In England, I used to work in an office with thirty members of staff. Every day, we’d arrive at roughly the same time and for about twenty minutes, we’d stand in the kitchen chatting about holiday plans and last night’s TV before migrating to our respective desks.
Throughout the day in an open-plan office, we progressed projects chatting about each other’s pets and occasionally revealing a neighbor’s deathbed confession. At eleven and three o’clock, someone made tea for everybody on the floor. By five in the afternoon, with many tasks ticked off, we said goodnight and turned off the lights.
Around ten o’clock on Fridays, I would go into the meeting room and wait for the green light on the phone to flash at the full hour. I’d pick up and say my name before the person on the other end said, hi, great to hear you.
For the next sixty minutes, my line manager and I discussed the previous week. We butted heads. At the HQ, decisions had been made and things moved along, but she hadn’t been involved so it didn’t count. We must consult her before going ahead.
Once the hour was up, I put down the receiver and walked back to my desk just in time for a tea run and a discussion about changing suppliers.
“Ask my line manager,” I said.
“She’s not here,” a colleague said.
“I have no time to explain,” the colleague said, rolled his eyes, returned to his desk and the situation stayed unresolved for months.
I was frustrated not understanding why my line manager didn’t see the urgency we saw. Whenever I explained what we were dealing with at the HQ, she wouldn’t understand. Her solutions, though well intentioned, were so far off the mark, I had to smile and look the other way.
I blamed her. Living between countries and seeing myself as the kind of person who inhabits different realities at the same time, I couldn’t imagine what kind of gene she was missing that prevented her from hearing what I was telling her.
This summer I finally left that job to spend some time in Holland, Poland and France. As I passed the yellow ticket gates of Amsterdam Centraal, England became a mirage and I could no longer imagine a world where staircases were wide enough so furniture didn’t need to be brought in through a window.
Driving across the Oder on the way to Poland a few days later, the only world that existed was the one with pine and birch forests growing next to a yellow rape field with a circling stork. Eating bretzels in France, I questioned the legitimacy of anyone speaking English; I wanted to flick the American foreheads and say, parlez français!
I was wide-eyed reading the local papers discovering that we’re all concerned about what’s directly in front of us: our air, our food, our streets, our art, our myths. But I got a spring in my step when I discovered the real thing we all have in common: a deep disdain for anyone from outside telling us how to live.
I thought back to my manager. She was an inspiring woman that I looked up to, but though I wanted a mentor, she couldn’t guide me; she wasn’t where I was. Moreover, she rarely faced consequences of her decisions. Never at the office, she wasn’t present to deal with repercussions.
Reading all these newspapers got me thinking. In our global world, it seems that people who decide are “somewhere there” while people who live are “right here”.
These people who decide often live itinerant lifestyles between airports and golden cages that protect them from the broader context of their host country and the real-life effects of their own judgment. Within short periods, they move from one golden cage to another rarely staying anywhere long enough to see the effects of their actions on the environments that until recently were their own.
When someone from Brussels tells someone in southern Italy to welcome refugees, it is noble for the decision-maker to be outraged at the resistance of the local people.
“How dare you,” some of the remote managers say, “these are people, you have to help them!”
We have to help them.
The problem is, just as my manager was often clueless about the practicalities of the office, very few of the elites understand the practicalities of welcoming refugees. Very few, if any, of the nobly outraged will be waking up to the daily pain of the people forced out of their home and brought to a place where all they can do is wait.
Fewer still will wake up daily to their own pain at the devastation that a crisis can bring to a region; a region that’s already been neglected by global elites and that’s been damaged by mass emigration of people who lack a future in their hometown.
As a result, “globals” are angry that no one cares about their carefully crafted ideas that took years of education and percolation to develop. The “locals” are angry because their concerns are called “unworldly”, “narrow-minded” or “-phobic”. We all yell and we retreat to our own. Nothing gets resolved.
The refugee crisis is just one example of the many problems we’re facing. Inequality, fake news, climate change (to name three) are issues that need global action. How can there be global action if the “globals” don’t live a “local” reality? How can there be change if the “locals” aren’t shown a broader perspective in a language they can relate to?
We started Project Neighbours to bridge the gap between the “globals” and the “locals”. In this web-based series of interviews we talk about what’s important. We hope to bring our realities closer to each other so we can build a world fit for purpose.
This piece was originally published by Cecile's Writers, the place where intercultural writers connect.