Chapter 3: Canadian Soil (continued from Decisions)
Choosing to return required almost more preparation than it took to leave Canada four years earlier. When we left, we were new grads with little in the way of reasonability and what possessions we owned were mostly boxed and stored away in Andrea’s parents’ basement.
In preparing to leave Poland, we had university students to straighten away including supplemental exams for students who had disappointingly failed their first attempts – all the more disappointing because if we had passed them in June, we wouldn’t have had work to do in September. We also had all our private students to transition but, still more complicated, was winding down the private classes that I had also acquired over my years. Through good work and strong networks, I ended up with language training contracts at, among other places, Oracle Poland and even the Canadian Embassy. These were lucrative contracts without middlemen or brokers – and these were my classes. As such, I also felt a huge obligation to make sure they were taken care of and to find someone who could take over these classes in which I’d invested so much of myself the past few years. I really cared about all my students but it was out of my private classes that friendships developed. I would miss them most of all.
We also had an apartment full of possessions to either ship home or, more likely, dispense with someplace. Included in this was how to ship home all the Bolesławiec I had been purchasing along with other important keepsakes and mementos from all our many travels.
Then there was planning a last trip, a last European hurrah before we left: 3½ weeks in Turkey! Again, as much as I am tempted to write a whole chapter or two on backpacking through Turkey and adulterous relationship with Istanbul (as ‘cities’ go, it remains my favourite), I won’t digress except to parenthetically reflect on travel in general. The greatest thing I took from four years abroad and all the trips I took over this time (and since) is the gift of perspective. With each new experience, I learned something new about the world and often experienced a feeling or sensation of which most were very pleasurable and memorable – but more than this, I learned something more about myself in each discovery. Travel is not so much a journey to place as it is a journey to self.
One of the greatest things I learned about myself was how incredibly fortunate I am and of the life I have lived. And I don’t mean fortunate in the sense of lucky or being given things, though I’m fortunate in those ways as well. I don’t mean to be fortunate to be born in Canada or, as some would remind me, born male and white, though surely fortune has come to me on all accounts. What I do mean to say is that I’m fortunate because I had the support and, I suppose, an inner strength to make decisions and seize opportunities that led to discovery. I’ve worked incredibly hard in my life – and while I typically view this as “just-is” and normal for me, others remark on an ethic that they see in me as unique. I know I’m fortunate because I’ve seen so much injustice and poverty and suffering and misery in my life – seen so many people who either don’t have choices or can’t distance themselves enough from the immediacy of their needs (which are real and life and death) to even be able to journey anywhere else.
And I’m fortunate to know that I have also been lucky … that the chaos of life and thermodynamics means that in any instant, at any moment, life could change and my fortune with it. There is a simplicity to fate to interject into our lives and steal from us our course, rob us of identity, purloin our imagined lives. When in China, I met a man in Dali who was accompanying the coffin of his wife home who, in an instant, was stolen from him by a truck that passed a scooter, jumped the ‘sidewalk’ on which he and his wife were walking and chose her alone. A week later, I traipsed through Tiger Leaping Gorge and was pulled across a river of scree by a mountain goat of a woman whose footing, while sure, was the difference between getting across to the other side and falling hundreds of feet to certain death; if that was not fortune, then a year later, almost to the day, an earthquake shook that very gorge and its fragmented hillsides and killed tourists and locals doing the very same. Four days after I returned from Turkey, and 18 days after we took the same bus to Konya, 48 people, most of whom were university students, were killed in a collision of an empty gasoline tanker truck and a passenger bus. The passengers were trapped in the bus when both vehicles burst into flame. That accident led to wide debate on fire-safety standarts of passenger buses – buses that we used almost exclusively to travel the country – the same smoky bus on which I slept on an overnight trip 18 days earlier.
However, returning to the, then, present, much of the things to be done were resolved during a fortunate series of events. Andrea was in conversation with one of our former colleagues from grad school, a friend with whom we had maintained contact whilst overseas. A stripped down version of happenchance reads something like this: Mary’s husband had a sister who, along with the sister’s boyfriend, were looking for an adventure that reads as “teaching abroad.” Mary told this sister-in-law about her friends in Poland and she connected them with us for advice. Beyond the general information we provided, we also told them there were opportunities in Poland and if they sent along their resumes, we could pass them along to some of our private language schools and we could see if they could get hired. They jumped at this opportunity and when our inquiries came back positive the conversations changed from notional “what-if” to discussions about helping them come to Poland and get settled. One of the selling features to them was that if they came before we left, we could help them get settled and transition. It was an amazing opportunity for them and without going through a “come and teach overseas” company in Canada, it was the most risk free opportunity anyone would get. Few people were going to be so lucky to walk off a train from Russia, find work, and end up creating lives in another country.
I still have mixed feelings about what actually ended up happening but, upon reflection, I know we’re all adults and we all had to make the best decisions we could. But what did happen is that they ended up “buying” our lives, buying a turn-key foreign experience. In truth, the only money that exchanged hands was when they bought our home furnishings and books. But what we gave them was an apartment (Zbigniew was happy for an uninterruption and get new tenants without having to advertise), we got them jobs with our language schools, and even transitioned some of our private students to them. It’s the last part that I have the most mixed feelings about because the rest they got on their merit; but the private classes that we had earned through skill and reputation, we handed to them … and without much real comfort with their experience or capacity. It was intended as a good deed to all, but I don’t think it went unpunished. So, yes, I transitioned my Oracle students, but I don’t think it worked out at all and I think I probably let my students down.
Out of this, we got a headache free transition from our Polish lives, some money in our pockets, the perception we were helping both students and our friends live out a fantasy (perhaps too strong a word) … and a live-in dog-sitter for Ben while we went to Turkey.
If there is a lesson in any of this, though, it is that none of us were so mature to make this a perfect transition and not everyone, regardless of want, is destined to teach English overseas. If there was an aptitude or personality test to administer, it would suggest those predisposed to a successful teaching adventure should be open-minded, curious, and largely defined by a positive outlook. As a testament to this, our friends would be back in Canada a year later having said they had lived their experience and with a few stories that were largely negative. I found these stories and their own perception of a country I had fallen in love with and adopted as a second home difficult to listen to … and, so, we quickly lost touch with them thereafter and I kept my stories for, I guess, here ….
Continued next … Chapter 3: Canadian Soil — Export