Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

An Insignificant Short Timer

Himeji Castle
"You feel small, whether as a courtier or an artist or a historian, because you recognize your insignificance in an infinite universe.  You know you can never yourself rule a kingdom, or capture on canvas everything you see on a distant horizon, or recapture in your books and lectures everything that happened in the past.  The best you can do, whether with a prince or or a landscape or the past, is to represent reality:  to smooth over the details, to look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for your own purposes."

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
by John Lewis Gaddis


Over the past three years I have had a most excellent opportunity: my host versus home country paradigm became a triangle - US, France and Japan - and then a quadrangle with the addition of Belgium as a fourth point of reference  For someone who as a callow youth could hardly imagine a life outside the Pacific Northwest of the US, I can only look back as I pass the half-century mark and marvel at how I ended up here or there and how completely unprepared I was for each trip.  I was a green water vessel shoved out into blue water hoping to dock at a friendly port on the other side of a vast ocean.  So far, no shipwrecks.  Which, I assure you, was not at all due to my skills as a navigator.

A very small vessel, indeed.  Insignificant, in fact, in the larger scheme of things.  Every day millions of people set off on their own journeys to distant shores.  It has been both a pleasure and a relief to turn my attention to them and not spend my days pondering my own small part in the late 20th/early 21st century migration flows in this globalized world of ours.  Looking for the larger patterns allows one to return to the Self with a sense of connection, relieved of the burden of thinking that one is special or unique.

I have been an emigrant and an immigrant. I have also been an expatriate.  Twice, in fact.  Both times in Japan.  My first time here was spent in Tokyo where I worked for a French multinational.  This, my second time around, has been dramatically different.  I am what is referred to as a "trailing spouse" and a couple of years ago that term and the circumstances around our move to Osaka did not sit well with me. And I did not hesitate to say so (and other people did not hesitate to tell me that I was being something of  a pill and a killjoy which was hardly helpful.)  

There is some truth to that but looking back I have compassion for the woman I was.  At the time I was still recovering from treatment for cancer and I was considering how to get back into the French workforce.  I was nervous about being so far from my oncologist and I wondered what a few more years not working would do to my future job prospects.  All very legitimate concerns.  And I really have to wonder why they were not taken more seriously.  I suspect that they would have been if I had been a man.  Surely one of my spouse's co-workers would not have touted getting his nails done on a regular basis as one of the benefits of the expat life.

Once I got over "living in the wreckage of the future" I finally got the gumption to make something of my time here and there.  The most visible accomplishment of my time here was my research which led to me getting my MA in International Migration.  But there have been other less tangible benefits which I only became aware of when I realized that our time here was getting short.  

Top of the list would have to be enjoying Japan.  The first time I was here (in Tokyo) I was working long hours and traveling to Korea and China.  There was no time for much else because I had a project to run and deadlines to meet.  This time  around I have had all the time in the world to travel around Japan. I have been back to Tokyo but I also visited Okinawa, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara and numerous other places in the Kansai region.  I have hiked in the mountains, slept in a temple guesthouse, visited markets, wandered through many fine museums and fought my way through the crowds to see the magnificent floats at festivals.  And, of course, there are the gardens which make my heart sing.  At every one I took mental notes for my own little bit of earth back in Versailles.

Koko-en Garden

Tourism?  Absolutely.  And the very best kind to boot because there was no rush, no plane to catch in a week.  Unable to see everything in one trip?  No matter because there was always time to return.  I've been to Nara at least four times and each visit was a revelation though there was some continuity because I always stay at the Nara Hotel which is, hands down, the finest hotel I've ever stayed in.

Nara Hotel, Kyoto
But that's not all.  I realized at some point that I could relax and just enjoy the ride.  There was the complete absence of the kind of stress that I felt in France as an immigrant.  I have heard many Anglophone migrants here talk about their integration issues large and small and I completely understood where they were coming from (albeit in a different country).  But here I really am just a guest, a temporary visitor with no plans to stay and so I feel no pressure to integrate.  Only a subtle sense that I should do certain things a certain way (such as properly sorting the garbage) which is no hardship at all.  

No one ever asks if I work (or insinuates that I should be working), there are no tense interviews with the public administration, no struggles to fit in because I don't need to fit in here except in the most superficial way.  With only a few very rare exceptions people are civil and pleasant.  And if they are bothered by my inability to communicate in Japanese, the only sign that they care one whit is the real pleasure and surprise on their faces when the younger Frenchling steps up and starts translating.  

Integration where I actually live is something else.  It is indispensable because I have to meet certain expectations in order to get a job, have friends, be on good terms with my neighbors, go to mass and confession, enjoy a dinner party, read contracts, deal with civil servants and so many other things big and small. This is the pebble in my shoe and I am subtly reminded of it every hour of every day in France. 

Granted it's a very very small pebble these days because, well, time has ground it down to next to nothing.  And I would never have noticed, I think, that it was still there if I hadn't remarked on its complete absence here in Japan.   So it has been something of a relief to be in a place where expectations are low, low, low given my status as a short-timer.   Never has my own insignificance felt so good.

Just a few more months and this vessel will sail once again (Air France will do the navigating): one small unimportant craft in a sea of over 200 million migrants in the world today.  Looking forward to being back full-time in my first country, the country of my heart (that darn pebble be damned).   Japan has served its purpose and home is just over the horizon.  Vive la France!

My Garden in Versailles

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lazy Days

Minoh Park, Japan
As I write this it is hovering around 30 degrees (86 F) with the humidity at 72%.  There is almost no breeze and so it feels hotter than it is.  The high today will be about 32 degrees with storms predicted for the afternoon. When I go out later this morning I will be carrying my trusty parasol and wearing as little as possible within the constraints of what public modesty requires for a woman of my age in Osaka.

I do not like this weather.  I am a child of temperate zones but I suppose that it is a sign that I have acclimated since 30 degrees does not seem too bad to me now.  When it climbs closer to 40 then I'll really start complaining.

The heat and the humidity sap my strength.  Even reading takes effort though a good part of the day is still spent in my blue chair (and I always seem to have a blue chair wherever I live) with my e-reader under the air-co.  I just started reading The Past is a Foreign Country-Revisited by Lowenthal but I haven't read far enough to pronounce judgment.  That said, the author spent (wasted in my view) time enumerating his accomplishments which irritated me.  Not only did this not add anything useful to his introduction of the work but it muddied the presentation of his argument.

Out of curiosity, and because I miss university, I am trying out Amazon's Audible, a service that offers audio books and lectures.  I selected one that looked interesting  Herodotus: The Father of History which is a lecture series taught by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Professor of Latin and Classics at Whitman College in Washington state, USA.  I am on lecture 3 or 4 and it's quite extraordinary.  Vandiver is an excellent lecturer with good diction and a delivery that makes her subject come alive.  Only someone so knowledgable about her subject could present it so clearly and cogently.   This one I definitely recommend.

These are lazy days indeed when I have all the time in the world to read or listen to lectures. Not nearly as congenial as sitting inside next to a nice fire in my Godin listening to the rain on the roof but it is what it is.

I am, to be honest, eager to be home in my house in Versailles.  I have spent the past year travelling in a triangle:  Osaka, Versailles, Brussels.  The garden is being ably maintained by our house sitter but yearn to be back to a place where I can work outside with my hands in the dirt.  I've walked a lot of Japanese gardens and I have ideas for my own that I desperately want to realize.  Japan is lovely but I have no desire to make it my home.  I want to hear French, not Japanese (or Korean and Chinese) when I walk down the street.  I want to enjoy a steak-frites at a bistro.  I want some good strong coffee.  I miss my neighbors and my friends, the farmer's market in Porchefontaine, and running along the Avenue de Paris.  I am homesick, mes amis, and more than ready to return.

My neighbor, a Finnish woman who lived in the same building as I here in central Osaka, is already home in the UK.  She recently posted this: 9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan.  I am sure that I will have a similar list once I am home. (Though I think she is mad to include "high heels" in hers.)

Perhaps that is the lesson of return.  It' hard to see a place or a people clearly when you are in it and surrounded by them.  You have to leave for a time and live somewhere else to get clarity on what you experienced.  And yet when you go back to a place, it's not the same.  The time I spent in Osaka is a snapshot of the city  at a particular point in time and if I return in 10 years it will be something different.  But the person I was has been irrevocably changed by my time here and I won't be the same person when I walk through the door of my house in Porchefontaine, a community that has lived its own life as I've travelled about.

All this to say that Heraclitus was right: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”  But I like to think that I've spent that time gadding about profitably.  And we shall see what I make of "home" when I return with all the gifts God saw fit to bestow on me.