"So! M. Obama est à Ottawa aujourd'hui!" (So, Monsieur Obama is in Ottawa today!") She's a very bright women in her seventies, never married, who was one of the first highly skilled Quebec professional women to rise up in the broadcast profession. She knows the U.S. well, and loves talking about American politics with us.
"Yes, sounds like it's been a big deal here," said J.
"Oui, tous les Canadiens sont très excités."
"And Mr. Harper?"
"Well, you know," she grinned, "he is good at rising to the occasion..."
"I saw a photo of him earlier with Michaëlle Jean," I said.
"Ah, yes, the Governor-General!"
"They looked good together! And all the mounties in their red coats..."
The three of us all nodded and smiled.
"But I'm sure the real discussion was about l'économie, le pétrole..." (the economy, oil...)
"Bien sur. Of course."
Taking off my coat in the vestibule of our apartment, I thought back on another photo I'd seen, of Air Force One parked on a runway in Ottawa, a carpet leading from the plane's stairs across the tarmac, and the row of red-coated Canadian mounties along it, each person so tiny next to the enormous plane, and the plane itself dwarfed by the vast, flat, frozen landscape. This is how we travel between countries now, I thought. We bring our own world with us -- what need is there to feel vulnerable when we carry our power and comfort and familiarity so convincingly right along with us? I thought of the images of Obama, in his perfectly-fitted dark suit and sky-blue tie, striding confidently down a flag-lined corridor with Stephen Harper. How different from the arrival of these Romanians who had fled the terrible conditions in their country after Ceausescu fell, thirty years ago, but had still managed to make their way in a new country that required additional training, rigorous exams, new medical degrees. How different even from me, an American whose life had been far easier, for sure, but who still felt fear and confusion while finding her way into a new life in a foreign country.
And yet. And yet. I felt the dentist's palms on my cheeks: the same gesture my own surgeon often uses - was it characteristically Romanian? Something about it summed up the instinctive attraction I'd felt all my life for the people and cultures of eastern Europe and Russia: a certain warmth and big-hearted emotionalism that overflowed into their music and poetry toward me, a blond and blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon who ought, by origin and upbringing, to be self-contained, efficient, driven -- and yet had always yearned toward an expressiveness that was not really Latin or Mediterranean, born in sunshine and abundance, but darker and more hidden, like embers surrounded by snow, or a candlelit room full of talk and wine and music into which people tumble out of a dark night, shaking the snow from their coats. This longing was why, as a child, I'd played records of Tchaikovsky symphonies over and over; why I'd later collected and read all those Russian novels, all that Polish poetry; why I had spent hours at a keyboard trying to understand how to play Scriabin's "poems", why in the afternoons I often listened to Radio Bartok out of Budapest, fully expecting someday to magically comprehend the strange strings of words the announcers uttered in-between those I could catch: "Brahms," "Mussorgsky," "Chopin."
(to be continued)