The Christmas Tree in the great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The Christmas Tree in the great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (click to enlarge)

On the theme of understanding which I touched upon on my last post entitled Starting Over, I mentioned the idea of understanding other cultures from Foreign Lands and how important it is to make an effort when you travel or live for an extended period of time in a foreign country to get to know the people. Understanding is a word but it is also a concept which brings you to take a different look at others with a more neutral or detached eye. I will not say that understanding means accepting, no, many things are understood but not accepted.They are however not incorrect no matter what one may think.

One place where I lived and where culture, language, tradition and thinking was vastly different was China and countries I visited in Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan. Simple concepts of everyday life or the way you express yourself and the manner in which you do it, where vastly different. Language is always the number one barrier and the ability to learn another language is a gift. I made the effort to learn the languages with the exception of Mandarin which defeated me.

In many other countries where I lived there were little things of life that could become an Everest and lead to negative thoughts, an example, no fresh milk, for years I drank UHT milk before most people knew what it was here in Canada. Or suddenly having a shortage of eggs, butter or flour, for no apparent reason. Electric power cuts happening at any moment of the day, again for no reason other than the electrical supply was unreliable. You have to accept the fact that a giant power emergency generator is required, sitting in your home garden and must be kept fuelled up, they are also extremely noisy.

Having to wash in iodine solution all non-peelable vegetable and peeling all the others. This meant that any lettuce or berries were off the menu because of the danger of being contaminated. Having to closely supervise any kitchen staff to ensure they kept strict hygiene norms in handling food. You do understand why you have to do all this it is time consuming but nonetheless it does affect the way you look at the country where you live.

Your life is changed by the health condition of the country and you must adapt to it in order to stay healthy but also to maintain a positive frame of mind. There are also safety risks and concerns and it is important to be aware and not play dumb or uninformed.

I also found it important to try to understand the conditions of the country, social and political without offering opinions or suggestions. People will speak of their country you do not need to agree or disagree with them, just listen. History shapes the way countries evolve, the geography does the rest. It was not for me to express an opinion positive or negative or to offer facile suggestions. It was far more important to listen to what people were saying and try to understand their point of view and how they felt vis a vis the West or other neighbouring countries. In Western Africa, I discovered that the many African ethnic groups had deep rivalry and hatreds, racism was alive and well amongst Africans.  Many did not think much of those Americans who came to visit Ghana or other Western African countries in search of their roots. They had little sympathy for them, all they were was rich tourists, like all the others. Inter-racial conflicts and wars have been raging in most African countries for years since the 1960’s and such conflicts are exploited by large multinational business interests from the old colonial masters, Belgium, France, Britain, Portugal to this day and African politicians also play wedge politics to retain power. It was a very different scenario from the usual one presented to us by the Media, far more complex, requiring reading and actually living in the region to grasp the situation.

Another area which is much misunderstood these days and where I lived for 8 years, is the Levant or Middle-East as it is commonly called. Egypt in 1989 was not the country of today and my frequent travels to the Sudan gave me a very good appreciation for this ancient culture and its people. I read quite a few books on the history and the geography of the area and it’s more modern history. Anyone can read about the Pharaohs but that is so far away from us to have little bearing on today’s world. I was more interested in the history from 1750 to today.

Then there was my stay and travel to Jordan, Syria and Iran. All in the newspapers constantly these days with much myth making to make the Official story stick. All this to say that all those countries have fascinating history and people. I met so many interesting people, many were just citizens and others belonged to prominent families but everyone had an interesting point of view which made for good listening and a very different perspective on their countries and the world. I came away far better informed and enlightened.

Why is it then that our Politicians get the analysis wrong most of the time? Many are un-educated and motivated by a political agenda based on their own personal quest for Power and greed. I cannot say that I met many intelligent politicians in my years, there were exceptions like Flora MacDonald who was a great lady or Joe Clark a very intelligent and capable man but too honest. Unfortunately I usually had to meet and escort the idiot politicians and staff, who formulate their ideas based on what they think will be popular with the masses and get them votes. The age of great policy making like that of Miracles is past. I also had Ambassadors I respected and who were good career diplomats and people you could learn from by listening to them explain a situation. I also had idiots in that group who thought too highly themselves.

To come back to my original point, I survived 33 years in the Foreign Service because I was willing to be flexible, look at the adventure or opportunities offered, make the effort to see the positive side of each of my 7 postings and other numerous area trips, read and study the area, learn the language and listen to the people and stay away from the poisonous ex-pat crowd, the locals are far more interesting.

To conclude I have here a bit of Russian Music, something to enjoy, best listened to if it is snowing lightly outside, if not close your eyes.