Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. Gustave Flaubert
When I was a child I spoke like I child, I acted like a child, but when I became an adult, I stayed in the neighbourhood, I dwelt in the safety zone … until one day … I left, I realized there was more to life than security.
My daughter expresses continual surprise at how different the childhood of her children is, as compared to her own. My daughter went to the same elementary school as I had. (I think most of the teachers had left by then.)
My grandchildren live in North Africa, in a country with French as the second language, after Arabic. Minimal English is spoken in their Muslim neighbourhood. My nine year old grand-daughter rises grumpily for an 8am start at a local private school. Do not think Western style private school. The reason my granddaughter had been keen on this school was because this one had real washrooms, not a converted house bathroom that still had a bath-tub; there were four stalls for girls and four stalls for boys.
It was with great fanfare and delight that I initiated a doubles ride on the single speed bicycle as a way of getting her to school fairly quickly, which was very important last year when she was an eight year old who dawdled efficiently. “We are rocking the hood,” I said to her, as we pedalled the sandy partially paved street, dodging large stones and garbage. She perched on the mounted rear rack keeping her feet slightly apart, holding on to my seat with as firm a grip as her still small fingers could. Like clockwork, our traveling bicycle circus passed the local high school at their arrival time, forcing us to navigate at least two hundred students crossing the street. The head-scarfed girls were thrilled to say a bonjour-presuming I must be French. That day as we pedalled, I responded to a few of the greetings with a smile and either Allo or bonjour. Some of the boys made comments and my granddaughter said “Grandma they’re making fun of us, let’s just get out of here.” As I could not understand the Arabic comments, and saw only smiles and laughter in eyes; I didn’t think they were making fun of us. We were a novelty in their monolithic landscape, this mature blonde woman, with red streaks in her hair. (She couldn’t be a grandmother, for grandmothers would be fully covered in their long jellabas, and never on a bicycle.)
“Don’t worry Maisha,” I said, “they’re not being unkind. They’re just not comfortable in their own skin.”
“I don’t get it … You’re not a snake grandma, you don’t shed your skin. What do you mean?”
“Sometimes people aren’t comfortable with who they are, and then they make fun of other people, to feel better. If you feel okay about who you are, you don’t have to make fun of other people.”
Mark Twain’s words ring true: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, especially as one shares peanut laden strong tea with new friends.
Jocelyn is the author of Who Is Talking Out of My Head, Grief as an Out of Body Experience.