One of my initial reasons for visiting the Ugandan capital, Kampala, was to do a feature on a local NGO involved in refugee integration, to get an inside look at Uganda’s increasingly famous — and increasingly tested — refugee integration model. That particular plan fell through when, despite the fact that I sent my request through a bunch of channels, it never received a response. Like a true reporter, I got a version of the story anyway,  in between New Year’s toasts, watching the awestruck faces of two people in their thirties see fireworks for the first time, babysitting Emilie’s son and sharing dinners of chicken and chips, although I can’t take credit for any dogged research. The story — which will be published as a blog, not a news story, but still — fell into my lap over a couple of beers.

Uganda has hosted more than a million refugees, including Congolese, South Sudanese and Burundians, over the past few years. Unlike Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and many Middle Eastern and European countries where refugees are forced into camps, Uganda allows recognized refugees to move freely around the country, settle in cities, buy land and work.  Those who have followed this blog from its beginnings in 2011 will remember Emilie (not her real name), the super-intelligent, super-optimistic student in the English class I taught in Bujumbura, whose benevolent, extensive and usually invisible network of spies prevented me from getting into all manner of scrapes in the big city, and her merry band of classmates. Most of them are now refugees themselves, fleeing the fallout from president Pierre Nkurunziza’s crackdown on dissent, which began in 2015 and has gotten progressively more sinister. Emilie now lives in Kampala with her four-year-old son, whose father, shall we say, decided to bow out of the picture somewhere in Rwanda. For Emilie, who was orphaned at eight and who worked, studied and prayed so hard for a husband, children and a job worthy of her intelligence, ending up an unemployed refugee single mother, feeding her son fried potatoes and Fanta Orange in a two-room house without running water, seems like a cruel joke — although she hasn’t lost her smile and she visibly adores that boy. We were joined by Michel, her intelligent, idealistic and resourceful classmate, who somehow managed to get into, and pay for, a graduate school program in Kenya, and Patrice, who arrived in Uganda a wide-eyed, university-aged refugee and three years later found himself a married man, a shopkeeper and a part-time French language teacher at a posh school. Patrice had crossed the border with my friend and former student Alain, who had since gone back to Burundi. “I’m not sure what happened with him,” Patrice said. “He just never had very much luck.”

The laws are the same and the circumstances in which Emilie, Patrice and Alain ended up in Kampala are largely the same. They are intelligent, educated, physically strong, multilingual and extraordinarily resourceful. Without access to daycare, though, Emilie can’t look for work, and her connections weren’t able to be as helpful as she’d hoped. With Alain, a whole series of things went wrong that I haven’t been able to talk to him and wrap my head around yet. Patrice somehow managed to speak to the right people and go from strength to strength. Michel’s connections turned out to be the right ones, his master’s program turned out to be a great fit for him, and he got further than almost anyone. We kind of mythologize refugee optimism and perseverance, but how much is pluck and how much is luck?



 (For visibility: this is the Kasubi Tombs Heritage Site, the final resting place of the Buganda Kings, which Michel and I visited on New Year’s Day. Many of the kings’ descendants still live there. In almost any public space in Africa, whether a public park or a theatre or a school or a museum, you’ll find people hanging out their washing.)


Passing the first signpost

Five days ago, after an hour-long, sweaty commute by foot, daladala (local bus, usually a converted Japanese van) and bajaj (slow-moving three-wheeled motorized rickshaw) I set foot in my Dar es Salaam office for the second time in this whole adventure. My project manager, just back from vacation, was waiting for me.

“So, I’ve been here a month, and I’ve done all of this stuff, but I barely know Dar es Salaam,” I told her.

“You’ve been here a month?”

“Yeah, I have! I just noticed that myself this morning. It’s the eighth.”

She quickly added up the dates in her head and made a hand gesture, drawing a tally mark on an invisible wall.

“One down!” I said.

One month of this big, colourful (approximately) twelve-month adventure down, eleven to go. One month down, and I haven’t been robbed, I haven’t been deported (although I did, blunderingly, leave the country on a single-entry visa and have to pay again to re-enter) and I haven’t had malaria (although I did get food poisoning from a really foul chicken sandwich at a branch of an American-style fast food chain — live and learn). I haven’t sent most of the Christmas presents I bought in Zanzibar and Kampala. I also haven’t written very much, at least not in this space. So forgive me if this one entry starts to sound like one of the Russian novels I brought but haven’t read, as I try to narrate my travels through Zanzibar, Kampala, Kigali and Bagamoyo.

Stone Town Story

Zanzibar. It almost sounds like a three-syllable myth. Like Timbuktu or Siberia. I think the first time I heard the word “Zanzibar” it was on a kids’ cartoon show where they were reciting an African-themed alphabet song — “Z is for zebras and Zanzibar, can’t forget about Zanzibar…” It was just a funny word. The second time I heard about it was when I was 20 or so, reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun (inspired by real events) when the Polish reporter and his colleagues talk their way into landing a plane on the island to cover the Zanzibari revolution of 1963, then talk their way on to a boat off the island, then end up on the uninhabited end of the same island — out of reach of anything — rather than mainland Tanzania. It’s a tense, funny, swashbuckling story that might have actually happened. Kapuscinski called the island “a sad, dark star; a grim address,” which, on the surface, seems very hard to reconcile with the verdant party island I set foot on 50 years later. The third time I saw the word “Zanzibar” was probably on the label of a jar of cloves or vanilla extract. It’s one of those places that you hear about as a child at storytime, a place filled with witches or talking animals or forbidding weather, and only later find out is a real place, where people have been living, working, visiting and going to school every day for centuries. If you live in Dar es Salaam (as I technically do, even though I will have spent four nights in the shared Cuso flat in Dar by the time my first month in East Africa is over) Zanzibar is as close as a bus or cab ride downtown and a two-hour ferry ride across the strait.

The historic hub of Zanzibar is Stone Town, which reminds me of a sun-bleached Vieux-Québec or Sarajevo or the historical centre of a European town…really, of anywhere constructed before the invention of the car. It’s an impossible yarn ball of winding alleys which motorcyclists, taxi drivers and bicyclists careen through, honking before rounding a corner, scattering cautious locals, oblivious tourists and skinny, streetwise cats and chickens. When you least expect it, you come upon quiet courtyards and elegant arabesque patterns on stone balconies and wooden doors.


Unlike other African cities I’ve stayed in (and unlike a lot of North American cities) Zanzibar has a lot of green space. On one end of Stone Town, on the water’s edge, there are the elegant, Arab-designed Forodhani Gardens, where local families and tourists both drift during the evening to sample some street food at the night market (squid and lobster masala kebabs, a spicy soup made with mango juice and falafel, and a calzone-like thing called a Zanzibar pizza are some of the highlights) and watch the local equivalent of Friday Night Lights — crews of local teenage boys do synchronized dives into the harbour, demonstrating graceful front 360s, belly or back flops with a shout of self-deprecating laughter and everything in between. Near the Forodhani Gardens are a few elegant, light-coloured, sea-burnished, softly disintegrating wood and stone buildings that have been turned into museums or art galleries. One of them houses a music academy, where students and teachers play Zanzibari fusion music (a bit Arabic, a bit African, a bit reggae) a few nights a week for the tourists. On the other side, there are the quiet, steamy Victoria Gardens, where mango sellers wearing long Islamic veils gather and chat under the shade trees and elegant older men feed scraps of their lunch to the stray cats.


Between the two parks is where they send the tourists, a winding stretch lined with restaurants, cutesy cafés with wi-fi and English menus, and air-conditioned curiosity shops — not to mention the Freddie Mercury house, which is actually where the singer grew up, and which has not, surprisingly, been turned into a museum yet. Anyone who looks like a tourist will get trailed by souvenir sellers, taxi drivers, tour guides, the occasional teenager looking to practice English or Italian, and…a few random guys in Rasta attire who are probably a bit mad. I admit I went all in on the whole « tourist » thing, going on a guided tour to a spice farm to watch a guide shave cinnamon bark from a tree, and going on an outlying island tour on Christmas Day in a dhow with a rounded bottom that tipped perilously at every wave. Thanks to my marine safety training (or possibly just my innate common sense) I grabbed a life jacket from under the seat, figured it out surprisingly quickly and cinched it tight. No one else did, and I thought of the safety director on the Aquarius and how he would have bawled them all out. We arrived unscathed on the beach, and when I realized there wasn’t actually much to do on that island, I took off my trousers and belt and jumped into the bathwater-warm Indian Ocean. I wandered back to the youth hostel and started chatting with an Australian civil servant on holiday — we wandered down to the waterside, had fresh watermelon juice, and then went back to an Indian restaurant for palak paneer and cardamom ice cream — cardamom being another spice that’s fresh and abundant in Zanzibar. So that was Zanzibar, and that was Christmas.


The traces of slavery

Another important thing to remember about Stone Town: the city was home to one of the world’s last slave markets, which only formally closed in 1873. On the site now stand an old Anglican cathedral, a guesthouse and one of the holding pens where captured slaves used to await sale or onward transportation. Before you arrive at the holding pens, you pass through a chilling exhibit where excerpts from former slaves’ biographies or transcribed oral histories are written on panels. Slaves were captured from central Africa and pressed into forced labour in a long list of industries, from rubber to cloves to domestic service to the transport of ivory, which was later used to make luxury items like piano keys, billiard balls and little decorative boxes, decorating the London or Paris drawing rooms of people who probably didn’t know or care about the blood — human and elephant — that went into their toys. As I walked through the exhibit, talking to a Belgian doctoral student in migration studies who I’d met at a concert the night before, a French boy of about six or seven was behind us with his father. “Papa, c’était qui les méchants? C’était qui les méchants?” he demanded, in that insistent way little kids do. “Who were the bad guys, daddy? Who were the bad guys?”

One of the panels, quoting from an abolitionist memoir, had what I see as a pretty good answer: “The man of civilization condemns with indignation the barbarisms of the Arab slaver, but let the white man pause and think for one moment and he will realize how deeply he himself is implicated…who is the purchaser of the costly elephant tusk?”

C’était qui les méchants?  Millions of people — from those who bought slaves, to those who transported them, those who bought them, those who bought the goods they made and those who turned a blind eye.

“The threat of extreme punshment and the certainty it would be carried out was critical to maintain control,” the panels continue (I photographed some of them). “Many adult slaves were chained and yoked together to prevent them escaping. They often carried heavy cargo long distances over challenging terrain.” The old, the young, the sick, the weak and any who couldn’t carry their assigned loads were quite simply left by the side of the road, like rotted wood, to die of exhaustion, to be eaten by wild animals or, nearer the coast, to be carried out to sea.

Once they had made it to market, “they were cheap. An adult cost two yards of common cloth, a child one yard. They were urged forward on the march like cattle, beaten about the face and head.” Children, especially girls, were felt up and made to trot up and down like horses.

And then there were the holding cells – fifty to seventy people were forced to stand for hours in this.


I was immediately reminded of Libya.

I’ve never been to Libya, but for three months in 2016, I worked aboard the Aquarius, a rescue ship that assisted migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. Many, perhaps most, of the men and women we pulled, dripping and nearly  dead weight from exhaustion, up that metal ladder were survivors of forced labour. A number of the women had been trafficked for sex — or were about to be. Women and men told heartbreaking, distressingly consistent stories of being forced to sit in dark holding pens exactly like the one above, sharing one chapati or a bit of spaghetti and a small bottle of water between four people. They would be taken out to work in Libyan homes, and often beaten. More frequent than forced labour was extortion — they would be held for ransom and beaten when their families couldn’t be reached or couldn’t pay.  Then they would be taken on a forced march — sound familiar? — and herded on to unseaworthy boats. “It’s sad, because they’re Africans like us, and they treat us like goods for sale,” an 18-year-old kid told me.

“I was a car washer, and even when they paid us, they threatened us with weapons,” someone else commented.

Perhaps the best thing about the museum is that it doesn’t try to present “the slavery era” as a pat historical myth with a beginning, a middle and an end like, say, the Second World War. “This happened, and it was horrible, and many people died, but it’s over now because the good guys won in X year. Thank you for coming.” No, not here. It does acknowledge the tens of millions of people in present-day forced labour. Amnesty International and CNN have documented slave auction activity in Libya as recently as 2017. Slavery may be the stuff of museum exhibits in much of the world, but it is by no means over.

To be continued. 








Another new year

Sitting in a rooftop bar with a friend in Kampala, Uganda, looking back at the year that was and thinking about the one to come, 11 or so months of working for the Cuso International Midwives Save Lives project in four different countries. I’m pretty sure that the coming year’s Year in Review will be full of interesting memories, some undoubtedly better than others. I don’t have the time or bandwidth (literally or figuratively) to do the usual exhaustive, multifaceted year in review, so hopefully you’ll enjoy this stream of consciousness.

What did I do this year? I didn’t get married or publish a book or climb a mountain or dance under a waterfall. I navigated my way through a full year of freelancing for the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, MetroMedia, Espresso Media, Canadaland, J-Source, France24 English, Ricochet, Shareable, MediaFugees and others. I had a pretty fabulous vacation in Ireland (thanks Mom!!) and another one in Toronto (thanks Dad!!) not to mention Zanzibar (thanks, past self!! more on that later). I covered the van murders in Toronto and the refugee debate in the Eastern Townships. I did write a few things I was proud of. I finally became a Canadian permanent resident, only to (temporarily) leave three months later. I spent a year on the board of the Association des journalistes indépendantes du Q uébec and worked for l’Itinéraire. I celebrated my 30th birthday and my first American family thanksgiving in nearly 15 years. I made some great friends (including the woman formerly known as my “little” cousin), cooked and enjoyed some great meals, drank some very good beer, and was dragged on to the dance floor loads of times. I attended a folksinging event (Festival des Chants de Marins de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli) as an artist for the first time. I won third place for best feature series at the Quebec Community Newspaper Awards. I started working out again and singing more. I organized two events, and people showed up to both. I got a new tattoo. I didn’t spend any part of the year sick or homeless. I found out in April that barring a major last-minute issue, I would be spending most of 2019 in Africa, and spent a large chunk of the fall preparing for that, including a few visits to Ottawa and a hardcore six-day training. And I arrived in East Africa in time to meet some amazing midwives in Kahama, Tanzania, jump into the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar and ring in the New Year on the top of a hill overlooking Kampala, Uganda, with three friends who I hadn’t seen in years. So now that I think of it, it really was quite a year — and please forgive me for anything my sun-baked brain has omitted. My only real resolutions are to stay healthy and to blog more as I share this adventure, that I’m so infinitely privileged to experience, with you. Cheers!


Reflections on the end of the Aquarius era…

(Photo: SOS Méditerranée via Twitter)
Strangely (and sadly) enough,  the Aquarius — the humanitarian assistance ship in the Mediterranean where I worked the last time I had a contract similar to this one, in summer 2016 — announced an end to its operations on the exact day that I arrived in Africa to begin this contract. I haven’t followed day-to-day operations on the ship closely for some time, but I do know that since this summer, the Salvini government in Italy was refusing it access to its habitual Sicilian landing ports. On one occasion, it was allowed to disembark in Valencia, in Spain, forcing the ship to go four days out of its way west and four days out of its way east. A few weeks later, it was forced to go all the way to Marseille to disembark a group of people. Since then, it has lost its Gibraltarian insignia (not sure why) and been stuck in Marseille. About a month ago, the Salvini government asked for it to be impounded due to improper and dangerous waste disposal, repeating in the process the 80s-era falsehood that the AIDS virus could be spread through the sweat on dirty clothes, and claiming with no evidence beyond stereotypes that the ship was a potential HIV vector.
There are now no dedicated search-and-rescue ships in the Mediterranean, which is a recipe for disaster. I know that by all accounts there are fewer migrant boats than there once were, Coast Guard vessels and merchant ship captains will do what they can — it’s against international law to let people die at sea if you have anything close to the capacity to help— but in many cases, this will involve sending them back to Libya, where all of them — men, women, boys and girls, from any part of the world, political dissidents, persecuted minorities and impoverished strivers alike— face a life of cramped holding pens, forced labour, physical and sexual abuse, and political and legal non-existence.
And speaking of non-existent, how many people will disappear at sea? We’ll never know now. In 2019, there will be people who disappear soundlessly into the mass grave of the Med. There could be 20 or 20,000…we just won’t know.
A recent article on France Inter quotes the French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen  as « applaud [ing] the end of the pseudo-humanitarian, truly immigrationist imposture. »
 The Aquarius saved 30,000 lives, including adults, children, elderly people and babies only hours old. I served breakfast and doled out blankets to some of those people. Without initiatives like that of the Aquarius, as our Belarussian captain used to bluntly put it, « they would be die. » To Marine Le Pen and her ilk, all I can say is this: Each life has inherent worth, and the inherent worth of even a single life is worth so much more than a few votes from people who believe in the sickening nonsense that is white replacement theory. Every life matters. Where are we as a species if we can’t even recognize that?

Kahama Time

My adventure in the world of international cooperation and midwifery has begun in earnest. On Monday, four days after I left Montreal, I arrived in Kahama, a quiet town in northern Tanzania a few hours from the Burundian border. What I’ve seen of Tanzania so far strikes me as bright and chaotic, with a cluster of market stalls on every corner, the streets — some paved and some red dirt — lined with photo studios, fabric stores, bus and bicycle shelters and food stalls. I’m covering a conference on postpartum family planning. Today I watched a group of Tanzanian nurses practicing how to insert and remove an IUD from a model vagina during a power outage, by the light of their mobile phones. One thing I learned in Africa is that people who live and work here are ready for any eventuality — they have to be.

The conference is two full weeks long, at a small, quiet hotel and conference centre with a rainforest vibe. Two weeks anywhere is enough to settle into a routine. This is my Kahama routine: Wake up just before seven, turn on the hot water heater — I can’t believe we have a hot water heater!!! Thank heavens for small favours, as my grandmother used to put it!— shower twenty minutes later once at least some of the water has heated up, and go down to breakfast, where I plot out the day with colleagues and stuff my face with enough carbs — cassava, the potato-like root starch served at breakfast, is another thing I’m thankful for — to absorb my vile, orange anti-malarial pill. Some of the days are spent in the field, which is always fascinating. We spend hours bouncing down red dirt roads in a Land Rover, watched by hopeful hitchhikers, curious children, preoccupied hoe-carrying farmers, long-horned cows and stupid farm dogs who run into our path and force the driver, who puts in overtime as our photographer, backup interpreter and Swahili language teacher, to slam on the brakes, sending our backs and skulls jouncing against the Rover’s backrests. Once we reach our destination — a community hall of varying size and elegance, a brightly painted local health centre or a two-room farmhouse with no electricity — we interview local officials or working midwives, or observe health workers talking to members of a citizens’ governing board or a group of young mothers (occasionally, some fathers will come and listen). Then we head back, picking up grilled ears of corn from young street vendors along the way. As someone who has always lived in cities, it’s surreal for me to hop out of the truck in a village and see no other human-built objects (besides the small, metal-roofed farmhouses and the road) for miles around…just mountains, greenery, neatly squared-off fields and the occasional pit where people take red clay to make bricks and do home repairs. Both in the rural areas and in the cities, I’ve noticed two constants — nearly everyone is under 40, and life takes place outdoors. Indoors, it’s hot, usually cramped, often dark, isolating, and without many of the conveniences (air conditioning, wi-fi, a full kitchen…) that keep a lot of Westerners inside once the temperature leaves a certain range. All of your friends and neighbours , all of your clients if you run a business, and all of the shopkeepers and food sellers you might want to buy something from are outside. Why stay inside?
On days when there’s no fieldwork, we watch the trainers — three vivacious, experienced Tanzanian women who clearly love what they’re doing — work with the midwives, taking them through theoretical discussions and role-plays on postpartum family planning and quality of care.
We finish around six, place our dinner order — Indian food, which would be really good if someone took the time to bone the chicken or strain the rice, or nyama choma (East African barbecue) which I haven’t yet tried here and probably should. We take a walk around town or relax until seven, when the food’s ready, then have a long drawn-out dinner of our Indian food (always way too much for one person to eat) and one or two Kilimanjaro lager beers. By this time, emails from North America (the time difference is eight hours) will have started flowing in, so I always check to see if the downstairs wifi is working (it usually isn’t) and then use mobile data to answer emails and go through social media.
Does anyone mind if I get up on a soapbox here about social media? I hope not, because…well, too late now. When I was in East Africa the first time, in 2011 in Burundi, the smartphone revolution had only just begun, and Wifi was only available in the most overpriced and expat-y of expat haunts. Checking email and social media was something you did once or twice a week — when you went to the cybercafé downtown, when you sweet-talked your way into the one wifi-equipped room in the university where you worked, or when your landlord let you use the house modem stick in exchange for top-up minutes or a round of drinks. It wasn’t everywhere. Even two years later, I only had access to the Internet and social media at work, and not always even then. Now it’s omnipresent. Even in the villages, there are always four or five people with smartphones. Every time I message a colleague, Facebook bombards me with what my friends, whom I miss dearly, are doing, thinking, feeling or fuming about. I’m eight or nine time zones away, and at the same time I feel like I’m just down the street, or reaching for hands that I can just barely touch with my fingertips through Saran Wrap or through the glass of a screen. Sometimes it’s reassuring, like the people I love aren’t that far away after all. Sometimes it stings, as every thing and person that you miss is waved in your face — « You have three events coming up with Guillaume, Olivier and Karin this weekend! Let Christelle know if you can make it! Look at the photos Patricia posted from Manolo’s party! All December, $6 pints at the Old Orchard! » Sometimes it just feels wrong. I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like I shouldn’t be able to learn, so easily, that the Journal de Québec is losing what’s left of its collective mind over the shoe choices of two left-wing MNAs, that Paul played a particular reel on his tin whistle at the last Irish session,   or that two of my writer friends got their Lufa baskets in! It just feels off! Sometimes I like it, and sometimes I just feel nostalgic for the era of letter writing and long queues for landline phones.
After computer time, I usually put my mosquito net over my bed, crack open a book and eventually go to sleep…despite the extremely noisy announcer at whatever-is-going-on-across-the-street (boxing match? university party? Evangelical revival? I should go have a look sometime) and the cricket highlights blaring on the TV of my Australian missionary next-door neighbour. I sleep very well in the canopied, bug-proof bed tent that I make out of the bedframe, the sheets and the mosquito net.
When I’m working — writing, tweeting, composing briefs for social media, interviewing midwives, learning Swahili, swapping stories with colleagues, bouncing along a potholed red dirt road in a Land Rover to a field visit, learning what exactly pre-eclampsia, placenta previa and the government’s five-year plan for maternal health are, planning the next stage of my trip — I’m completely absorbed. When I’m not…well, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Homesickness and a series of fears, both rational and irrational, seep in until I’m bouncing along in a psychic Land Rover on a potholed red dirt road of my own creation. I always feel this wrenching whenever I move somewhere else for more than a month or so, no matter where it is…Russia, Winnipeg…even Montreal felt that way for the first few months, before I made friends and got busy with work. Strangely, out of the dozen or so places I lived, Quebec City is the only place where I never shed a tear during the first few weeks.
Why do I do this to myself, exposing myself constantly to this combination of excitement and self-torture? Why can’t I just stay in my comfort zone? I don’t really know, but I think part of it is what French speakers call « dépassement, » surpassing myself. I am stronger, braver and more resilient than my fears, and that is that.

And so it begins…

Here I am, jet-lagged out of my mind in a small, tidy hotel room in the lakeside city of Mwanza, Tanzania. It has a vague smell of fish baked into it, and a refrigerator installed presumably for the purpose. I’m vaguely reminded of Cree and Inuit Montrealers bringing “country food” down from the North, although while their goose and ptarmigan and char are usually vacuum packed, fish brought to the city from the lake is usually still writhing. (I haven’t yet seen this with my own eyes, but my roommate’s photos are pretty convincing.)

I left Montreal at about 2:30 Thursday night and flew to Toronto; then, at about 10 a.m., I got on an interminable long-haul flight to Addis Ababa, arriving Saturday morning. Saturday late afternoon, after a few delays and some errands, I got to my new apartment in Dar, which I really like — more on that later. Barely 24 hours later, I’m off to Mwanza with the program director. I will barely see that apartment for the next four or five weeks — which is fine for me. I won’t have time to be homesick.


More later.


I always tend to find myself in Jean-Talon Market at times like this. I was here in spring 2015, just off the train from Winnipeg, nursing a bruised ego, chatting to my mom on the phone and watching a family of ducks use the crosswalk as I waited for the phone call that would ultimately take me to Sicily. Now I’m counting the hours — two more sleeps until Tanzania — waiting for my plane tickets, using the extremely limited time I have to savour this city that I’ve lived in for two years.

I’ve been doing more of that than usual lately, stopping to take everything in. The silence of the streets of Old Quebec City at two in the morning in winter. The beauty of the St. Lawrence and the Quebec City skyline, as seen from the river. The Leonard Cohen mural that takes my breath away every time I see it. The taste and texture of creamy avocado sushi, fromage skouik-skouik  or the crusty bread and gooey pâté of a perfect banh mi, the sour sweetness of blackberries. The deep citrusy-ness of a good IPA. The sting of cold air on my face and the smell of a Christmas tree farm. The joyous, sunny fiddle loops of le réel du Pointe-au-Pic or John Ryan’s Polka played by good friends. Hearing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” for the first time in 15 years played out of the speakers of a tattoo parlour. The searing spikes of pain from the tattoo needles. The warmth of the down comforter on my lap as I work from home on a Sunday evening.  I take a deep breath and try to put it all on some sort of sensory USB key, because by Saturday, my sensory artist’s palate will be very, very different — hot, humid, stifling, salt air and roasting meat, revving motor scooter engines, July all year round. It’s surreal to order coffee here and think that next week, baristas will still be serving coffee here, the Métro will still run past 1 a.m. on Saturdays, my friends will still “aller à la musique” at l’Escalier on rue Sainte-Catherine on Monday nights, my neighbours will drag home Christmas trees from the Market or the corner grocery store…and I’ll be on the other side of the world.

The only thing Jean-Talon Market has in common with an African market is the fact that some people sell vegetables in both. Ever since I came back from Burundi the first time (see the late, great old blog for all of those stories), the silence, the order and the twee little cakes and tarts have always struck me as weird, although I still love the market. There are no shouting vegetable sellers, no touts or guides tugging at the sleeve of someone who looks like a good tipper. The students hired to sell fruit twiddle with their phones during down times. There’s no desperation — the fruit seller who has a bad day may get a dressing down from the farmer, but no kids are going to go hungry or be pulled out of school after one bad weekend.

I have had the privilege of living and working legally in one of the most prosperous, livable and safe cities on the planet for nearly two and a half years — an incredible luxury which some people dream of and others are arbitrarily born into. Now it’s time to re-enter the real world, and I can’t help wondering if I’ve gone as soft as that avocado sushi. I’ll find out by this weekend.