Unravelling integration

December 2016

It is grey and overcast today. The weather fits my mood: rain freezing in thin sheets against my clothes as I walk along sidewalks iced and encaustic; wandering from Mont-Royal down St-Hubert, along Rachel and then up St-Denis, to Laurier and then down St-Laurent and back downtown. I am once again in Montréal. Being home, I feel like I am unravelling my integration, remembering that there are indeed different ways to live and love and exist; ways which sometimes seem infinitely easier and familiar than in Norway. Though some of the ways of Norway have infiltrated my life, there is something alluring in this notion of unravelling integration, particularly because it means that for a few moments or days or weeks, I feel a little more free. I do not have to measure every word and every action in my elusive search for belonging. Canada, however,  becomes equally foreign after having now lived six of the past ten years abroad. I lose the politics and references, making Montréal seem as similarly unfamiliar as Oslo. I am not sure if I would refer to this existence as cosmopolitan; as the shared values which constitute a cosmopolitan life between places seem decidedly absent in my everyday. Instead, I feel that I constantly navigate treacherous cultural differences, never quite settling completely, a feeling familiar perhaps to many transnationals. It is better described as a state of being caught perpetually between cultures, for me it is: between the two solitudes of English and French which permeate Montréal and Québec; between the culture of Québec and the rest of Canada; between Canada and the strong British culture of my childhood home; and more recently the otherness of being an expat already rife with the dualities of Canada in Norway.

I suspect that there is a fairly constant feeling of otherness that many Canadians feel though it is also accompanied by an integration and multiculturalism far more effective than Norway. I sometimes wonder whether to be an ‘other’ is simply part of what it means to be Canadian, many of us not quite from here or there, others still displaced by the injustices of colonialism. This feeling of other is amplified living in a nation-state, except now I interact among those who have never known and may never know the extent of this feeling. I suspect that it is this feeling that has spurred me to travel. In ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ Rebecca Solnit describes this phenomenon of second-generation immigrants in America returning to the old world  as being the result of a transplant that did not quite take. I love this idea so very much because it quells my insecurities, suggesting that longing for other places, of never being completely settled is possibly a natural fallout of migration. And perhaps these feelings reside in some of us more strongly than others. Maybe this explains the wanderlust that has welled inside since youth, in part some expression of genetic memory of some far off place. I like the idea of a being a beautiful plant, looking for better, more familiar soil for its tender, thirsty roots.

‘Ghosts of graffiti’ on the Plateau Mont-Royal, Montréal (2016)
‘Ruelles of the Plateau’, Montréal (2016)

Somewhere over the North Sea, on the beginning of my recent journey home, I thought of letters. Those folded sheets of paper covered in handwriting and stuffed into envelopes, sent around the world or maybe just to the other side of the city. I wrote them passionately as a teenager and into my twenties, before email was so accessible, long before social media. At 40, 000 feet, somewhere above Labrador, I started writing one, recalling  how much I still long to receive them myself, thoughtfully scrawled, potentially illegible. I sometimes unlock my mailbox in Oslo irrationally hoping to find a letter from someone I never actually gave my address to. I think the desire has something to do with touch; to know that someone handled these papers, that they held the paper down with their palm, long fingers flat against the table of a café or a library; that a pen was held and dragged across the page, wrist gliding back and forth with each line; that someone’s fingertips might have paused and lingered against lined paper as they looked up and out of the window in reverie or in search of the next words to write. Or perhaps it is a pause of momentary distraction by the conversation of neighbours or by the rustling or papers or a loud noise; maybe just the ping of their phone notification. I think it is also something to do with time; letters reflecting a state when people still took time and care with people and their communication, when relationships were cherished and nourished, not infinitely disposable and replaceable. When words were not so quickly ignored. It is in the darkened cabin of one of these new airplanes where you can charge all the devices which preclude writing by hand, where I jot down the first notes for a letter written with haste; notes which have compelled me to write now on integration and belonging.

‘Strawberries and ice’ on Rue Rachel, Montréal (2016)
‘Librairie Guerin and assorted graffiti’ on Rue St-Denis, Montréal (2016)

My mother’s family sailed in the late 1950s from post-war England as part of some poorly executed agricultural scheme to bring skilled workers to the farms of Canada; a small family with limited luggage and only $50 per person given the currency controls in place at the time. My grandfather contracted the mumps while my grandmother suffered with seasickness and my uncle and mother rampantly explored the ship; I imagine my mother running on deck with her suitcase of dolls in tow. The first house my mother’s family arrived at had no windows, no front door, no running water, and a tree growing through the floorboards. The second house, they had to step over the body of dead sheep to get to the outhouse, again no running water. With young children at her side, my Grandmother went directly to the Minister of Agriculture in Ottawa, In 1957, this was a time when storming the minister’s office was still something one could do. They waited until suitable arrangements were made and so began the beginning of part of my history in Canada. I tried tracing the genealogy of the family of my father’s father in America, and I watched through barely legible census records the Dust Bowl chasing my ancestors across the Great Plains before they settled in Kansas; the blood of German, British, and Cherokee running through their veins. So even my father was a second-generation immigrant, his father having moved northward during the war to fly planes for the Royal Canadian Air Force. My parents of the post-war baby-boomer generation themselves spent their respective youths bouncing around Québec and Ontario and even out briefly to British Columbia, spending time in places like Ste-Adèle, Ste-Agathe, Montréal, Ottawa, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Beaconsfield, L’Île-Perrot, Lindsay, Boundary Bay, and Ste-Catherines.

‘Graffiti post-buff by KESM, et al’ in Montréal (2016)
‘Looking for a little respect’, Rue Laurier, Montréal (2016)

I come home to Montréal to unravel my integration, even if only momentarily. To shake off my attempts of belonging in Norway, to regain my sense of place (which though nomadic, is still strongest in Montréal) which I still long for in Oslo, a sense which is still so much in the making. Perhaps I procrastinate on this taking root because integration comes with as many losses as gains. You give away parts of yourself to become accepted, deny parts of your being, and are never quite your whole self except for with the occasional kindred spirits you may rarely encounter; those who like you are similarly spinning their webs of movement in long silky threads of coming and going; frequently other expats to whom many of which I have said goodbye as they left Oslo. While you struggle to learn all the references and ways of being in your new country, it is surprising how few people really ask about your own culture, of what it truly means to be where you are from. Maybe that’s the caveat of cosmopolitanism, for in supposing a shared culture across distance, it erases our heritage and cultural multiplicities as well. I wonder how many could say anything about the city or country I am from, of the life that I left behind, of the neighbourhood of my childhood, the names of the friends and family that I left behind in search of a better life for myself. Do they know that Montréal is an island, embraced by the torpid rapids of the St. Lawrence River? Do they know of the colonial settlers, of the portage, of the locks of the Lachine Canal and the St-Lawrence Seaway built to bypass those treacherous waters? Do they know the colours of the Hudson Bay blanket? Do they know the names of the Indigenous groups whose land this belonged to and whose social and political struggles persist today? Do they know of Mont-Royal and the cross of white lights that crown the modest mountain park sculpted by Olmstead, responsible also for the design of Central Park in New York City? Do they know that the lights turn purple at the death of a pope, a lasting legacy of the strong Roman Catholic presence in the province; a presence diminished greatly during the Quiet Revolution of 1970? Though I strive to inscribe the names of my new home in Norway, to write the geographies and politics to my memory, to learn a third language, I frequently feel subtly derided and excluded in the most insensitive of ways for not having learned enough or learned fast enough despite the very fact that it takes some a lifetime to master a language with comfort, that in fact, learning a language while trying to adapt to a new culture, a new work environment, to establish a social life and make connections in a country not so very hospitable for quick and warm friendships, to learn a new discipline, learn to teach, do research and write a doctoral dissertation, and to do this all very much alone, an ocean and a continent away from family and the familiar is not always easy.

‘Cinema L’Amour’, Rue St-Laurent, Montréal (2016)

In Norway, I chastise and censor myself. Though shy and reserved, I still feel that I say too much, am too forthcoming, too direct with my feelings. It is an insecurity which Norway has truly nurtured and I never know quite what to do with my emotions anymore. I’m left with frequent feelings of guilt and confusion. For being too angry or sad, too loving or affectionate, too happy or excited. These are feelings which only exacerbate the already prescient feelings of exclusion which come with being an immigrant; one of my biggest fears that my emotions will be perceived as disingenuous.

“The nightingale is approaching …” writes the poet Rilke in a letter to Princess Marie  von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. It is 1912 and he writes from Castle Duino, from the cliffs above the Adriatic, not far from Trieste. Recalling the conception of his most famous of works, she writes: “He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention. Who had come? And he knew the answer: the god …”. And with that mysterious impulse of inspiration and creative impulse, Rilke wrote the first lines of the Duino Elegies:

“Who if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.”

My heart beats suddenly faster and harder as I read Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’ now for the first time; reading lines between writing, yes, a letter that I will never send. Rilke’s words recall Solnit’s and my own thoughts on genetic memory; the spirits of our ancestors alive in the configurations and expressions of our organic matter. The ending of the Third Elegy incites a warm and nervous feeling in my stomach. And I am grateful for every excessive emotion that I feel ashamed of in Norway if it means that a piece of poetry can illicit this depth of feeling and course through my body like a current, thankful that I am still able to feel the beauty of words in my blood, reflecting on the ancestors residing within us in this moment of unravelled integration.

“You see,  we don’t love like flowers, the effort
of just one year; sap from time immemorial
flows through our arms when we love. O girl,
this: that we’ve loved, within  us, not that one person yet to come,
but all the weltering brood; not some single child,
but the fathers who lie like mountain-ruins
within us; and the dried-up riverbed
of former mothers –; and the whole
soundless landscape beneath our cloudy
or cloudless fate: all that, O, girl, claimed him first.”

Excerpt from the Third Elegy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, written between 1912 and 1922, Translated by Edward Snow in 2000.

dsc01716‘Why not?, near the McGill Ghetto, Montréal (2016)


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