Cross on mountain

As a Canadian I have a lot to be grateful for. Free access to education, health care, a social safety net, the right to express myself freely, relatively little corruption. There’s really not much to complain about.

When I flick on the TV and watch the news, the big problems always seem to belong to someone else, never me. In the 30 years that I lived in Toronto the closest I’ve ever experienced to a natural disaster was an ice storm that snapped a few phone wires. The biggest inconvenience, a power outage for a couple of days. War… I can’t even remember seeing a soldier or even a rifle for the first twenty years of my life. Canada promises peace, order and good government, and delivers on that promise.

When my mother and her family left Friuli, Italy in the ‘50s they left behind a hard life with few conveniences, little opportunity and a poor economic outlook. Though they could physically leave the troubled landscape, the fearful mentality of warfare was inscribed in their psyche. Between the barbarians, Venetians, French, Austro Hungarians and Germans, the Friulani have been beaten down so many times and so consistently over the past two millennia that they have become a product of war.

When another nation didn’t get them, Mother Nature did. I recently visited the site of the 1976 earthquakes in Gemona, Friuli that claimed nearly one thousand lives. Though the relics of war have grown into distant memories, it was here that the hardship my ancestors lived through became palpable.

Given all the challenges the Friulani people have lived through, it’s no surprise that our tour guide, Raffaella, commented that the citizens from this northern region are known around Italy as being different. More cautious, introverted, fearful. Like a war child, innocence lost. And once lost it is difficult to regain.

Being born into a peaceful life in Canada it becomes really easy to take the gifts of this life for granted. As it relates to being a Canadian and acknowledging my ancestral origin, I’ve found three ways to express my gratitude in a fitting way. First, having lived in India for a couple of years gave me a taste of some of the struggles that life can deliver.

The second is through travel. Though the World Wars are in the history books, the remnants of warfare are pretty easy to find if you look around. Just about every hike I went on in the Dolomites had either a bunker, trench or warfare museum to keep the history of the war alive. Through museums and art, the importance of these events enters the forefront of the mind to be remembered and appreciated.

The third, and most potent, way I’ve found to appreciate the gift of a Canadian birth comes through learning from my elders. Since my grandparents lived through the Depression and the Second World War, they developed sound values that I respect and learn from. Food would not get wasted. Things would get used well and then repaired. Then repaired again. Copious amounts of food were grown in the backyard. Appreciation for what they had, acceptance, resourcefulness, and sensibility are the qualities I want to remember and commemorate in this generation.

Caves in Italian Alps

A common sight in the Alps, these caves in Friuli, Italy were dug out as strategic vantage points during WWI

The last wave of immigrants who came in the ‘50s and ‘60s are now senior citizens. The hardship of the Depression and the post-war period is locked up in this older generation. I’ve found that travelling to Italy can provide part of the picture, but it is in talking to these elders that the whole picture is filled in. For those who have not forgotten the challenges that they’ve endured, there exists a sense of gratitude that comes from having lived with less.

When understanding our roots—where we came from, the stuff we’re made of and what our ancestors lived through—we’re more likely to remember to be grateful. The same way that taking things for granted happens regularly on a daily basis, practicing gratitude needs to happen regularly on a daily basis.

Our elders are living monuments who can serve as these daily reminders. They help us to remember the hardship that life could be and to express gratitude. As with any monuments we can choose to walk past with nothing but a glance or we can stop to appreciate and learn something from them. It is our choice to see them as irrelevant relics from another era or as reminders to embody gratitude in our own lives.