When cities change, countries change
This past spring I travelled to several Canadian cities. The visits were short, one to three days each, and they reminded me of a slogan that was popular in the former Yugoslavia: Get to know your country in order to love her. It was meant for residents and tourists, but it also reminds me that each school year, in early fall or late spring, our teachers would take us to different parts of the former Yugoslavia. We would usually go to a national park or to the sites of the most important battles in the Second World War. Later, when the country became more prosperous, teachers (supported by parents) decided that kids knew enough about their homeland and took them on shopping excursions to Trieste, Italy or Thessalonica, Greece. At that time our country needed love more than ever before but nobody seemed to care. Schoolkids were more interested in studying the shopping rituals of the West, and after 1991 the holy sites of the world war years began to disappear from our collective memory.
On each of these sites there was a small museum or memorial centre with an exhibit: photographs, weapons, uniforms, boots, medals. The custodians would take us on quick tours, first inside their museums, then across the battlefields. Their voices were monotonous, except when they glorified the Communist Party, but we didn’t pay attention anyway. We could hardly wait to get back to the hotel: there we ran down the corridors, making noise and finding secret places where we could smoke our first cigarettes, kiss the girls and fondle their breasts. The girls would shriek and giggle but they would not leave. Once in a while somebody would whisper a warning and we would breathlessly listen for our teachers’ footsteps. Now I know that they knew where we were and what we were doing because they did the same thing when they were schoolkids on a field trip, but at that time, when we were teenagers, it seemed that things would never change. I thought that I would always remain a teenager and couldn’t imagine that our teachers had ever been anything but teachers.
One of the things I learned on those school trips—besides the geography of the human body—was that we actually kept changing all the time. Even revolutions eventually wear out and turn into something else. However, this time, on my short trips across Canada, I learned that change is not always good. It seemed that people everywhere blamed change for the loss of safety.
In Ottawa I stayed in a nice B&B near the Byward Market. When I asked the owner where I should go for a late evening walk, she told me not to go too far. “Ottawa has changed,” she said, “and is not as safe as it was when we came here fifteen years ago.” I heard a similar warning in Vancouver when I asked a receptionist at the Metropolitan Hotel where to go for a short walk on my first night. “Don’t go down there,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of Pender Street, “that neighbourhood is not good any more, it’s safer the other way.” In Edmonton, when I asked how safe it was, my friend told me: “Edmonton safe? You must be kidding! Maybe it was in the sixties and seventies, but not now.” And downtown Calgary, which was just a boring place a year or so ago, is a boring and dangerous place today.
I say all of this to the taxi driver who’s driving me home from the airport. He does not speak much, but he nods his head to the rhythm of my sentences.
“When cities and towns change,” I continue, “countries change as well. They change just like people, and they also grow old and some of them die. At least mine has died, although one might say that she died giving birth to seven small countries.”
“And what country would that be?” the driver asks.
“Oh,” he says.
“I wrote a novel about that,” I tell him. “Its title is Snow Man, but perhaps I should rename it Snow Man and Seven Dwarfs.” I expect him to chuckle but he remains serious. “But these countries should not complain,” I continue, “for they will always remain small and it will be easier for kids to travel in order to learn about them and love them. However, they have to be careful, for smallness comes with a price: the smaller the country, the stronger the claustrophobia. That’s the reason why it is not easy to feel claustrophobic in Canada—there’s always at least one border that cannot be seen, even if you climb the highest mountain.”
“I understand,” the driver says when we stop in front of my house, “but what about all these people who talk about the lack of safety? If people do not feel safe in the towns you have already visited, how bad must it be in Toronto or Montreal?”
“I don’t know,” I tell him, “but nothing happened the last time I was there.”
“Good for you, sir,” he says. He gives me a receipt and drives away.
As I enter the house, I think I should have told him that our memory can be very selective. I don’t remember, for example, the names of all the battlefields I visited as a schoolkid, but the geography of some girls’ breasts is still vivid—or, should I say, palpable inside me. But it is yet another trick of our memory as those geographies, those landscapes, do not exist any more, just like the landscape of my own body at that time. In other words, change is real but I can still pretend that it is not. How long can I go on pretending? And if I wake up in the middle of the night, should I listen carefully for any strange sound? Should I be afraid? “No,” says the voice behind my back, “you shouldn’t.” I turn around. There’s nobody there. And suddenly I don’t feel safe at all.