Commentary, Opinion

How (not) to leave home

A joke of history: North America is the centre of the modern world, so it can never truly feel international. Inane metaphors––melting pot, mosaic, salad bowl––only distract from the inexorable crush of the market and the English language. Even Quebec’s vaguely nationalist slogan, “//Je me souviens//,” today feels without content, as separatist dreams dissipate into a cultural project with little imagination beyond its own borders.

But in the decrepit cradle of empire, something stirs with life. Europe, hoary and fossilized, its immortal meaning shaped by primordial violence. I return to it like a worm to mulch.

I’m going to Berlin. I’ve been “going to Berlin” for several months now; my semester abroad begins in the middle of McGill’s winter semester. My home, classmates, and partner returned to their routine after the Christmas break, but I could not––I am elsewhere, almost. I pass the time watching German television and practicing the language online. //Babylon Berlin// and //Kleo// are both fun watches set during pivotal moments: The fall of Weimar Germany and the Berlin Wall, respectively. Both are crime thrillers, and I wonder sometimes if this will shape my grasp of the language, breathing wit and intrigue into those harsh words.

In my desire to be anywhere but here, I’ve assiduously avoided the Western hemisphere in my studies at McGill. But my German is still shaky, so I’m enrolled in the Free University of Berlin’s only department offering reliable English courses: The John F. Kennedy School of North American Studies. Of course, “North American Studies” refers to the U.S. of A. Should I be offended that Canada has yet to enter history, or comforted? Here I prepare, I read Karl Marx and listen to The Threepenny Opera. In Berlin, I will study Hemingway and the New Deal at a conspicuous remnant of the Cold War. 

Walter Benjamin wrote: “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” The philosopher died later that year fleeing the Gestapo. What to make of these flashes of memory? My mother visited Poland as a young woman. She was warned to never, ever mention the trip to her grandparents. They are gone now, along with most of their generation, and their fear and fury hide in the debris. Am I a disloyal son, seeking rebirth on the graves of my ancestors? But I forget: Berlin is a city of memorials and museums, not of graves. Like any good empire, Germany exported its violence.

I leave soon. I am preoccupied with the petty business of preparation, with baggage, clothes, face creams, antidepressants, and the opaque mysticism of McGill’s transfer-credit system. It’s exhausting, of course, but what a miracle of bureaucracy! I travel across the globe and a 20-year-old paper trail follows me, all for the sake of something new. Then I will go through the same steps as I return, and McGill will snatch me back up, richer by 15 credits and half a language.

My partner and I walked through Jeanne Mance in the snow. We had said goodbye before, and have said it many times since, but we did not speak as we walked. Our hoods were up, and the snow swallowed every noise. No cars. No music. The world seemed shapeless and made new. We struggled through it with our heads down and our feet scrabbling for purchase.

A truth hides in the crime thriller: Whatever last episode’s revelation, the mystery only deepens, the cloud of cigarette smoke only grows thicker. No one really gets over anything. There will be no rebirth, no spark of newness buried with the dead, only accretion, only sediment. History collects like dandruff. When the page is saturated with ink, we continue in another colour. I leave Montreal with love and anger packed between my molecules, so I can never really leave Montreal.

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