When I was in my mid-twenties I lived for several years in southern Africa and worked as a copy editor and layout artist at The Rhodesian Farmer, a weekly farming magazine in Rhodesia’s capital, Salisbury. (The full story of how this unlikely scenario came to be can be found in my memoir Somewhere Child. I won’t go into it here.)
At that time, Rhodesia was considered the breadbasket of Africa. Its rich soil, ideal climate, and skilled farm workers made it something of a farmer’s paradise. And this magazine, The Rhodesian Farmer, was an important organ of the country’s farmers’ union, to which most farmers belonged.
One day, sitting at my desk, going over the galley proofs for the next issue, a man came into my office, head a bit bowed, holding his crumpled cloth slouch hat in his hands. The receptionist had sent him to see me because he was French, and among my colleagues I was the only one who’d studied French in school and remembered a few words. She thought I might be able to help him.
His name was Bernard, I learned that afternoon in our long and pleasant conversation conducted in our own version of Frenglish. He was a farmer, a quiet, unassuming bachelor, perhaps in his early forties. (He seemed old and weather-beaten to me then.) He had been traveling the world, he told me, looking for the right place to settle and have a farm of his own. He’d searched throughout Europe and gone further afield, visiting Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. None of them were quite right for him, he said.
He told me, in his quiet and deeply felt way – and this is why I remember Bernard so clearly even after fifty years — that he believed everyone in the world should be able to go anywhere in the world to find the place in the world where they felt they truly belonged. The country we’re born in should not own us, he said. The world is big, and we only live in it once. We should be free to explore it freely and live wherever we’re happiest, unhampered by government strictures and bureaucracies.
This thought had never crossed my mind before that afternoon, and it hasn’t left my mind since. Bernard the farmer had planted a seed.
Imagine, I often think, if more people were encouraged to think more globally and travel more widely – and not by just quickly rushing through other countries to sightsee but by remaining for a while to see if they fit: Learning the language, learning the history and culture, learning how to cook that country’s traditional dishes, learning the steps to their traditional dances.
Imagine also a world without border walls or barbed wire fences, where immigrants are embraced instead of chased, where nationalism is replaced by a new form of globalism with the ethos, “We’re all in this together.”
This may well be a wildly romantic notion, but I imagine this would result in far fewer wars and happier, healthier, more broadly minded people worldwide. It’s fun to imagine. But what would it take to make this happen?
Personally, I’ve learned that I’m happiest living where palm trees grow. So staying in or near my home state – New Jersey, USA, where palm trees definitely do not grow – would never work for me as a lifetime choice. I love year-round, sunny, sleeveless days and abundant, healthy, juicy tropical fruit (mangoes! avocados!). I loved Africa, and I felt at home there. I’m loving Mexico, and I am at home here.
As for Bernard, as I recall, he chose to settle in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He bought a small farm and married an African woman, and, I like to think, lived happily-ever-after – or at least until that country’s civil war forced most farmers off their land and back to their countries of origin. But that’s another story.