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.