This past year I decided to take a DNA test, even though I had a pretty clear idea of what the results would reveal. As expected, predominant strains of Northern European, mostly Dutch and British, confirmed my lineage. Yet I was intrigued to see an unexpected strand of heritage.
As a traveller and someone who has lived a global life, I’m a passionate collector of histories, people and places. I’ve gleaned stories from bustling bazaars and affable street vendors, from sacred temples and on slow-travelling trains. It is the weaving of human interactions and narratives that inspire and fascinate me. They also humble me and time and time again, I’m reminded of just how similar we all are.
Is this not why we travel and step out beyond our comfortable boundaries? Is it not to rejoice in the connective tissue that we all share, the common pathways of humanity? The lives of many people have intersected my travels and the places I’ve called home. These tendrils of connections, some long-lasting, others more fleeting, are always meaningful and have changed me in often imperceptible ways.
During these past twelve months or so of the pandemic, many of us have dearly missed traveling. We yearn to stride through the airport, passport gleefully in hand, excited to once again traipse through familiar or unexplored streets in distant places. I also believe there’s an innate desire to feel tangibly connected to the world, to affirm our place on this earth we call home.
Which leads me back to my unexpected strand of DNA. It is Scandinavian and perhaps part of me had hoped for this. While working as a tour guide in Norway, I wove stories and historical tales while often secretly imagining a link to my Dutch mother’s lineage. Perhaps my genes are drawn from one of the many Norwegian sailors who sailed southward to join the Dutch Navy in the 1700’s. Young women also joined that migration, some following their sailor, others in the quest for employment. While some thrived, others found themselves destitute in an unfamiliar, foreign land. Nonetheless, I would be proud if any part of my heritage owes something to their courageous spirit.
Of my own personal odyssey, I’ve come to appreciate that my joy of cultural nuances has actually revealed a common humanity that is stripped of boundaries. There have been times during these enriching experiences that I have felt as connected as if they were family… as if of my own tribe.
During my time in Qatar, there was slim chance of claiming a long-lost ancestor. Yet once, in the desert under the fullness of the new moon, I was invited into a ladies’ Arabian tent. Settling onto lush carpets and plumped cushions, the diminutive, abaya-wrapped matriarch slowly removed her veil. After a welcome of warm frothy goat’s milk, the matriarch took my hand in hers. Her eyes were lively, recalling those of my own grandmother, honest and warm with a playful hint of mischief. With the help of an interpreter, our woman and motherhood united us while moon-shadows danced over the warm glow of our canopy.
When I taught English in the Sultanate of Oman, I certainly didn’t share the same historical lineage as my students – many a blend of Zanzibari and Omani – but the humour and gentleness with which they enveloped me was as welcoming as the warm Indian Ocean surrounding us. They treated me with genuine respect and affection, revealing their proud and generous culture. I was invited into homes, into yet more majlis tents, invariably with the traditional welcome of incense and strong coffee. And to my surprise I was gifted fine delicate filigreed silver – still displayed in my home today – precious tokens of treasured time and acceptance by my Omani friends.
Over the years, this chain of connections has grown, link by precious link. Years later in the south of India while searching for what would become our last overseas family home, we gazed out towards lush coconut palms and profuse mango trees with our prospective landlord.
We learned that his son had attended my hometown college/university in Canada and delighted in ‘what a small world it is.’ We chatted about the vibrant neighbourhood, the monkeys we might glimpse from the terrace, when the mangos would be ripe for the picking.
“I’ve wanted someone to live here who felt like family,” Nando said fondly. And over the next two years, we became just that, family, friends, neighbours, in the bustling heart of Bangalore.
Decades earlier in that same country as twenty-something backpackers, my husband and I happened to meet a teenage girl on a barren plateau. She had exited her remote tumbledown hut, her eyes gleamed with curiosity, then with hospitality. Insisting on preparing chapatis and chai over the smallest of fires, we crouched in the sand and shared the simplest of meals. I still cherish her generosity and wonder about her well-being.
Yes, I can recollect so many caring gestures of humanity.
The gift from a friend – joining her in a hushed tea ceremony in Japan under a fragrant canopy of cherry blossoms.
The caress on my cheek in Slovenia from a vivacious grandmother as we communicated in a common language of gesture and pantomime.
An ebullient greeting in Kazakhstan from a market stall-keeper. “Welcome, welcome to my country,” she boomed as she wrapped me in a warm bear-hug. Or in a boutique where I was entreated to try-on a kamzol. “If you live in Kazakhstan, you must have worn our traditional jacket at least once.”
And an impromptu encounter on a Victoria street corner with fellow Emily Carr admirers, who at once became friends as our mutual interest in this iconic artist blossomed into a beguiling conversation.
As my mind dances, conjuring fond vignettes, I reflect that while genetics may tell us where we have come from, our human connections say the most about who we are. We are challenged more than ever during isolation of the pandemic to sustain and grow our connections, but still with a yearning for those serendipitous moments that bring colour and warmth to our everyday lives. For someone who treasures the unscripted happenstance of travelling, I miss this dearly. Yet perhaps, in the present confinement of our horizons, our ties here at home have become even more dear.
The term ‘weak ties’ was coined by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. He referred to weak ties as ‘acquaintances and people you encounter infrequently, strangers with whom you share a familiarity’ – perhaps at your favourite coffeeshop, on the cross-country ski trails, even mutual acquaintances on social media. These more fleeting tendrils of connections also shape our lives, in fact the essence of community building grows from subtle feelings of connection, shared interests, common pastimes, even a subliminal sense of being.
I see this clearly in the small Canadian mountain city that I now call home. On those days when I dream of a faraway place, a friendly exchange reminds me also of the power of belonging and the desire to be connected wherever you live. These ‘slender tendrils’ are indeed the roots of humanity itself and nurture us all.
One could argue that we’ve never been less connected physically, and yet we are more virtually connected than ever. So connections? Let’s gather and treasure them, share them freely and generously… they are the strands, the tendrils that give meaning to our lives, even now, most especially now.