposite wall. I feel more relief than would seem to be required.
I take my place beside the row of chairs at the back of the stage and wait. It seems there is no alternative; the others have not finished their tasks. Some are having photos taken; others are saying “Ah” to the doctor. I lift the pannier from my shoulder and set it on the ground. The muscles in my neck and shoulders seize up. I tell them to settle down. How long have I been here now – it can’t be more than thirty minutes. I glance down at my number 3 square. At least I’ve managed to keep it neat and tidy.
The lights go out, then blink on. The room buzzes with chatter, but the handful of people working in this surreal office have frozen, as if playing a game of tag, the one where you have to stop moving if someone touches you.
Then I see the man who spoke to us at the beginning, in the foyer. He walks across the stage with a suitcase and stands on a platform.
He speaks of Syria, of coming to Canada because of the war. He asks us to imagine. He calls up an image of Calgary, the tower crumbled to the ground. Our Stephen Avenue mall crawling with ISIS. Imagine. This is what it’s like.
I am unable to imagine. I try but I cannot picture it. I want to tell him it is not his fault; I am simply incapable.
But this is not real, of course, he says. None of this is real. If you were actually refugees in our country, trust me, we would not treat you this way. You would see such kindness.
I notice that the office workers – I mean the actors – have gathered around them. They are taking turns speaking to the audience. It’s off the cuff; they do not recite lines.
They, too, speak of coming to Canada. They are glad to be here. They are studying at colleges and universities. They are from Syria, except for the woman with the very short hair. She is from Egypt. They feel bad, they say, for treating us this way. We are sorry, they say.
And I realize the play is over. I realize that the woman with the thick, wavy hair is speaking to me, turning to me, coming over to me. I’m sorry, she is saying.
And I realize I am crying.
I’m sorry, she says again. I don’t treat people that way.
Oh, no, I tell her, and I realize she is hugging me. I realize I may have hugged her first.
We step back and give ourselves our personal space. That was so … I try to think of the right word.
My friend Pattie appears and she, too, is hugging the woman with the wavy hair. She, too, is crying. She, too, is saying that the play was so…
And then we think a little harder and we come up with some words. Amazing. Powerful. Profound. Pattie is wondering how to get the play to come to her school. I am planning a blog post.
Everyone needs to see this, I say, and the man who spoke to us in the foyer appears beside me, asking us to move back into the foyer; they are trying to set up for the next play, which will begin at 9:00.
I step out of his way and share some of the words that Pattie and I have come up with. But I can see that he has work to do, we need to get going.
I seem to be having trouble leaving this place, I tell him.
And he smiles.
Gentle reader, I have a confession.
It is Sunday morning (not quite afternoon) and I am sitting (okay lying) in my cozy bedroom in Canterbury, with the electric heater on full blast. I am on my second cup of tea, and have read only 14 pages of Iris Murdoch. I have read only 1.5 articles in The Globe & Mail. I began an in-home yoga session which lasted for approximately four minutes, at which point I hit Downward Dog and lost interest in an activity that only exacerbated the ache in my calves, brought on (I can only assume) by my day in London yesterday. I have read approximately two-thirds of an article about the rewards of the Stour Valley walk, which I could have completed by now. But I remain in bed, drinking my second cup of tea.
Gentle reader, I am tired.
I say this with a blush, since I am in the lovely Canterbury thanks to the generosity of Canadian taxpayers. I would like to tell my taxpaying readers that I am about to spring from my bed and stride down the Stour Valley pathway, toting my little blue laptop, and stop in a pub (The Henny Swan? The Fighting Cocks? The Tickled Trout? Really, my job here is made far too easy by reality).
I’d like to tell you I will walk over to the Tickled Trout and plunk myself down to write at least ten pages before the sun sets on the Canterbury Cathedral.
But I must confess that I will likely remain in this bed for another few hours, then drag myself down the High Street to Tesco and buy a few groceries, apologize to my flatmate for yet another uninspired dinner, and then watch Offspring on Netflix (yes, yes, I have seen it twice already).
Or, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I will watch another few episodes of Designated Survivor.
Why, you may be asking, is the gentle writer so tired?
Allow me to explain.
Yesterday I packed up my reading glasses, my phone cable and adapter, my extra phone charger battery, my hat and gloves and a bottle of water and set off for London – one of my last forays to the great city before I come back to Calgary on December 12. I planned my day, filled with that I-May-Never-Be-Back-Here urgency. I would catch the 8:20 AM train and go to the British Library, which is just steps away from the St. Pancras station where my preferred train (the high-speed, direct train) would arrive at 9:25 AM.
I would spend approximately 45 minutes in the Reading Room, where I had arranged to see some letters written by Virginia Woolf (something I had never even thought to put on my bucket list – but now, here is the opportunity!). I had pre-registered online, and I felt confident with the hoity-toity library system, having helped my supervisor navigate the Bibliothèque Nationale a few years ago in Paris). I would sail in, commune with Virginia, and sail out. I would then scoot up to the Camden Market, stopping for a quick bite at Niven’s, a café described by Tyviano on TripAdvisor as “a little less pret and a lot more authentic,” and then I would prowl around the colorful stalls at Camden, thus killing another bird by finding the ideal Christmas presents for the folks back home.
From Camden I would take the tube (Northern line in the direction of Morden) to the Young Vic Theater where I was to see the first of two plays – both of which (taxpaying readers will be happy to hear) tie in with my research area. The play would end at approximately 4:00, giving me a few hours of free time to do some more shopping and have lunch at one of four historical pubs I found in an excellent online article titled “Proper London Pubs.”
At 7:10 I would alight at the Royal Court Theater and take in play number two, after which I would take the tube (Circle Line east) back to Saint Pancras, stroll forth to my train and relax for an hour whilst being swept back to Canterbury, full of satisfaction with a day well lived.
Gentle reader, that is not what happened.
Here is what happened.
I arrived at the Canterbury West train station in plenty of time to catch the 8:20, and was told there would be no trains from that station today. None at all? No, none; there had been a signalling malfunction.
No problem. Not a big deal. A cute little fly in the ointment.
I walked briskly to Canterbury East and caught the 8:50 to London. So what if it was a little later? A little slower? So what if it stopped at nine different towns on the way? So what if it arrived at Victoria station rather than the ultra-handy St. Pancras, which was located just steps away from the British Library? I would simply take the tube (Victoria line east) to the British Library.
So I arrived at the library an hour and a half later than my original plan. I had to complete my registration process with a real person (a real person? In what world is this necessary??) who gave me a ten-minute speech on how to comport oneself in the library. Which I was expecting, having been through the iron-clad (literally) system of the Bibliothèque Nationale.
I would have been okay if it hadn’t been for the pompous man at the cloakroom. He somehow knew that I was a newbie at the British Library; he smirked when I made the rookie mistake of leaving my wallet in my briefcase rather than putting it in the clear plastic bag (the only thing you’re allowed to take into the Manuscript Reading Room).
I then made the rookie mistake of being frazzled by the pompous man and neglected to put my reading glasses into my plastic bag. I also neglected to put my phone cable and adapter into my plastic bag. I had had to use my GPS function to get to Canterbury East, so already my phone was at 75%. I was unable to charge my phone on the milk-run train, which, unlike the lovely high-speed train, has no plug-ins.
But never mind. I was at the British Library, about to read the original letters written by Virginia Woolf just before she decided to pass from this world to the next.
And this, gentle reader, was a moment that is difficult to describe.
At first I looked at the letter from Virginia to her husband, Leonard, and saw unintelligible scrawls of black on aged ivory paper. Then I saw at the top of the page, the day of the week.
Had she done this automatically, since she always wrote the day at the top of her journal entry? Or had she wanted to be leave an accurate record of her thoughts before her death? Or had she been in such a state of mental turmoil that she wrote the day before realizing it was completely, unutterably, unnecessary?
Then the first line of her letter came into focus.
I feel certain that I am going mad again.
When I read this line, the whole of the letter began to shimmy and swim. Virginia, scarcely able to concentrate, her head pounding with unwanted voices, had wrapped her fingers around her pen and scratched those lines across a blank sheet of paper, moments before setting out to fill her pockets with stones and walk into the Ouse River.
I sat in the quiet of the Manuscript Reading Room and kept the letters company for a while. I don’t know what I was expecting to derive from that moment of communion, but I was glad I was there. I felt somewhat like an exploiter, a voyeur, witnessing a moment between husband and wife that was such an intimate expression of feeling by a vulnerable woman.
But I knew that somehow (I would need time to digest this experience) the reading – the absorption – of Virginia Woolf’s letter would work its way into my own writing.
This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment. I took my time in the reading room; indeed, I forgot about the time. I was wandering down to the British Library Exhibition Hall to see the writing notebooks of Jane Austen when I glanced at my phone and saw that it was 1:30. My first play started at 2:30. I had not shopped at Camden Market or had lunch at the authentic (not pret) Nivens café! Indeed, I had not eaten since my half-bowl of muesli at 7:30! And those of you who know me know it’s best if I eat. But there was no time to spare.
I jogged over to the Saint Pancras station and caught the tube to Southwerk, where the Young Vic Theater is located. I grabbed a pain au chocolat at the station and arrived in plenty of time. My plan, although altered, was still intact! I even had time for a ploughman’s sandwich at the café near the theater, where I attempted to charge my phone (I did plug it in but it only charged by 2%…why??).
The play, titled The Suppliant Woman, is based on an ancient Greek play by Aeschylus (BTW Aeschylus has the most hilariously ironic death story ever – read about it on Wikipedia, I beg you! Never mind that – I’ll sum it up for you: Aeschylus was supposedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle – the eagle had mistaken Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock upon which the eagle could shatter the tortoise’s shell.
Aeschylus had been staying outside as much as possible because there had been a prophesy that he would be killed by a falling object – ouch!).
Anyway, this particular play tells the story of a group of women who had been pledged to marriage to Egyptian men, and who end up seeking asylum in Argos. There is no real dialogue in the play; the story unfolds through a chorus of singing and dancing women – the women seeking asylum – as they beg for compassion and express their fear and anger.
It was an incredible performance, with haunting harmonies and powerful choreography. The chorus was composed of a leader, played by Gemma May, the only professional performer. The rest of the women were volunteers from the local community, who gave strong, compelling performances. It’s a modern take on the original – the players are dressed in ordinary street clothes – but it rings too true in November 2017.
A group of women fleeing potential male violence, asking the greater world to believe in their need for asylum, even if it challenges fundamental norms. It was hard not to think of Trump, of Pence, of Weinstein and Spacey, as I watched. It was hard not to think of the Syrian war, the refugee camps in Greece, the Canadians who think Syrians might take their jobs or threaten the peace.
This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment.
And I was still more or less on schedule. Sure, I had missed the Camden Market and Niven’s café. But I now had time to wander up to Sloan Square, where the Royal Court Theater was located. Plenty of time before 7:30 to be spontaneous and fancy-free. Plenty of time to discover cool pubs.
I have to confess that I never looked up any of the proper London pubs. Why? I’m not sure. By the time I got close to Sloan Square, it was already dark. At a street corner, a group of three people stopped me. The woman, who was wearing a hijab, asked me for help. We have no clothes, she said. The man, presumably her husband, said, Where can we buy clothes here? He and his teenaged son looked around them, confused. We were standing on a vast street corner, dimly lit, traffic ploughing by, enormous buildings (condos? Offices?) on either side.
I stopped and – perhaps inspired by the mayor of Argos – tried to help. I am not from London, I told them in the interest of full disclosure. But let’s use my phone to find some shops. Do you speak French, they asked, and I switched to French. I located a shopping area and tried to tell them how to get there.
Trop compliqué, said the man, looking overwhelmed. They started to move away as I apologized, feeling terrible, but the woman came back and said, Please. Can you give me money for some shoes?
I couldn’t help wondering if the whole conversation had been some sort of ploy to get unwitting tourists to give them money, and then I thought back to the people I met at the refugee camp in Greece, who would likely land on a street corner like this, with virtually nothing, and no knowledge of the city.
I gave her ten pounds. Which, gentle taxpayer, was my budgeted allowance for dinner that night.
Oh, she said. Another ten – I need two shoes! Please, this is not enough.
I lifted my palms. Sorry, I said, and turned away. That was not how I envisioned that moment unfolding. But then again, visions rarely unfold properly.
As I walked the remaining few blocks to Sloan Square, the city seemed to have darkened prematurely. Surely at 5:00 Calgary is not so dark. Maybe it is. Maybe London seemed darker because I didn’t know where I was going, and hadn’t been to Sloan Square before.
By the time I found the Royal Court Theater, I didn’t have the energy to find a proper London pub. I walked by the pub close to the theater but it was too bright or too… something. It was full of families and groups of friends chatting away, drinking their proper London pints, and I didn’t feel like plopping myself down at a table amongst them all and pulling out my cell phone.
So I headed down the street and found a noodle place with long tables where I could sit and look out the window without being conspicuous.
There was nothing proper or particularly London about it, but it was my London I suppose. There were other people eating on their own, texting or reading the paper.
So I perched myself on a bench, stretched out my tired legs and pulled out my phone to figure out how to take the train from Victoria Station to Canterbury East – I had bought a return ticket, unsure whether Canterbury West would ever open that day. The website was glitchy and wouldn’t show me the later trains, so it was hard to tell what time they came, and whether they were direct or not. I knew many of the trains at that time of day required you to change trains at least once. I downloaded the app but it wouldn’t show me trains more than two hours later than the current time.
But then it was time for the play, so I headed to the Royal Court Theater. This play was called Goats, by Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji.
The premise was fascinating: the Syrian government was rewarding families of martyred soldiers with a live goat. And the stage was filled with live goats, who, to their credit, were extremely well behaved and convincing.
The production was a bit uneven; I had trouble hearing the actors’ voices at times. But the story was strong – it tackled difficult subjects like the conflict between Syrians who are loyal to the government and those who are not.
At intermission I pulled out my phone to try and figure out the train situation. Still glitchy. It was a long play, and I would likely have to take a train that required at least one change – all this at 11:00 PM or later. I was tired, cranky and my feet were beginning to ache. I had not purchased any Christmas presents and had not eaten at anything resembling a proper London pub. If anything, I had succumbed to the pret instead of seeking out the authentic.
My day was a failure of logistics and now … the problem of the train. But this was not an insurmountable problem. I had made it this far with my plan, and really, for the most part, it had not failed me. Besides, these sorts of experiences build character. This is what traveling on your own is all about. You feel independent. Capable. You have logistical problems but you are agile in your ability to think critically and find creative solutions. You are adept with technology. So I sent my agile fingers flying over the surface of my little phone.
I texted my husband.
I told him about the train and the time and the play, and my tired feet, and the possibility of having to change trains at unknown stations after midnight. I should maybe just leave at intermission, I texted. To be on the safe side.
He tactfully suggested that leaving early sounded like the safest plan. Was there an earlier train that was direct?
Yes, I told him. There was. That much I could see on the gitchy site.
Gentle reader, I left the play during intermission.
Was I just being peevish? Was I giving up? Perhaps. It didn’t feel very Argos to abandon the boy soldiers on stage with their symbolic goats. But I had my own London to contend with, and I would have to accept that today was a day where the plan had failed (only partly) and I would go home early.
Maybe the gods of Argos took their final revenge as I got on the train at 9:00 PM.
I asked the train attendant if it was direct and he said, “Yes, just get on and relax!”
What he didn’t tell me was the train would stop at a total of thirteen towns before arriving at Canterbury East. And the train attendant could hardly know that my car would eventually fill to the rafters with shouting students who had surely spent the entire evening at proper English pubs.
But, gods or no gods, I arrived in Canterbury some two hours later, and after walking the wrong direction from the station, I finally ended up in my cozy bedroom.
I cranked up the electric heater to level 8 (out of a possible 8), ate a Milka chocolate bar (yes, of course, the whole thing) and forgot to plug my phone into the charger. I stretched out my aching legs and watched half an episode of Offspring.
And that, gentle reader, is the last thing I remember of my perfectly imperfect day in London.
A trip to the weekly outdoor market.
Not a big deal, right? Some produce, some clothes. Maybe the odd bargain. Nothing to get excited about.
But at LM Village refugee camp, when the bus pulls up to take residents to the market, there is a mob of people shouting and pushing, sneaking tickets back and forth and arguing and getting in your face.
This is kind of crazy, isn’t it? After all, it’s just a trip to the market.
It was my job last week to escort the residents to and from the market, so at 10:00 I walked with the volunteer coordinator to the camp gates. When the bus drove up, a cluster of children immediately started jostling for position so they could get onto the bus, in case there were not enough adults to fill the seats.
We only allow one person per family on the bus so that as many families as possible can send someone to the market. Sometimes there are spare seats, so people show up hoping to get on. And they’re prepared to be vocal about getting on that bus.
Although we had told people that only one person would be allowed on the bus per family, we are never sure if they have completely understood, given that most of these folks don’t speak much English. We do our best to explain the rules, speaking slowly and loudly (a foreign word spoken loudly is still incomprehensible!) using gestures and pictures drawn on the back of the ticket book.
Obviously some of the message is bound to get lost in translation.
And even for those who understand, they are often willing to challenge the system.
As people drifted down the main camp road toward the bus, we could see that many had children in their arms (no children! We told them – only one person!), and many were walking in pairs – husbands and wives.
When they got to the bus, we explained once again the ‘one per household’ rule, but mothers told us they did not want to leave young children at home; husbands wanted to carry purchases for pregnant wives; teenaged sons were needed to try on shoes.
You have to imagine all these objections being voiced together, by a crowd of people who urgently need to get to the market. People who have no way to get there besides this bus. Who can’t just stroll over to Sobey’s or drive over to Safeway or hop on the train to get to the mall.
The weekly trip to the market is a big deal.
Plus, don’t forget that the camp residents have very little to do. They get up, eat, chat with family and neighbors, go to our little grocery store at the camp, text their friends, do the laundry, look after the kids, clean their suites, and that’s about it. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have extended family or friends to socialize with. They don’t have cars and most don’t have expendable income for entertainment.
So there is a lot of angst around who gets to go to the market.
Plus, having seen the market, I can tell you this.
It’s pretty fun.
It’s full of color, chatter, banter. Great deals on clothes and food. Some of the most gorgeous produce I’ve ever seen. Jars and jars of local honey. Brilliant mounds of spices.
The market is fun. The market is not the camp.
So yes. It’s a big deal.
And it’s not surprising that the kids who had been waiting in hopes of getting on the bus, should it not be full, began pushing and shoving and climbing up the bus steps, past me and the volunteer coordinator.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Am I allowed to physically move these kids? Do I let them on the bus? We can’t over-crowd the bus because Refugee Support is careful to follow all local laws; we can’t afford any trouble with the police.
So we blocked the children from getting on and enlisted the help of a couple of IOM (International Organization for Migration – a branch of the UN) guys who work on site. One of them helped translate, and after a dozen or so lively conversations, most of the problems were solved. The bus gradually filled up with peaceful residents, but there was one problem.
This was a man who had come into the grocery store that week and had gotten quite excited about a misunderstanding and the volunteer coordinator had to ask him to stop shouting at us.
So when we saw him approaching the bus with his wife, we both took a big gulp. He insisted, loudly, that he needed to go with his wife, and he would not listen to our ‘one per household rule.’ He had two wives, he said, he needed to be with one of them. By this time he was standing toe-to-toe with our volunteer coordinator, who climbed up onto the bus steps to look him in the eye (he was quite tall and she is … not) and when he tried to push past her, she said loudly, No. She did not give an inch.
Meanwhile, I’m standing on the ground beside him, with the jostling children pushing me up against the angry man. He continued shouting at the Vol Coordinator and she kept standing her ground. We eventually enlisted the help of the translator again, and convinced the man to wait until the other adults arrived, and see if there was extra space.
There was mass confusion at this point – people were pushing to get off and pushing to get on; children were trying to scramble up the steps, the bus driver was rolling his eyes; the IOM guys were trying to translate for other adults who wanted to bring small children on the bus – “he’s asked very nicely to bring his very tiny daughter…”
Finally, it appeared that there were enough spaces for all the adults who were waiting. They trooped onto the bus, including the angry man, and then I got on to see if there were any spaces for any of the children who had been waiting. But the IOM guy suggested we not take any, since it would just cause hard feelings to let some go and not others. As I was counting the empty seats, I sensed the bus moving. The driver had made the executive decision to leave without the children, and frankly, I was relieved. I sat in the trundle seat beside the driver and breathed out what seemed like an inordinate amount of air from my lungs.
By then the bus was utterly peaceful. People had accepted that their children /husbands /wives/ brothers /parents could not accompany them, and off we went.
When we arrived at Andravida everyone piled off the bus. I called out as they filed past me that we were to meet back here at 12:30, but they all brushed me aside; they all seemed to know the routine.
My mission at the market was to buy socks and gloves for the residents using the donation kindly given by Kay and Ken Grove. I followed along with the crowd through the streets lined with stalls – huge bins of fresh fish – tiny ones, slippery ones, floppy ones – gorgeous lettuces, fresh herbs, kale, cabbage, courgettes, aubergines and more. The aromas shifted as you moved past, with the fish, herbs and spices the most pungent.
I heard what I thought was a ruckus but it was only a couple of men hawking their wares, competing with each other to reach the swarms of people squeezing between the stalls. Further up were stalls with clothing, and finally I found socks. I made my way to several stalls and compared prices, before finding one that offered to sell me 53 pairs of socks for 53 Euro.
I then found a guy who had billions of pairs of gloves. I was hoping to get the thick fleece ones, but they were beyond my price range. I settled for some thinner knitted gloves, and remembered to ask someone to take a photo of me with the vendor. The founder of Refugee Support likes to post pictures of us supporting the local economy – presumably it helps keep our relationship with the Greek folks steady.
Since there was still almost an hour until the bus would arrive, I looked around for a café. Unwilling to wander around aimlessly with my two heavy bags (my arms already weak from the lack of tennis), I stopped at the honey stall and asked for directions. The woman spoke absolutely no English but took great pains to direct me using grunts and sign language. I understood that I was to go to the corner, turn left, go three blocks, and turn right.
Which I did.
I found a town plaza that was completely unaware of the frenzied market just blocks away. It was lined with quiet cafes and shops, as well as palm trees. I plopped down at a table and a lovely young woman brought me a fizzy lemonade.
Which I drank.
Slowly and with great relish. It seems you expend a great deal of energy being involved in confrontations with angry men and children who refuse to stay off a bus after being told ten times to stay off the bus. It was heavenly to sit in the tranquil square with my cool lemonade, letting the achiness dissipate from arms, legs and shoulders.
I sat there thinking, how lucky I am to be in Greece on a gorgeous sunny day, sipping a lemonade in a beautiful town square. And I was acutely aware that for me, the trip to the bazaar was just part of a two-week stint at LM Village. I would be going home to my bungalow and my car and my children and husband and mother and all my friends. I would drive to the farmer’s market whenever I wanted to, and drive to Safeway whenever I ran out of bread. My trip to the bazaar had no urgency because I would be going home.
My time in Kyllini was full of these contrasts and paradoxes – the casual, slow atmosphere of small-town Greece versus the hectic bustle of the camp when the store is busy. The warmth of our volunteer dinners at Kyllini restaurants, where they owners know us and bring us wine for mere pennies.
– versus the moments at the clothing boutique when residents can’t find pants that fit and toddlers stomp around the store screaming.
There are moments of great peace at the camp, with Syrian music floating from windows, the smell of garlic and onions floating from kitchens, women chatting in low tones on their porches, waving at you to come and share their food – My friend! My friend!
Versus the driving in small-town Greece, getting jammed into an intersection that seems to have a thousand roads converging in a space the size of a closet, with a touring bus cutting you off so you have no choice but to squeeze past it, your rear view mirrors nearly scraping the car parked beside you, sweat streaming down your shoulders and pooling in the small of your back.
Or trying and failing to tap the drop-down menu on the tablet in the grocery store that serves as our till; sometimes it doesn’t like my fingers and will not recognize the feel of my skin on its surface. Meanwhile, the customer is piling oil, mint, apples, tomatoes, yeast, raisins, olives on the counter and I have not yet entered the first item.
But all of this is just a few grains of scratchy sand in the long stretch of beach that is my time at Kyllini. I was so glad to be there, adding my energy to the efforts being made to help refugees get back on their feet.
Seeing the camp first-hand gave me a much clearer sense of what people go through as they make their way from war-torn countries to a safer environment. Even at LM Village, where life is relatively good compared to camps with tents and mud and snow, life is still incredibly demanding, and incredibly discouraging. This isn’t really life at all; it is a waiting zone. A place where you hold your breath and wait, hoping that there are enough people out there who are willing to move over a bit and make a space for you.
In the meantime, you line up for the bus that goes to the weekly market, and you push back against the rules a little bit. You get frustrated when you’re told you can’t go along and help your spouse do the shopping. It’s just one more frustration in a week full of frustration. Another week in a month where you have very little control over your life. Where you wonder if you’ll find a place to live that’s safe, where your kids can go to school and you can learn the language and find a job.
So you shout a little bit at the woman in the volunteer t-shirt and eventually you get on the bus. It’s just a market, but still. You know the volunteer woman means well; she just doesn’t always understand everything you’re going through. When you bump into her at the market, she is haggling over men’s socks. You wave at her and she waves back. Then you hustle off toward the truck that sells live chickens.
The bus will leave for camp at 12:30 and you still have to pick out the best chickens and load them into the bus.
Barking dogs. The incessant barking of dogs who wander the streets. This is probably the sound I will always associate with the LM Village refugee camp and Greece in general. Right now, outside my hotel room, it sounds like ten thousand dogs are barking themselves hoarse. I picture two teams – maybe the short haired vs the long haired? – facing off à la West Side Story, the Jets versus the Sharks, dancing around each other and puffing out their chests.
Most likely the dogs are fighting over a doughnut left on the beach.
In the town of Kyllini, there are dogs and cats everywhere. Even the quiet corners of restaurants.
In the camp the dogs breed freely, living on the street, or between shrubbery, or in nooks and crannies of camp buildings.
A man, one of the camp residents, came into our clothing boutique the other day and asked if we could help him with a violent dog.
We said no.
There are puppies everywhere, trotting along by themselves and in pairs, but not usually with a parent. Black dogs, short haired dogs, long haired dogs, tan dogs, tiny dogs, rangy dogs. They survive here, occasionally fed by the residents, or picking up bits of food on the ground.
Some of them sleep on the abandoned tennis court. In the late afternoon the court is dotted with furry shapes, stretched out on the brilliant green surface.
They are passing time here.
And really, so are the residents. There are about 150 people here, mainly from Syria, and they usually come to us after a stay in other camps in Greece, where life is much more difficult than it is at LM Village. Our camp is located in a former resort, so the residents have actual buildings to live in, with plumbing and kitchens – rather than tents.
Most of the camp residents are registered with the government, so they get a stipend that pays for a certain amount of food. But the camp is miles from any other village, so it’s very difficult to do the shopping, and there is almost nothing to do here. There are often far too many people living in each suite to be comfortable.
One man said he dislikes living at the village because all you do is eat. I assume that life here can revolve around preparing meals and eating meals.
As you drive into the camp, you’ll see men clustered in small groups, chatting and huddling over their phones. Women are often working, cleaning their suites, cooking, caring for children, doing laundry or buying food at our store. Some of the older women sit out on their porches, chatting with the younger women as they work.
Teens hang out in the communal area, watching television, or hanging onto the edges of the male groups, as if waiting for crumbs from the adult debates.
Many of the smaller children roam freely, sometimes playing football or basketball, or spending some time with an NGO called SchoolBox, which offers informal classes.
Gentle reader, let me give you an idea of what my days usually look like.
The NGO I’m volunteering for, Refugee Support, runs a small grocery store and clothing store. There are only three volunteers right now, and we get together in the morning in Kyllini, the port town where we’re staying, about 15 minutes’ drive from the camp.
We have breakfast at a local bakery and then buy produce from an amazing veg stand along the highway. We load up on tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, potatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, apples, cucumbers. The owners of the veg stand break into grins and call out, “Kalimera!” when they see us coming, and they always throw in something extra – last time it was mandarin oranges that smelled like Christmas. We ate a couple and then gave the rest away for free at the store.
It’s important to Refugee Support to contribute to the local economy, and we certainly spend our donated money regularly at the local shops. With Greece in its continuing economic slump (unemployment is at around 23%), every little bit helps.
Side bar: If any Greek tourism officials are among my gentle readers (they’re obviously not, but what the hell), here’s a friendly suggestion. You will attract more tourists if you embrace a culture of customer service more consistently. To be clear, much of the service I’ve had in Greece has been really wonderful – the people in Kyllini are unfailingly kind and considerate. But I’ve run into some objectionable men working in places like bus stations who feel that shouting at customers is the best way to encourage tourism.
Peevish side bar to the side bar: At the Athens bus station I asked at the ticket wicket for a ticket to Kyllini and was told there was no bus to Kyllini that day; I would have to go to another town and take a taxi. I told him I knew for a fact there were three buses to Kyllini, my friend had recently taken this bus. We debated this for about thirty seconds until his face turned the color of a beetroot and he began shouting at me to call my friend and verify my information. I just stared at him until he told me to go further into the bus station and ask at another counter. Which is where I found the bus to Kyllini.
If Plato and Socrates caught wind of this behavior from their graves, surely they would turn over in their togas.
But to return to the daily routine of the camp. Our day continues with the three of us driving to the camp – I am one of our designated drivers so I’ve learned to maneuver our little Fiat along the narrow highways and village streets.
Side bar: The lanes here seem to be more of a suggestion than a rule – white strips of paint that offer possible strategies for dividing the cars running in either direction at about 40 km/h over the posted speed limit/suggestion. In the villages, the streets are often just little strips of pavement jammed between the tiny sidewalks, and you have to pull over if a car comes from the opposite direction.
But – to return to our routine… Once we get to the camp we stock the grocery store, which is a small but bright and efficient space lined with shelves, with a stock room and fridge.
At 11:00 the store opens and the residents come in one family at a time to spend the “money” we distribute to everyone (think Monopoly). Refugee Support organizers have devised a clever system of points for each family, based on their ages, also taking into account pregnancies. Along with the produce, our store carries items like cheese, yogurt, tahini, spices, toilet paper, soap, oil, and cookies (sorry – biscuits).
We divide our time between the grocery store and the clothing boutique, where we give out clothes that have been donated by local Greek folks. The selection isn’t always fantastic, but we manage to put sensible clothing on people’s backs, and prepare them for the colder months ahead.
Right now the temperature is usually around 20C and sunny, but it will cool off soon and people will be glad they’ve gotten a jacket, scarf and hat.
Because we are only three volunteers right now at LM Village, we are short staffed. So it can be frustrating not having enough time to sort clothing and stock the boutique as well as we would like to.
But our volunteer coordinator is very good about reminding us that we are doing our best, and that we are still providing much-needed services for the residents. She reminds us that the Refugee Support routine works well because it’s fair to the residents and it ensures that volunteers don’t burn out. So when the grocery shop closes at 5:00, we lock the door, and if anyone knocks after five, we ask them to please come back the next day.
Side bar: if any of you gentle readers are interested in helping out – do! Your time and energy would be greatly valued. Here’s the link to the Refugee Support page in case you fancy spending some time in Greece, and helping out at a camp.
I haven’t had much of a chance to talk with many of the residents, and many of them barely speak English. But from what the volunteer coordinator tells me, the residents have been struggling to survive since their journeys from Syria and mainly feel fortunate to be at LM Village. One of them actually described it a paradise, despite the cramped conditions and the lack of activities available.
The IOM (International Organization for Migration – a branch of the UN) has done a lot of work to make the camp as liveable as possible for those who spend time there. Yesterday there was an enormous truck parked outside our grocery store, and all day it unloaded new mattresses for the suites. Because the suites had been unused for so long, there are problems with mildew and water quality, so getting fresh, clean mattresses is a big help.
Some of the suites are packed full to the brim with people – there are often two families living together in a suite with two sleeping areas, a small kitchen and no real living room.
We are due to get another bus load of new arrivals next week, so it will be interesting to see how they will be squeezed in.
It’s not surprising, given what the residents have been through, and given their current state of limbo, that some of them are occasionally irritable. The vast majority of customers at our grocery store and boutique are friendly and respectful, but there have been moments when tempers have flared, voices have been raised.
Already feeling out of my element, striving to learn the volunteer system and work with people who don’t speak English, I feel anxious during these moments of confrontation. It’s easy to wonder why our customers can’t be more cooperative, why they can’t respect our rules and follow them with good humor.
But I ask myself how I would behave under these circumstances. Having left my home, family and friends behind, having walked for miles or crossed seas on flimsy boats, having struggled to feed my children for months and months, having faced corruption and intolerance more often than fairness and kindness – would I be able to smile and nod when I’m told I can only have three bananas, not six? When I’m told I can’t accompany my husband to the market?
I really don’t know.
But I suspect that irritability would be one of my most positive attributes after that kind of a struggle.
What I see at LM Village is resilience, patience and endurance. I salute the residents for simply putting one foot in front of the other, while they pass through an asylum system that is, at best, imperfect.
Our residents try to be patient as Europe and the rest of the world sort out how they will handle this huge wave of displaced people. This wave is washing up larger questions, it seems to me, questions that can be terrifying for those who feel strongly about national borders and national values. Questions like: Who has the right to live within national boundaries? Who gets to determine a country’s national values? What obligation do nations have to support victims of war, corruption and violence? What should international organizations do when some nations don’t live up to their obligations?
Meanwhile, the residents at LM Village continue putting one foot in front of the other, baking bread, changing diapers, buying groceries, texting relatives back home.
They live life in waiting mode, in a resort owned by the Kyllini town council. The residents of LM Village squeeze themselves into suites that were built to house small European families taking short vacations, just steps from a sandy beach.
It’s both lovely and ironic.
The mayor of Kyllini is originally from Syria, the first naturalized Greek of Syrian origin to be elected mayor. He suggested taking the resort, which had been abandoned for six years, and turning it into a home for refugees.
Refugee Support has helped turn the camp into a place that is more like a village, where there is some sense of normality. Being able to buy groceries on site helps residents feel like they have some agency, and a normal routine, which – hopefully – counteracts the sense of limbo that they must feel.
So I will rest up this weekend and on Monday, go back to the grocery store, help stock the shelves, measure out tomatoes and aubergines in kilograms, and close up the shop at the end of the day, even if there are a few people outside wanting to get in. Tomorrow will be another day.
The week of October 23 was a week of smallness.
Name calling. Presidents tweeting schoolboy taunts, seemingly unaware of what’s at stake. Hollywood dotards dominating the news. Women around the world revealing that they, too, have been sexually harassed or abused – this last act, though, is only small in that each woman’s voice is a small drop in a large, shameful bucket.
So it was a week that did not restore my faith in humankind.
It was also a week where I met a couple of women who are part of the Kent area lobbying campaign, working hard for refugee rights. They, unlike our friend DT, are painfully aware of what’s at stake right now in the whirling political dervish that is the refugee rights debate.
I met Jill and Valerie at a demonstration supporting the “Dubs Amendment” which supports child refugees. The demonstration took place right across the street from the Parliament buildings in London.
One of the most topical points in the refugee rights debate in the UK revolves around children – minors, if you will – who are trying to get into the UK. Advocating for these minors is Lord Alfred Dubs, Labour MP and a former refugee from the Czech Republic.
He is responsible for the “Dubs Amendment” to the 2016 Immigration Act, an amendment that requires the UK to accept unaccompanied refugee children into the UK, in response to the global refugee crisis. He spoke with great eloquence at the demonstration, responding to a young man from Syria who had been welcomed into the UK as a refugee, and who has gone on to attend university here.
The Syrian man was going to go into Parliament after the demonstration and do some advocating for the Dubs Amendment. It was amazing to see such strong activism from both British folks and those who have already benefited from Lord Dubs’s (and his supporters’) hard political work.
While I was standing there listening to the boys speak to the crowd, I looked over my shoulder and saw – gasp! – Juliet Stevenson!
Now, I am not normally one to become weak-kneed at a celebrity sighting, but … Juliet Stevenson! And… Truly, Madly, Deeply! If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please stop reading this blog, drop your coffee cup on the carpet and run, do not walk, to your nearest computer and stream, illegally if necessary, Truly, Madly, Deeply. After you watch it, you’ll understand why I gasped (quietly, politely, Canadianly) when I Juliet Stevenson standing right next to me.
Whether Juliet Stevenson heard me gasp and politely, Britishly, decided to ignore my exclamation, we will never know. She simply took the stage and spoke movingly about the need to ensure the UK is living up to its obligations regarding child refugees.
It was a powerful demonstration, and I am incredibly glad I went. What an antidote to the week’s news of intolerance and misogyny. Standing in the crowd of demonstrators, it was rejuvenating to see a group of people who took time out of their day to speak up for some of today’s most vulnerable people. Here was an empathy that had led to political action.
After the demonstration, the organizers told us that were all going to march into Westminster and ask to see our MPs, and speak to them about the child refugee issue.
At this point I said goodbye to Jill and Valerie and said it was best to let the actual British people (who would vote in actual British elections) handle this part of the protest. But Jill insisted I come along (thank you Jill – you’re a woman of great wisdom!) and so I toddled off to the queue to go through security.
I actually thought that at some point my Canadian identity would be discovered but no one seemed concerned with my identity at all; the armed guards merely wanted to ensure that I was not armed.
So, having cleared security, I toddled off through a massive hall and upstairs to the reception area, where we all filled out green cards asking to see our MP (I had had enough wits about me to Google the Canterbury MP).
We were told that if our MPs didn’t come out to the reception area within 45 minutes, we could toddle off to the great outdoors. Clearly this was a paradigmatic act of going through the political motions. No MP would appear, but the masses would be appeased.
The odds of a Canadian student getting in to see her MP at Westminster seemed slightly less than winning the Loto 649, so I handed my green card to the nice man and toddled off to the Parliament canteen to get coffee and sandies for Jill and Valerie. I sat down in the canteen to gobble a sandwich, and tried to eavesdrop on the men in dark suits huddled next to me, but I have little of interest to relate, other than they were feeling refreshed and ready for their upcoming meeting.
So I toddled back to the reception area and sat down to wait out the remainder of my 45 minutes. But then a young man in a dark suit approached and asked, Had I requested a meeting with Rosie Duffield? I admitted I had, and steeled myself for a question regarding my status as a foreigner/fake voter/rabble-rouser/interloper.
But the young man, Duffield’s researcher, just wanted to assure me that Ms Duffield would be out as soon as she possibly could – please could I wait just a few more minutes.
I assured him I could, assuming that hearing my accent would spark accusations of rabble-rousing and imposterhood. But no, he got on his phone and started texting his boss, and in a few minutes Rosie Duffield appeared.
She was startlingly young (although many people are, as I creep through my 50s) and exceedingly generous with her time. I decided to come clean right away and told her I was on a study abroad program from Canada, but she seemed most interested in hearing my opinions on the refugee rights issue. My friend Jill ambled over and we stood chatting, the four of us, for about 20 minutes about the situation with the refugee crisis.
It was an amazing conversation – I am grateful to have had this opportunity to stroll through Westminster and have a meaningful conversation with the MP for Canterbury about an issue that means a great deal to me. Ms Duffield even asked me about my research, and we then had a conversation about the politics of empathy, and the debate around empathy’s ability to spark prosocial behavior.
I am pretty jaded about politics but must confess I found Rosie Duffield to be sincerely passionate about the plight of refugees in the UK.
So that day will go down in the record books for me. The moral of the story, if there is one, is either: Never risk going to the canteen while waiting to see a British MP! Or perhaps: You can never be too Canadian – even while making an appointment with a British MP. Or, better yet: No amount of smallness can completely wipe out my faith in humanity.
Whatever the moral, I am sure that the experience will somehow inform my dissertation. At this point I have no idea how – I will have to let my Westminster experience settle a bit before I figure out how it will work its way into my novel. And what better place to ponder the experience than the LM Village refugee camp in Kyllini, Greece? Which is where I am right now. But that’s a story for another day.
Gentle reader, I’ve only been in Canterbury a few weeks. Maybe that’s why, when I go to London or Broadstairs or Whitstable, I feel like it’s a voyage within a voyage. A Russian doll within a Russian doll.
My roommate and I took the train to Broadstairs last weekend, a coastal town about a half hour away. We were hoping to tour “Bleak House,” which is where Charles Dickens spent many summers, and – some say – the home that gave him inspiration for the fictional Bleak House (that fact is hotly debated and may be a pile of rubbish). Anyway, it’s rather a moot point since Bleak House was firmly locked when we got there – despite the fact that we had phoned that morning and were told enthusiastically to come and bring our cameras!
But never mind. Instead, we took a taxi to Botany Bay (no, we did not travel to Australia, there is another one) and saw the most gorgeous beaches.
I get up to London quite regularly, and it’s a bit of shock after the peace and quiet of Canterbury, with its mossy river and weeping trees.
London, in comparison, is hectic. Full. Noisy. It exists on a completely different scale – not just in terms of population (Canterbury is about 45,000 souls) but its sheer size. The massive network of tube stations, squeezing people in and out of tubular cars and pumping them back out on the streets, where they throng past massive buildings that rise out of the pavement and soar into the sky, drawing the eye upward, constantly upward, with their domes and arches.
Last weekend we wound our way through the Temple Gardens, just off the Thames, where the Inner and Middle Temple (legal societies) are headquartered, to find the Temple Church – built by the Knights of the Templar.
You enter the unusual round church (you might recognize it from The Da Vinci Code) to stumble over the fellows above. Rather a surprise. But London is a series of surprises. Like New York, everything is here. Iconic things, which you have read about, seen in films and TV shows. The Eye, looming like a Ferris wheel on steroids above the Thames. The theater district, with all the shows that come to Calgary once in a blue moon, all packed into a few dense blocks of cobblestoned streets. Mama Mia, Kinky Boots, Annie, Dream Girls. And now, The Ferryman.
I went to a London Literary Festival event yesterday to celebrate a poetry installation called the Wall of Dreams, designed by Danish poet and artist Morten Sondergaard.
Above, you see the front of the Royal Festival Hall, taken from the Jubilee bridge. You can see the line from the Wall of Dreams: I dream of my mother’s smile. Here is the wall on the other side of the Royal Festival Hall:
Here’s a better picture, taken later at night. The wall features snippets of poems by refugees, and the event I attended was a performance by women refugees, reciting snippets of their poems.
Some quotes from the performance:
“I dream of living without fear in UK.”
“I dream that someone finds a pill for broken souls.”
“I dream of meeting my children again.”
A powerful performance by the Women for Refugee Women, based in London.
The city of London is also home to the British Library. I have emailed my guest supervisor requesting a letter of introduction so I can introduce myself to the letters of Virginia Woolf. Thank you, Virginia, for setting the stage so women can access important documents without the company of a man.
Yes, thank you for trying so hard, Virginia. Thank you for taking on the men of the literary and academic worlds, for attempting to walk on forbidden lawns and enter forbidden libraries. The men who honored you with awards which you refused. Thank you.
When I look at her letters, written in her own handwriting (who else’s would it be – I am a pile of mush just thinking about reading her actual letters) I will no doubt wish that her labour had taken us further down the road to equality. As I read the news about Hollywood, about Washington, it’s impossible not to feel Virginia-like, despite the decades between us.
I felt particularly Virginia-like on the train from London last Monday, coming home from a brilliant play called Labour of Love about the Labour Party (starring the wonderful Martin Freeman and the amazing Tamsin Greig – if you haven’t yet watched Episodes on Netflix, please do – not to see Matt LeBlanc but to see Tamsin Greig). Long story short, a drunken arsehole (let’s call him AH) sitting behind me had a revolting conversation on his phone with his girlfriend – on speakerphone – about knickers and the removal thereof, which clearly made the 12-year-old girl across from me uncomfortable (her mother had fallen asleep). I am sad to say that I said nothing, since AH seemed unpredictable at best. Once he hung up, he tried to strike up a conversation with the girl across from me, who looked over at me in alarm. Had she been to the concert that night, AH wanted to know. She said nothing. He asked again, sounding drunkenly annoyed. I turned around and suggested he let her be. At which point he told me that people who jump in on other people’s conversation are asking to be slapped upside the head. Which made me re-assess the situation. In the meantime, the girl’s mother woke up, telling AH in no uncertain terms that he should not strike up conversations with twelve-year-old girls.
Thus capping an otherwise lovely weekend in the city of London.
So (and this is my curt nod to HW), it has been a week of women speaking out. Not perfectly, but speaking out.
Gentle reader, I am writing to you from a place that is not my home. Many of you know what it is to live in a place that is not your home, and many of you live in places that must seem worlds apart from the place you grew up. So I want to note that my temporary home in Canterbury is not unintelligible or difficult to manage. But occasionally there are signs that entry into this world will be an imperfect process. Or that there might be new choices to make; directions to take.
But there are still stumbling blocks as I shift into Canterbury life. The word I speak most often when conversing with British people is: Sorry? As in, could you repeat that please? I didn’t quite understand – maybe it’s the accent; maybe it’s your use of vocabulary. For example, here, you don’t “tap” your debit card, you use the “contactless.”
These simple discrepancies require simple acts of translation, and they make me feel lethargic, cumbersome, requiring countless Canterburians to become less efficient, to repeat themselves to someone from away. They are endlessly patient, these laborers at stores (shops), drug stores (chemists), pubs (pubs), and universities (uni’s). And their patience likely stems from necessity; Canterbury is filled with Americans, Canadians, French, Spanish and more. The phrase I hear most often on the streets here is, “Where are you from?”
Every day, I am reminded I am not at home by the humidity – have I mentioned that it drenches my back as I walk up The Hill to campus? And after two weeks of walking the streets of Canterbury, I am still befuddled by pedestrian-car relationships (why do cars come from the wrong direction? Why do pedestrians not have the right of way? How does one navigate a roundabout where cars hurtle themselves around at breakneck speed – while going the wrong way?). So I regularly attract the glares of drivers as I dash across the street.
But why all this whining (whinging?) I came here to be in a different place. To write from a new perspective. To feel different as I write.
And the fact is, gentle reader, I do.
I find myself thinking of the year I spent in France as a teenager, my attempts to fit in to a culture I didn’t understand, to learn a language that was always one phrase ahead of me. The other day, I found myself relating to my flatmate the story of writing a dictée in French class. Madame Voisin (her name has been changed to protect the not-so-innocent) would read an excerpt from a novel aloud and the class would transcribe it, applying the various rules of grammar – which, since I had only just arrived in France, were completely unknown to me.
I did my best to transcribe phonetically, but managed to write down only every third word or so that came out of Mme Voisin’s mouth. I was horrified to discover that my pathetic attempt at transcription was to become public knowledge; we were to pass our papers to the student behind us for grading. We were to start with a score of 20 and deduct a point for each error. I knew that the chances of my having only 20 errors were slim to nil, so it was not surprising when the boy behind me raised his hand and asked what to do – The American has already zero points, Madame. I wanted to cry out to the class, who giggled as Madame Voisin told him to simply go into negative numbers, that I was not this stupid in English.
This is the experience I think of when I reflect on being a foreigner in a foreign land. Now, some forty years after my year at the collège, I can see that, relatively speaking, I was not that foreign. France was not that foreign. The food was similar. The clothing was similar. Even the words, once you tuned your ear properly, were similar: tomato, tomate. Adapting to life in France was manageable. Still, this experience is a crack in a doorway; it reveals a tiny glimpse of the experiences inhabited by the character I try to write about in my novel.
I say “try” because my Syrian character evades me. Rasha, as I’ve chosen to call her for now (what act of arrogance is this!) hides behind the keys on my keyboard, challenging me to know her. I defer to her there, in the indented space on my page, animating her with tentative letters as I sit in my carrel in the sociology building which smells of fresh paint.
Even here in my blog, I hesitate to write about writing about her. Sitting in my carrel, where I do the actual writing, I replay the interviews I’ve conducted with Syrian women and I read online the stories of Syrian women. I tell myself my novel is about a Canadian woman. It’s about Canada, trying to convince itself that it opens its arms while the rest of the world closes its doors.
Meanwhile, my Canadian characters speak in louder and louder tones. They speak to me as I walk up The Hill. They speak to each other. Their voices reveal new traits as I curse the humidity and remove my jacket, then my sweater. Thea can be naive. Felix is nostalgic. Gerry is an old soul in a teenager’s body.
I notice new things about these people as the page breaks on my screen turn into chapters. I notice that Thea notices Felix. The smell of his clothing after a shoot. The worn smoothness of his flannel shirt. She notices that he notices. He notices her arthritic shoulders. Her impatience with his fussiness. He mocks her whinging. They are colleagues.
You might think that these characters’ voices would become solid and clear as the chapters wear on, but it’s not always the case. Their voices often lift into the shape of question marks. Especially Rasha. Why, Rasha asks, would I tell my story to these odd Canadian people? I have been through so much; I hold my head high and am not the sort of person who requires help. Anyone’s help. And besides – the risks.
I have put Rasha on Canadian soil and am trying to understand her new relationship with the dusty landscape of Calgary. Does she really believe her new country is so wonderful? Does she really forgive her new next-door neighbors who tell her she should return to the place she came from? I try to see her new life from the eyes of a woman who has nearly lost everything, who understands life as a stitch that is easily dropped.
I think of my friends (my real, living and breathing friends) who love their new country but often feel a deep well of empty space inside their stomachs. I imagine (and this is somewhat easier in this humid town with its ancient towers and cathedrals) the feeling of a gap between the streets you walk on and the streets where your own family live. The people you grew up with, raised your children with, became yourself with. Surely there are times when it’s easier to imagine the streets of your childhood than the one that exists outside your door, today.
The gap between this:
So this week I’m embracing the gap. I’m even embracing the woman who calls out “Mind the gap!” when you get on the Tube. I’m going to be mindful of that gap between the familiar and unfamiliar, and I’m going to step into that blank space and hope for a better view as I fall.
Gentle reader, it has been a week of ups and downs – literally and figuratively. First, let me tell you about my love-hate relationship with The Hill.
I have heard dozens of warnings about The Hill, on which the University of Kent is situated, resulting in a spectacular view of Canterbury. You would not want to walk up this hill, I was told. You must take the bus, I was advised. It only takes about 15 minutes. In my feeble head I managed to do the math. The walk up the hill takes only 30 minutes, so why bother taking the bus if it saves you only 15 minutes?
What else, I wondered, did the bus save you? I pictured a lovely day – not necessarily sunny but not raining – and an ambling, cathartic trek up The Hill. I could see on Google Maps that there were many options for walking The Hill, several of which take you through lush green fields or bridleways crowned with dense vines and shrubbery.
Sure, your legs would be tired at the top but it would be worth it!
Why, I now wonder, did no one tell me the real reason for taking the bus? The real hardship saved by taking public transit up The Hill?
The full nature of this real reason came crashing down on me like a salty tsunami last week as I sat at my carrel, with every inch of my skin gasping for breath. It had rained that morning and the air, when I walked out the door that morning, felt like a cozy blanket tucked beneath your chin. It was going to be a lovely day! I set out in a t-shirt and sweater, my rain coat tucked over my briefcase. I wore my thick leather boots, figuring the ground would be damp. All of which was fine, until I was about three-quarters of the way up The Hill. At which point all the humidity in the planet tried to force its way into my body while all the air inside my body tried to force its way out, through the impermeable seal of dampness. I wasn’t hot so much as swimming in my own juices. As I sat at my carrel, I counted the drips of sweat running down the small of my back.
Six, seven, eight.
Would it be possible, within the normal bounds of polite behavior, to remove the boots that were making my feet feel as if they’d been lost forever in a steam bath? Would my carrel mates mind?
Eleven, twelve, thirteen…
No, I decided, visions of Speedo man from the U of C grad commons floating into my head.
I will keep shoes on, come what may.
As drop fourteen trickled down my back, the real reason for taking the bus finally dawned on me. The Hill does not tire you because of its pitch or length. It sucks oxygen from your cells and force-feeds them with H2O until your eyeballs fill up with humidity, thinning and stretching until finally they pop like a balloon.
Why no one told me this remains a mystery. I can only guess that once you’ve lived here a while, you take this balloon-popping effect in stride. It goes without saying that sweating is unpleasant. You keep your balloon intact by not walking up The Hill.
Before the weather became so humid, I went with my flat mate and her friends to the Canterbury food and drink festival.
The entire city had squished itself into the lovely Dane John gardens (this is a bastardization of the Old French donjon, referring to a Norman castle founded by William the Conqueror) which features a “mound,” likely an ancient Roman burial mound from the 1st or 2nd century.
In this venerable location were packed stalls featuring everything from churros and chips to wine and jams to Pims and cheese. Also this:
Give me careless jam with sloe gin any day!
The gin jam was just one of many tasty food sensations… We inched our way past the stalls, reaching out as vendors distributed slivers of local brie, samples of gourmet oils, splashes of spicy dips. The samples were delicious, as was the curry I bought for lunch. I topped it off with a Pim’s cocktail and went waddling home.
On Sunday I cycled a pathway out to the coast called the Crab and Winkle Way. That’s right. Crab and Winkle.
Side bar: in my next life I’d like to come back as the official namer for British places please. Side bar side bar: I was walking along a nondescript suburban street the other day and saw this street sign:
Now, to me this sign belongs in a forest where people in jodhpurs are riding horses and chasing steeples. This sign might also belong in a war film:
Where the sweaty soldier shouts: “Fox down close! Fox down close!”
But I digress. Back to the Crab and Winkle Way. This is a pleasantly named, pleasantly flat cycle from the university to the beach town of Whitstable, and it’s named after one of the original rail lines of Kent.
I approached the excursion with caution, since I would be cycling alone through farmland, woodland and more. I asked my flat mate if I should be concerned about security, and she said, Absolutely, if you’re terrified by elderly people in tweed jackets. She was quite right; the main cause for alarm was the density of said elderly people, all of whom had at least three dogs (all of whom were either labs, long-tailed spaniels, pugs or Westies).
Still, you can’t be too careful. I was diligent in obeying all traffic signs. Such as this one.
I got off my bike, took a picture and laughed out loud. Then I saw this.
The picture is a bit blurry because the horse was yelling: Fox close down! Fox close down!
Clearly all signs must be obeyed.
It was a gorgeous cycle, very peaceful, through an ancient wood called The Blean, and then through farmers’ fields.
After about an hour and a quarter, I was cycling through the town of Whitstable, where Brits seem to come to get away from city life.
I found a pub at lunch time and had a cheddar and chutney sandwich, then headed back to Canterbury.
On Monday, I headed back up The Hill to my carrel in the sociology building, and began pounding out the old dissertation.
I had another chat with my guest supervisor, who continues to be generous and kind. I was to hand in my first submission to her, so she could offer feedback and see if her research group was interested in reading it too. I have more than 100 pages in the manuscript so I was not worried about finding about 50 that would give her an impression of the characters, storyline and theoretical undertones. I had a few chapters in mind, several of which I had already revised. As I sat in my carrel, waiting for the sweat to evaporate, I scanned the chapters.
Oh, the horror.
These chapters were, in a word, awful. They were also pedestrian, reductive and turgid. I could imagine my guest supervisor reading these pages of prose and thinking, Good lord, how much of this drivel will I have to read over the next three months? How can I tell this Canadian woman that she is not – and never will be – a writer of interesting words?
So I spent the day replenishing my sweat reserves and revising the chapters.
In the end I was not unhappy with the pages, but that’s the way it works, isn’t it? You read them right after you write them and you think, Yes. This is compelling. I’ve captured a certain atmosphere, I’ve said something interesting about life and human nature.
The next day you boot up your computer and you see yourself for what you really are: a bottom-dweller, slithering along on your belly through the sand, oblivious to the fishy fecal matter that’s been left there by other, higher beings, which is now sticking to your flesh in dark glutinous clumps.
But never mind. I know I am not the only one to experience this slithering sense of self-loathing. I simply rise from my carrel and head back down The Hill. There is the cathedral, bobbing in and out of view between clumps of maples. There is the densely clouded sky, with its promise of rain, or worse – humidity. And there is the trickle, running damply down my back as I make my way down The Hill.
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017
Do the No-Jet-Lag pills really work? They taste like sugar pills but I chewed them diligently as I flew from Calgary to Canterbury. After just two days in the UK, my home-away-from-home, the place where I will magically finish the first draft of my dissertation, I have nearly become a non-jet-lagged Canterburian. Canterburyite. Canterbourois?
I managed to sleep a bit on the plane, despite the angle of the seat, which forces your chest to curl forward and your head to tip back until you feel as if a lovely spike has been driven through your neck.
Fast-forward to the Heathrow customs line, where, after an hour-long wait, the border agent refused to look at the bundle of paperwork I had assembled for my crossing. She cared not one whit that I had made a special trip to the bank to have my statement printed out on official Bank Paper, signed by an official Bank Person. She brushed away the original letter from SSHRC, the notice from U of C that I am truly a foreign exchange student. Feeling miffed, I collected my bag and made my way to the public area of Heathrow, where I found my assigned driver so fast I had no time to experience the palpitations about potential airport terror attacks, which I had planned into my schedule.
Having gotten the spike-induced kinks out of my neck as we walked to the parkade, I piled into the car and dove into conversation with my driver. I am here, after all, to do research. And to get a handle on how Brits feel about insularity, refugees, Brexit and more. Here was my first opportunity to grill an ordinary citizen on the politics of the day. The Zeitgeist of the UK. The yay-or-nay on Teresa May.
It was a short conversation.
The driver, although lovely, had taken The Oath of Quiet Living. He had resolved never to turn on the television set, scan a news site, or sully his eyes with social media. You have to turn all that off, he explained. If you want to live happily. The news will make you mad.
So we covered other territory. My driver, it turned out, was the son of a Thai government advisor – the right-hand man to the former king, he told me. Fascinating! When I asked how he felt about British monarchs, he snorted. What a waste, he said. They do nothing! But what about Diana, I protested – the land mines, the AIDS patients. Well, maybe Diana, he grumbled.
I asked who he thought should succeed the Queen, and he said, Well, it certainly won’t be Harry.
Why not, I asked.
He’s not Charles’s son; everyone knows that.
Everyone except me, I thought, but decided to grunt appreciatively instead, and nodded knowingly when he mentioned James Hewitt. I made a mental note to google Rumors Re Prince Harry as soon as I could find a wifi connection (spoiler alert – Daily Star readers voted decisively that Harry is indeed the son of Hewitt, due in part to his ginger hair and also – small canine teeth).
Fast-forward to my arrival in Canterbury. My flat mate, Tamara, is wonderful. She swept me up to our second-floor flat and, seeing that I was on the verge of starvation (Really, Air Canada? White flour pasta and white beans in water sauce?), cooked me a delicious meat pie using puff pastry and beef/mushrooms slow-cooked in herbs and tomato. Which I certainly did not eat, due to my unfailing devotion to my vegetarian lifestyle choice.
Fast-forward to my first trip to the Kent campus. I dash from the flat at 8:15 AM, having slept marginally better in my new comfy bed than I did on the Air Canada bed of nails, and still needing change for the 8:30 bus. Mission accomplished. Small corner store: open. Bottle of water: purchased. Bus fare: obtained, almost exactly. The bus driver, unlike the Canadian drivers I know and love, does not seem to care that I ask him where he is going. In Calgary if you ask your bus driver his destination, he will look at you as if you’d asked him to co-sign your mortgage. Not Mr. Canterbury Bus Driver. He tells me politely that the bus will go to the University of Kent, and then he proceeds to GIVE ME CHANGE from the coins I have given him (not completely sure what they were or what the fare was). This is a foreign concept to anyone who has stepped onto a Canadian bus. We in Canada do not expect the driver to pause for more than a millisecond before waving you to your seat and stepping on the gas, causing you to slip on a patch of melted ice and sending you sprawling across the lap of the elderly gentlewoman in the front row.
As it turns out, I was not the only one in the precarious situation of not having mastered the Canterbury transit system. At almost each stop, a studenty-looking person got on, handed over some coins, asked a question, and stood for a moment, pondering the information offered by the driver. At first it was charming. How much lovelier these drivers are than the ones back home! But then there was another stop with another inquisitive student. And another, and another. This, surely, is meant to be a five-minute bus ride, and already fifteen minutes seem to have gone by. I began to feel nostalgic for the jolt of a Canadian bus and the puddle of melted ice. However, I stand by the value of friendly drivers – huzzah!
At the campus, I breezed through the hyper-organized registration process, facilitated by a young woman named Dora, no less (a sly reference for those of you who know my mother’s name), and her colleague Sarah, who once visited her sister in Calgary and thoroughly enjoyed it, having spent the bulk of her visit in Banff and Jasper. Huzzah! Bolstered by my success with bus drivers and registrars, I strode boldly to Cornwallis East, home of the sociology department.
My supervisor met me in the lobby and showed me around the building, which I had thought might smell of moss or possibly of Henry V, but no. This is a newly built building and it smells of paint. It is also warm, unlike buildings which smell of moss, and this pleases me no end. Huzzah!
I have been welcomed into the School of Sociology fold – they are a truly gracious bunch, making room for a Canadian interloper. I can use any of the carrels in the PhD study space, but one of the students confirmed my suspicion that existing students have long since marked out their territory. I promised to ask if my chosen spot had already been chosen. This territoriality will not surprise my own U of C cohort (is Speedo man still in the Grad Commons, wriggling his bare toes at the window?).
Such has been my Canterbury experience so far.
You’re probably thinking, surely it’s not all kittens and rainbows. Surely there has been at least one drop of rain on the sunshine of my Canterbury?
And to that I say, pish posh! After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good 1-800 session with the Apple Service Team? I’m taking a page from my sunny bus driver’s book; I will see only the positive side of the six to eight hours spent fixing my aesthetically pleasing iPhone. How else would I have made so many new acquaintances at Vodafone, StormFront (the lovely Apple re-seller folks in Canterbury!) and of course the Apple Service Team, available until 7 PM nightly, toll-free? I feel confident that my inability to send and receive texts to my friends and family back home will be remedied any day now.
So I lay myself down in my comfy bed with the Apple phone call to look forward to. And then, the lovely walk up to campus, which winds through fields that are still brilliant green, lush with ivy vines and chestnut trees (I think). And then, the calm of the carrel, where the real work will begin.
Sundays are a ruler of life. Ruler, as in, measurement.
Once upon a time, Sundays were lazy; sleep till all hours, read a book, go for a run, go for brunch. Then they became like any other day; up at six, nodding off on the couch in front of The Magic School Bus. When I worked full time, I stumbled through Sundays on stun, recovering from the week, doing bits of work, running errands, going to basketball/hockey, prepping for the days ahead.
During my PhD, Sundays lost their identities altogether, slipping into Saturday and Monday, unnoticed. If Sundays replaced my grown-up children, I was a terrible new mother. I ignored them, was incapable of telling them apart from their siblings. Every day was reading, writing, work, eat, work. Reading, writing, work, eat, work.
And then one day (a Monday, as far as I can recall) I defended my candidacy papers. And my seven adopted children resolved themselves into days with unique faces. Work, prep, research, work, research, errands, relax. And when I say relax, I really mean, slip into a coma. Which is what I wanted to do every day, post candidacy exam.
But now the post-candidacy term is at an end and Sundays are growing on me. This morning I read Russell Smith in The Globe and had a pleasant, out-of-focus sensation.
At the risk of over-selling my Sunday as gloriously duty-free, I should mention that The Globe is my favorite way of procrastinating. Today I’m putting off writing a paper for the upcoming Congress conference.
But never mind.
The point is, I had a pleasant, out-of-focus sensation as I read a Russell Smith column – “In an age of endless images, kids are still hooked on books.” I expected a column punctuated with stats. Stats on reading versus gaming, reading versus film, reading versus The Magic School Bus.
This was Russell Smith lounging on his couch, laptop propped on thighs, coffee in one hand, one eye on The Magic School Bus, contemplating the reading acts that inhabit his own home. His own memories of reading, his bedtime readings to his son, his son’s responses to Pippy Longstocking. The only stat in the column was the news that Smith’s son memorizes every character in every Star Wars film ever made.
Should I be indignant about this? The headline does, after all, promise a sweeping analysis of how today’s children respond to written texts versus image-based narratives. What about false advertising? What about facts supporting assumptions? What about being qualified to analyze the topic at hand?
Sundays don’t have to be about stats and analysis and comprehensive comparisons based on literary theory.Do they?
In my pleasant Sunday state of out-of-focusness, I drift to New Brunswick. A conference I attended a couple of years ago at Mount Allison, about women as public intellectuals. I drift to a panel discussion and a debate about why women don’t speak in the public arena as often as men do.
(Preposterous! shout the post-feminists. Who says women’s voices are still silent?)
Shari Graydon, that’s who. At the Discourse & Dynamics conference she talked about women refusing to think of themselves as experts. She said that when women are called by journalists to comment on a topic, they often decline, saying, “Oh, you should really talk to Mr. X; he’s been studying this longer than I have.”
What is this fear women have about putting pen to paper and analyzing the topics they know and understand? Would a woman have more trouble than Russell Smith writing a Sunday column about kids and reading? Granted, someone else may have written Russell’s misleading headline. And granted, the Globe and other media outlets are full of savvy women who stick their necks out every day to debate myriad topics. But it’s Shari Graydon’s experience that many of the female gender still hesitate to take on the mantle of expert, even when they are experts in their field.
But since it’s Sunday, I drift away from Shari Graydon and back to Russell Smith. Is this column a valid way of throwing the issue of childhood reading out into the public domain? His article is highly personal, domestic. Readable. So why not? He could certainly have written the stat-based article, but the first-person approach has its own merits. Kind of like a blog post.
And it reminds me that knowledgeable people can – and should – write about their opinions. Even when they spring up, slightly out of focus, on a Sunday.