Monday, 30 March 2015

An Atlas Full of Purpose

Hands down the most common thing friendly strangers tend to ask me since immigrating to Canada is: "Where are you from? Oh... let me guess! Are you Polish?"

And for more than a decade and a half I have been trying to explain that no, I am not Polish. 
I only  s o u n d  Polish. "I am Serbian" - I would say proudly - "but I sound Polish because all Slavic languages are related..." which is too long of a conversation for a stranger who never wanted to learn about the origin of European languages from a pharmacist.

Then about two years ago, I flew with LOT - the Polish Airline flight - en route: Toronto - Warsaw - Belgrade. I settled into my seat looking around with a bit of nervous anticipation. You see, I have a history of attracting people who migrate into a third of my seat while sociably chatting me up (not too difficult a task!) only to eventually collapse without warning into a deep sleep, using me as a neck-pillow. As the plane started taxiing I broke that one on-board rule about switching off all electronics and I called my mom, whispering: "Am I adopted?" Apparently I don't look Serbian at all!!! Needless to say, I felt cloned. 

The strangers I get to meet for the second time often ask out of courtesy: "Have you ever been back home... In Siberia?" And then with as much compassion as I can muster for the lack of elementary education they haven't been provided, I start that slow motion wording, that annoys me to no end when other people do it, mouthing S-E-R-B-I-A, not S-I-B-E-R-I-A. Shaking my head - No, No. Not the same thing. And then sometimes, I still have to clearly stipulate that when I did go back to Serbia, one time 15 years after immigrating, I did not stay in a gulag... I only ate goulash. Which is my favourite Hungarian dish. But I'm digressing. 
Forget Waldo! Where is Serbia?

I think I got hooked on geography at the age of 10 because of the "forbidden fruit" principle. You see, we entered grade 5 grasping the new expansion of our world -- we no longer had a home-classroom. We were moving, period after period into a different part of the bigger kids' school which housed grades 5-8. Even the big kids’ schoolyard was elevated by a few stairs and we would look with nostalgia - while hoping we looked disdainful - at the running and screaming kids we left behind in lower grades and the lower school yard. Serbo-Croatian, Math, French, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, Art, English, Tech-Shop, Phys-ed... each subject except gym had its own classroom which was now fancily called a "cabinet", and every 45 minutes we would engage in a crazed and hectic migration, dragging all our possessions with us while munching on snacks and eyeing the boys and enjoying our tender and silly girlhood. No lockers. Ever. Sulk.

The first time our geography teacher entered the classroom I detected the faintest whiff of a fine flowery perfume. This went well with her "Clan Campbell" patterned plaid skirt. Ружица Гранић, our teacher whose first and last name have the words "rose" and "branch" in them, was an elegant Old Belgrade-style lady. I don't remember anymore what I liked best - that her voice had a refined ring to it, that she had an elegant hairdo worthy of 10 Downing Street, that a silk scarf would often be accompanying her sophisticated yet discreet look or that for those forty-five minutes she would effortlessly transport us into every corner of the world, training our brains to recognize, to connect, to memorize – spinning a web that is 35 years later still stitched solidly in my brain. Every day new facts, people and places were embedded precisely on the correct longitude and latitude. What a gift!

Name the longest rivers in Asia:

Ind, Gang, Bramaputra, Yang Tseng Yang, Hoang Ho (Yellow River), Volga...

What are the names of Soviet Union Republics? (This was 1980, collapse of all our countries was too far in the future for us to see):

Azerbejdžan,  Belorusija,  Estonija,  Gruzija,  Jermenija,  Kazahstan,  Kirgistan,  Letonija,  Litvanija,  Moldavija,  Rusija,  Tadžikistan,  Turkmenistan,  Ukrajina,  Uzbekistan (for the record, I recited these names known by heart into my keyboard in one breath, so forgive me for saying them in Serbian - that's how they have stayed in my long-term memory).

Myself, my friends Ana, Dubravka and Mirko (the famous eye surgeon!) and many others would then start shouting, competing... delighting our teacher.

Which mountain has a nickname "Roof of The World"? - Pamir!!!
What is the desert with a highest altitude in the world? - Atakama!!!
What are the grasslands called in Eurasia? - Stepa (steppes)!!! In Sudan? - Savana (savannah)!!!

This knowledge certainly comes in handy for crossword puzzles or in that QuizApp game that I sometimes play on my smartphone for fun, burning some serious world-wide-nerds with my photographic memory and everything I learned in Ms.Granić's class.

The alluring raised-relief map
There was only one thing that was a major offence in Ms. Granić’s cabinet: walking too close to her precious raised-relief map. On an occasion when one of the snowy mountain peaks had been accidentally obliterated by an unwitting backpack our good teacher almost suffered a heart attack. She was passionate that the map would stay intact for the next generations to learn to be "Citizens of the World".

Fact that my seat was located in the row next to the wall and right in front of that map - not the flat boring ones - was always too tempting for me. So, during some lessons, when the tectonic movements or geo-politics would take over the conversation, I would stare at the tiniest details, getting fully immersed in its peaks and valleys, the blue depths of the oceans and the archipelagos that stretched so remotely I was sure this must be what they called the 'end of the world'. The strict classroom rule was never to touch the map. I still vividly remember once being brave and stretching my hand, while facing the front of the classroom pretending to listen intently. With my heart pounding as I felt the smooth plastic surface of the map, I traced the raised and wrinkled shape of the mountains. As if it were Braille, I tried to use my tactile senses to orientate myself. The area was raised and wrinkled on the top, then formed a triangle of sorts with a wide circle just off its right side.

"India!" - I whispered to myself, glowing with enthusiasm that I recognized the Himalayas and Sri Lanka and the triangular shaped subcontinent in between!

"MARINA?!!!" was the astonished shriek that even her A student was breaking the rule - "DON'T TOUCH THE MAP!!!"

"I... I just wanted to try and guess which part of the world it was, without looking..." - I explained sheepishly.

"What are the largest cities in India?" - "New Delhi, Bombay (again my "old" world geography), Bangalore and Kolkata!" - I answered breathlessly.
What is the former name of Sri Lanka? -"Ceylon!" Capital? - "Colombo!"
Name the guerilla-group fighting against Sri Lankan government? - "Tamil Tigers!"

"You are forgiven!"

And you have never been forgotten Ms.Ružica Granić!

Exactly three weeks ago, I received unbelievable and unexpected news. The reputable international company I work for has selected me to be one of 100 ambassadors who will be volunteering for two weeks in one of ten camps around the world in their "Connecting Hearts Abroad" project. This very summer, I will be heading to India to be serving in a Diabetes Camp, putting to work everything I have learned so far as a pharmacist, a life coach, a volunteer, a writer, a friend, a mom and a human.

"Hey there, I heard you guys went on a trip to Israel to meet your hubby's family! How exciting!!!" - a very young and very friendly mom addressed me as we were waiting for our kids' swimming lessons to end.
"Did you, like, also go see your family in Syria?"

I am happy to report that the stand-up-comedienne in me managed to bite her tongue!

"No, not this time."

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