Wednesday, November 21, 2012

where I am from

 originally published on 365 Attempts [at Life]

There are few things less enticing than finding yourself alone at a wedding.  One of them might be finding yourself alone at a Lebanese wedding - even more so if you are not, in fact, Lebanese.

I get asked where I’m “from” all the time, especially when people see my last name. My father is from Beirut, I explain, but his father was Russian, and my mother’s Hungarian.  No, I don’t speak either language.  One might say that’s the true definition of Canadian, and I can agree now, but as a kid, I wouldn’t have.  Canadians didn’t have labneh for breakfast, or lecs√≥ for dinner.    They played hockey, not the classical guitar.  They were allowed to date boys before they turned 30. 
The bride at the wedding in question was the daughter of one of my father’s close friends.  My father was away, and Tony was snowed under with work, so I was sent as the family emissary.  I knew I was going to stand out -  I’m not even remotely brown, and have hair that could best be described as “colourless.”  Plus, I don’t know if you know any Lebs, but the word “underdressed” will never be spoken of a single one of them.  Lebanese people look better going to the grocery store on Saturday morning than I did at my prom.  

But I didn’t realize quite how much of a sore thumb I’d be until I parked my car in the church parking lot.  A couple strolled past, she in a floor-length silk gown of turquoise, purple and gold; he in a suit tailored so sharply you could use it to slice  cucumbers.  At that was just the beginning.  I took a pew on my own, watching as more Lebanese wandered into the church and gave the red carpet at the Oscars a run for its money. Then, I spotted an uncle.

He isn’t technically an uncle.  Like the Greeks and the Italians and god knows who else, the Lebanese use “uncle” and “aunt” to refer to ones parent’s friends.  I have had these uncles since I was a kid - three Arabic-speaking, pistachio-eating, arak-drinking men who arrived from Beirut at around the same time. They are some of the kindest people I know, and they are my Lebanese family.

“You’re not sitting at our table!” his wife gasped as soon as she saw me.  “I don’t know why!  It’s HORRIBLE!”  

Another uncle arrived with his three teenaged daughters and their cousins, all legs and sequins and patent-leather pumps.   The girls lined up in the pew in front of us, and when the procession started up, they went into overswoon, clutching each other’s hands and snapping photos like rabid paparazzi.

“Oh my GOD,” they repeated, with increasing excitement, as the flower girl entered, then the bridesmaids, and finally the bride and her father.  “I’m going to die.  I’M GOING TO KILL MYSELF.”  I struggled to keep a straight face, until I looked over at an uncle’s son and saw that he was cracking up also.  

Then the chanting in Arabic began.

As always, this brought me to another place, although I don’t exactly know where that place is.  I’ve only been to Lebanon once, but I feel so connected to it - through blood, through stories, through memories that are not my own.  My mother was less involved in her culture as I was growing up, and, not surprisingly, doesn’t have fond memories of a childhood under a Communist regime.  But something about the Mediterranean people has always felt right to me, like it’s where I belong.  After all, I did marry a Greek.
At the reception, the teenagers, despite being about a hundred years younger than me, invited me to their table, but I felt too old and out of place to join them.  Awkwardly, I took a seat with another uncle, his wife, his siblings and their spouses.   Instantly, a plate of hummus appeared under my nose.

“Where’s your husband?” one of the sisters-in-law demanded.  When I told her, she motioned to hers, who was standing on his chair, ululating and belly-dancing.  “I’m envious.  Hear, have some kibbeh.”  

That’s how I spent the rest of the night.

I was continuously fed, pulled onto the dance floor, and invited on expeditions to the dessert table.  I was included in family photos,  and told tales of recent trips to Beirut.  When the bride and groom arrived, everyone rushed to greet them in a giant, Lebanese dance floor explosion, and there was so much joy in the room that I found myself biting my lip to keep from falling apart.  I hate to admit it, but at this Lebanese wedding, where I was “alone,” I had more fun than at my own wedding.

Driving home that night, sweaty, stuffed and exhausted, I thought about my future kids. They’ll be half Greek, and a quarter Hungarian, and an eighth Lebanese.  I wondered if they’ll feel as wonky as I did, or wonkier.  Or is it so common now to be from so many different worlds that they won’t even notice?  I’m determined to pass down my cultures to them; determined that they know where their people come from.  But what does that even mean?

I still can’t answer that question.  But I do know this: when I teach them to dance the Dabke - the Lebanese dance, where everyone holds hands and dances in the same direction - I’ll show them how, before you leave the circle, you have to connect the hands of the people on either side of you.  That way, the dance continues on, and the circle is never broken.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Back to School

originally posted on 365 Attempts (at Life)

It is an afternoon in August of this year, and I am sitting on the lawn of Pitman Hall, where I lived during my first year at Ryerson University.

Tony’s film is playing at a theatre a block away, and I’ve taken the opportunity to visit my Alma Mater.  Except it’s not really my Alma Mater.  I studied photography here for two years before switching schools, cities and majors.  But it is this place that holds the most vivid student memories for me, during frosh week, sleeping on this very patch of grass with my 10 new best friends until the sprinkler system sent us running inside, to picking up the phone on the morning of my 20th birthday and learning that my parents had finally gone their separate ways.

I hadn’t been happy in photography, not because it wasn’t a good program, but because it wasn’t right for me.  But while I struggled academically during that first year, my “home” life was almost idyllic.  My floor mates had become family, in every way imaginable.  When my brother, aged 13, came to visit, I had to forcibly drag him into the elevator when it was time to head to the bus station.  He didn’t want to leave this magical place, so far away from our parents’ fighting, where artistic people stayed up all night, lived on hamburgers and Hagen Dazs bars which they paid for with the swipe of a card, and drank their faces off.  

     One of my more fashionable frosh moments.

These are the memories I’ve come back here to revisit.  I don’t think about them often, though I’m not sure why.  But sitting here on this lawn, gazing up at this ordinary-looking cream coloured building, it hits me that I’ve never forgiven myself for being the person I was during those years.  Instead, I’ve judged myself for not knowing who I was, and for leaving this place that taught film, journalism and television arts - areas I went on to work in – to study psychology, which I never made any use of, even though I loved learning about it.  I’ve mocked my physical appearance at the time; my obsession with wearing black, and the fact that I lived the clich√© and gained at least 15 pounds during that first year.  I’ve rolled my eyes at how I dealt with the news of my parents divorce: utter denial, and then finding myself in a counselor’s office, hysterical with grief.

These are not conscious judgments.  They’ve just been sitting there in a dusty corner of my mind, surfacing occasionally before being stuffed back into the dark closet of Things I’d Rather Forget.  But today, something else occurs to me.  

During my time here, I spent each day creating.  I honoured my way of doing this, even when it meant not fitting in with my fellow students.  I ate more French fries, danced more, and listened to more music.  I loved hard, grieved openly, and decorated my room with sunflowers.  

I did know who I was back then. I just didn’t know it yet.

In August 2012, I pick myself up off the lawn, and wave to the window of my former room on the 7th floor.  And I wish I could tell that person who lived there what I now know to be true:
It’s not the wrong step.  It’s just the first.