Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wonder in Everything I See

We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders. 

- G.K. Chesterton

The new-looking 737 has unfamiliar markings. I shuffle from the terminal along a loose string of still-sleepy miners boarding a sunrise crew charter to Wabush, Labrador serviced by Air Inuit. That itself is novel, and I wonder how many frequent fliers have even heard of this airline that has linked Nunavik communities since 1978. But the lines of our gleaming transport are familiar enough, the fortnightly process is clearly routine for the other passengers, and my mind comes back to personal travel rituals. Crosswords always help the air time pass by. Settling into my self-assigned aisle seat, I immediately search the pocket in front of me for the ubiquitous in-flight magazine. In my hands is volume 1, number 1 of Inuit.

Something new deserves a look, and as I read I barely notice our smooth liftoff from Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport in Montréal. Despite a lot of white space, the crisply-designed magazine is a worthy first effort, focusing on Nunavik cultural heritage and reflecting obvious pride in the Inuit-owned and managed Air Inuit. I'm struck most by feature stories prominently written in symbolic Inuktitut characters and accompanied by French and English translations. It's a reminder that some parts of Canada have more than the two standard official languages. But more than that I'm intrigued by the aesthetic geometry of the printed Inuktitut language.

It is beautiful.

An article from Inuit, vol. 1, no. 1 about "throat singing."

As the Inuit culture has a rich oral tradition, I suspect the script represents a more recently derived syllabary of the ancient Inuktitut language, where each character represents a distinct syllable or combination of sounds. But the end result is a stylization that curiously reflects the artistry of its people. A mixture of bold polygonal shapes and hooking curves vaguely reminiscent of hieroglyphics, only the punctuation is a tie to familiar English sentence structure. And from the formatting of the text, it is clearly read from left to right and down the page. But without the adjacent translations, it is otherwise wholly exotic.

It is so new to me I begin to question my previous indifference to the architecture of my own native alphabet beside it. Like many people, I've often been attracted to hearing my language in a different accent that gives it an unfamiliar twist. I'd put aside my inner introvert to talk with Sophia Loren for hours. But for the first time I wonder, do pages of Times New Roman font speak exotic romance to the native reader of Cyrillic script? Maybe tattoos of banal English idioms are popular amongst young Japanese, and "sweet potato" inked on the neck of a Tokyo shop-girl is considered a thing of beauty. Perhaps I should be less judgmental of body art on westerners that similarly hijacks characters from her culture.

I look upon the English translations in Inuit, and I suddenly realize the familiar symbols of my own language are beautiful too.

So often we travel merely to stimulate senses deadened to familiar surroundings. We need to immerse ourselves in something new and be seen as doing so, rushing like Dorian Gray to post our latest, most-flattering self-portrait on Facebook. I am guilty of that. Behind much of this, I suspect, is the narcissistic message to others that I am better, more nuanced and more worldly, because I have experienced the wider world. Such wanderlust leads to the same emotional dead end as a one night stand. But if occasionally we truly reflected on our own daily environment--taken for granted--in the light of a new culture, we might realize the infinite wonder in even the coarsest of our common neighbors and the least of human inventions. How magnificent is the written word, and yet more the creative human miracle behind it. I look out the window and appreciate this airplane and this moment.

Indirectly, on an aircraft skirting their land, the Nunavimmiut have taught me about myself and the oft neglected wonders I briefly leave behind. I never got to that crossword.

Inuit, vol. 1 no. 1. A new quarterly publication of the Makivik Corporation published by Air Inuit.