My Nomadic Heart
The first significant journey I can remember was when my mother decided to take my brother and I across Canada by train. It was 1978, I was 4 years old, my brother was 8, and my mother was 26. We were quite the troupe.
We travelled from Ottawa to Vancouver, with a stop-over in Winnipeg to visit my aunt Kathy, my mother's older sister.
I can only remember snapshots of that trip, helped by photos I'm sure, and the stories that were recounted over the years. But there was one story that was mine alone, my brother was there but we've never talked about it so the memory is unadulterated. It was the first time I met my father. I wonder sometimes if that was the whole purpose of the journey.
My mom always said we bumped into him on the street, and maybe that's true but that is someone else's story. I don't remember bumping into him on the street, the first memory I have of him is getting into the elevator of his building. It was a freight elevator in an old warehouse building. I remember being frightened by it, by the loud door that my 'father' (this stranger I had just met) had to heave closed before the elevator would work. My brother was there but I barely remember him, he was more like a ghost in the shadows than actual flesh and blood. My father was flesh and blood though, and so was I, and I was scared. Not a sentiment I felt often, that's probably why it stands out so vividly in my memory.
I remember stepping into his apartment and being struck by the strong smell of something sweet, smoky and pungent. Many years later, as a teenager I realized it was incense, and maybe a little hashish. He didn't have any furniture, just Persian rugs, and pillows everywhere. He chatted with me briefly and then just left me to my own devices. I may have been given some paper and a pencil to draw with, he was an artist after all but I don't remember that, I just remember sitting quietly on the pillows in the corner, looking out the giant warehouse windows and waiting for my mom to come back.
You'd think that by being branded with a travel experience like that at such a young age, I would have acquired an aversion to travel. Nope. That trip was my initiation to the world of the nomad, and I was hooked. I was acutely aware of the exhilarating feeling of my mind expanding. I had learned so much on that trip!
My first lesson was taught to me by my brother, he showed me how easily children can manipulate the heartstrings of adults. He used my innocent 4 year old face to get food, and treats of all kinds, from random strangers on the train. He basically panhandled his way across the country, unbeknownst to my mother.
When I met my mother's older sister in Winnipeg, I learned that sharing blood does not necessarily equate closeness. Then I met a stranger, who turned out to be my father, which made me question family ties even more, and bloodlines, and the value of titles.
While we were visiting family friends in a small-ish town in the Okanagan, I took my new three year old companion on an adventure to the grocery store, just the two of us. I helped myself to some soda, walked out without paying for it, not realizing it was tonic water (because I didn't know how to read yet) and was so disappointed I stormed back in and grabbed a box of animal cookies right under the cashiers nose. In my defence, I didn't realize I was stealing. Somewhat satisfied with my loot I dragged my little friend back home, back to our frantic parents who had been looking for us everywhere.
That experience taught me the importance of learning how to read (my shop lifting lesson came a year later at the ripe old age of 5, at another grocery store). I also learned that even though my three year old companion was getting spanked by her parents for disappearing with me (which was totally my fault - I had basically kidnapped her), my mother would not hit me, no matter what I did or how badly I behaved, she did not believe in spanking. That's when I understood how lucky I was to have a mom I could trust.
But what really stuck with me, what hooked that nomadic heart of mine, was the salty ocean air and that damp earthy smell of the rainforest, smells you don't come across in Ottawa, Ontario. That coastal air triggered something deep within me, a longing that I would crave for decades. A longing that drew me to the California coast as soon as I was old enough to leave home, and had me settle on the Gulf Islands to raise my kids, and spend winters hopping around the Hawaiian Islands, and the coasts of Central America. The ocean continues to call to me...
But here I am in Toronto, with no salty sea air to speak of. And I love it! I love its cultural diversity, it's vibrant neighbourhoods, its grit, its art, its hustle, it's a city with so much heart! The ocean still calls, and my nomadic heart still yearns for the growth that comes with stepping outside of my comfort zone, into the worlds of other people's imaginings.
Travel has proven to be my best teacher, my favourite companion, and my longest love. Nothing compares to the experience of seeing the world anew and yet at the same time recognizing its familiarity because no matter where you go; hearts break, families struggle and thrive, children play and cry and laugh, people work hard and look for ways to ease their pain. Wherever you go, whomever you meet, no matter how culturally different, the emotional experiences are still the same. We are all just doing the best we can to navigate this crazy experience called life.
And it is here, in the commonality of our human hearts that the nomad in me feels at home.