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Month: October 2008

turtle shells

I’d have more time for blogging and bike-riding if I didn’t waste so many days packing and unpacking. I moved again this past weekend, to the 14ème arrondissement, my third time since August. Or was it the fourth?

I’ve had a handful of major border-crossing moves just in the past two years, and every move calls for the same routine. I make an inventory: throw-out pile, sell-off pile, give-away pile, hopeless nostalgia pile, storage pile, keeper pile. Then I pack up the keepers — the clothes, the shoes, the music, the films, the books, the photos, the cameras, the recording equipment, the art pieces, the fancy markers, the chopsticks, the tea mugs. It all gets more refined every time. The keeper pile shrinks. The stakes get steeper. Which heels am I really going to wear in the next few months? Do I need this jacket? My record collection was decimated over four years ago during a major cross-country move. I gave away my turntable at that point. CDs don’t tend to move well, and most of the ones I haven’t passed off or sold for grocery money over the years fit into just a few boxes that are currently collecting dust in my parents’ house in Toronto. All my tapes are stacked there too, but they somehow feel more valuable.

My book pile has gone through the greatest transformation, and is probably the most revealing. Deciding which ones to bring and which ones to tuck away for less transitory days is the hardest part of moving. I spend hours standing in front of my bookshelf each time, going through each title, weighing my attachment. The stack I’m unwilling to part with has shrunk in size as the distances-to-be-traversed have grown, but there are a few constants I can’t seem to bear leaving behind. Here are the current contents of my shelf:

1. Language books

Spanish, French, Portuguese and Arabic dictionaries, grammar books, and texts. There are, like, thirteen of these. As one tongue gets stronger, the others inevitably grow weaker, and I have to keep these around to stay on top of my linguistic game. I don’t have an English dictionary or a thesaurus. I do have an English grammar guide and a copy of the AP stylebook, but they both somehow feel like burdens, and I wish I had left them behind. I feel more and more comfortable falling back on my ESL maker-upper instincts when it comes to my second tongue. English is so much more interesting when you approach it as play.

2. Books by friends

Social Acupuncture by Darren O’Donnell. Enter the Babylon System by Rodrigo Bascunan and Chris Pearce. The Graves Are Not Yet Full, by a former (and favourite) professor, Bill Berkeley.

This section needs additions. Friends, brilliant friends, please publish more of your words for me.

3. Books that are friends

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. Blindness and The Cave (not as good as the first, and no, I don’t want to see the film) by José Saramago. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet.

My judgment flawed in places. I regret a few I’ve left behind, and rue the weight of some I was too eager to let slip through. Oh symbolism, you are the heaviest of all.

4. Book that are reminders

Out of Place by Edward Said. Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon. Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski. There are others, but not here.

5. Books i should have read already

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

The first, picked up years ago in the East Village with a friend, along with copies of Bidoun and Wax Poetics. I promised him I would read. The second, passed down by a friend in first year university via her anarchist white hippie dread boyfriend. That dude was such an ass, pompous and misogynistic. He works as a rap promoter now, I think. I promised her I would read. The third, recommended by one of the gentlest, most surprising, quietly perceptive editors I have ever had the honour of working with. He told me, “you should read more Didion.” I promised myself I would.

Maybe before the air gets too cold for fingers to turn pages, I’ll find some afternoon sunny bench in Parc Montsouris and get down to it. I’ll reconnect with these friends, friends of friends, textual bricks in my mobile home.

i’ve cast my vote

Democracy cost me over 50 euros on Friday. Or was it Thursday?

I’m talking Canadian democracy, that is. After days of sitting on my ballot, hemming and hawing over the moral pros and cons of strategic voting, leaders debates and party platforms, I finally settled on a candidate. Block letters, black ink on that special, official slip. Inner envelope, outer envelope, mailing envelope. Signed, dated. If I had made up my mind sooner, mailing my vote would have hit me at 80-odd cents. Instead I sighed and pulled out my credit card. I’m an expat, but I take my vote seriously.

You may or may not have heard, but there’s this other election going down right now too.

The be-all end-all of elections! The grand slam! The pray-per-view event of the decade! The whole world is watching, placing bets, and waiting for the finale. And the whole world, I’m told, is pulling for Obama.

Both American and international media outlets have been obsessed with polling overseas non-citizens for their opinions on the candidates. For months, the outcome has nearly always been identical — across continents, borders, language, religion and culture, there is an overwhelming global support for Barack Obama. Far more than within the 50 United States, there is this strong idea that he is the most qualified to lead his country through thorny foreign policy concerns and economic chaos, that he will help build a better America for the poor and struggling, that he will usher in a more balanced, humane era.

I wonder, though, would Barack Obama stand a chance as a candidate on their own territory? Or is this simply a case of Yes, But In Your Backyard?

In France, Obamania is a powerful force. People show their allegiance on buttons, fashionable t-shirts, vespa stickers. Conversations about the American election inevitably descend into demands for a positive prediction. “Is Obama going to win? I need to know,” they press on as though everything depends on your answer: “WILL HE WIN?”

I’m not sure I buy the enthusiasm.

As Obama-happy as countries like France, Germany, Holland and the UK may be, they are also countries with conservative governments currently in place. Modern right-wing Europe is worlds away from the staunchness of American conservatives in several ways (perhaps for lack of a well-funded NRA-type presence? I keed!), but many of the policies and principles are the same, as is the emphasis on Christian values. In France, for example, Sarkozy was elected in part for his aggressive approach to curbing immigration. In Germany they have Merkel, nicknamed the Iron Frau for her political resemblance to Thatcher. Europe is not especially known for promoting inclusion or healthy conversations about race and racism*, and while there is still a very visible lack of representation within their respective government hierarchies — or ANY major hierarchy — a huge chunk of the population continent-wide is somehow gunning for this black man in America to take the top spot.

*(Not that I can think of any place that does this honestly, but at least in the United States there’s strong, ongoing exploration of the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. However weak or misguided some of those efforts may be, I’d rather half-assed attempts than a collective historical brush-off by some of the original trans-Atlantic human traffickers, colonizers, slaughterers, white supremacists, etc.)

And then there’s Canada.

Canada’s identity has, in part, and mostly in the past, been formed in contrast. We are Canadians and distinct because we are not Americans; we are universal health care, accessible education, arts funding, international peacekeeping, and official multiculturalism policy. At least, that’s the idea on paper. The stripping down of this Idea began before Canadians put the current Conservative government in office, but Stephen Harper’s presence in Ottawa has resulted in some deep structural blows and shifts. Peacekeeping has been scaled back while military spending has gone up, enormous corporate tax breaks have taken precedence, the environment is hardly as much of a priority as it should be, the health care system is becoming increasingly privatized and multi-tiered, arts programs have been dramatically slashed or scrapped altogether, and immigration policy is certainly nothing like what it was when my parents first stepped onto Canadian soil. The Conservatives pushed hard for looser regulations on Canadian banks — regulations put in place by the previous Liberal government to curb recklessness and greed, regulations that kept Canadian banks from sinking into the same predicament that’s slammed our neighbours to the south. Good thing they didn’t get their way on that one.

As I type this, Canadians are lining up at polling stations across the country and submitting their own ballots. Millions of Obama-happy Canadians, voting for their next government, their next Prime Minister, and the next four years of policy and practice. Will they vote for top-heavy economic policy? For increased military spending? For increasingly inaccessible health care? For the white guy with the creepy smile? (Okay, I can’t really mess with that, all the major candidates are white.)

I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and I’ll read the results. I’ll know whether we’re in for another Conservative minority government, whether the Conservatives made strides into a majority leadership, or whether they’ve been pushed out altogether by the Liberals, the New Democratic Party, the Greens. I’ll know whether my fellow Obama-happy Canadians, like so many Obama-happy Europeans, and this Obama-happy world really mean it when they wear his face on their chest.

While you’re all swept up by the fashion and fanfare of Change We Can Believe In, I really need to know: have you got Change’s back? Cause if you don’t, then your opinion, your poll, and your t-shirt ain’t shit.

a s k

what i was talking about.

train was moving fast, i could barely see out the window.

had to trust my gut to know when to pull the trigger.