Yesterday, in the corner of my local post office, I did a very strange thing.
I had gone to the post office to fetch a registered letter. After handing the notification slip and some ID to the woman behind the counter, she handed me a medium-sized envelope in return. Written on the top left corner was Embassy of Canada, Consular Section, 35 avenue Montaigne, 75008 PARIS. Three weeks ago, because my passport is soon to expire, I had sent off my renewal application.
I took the envelope and, still inside the post office, went to a quiet corner where there’s a little shelf hidden behind a partition. Resting my handbag on the shelf, I opened the envelope and took out my brand-new Canadian passport, valid for ten years. It’s cooler and classier than my old passport, a tiny bit smaller with stiffer front and back navy blue covers. I turned it over, opened it up, riffled the crisp watermarked pages, looked approvingly (for once) at my new digital photo and checked that everything was in order: my full name, date and place of birth, etc. And then I did an utterly surprising and unexpected thing: I kissed it. I kissed the cover of my passport. (As I said, I was hidden behind a partition.) I then slid it back in the envelope, put the envelope in my handbag and walked home, deep in thought.
‘Why did I do that?’ I asked myself. It was such a spontaneous, odd and intimate gesture. Because you’re grateful, was the reply. Grateful for what, exactly? For being alive. For being free. But more specifically, for being born in a big beautiful country called Canada, and having big beautiful memories of my growing-up years there. I do not take my luck for granted. And it is luck, when you think about it, because where you are born and the circumstances you are born into is a crapshoot.
Expatriates who live in host countries abroad have a heightened awareness of the significance of the words ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’. Those who do not possess a passport (roughly 40% of Canadians, the number is higher in the States) might wonder what all the fuss is about. But a passport is an all-important sense of identity.
No matter how many decades I have lived in France, my Canadian identity clings to me. ‘Do you not feel a little bit French now?’ people ask me. ‘No,’ is my unequivocal reply. Born and raised in a Toronto suburb, the first three decades of my life were lived in that country. I wrap my Canadian-ness around me like a blanket (my feminism, my fairness, my frankness.) When you go out into the world, you learn – to your surprise and dismay – that these qualities are not universal. The longer I live abroad, the more aware I am of my difference. And I embrace that difference. I like my values and ethical way of working and interacting with others (different from how the French work and interact.) I like my English language (spoken with a decidedly North American accent.) And I like the fact that out of an office staff of 220, I am the only native English speaker at my place of employment. All day long, I speak and work in French, but I love my English mother tongue. Language is a persona, a living thing. (It’s also a power tool which has enabled me to become a professional translator, among other things.)
Today, how can we be unaware of the stateless, the persecuted, refugees and asylum seekers who, for no fault of their own, are uprooted and forced to seek a life elsewhere. And what of their passports? Making my way to the Canadian Embassy three weeks ago to blithely drop off my passport application, how could I not notice the long line of hopeful visa applicants snaked around the corner under the watchful eye of security guards?
I imagine myself leaving France one day and moving back home to live on one of the Gulf Islands off the Pacific Coast of British Columbia. Lush (because of rain), mild climate, forests, beaches, birds and animals, I crave tall trees, fragrant cedar wood, quiet, and clean fresh air.