Fourteen years ago, on June 6, 2000, I stood with my family at the Canadian cemetery by Juno Beach. We had arrived at the commemoration ceremony partially by accident; unable to find a camping spot, we’d parked our VW Westfalia in the cemetery parking lot, and awoke the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by armoured vehicles, teary-eyed veterans, and soldiers with machine guns. I have no doubt that it was being there, along with coinciding visits to Vimy, Verdun, and numerous other WWI/II sites in northern Europe, that taught me the importance of remembrance.
There are moments in our lives when we pause and wonder: where will I be a year from now, and what will my life be like?
Remembrance Day 2011: As “The Last Post” broadcasts from Ottawa on the T.V., I bounce around the living room of my Canadian apartment, energized by the warmth of the blazing fireplace but more so by my own excitement.
“Should I book it now?” I ask, my mouse hovering over Expedia’s “Complete Purchase” button.
“I don’t see why not…” comes the Skype reply: a close Dutch friend who seems both miles away and suddenly nearby.
Grinning, I click, and with that, determine my upcoming year.
A year of travel. The Netherlands –> Portugal –> South America.
A year of adventures. New Cities. New Foods. New experiences.
For the rest of the afternoon, my head whirs with thoughts and dreams.
Where will I be a year from now? Cruising the Amazon? Exploring Machu Picchu? Dancing Colombian salsa? The possibilities are endless, but simultaneously contained. I know I will be “away.”
The outline is all set, but I have yet to colour it in.
When I reflect on 11/11, I initially remember the year that I froze my tongue to a pole in my front yard. For my generation, Remembrance Day is a holiday of wilting significance. Although we have begun to connect it with contemporary conflicts, it largely revolves around soldiers from years long past, fighting in unfamiliar territory against unfamiliar faces. We get caught up in statistics, battalion numbers, and dates. For non-veterans, it’s hard to humanize war.
I’ve bent over crosses in Belgian cemeteries; stared at the sea from the beaches of Normandy; climbed through the craters and grassy trenches of Verdun. I’ve stood in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; touched the bookcase in the Secret Annex; and dug up skeletal fragments of my great uncle’s blown up plane. Looking further through time and space, I’ve trudged through muddy battlefields of the wars of Scottish independence; scaled the turrets of fortresses in Jamaica and Brazil; and been dwarfed by the Mexican Monumento a los Niños Héroes.
I’ve seen the photos, and been to the sites, but I still don’t understand how to remember. Something is missing.
2012 flies by as I hop from city to city, country to country. I try to keep track of the number of airports and bus terminals, but lose count at 20 and 30. Each week, my purse contains the map of a new historical centre, and my palate tastes dishes from different kitchens and market stalls. I cross adventures off my bucket list, and watch my seniority grow along the “Gringo Trail.”
But the names of towns get jumbled in my head, and every city lookout point begins to look the same.
2000: I am eating Easter brunch at a summer cottage, with an Italian family we recently met. In the highchair across from me, a curly-haired baby plays peek-a-boo and her eyes widen as she flashes me a porridge-smeared grin.
2006: I am on a train with my grandma and brother, cutting across flat Dutch fields en route to Rotterdam. Across the aisle, a dashing middle-aged man pours over the pages of De Telegraaf. He glances up at me. His eyes are a piercing blue and encircled by the softest of lines. He bends back over the newspaper, but every few minutes our eyes connect again. When we get off the train, he gives me a nod.
2012: I am losing myself in the most windy alleys of Lisbon. An old woman leans out her window. She gives a nod of acknowledgment to my “Bom dia.” As I stoop over to capture the azulejo tiles and the rows of clean laundry, the corners of her mouth turn up.
I am walking down a crowded Lima street. A shabby drunk stumbles into my path. I dodge him, and shoot a little glare, but he seems oblivious. In front of me, a young businessman heads my way. He rolls his eyes and chuckles, and I savour this subtle bond of companionship.
I am in a bar with a live band, sitting next to a salsero. He sits, straight-faced and lost in thought. I mock his serious expression. “Sonrie!” He pastes on a class-picture-day smile. But then we get up to dance, and he breaks into something real, something so genuine that it’s contagious. I can’t dance at his level, and I feel clumsy, but it doesn’t matter; his eyes twinkle as he loses himself in the sound of the clave and I feel happier than ever.
Remembrance Day 2012: I am far away from the war memorials this year. Far away from “The Last Post” and poppies.
I sit on a bench overlooking the darkened Pacific coast, eating the best gelato that Lima offers. On either side of me is a friend: one from my office life in Canada, and one from the dance floors of my travels. We talk of war and hatred, but of those conflicts between Peru and Chile instead of French battlefields and German war camps. One friends speaks only English, the other only Spanish. Yet they exchange smiles and laughter.
Later, as my Canadian friend piles his bags into the taxi that will take him to the airport, I tell him that my mind is once again filled with questions. In less than two months, I’ll fly home to a home that is now completely changed. I don’t know where this next year will take me. I have no idea where I’ll end up working, or studying, nor what continent I’ll settle on.
As the words spill out of my mouth, I realize that I shouldn’t be worrying about where I’ll be in 2013. Places are important, but without the people in them, their memories are incomplete. I’ll be happy anywhere, as long as I can find those moments of human connection — a smile, a glance, laughter — that remind me that throughout the world, people are all alike. None of us can predict where we’ll end up, and in the end, the memories we’ll dwell upon will be filled with the relationships we’ve made more than the battles we’ve fought or the mountains we’ve climbed.
Soothed by this new mentality, I reenter the hostel to say goodnight to my Peruvian friend. He takes my hand, looks me in the eye, and says he can tell that my Canadian friend is a good person.