By Enrique Tessieri
There are many types of countries but there is one quality that unites them: They are full of contradictions. No other person sees and feels these antagonisms so markedly than the immigrant.
My late father, who travelled and lived in many countries during his short lifetime, told me once that the best way to get to know oneself is by moving to a foreign land.
His words reminded me of Buck, the main character of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Buck was “dognapped” from its comfortable and warm home in California and ended up in the harsh days of the Yukon Gold Rush.
London writes: “The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His new-born cunning gave him poise and control. He was too busy adjusting himself to the new life to feel at ease.”
The rigors of late-nineteenth century Yukon played a key role in turning Buck into a formidable dog. Buck even found its long-lost freedom when it joined other wolves to live in the wild.
While London’s book is about a dog, it could well be a story of any migrant or refugee that moved to Finland.
Buck’s example shows as well that some countries can bring out the best in people while other ones can reinforce the worse.
Our fascination with our ancestry explains why some of us continue to be drawn by a country where a relative was once from many generations ago. What is it exactly that we are so mesmerized by? Possibly the answer lies in the yearning, ideals and hope of the late relative.
Some of these sentiments are so powerful that they refuse to die. The secret code of such compelling feelings could be described as gut wisdom inscribed on a torch passed from generation to the next. The torch, which you receive at birth, may contain wisdom, even maps to assist you in your future travels.
The feeling, the interest, the fascination of where a relative was from remains inside some of us like a strong unexplainable force.
If you ever get a chance to visit a residential neighbourhood of Buenos Aires like Flores, where I lived briefly as a child, you’ll still find those early twentieth-century Parisian-style two-story houses adorning the oak-lined cobblestone streets.
Many Argentineans still remember fondly their European grandparents and great grandparents. Some cherish their memory with so much respect that they have even succeeded at almost stopping time.
The residents of the neighborhood have ingenious methods of slowing the passage of time: They park vintage cars like Fords from the 1930s in front of their homes, some even keep portraits of ancient heads of state like King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and Czar Nicholas II hanging on the walls of their homes.
Uncle Horatio once told me why time had to be slowed: “The faster time moves the faster we travel further from who we were. In other words, time is the migrant’s worst enemy because it distances us from who we were and shapes us by force into nationals of new countries and circumstances.”
Horatio tried to slow the past and the present to such a degree that they’d be perfectly balanced. He then tried to search for an answer to the following question: What did his migrant parents search for in new lands?
My uncle never found the answer but as a consolation his parents did find – as my father pointed out – who they are.