We left Abidjan on Friday: My partner headed to Zurich on business, and I headed to London to visit my brother.
It was my first trip as a visibly pregnant woman, but the same travel grievances prevailed. To leave here was to be inundated with the bureaucracy of travel: Pencil-pushing agents and the nightmare of Visa checking, form filling and proof of identity, residency, nationality…
Even the most elementary questions become fraught with doubt — What is your occupation? What is your country of citizenship? (As an expatriate, such self-categorization can sometimes be difficult.)
We moved on to the next step: Our index fingers were electronically fingerprinted, our faces scanned. On the other side of security, we exchanged banalities. Our flight path was less than ideal: A pit stop in Monrovia, Liberia, a 13-hour layover in Brussels and then flights to our respective destinations.
When we boarded, I had imagined being pregnant might garner special attention, but the flight attendants fussed and clucked around the other passengers just as much. And the physical discomfort was nothing out of the ordinary — the usual cramped configuration, but with my right elbow and foot flailing in the aisle.
My subsequent flight to London was full of executives and consultants. The man behind me bragged about his itinerant lifestyle while his companion listened. I eavesdropped and learned that the other man was from Toronto — the hum of familiar place names lulled me to sleep.
And so I left a country with 80 languages, stopped in one with 30 and another with three, before landing in a country with only one.
I wondered if the baby felt disjointed by its mother’s peripatetic movements.
* * *
Our family has a history of movement. My father’s vocation kept us overseas for eight years and now we are scattered to the four winds: My father remains in Toronto, my mother in the Middle East and my brother in London (although he travels everywhere for his job) — a modestly sized family that spans four continents.
As for our significant others, both were born outside of Canada and travel extensively for their jobs. It seems fitting that my brother and I have chosen people who like to roam.
Still, I have never gotten used to the dissonance of travel, the physical shift accompanied — begrudgingly — by the psychological one. As always, flying makes me overly sentient — the ringing in my ears, the blue blurring of light inside the plane and the bloated engine outside.
My skin feels tissue-thin, the membrane imbibing too many worlds and time zones. And the baby’s occasional kicks have compounded that out-of-body experience. If travel makes you feel like you are being consumed by external forces than pregnancy is the internal equivalent.
* * *
When I arrived in London, I was struck by the grayness of the city and its reluctant sun.
I shuffled into my brother’s home, a leaden figure with equally leaden feet, where I was greeted by the smell of a Thai stir-fry and his looming presence.
Observing him in his own ecosystem, I almost felt like an outsider. Maybe it was because I still envisioned him as his younger self, or perhaps it was the knowledge that Skype sessions could not replace face-to-face time. It was bittersweet to realize how much I missed of his life on a daily basis.
We walked along Regent’s Canal to Angel Islington, past the houseboats and the converted warehouses. Knowing my poor sense of direction, my brother knew to carefully point out landmarks.
The next day, I returned for a solo jaunt and felt the sweet rush of anonymity. In Abidjan, I stuck out like a sore thumb, but here, diversity was so commonplace that it seemed perfectly normal to be sitting in an Italian restaurant, being served by an Eastern European waitress while two Ukrainian girls with platinum hair chattered next to me. The city felt at once exotic and familiar.
When I returned to the boardwalk, the canal was still colonized by its houseboats. Their names ranged from the mundane (Alice Mary) to the semi-aquatic (Muskrat) and the celestial (Mackerel Sky).
I felt a kinship with these people and their floating homes, perhaps because they provided a positive interpretation of displacement. They embodied the benefits of being between worlds — one that was anchored and gloriously unanchored. They made it seem easy: You didn’t have to vacillate; you could simply drift — coast even.
It made me think about our baby, about all the things that keep us in limbo, adrift, afloat. Even if it’s impossible to get our bearings sometimes, it’s still possible to keep the things that matter intact.