Monday, 14 January 2013

On coming home...

I’m on the bus from Kingston to Toronto and my laptop is officially confused.

Poor little laptop - her life has been full of surprises.  First she was purchased in Canada, where she was given to me as a Christmas present.  For a brief but blissful sojourn, she was allowed to plug into lovely Canadian walls and connect to lovely Canadian wifi, just as nature (or the laptop manufacturer) intended.  But before she knew what was what, she was whisked away to the wilds of Scotland.  Everything was different, from the shape of the plugs to the funny accents to the source of the internet provider.  However, much as she tried to resist her unexpected new home, she did eventually adapt to British ways.

But just as my laptop grew accustomed to British ways, she was carried over the English Channel and deep into the heart of the European continent.  Once again she has had to adapt, plugging into Belgian walls and using Belgian wifi.

Now, only months after her latest move, she has been flown all the way back to Canada again!  Despite the lovely Canadian walls and lovely Canadian wifi, it must be very disconcerting.  What is a laptop to think of all this?  I mean really, it’s no wonder that she’s now refusing to connect to the wifi on this bus, and suggesting that I instead connect to the opera studio’s wifi in Ghent.
Yes, computer, even though Ghent is over 5000 km away, that would totally work.
I suppose you could say that I’m visiting home.  We have a long winter holiday before the studio resumes, and having spent Christmas in Scotland with my boyfriend, I’m now spending some time in Toronto with my family.

But then again, is Toronto really my home anymore?  And if Toronto isn’t home, what is?
They say that home is where the heart is.  In that case, I have no idea where my home should be.  Is it in Canada with my family?  Is it in Scotland, where I lived for the last three years and where I met my boyfriend?  Is it in Belgium where I’m studying, or in Sweden where he’s studying?

When I first moved from Toronto to Glasgow, I used to get homesick all the time.  I missed my family, I missed my dog, and I missed the Canadian weather.
Yes, that's right.  I like snow.

But with time, I got settled.  I met new friends, found a job, found a nice place to live.  I got used to the British banter, and even learned to decipher some of the thicker Scottish accents.  I discovered favourite foods and tv shows that I didn’t have at home.  I learned where to get a lovely meal when you can’t be bothered cooking (Marks and Spencers) and where to get moisturiser and toothpaste (Boots) and where to get chocolate at 3 in the morning (the newsagents, or, if you’ve planned ahead, the cupboard).  I learned to use words like “lovely”.   I learned to navigate the train system, the subway system, and the bus routes.  So when my family came to visit me this summer, I was able to show them around easily and suggest great places for coffee, curry, drinks, or whatever they fancied.

When I left Glasgow in September, I kept my gaze fixed firmly forward.  I had enjoyed my time there, but it was time to move on.  I didn't think I would miss it.
Fast forward a few months and I’m leaving Ghent for the Christmas holidays.  First stop: Scotland. 

As soon as I arrive back in the UK, I feel a rush of relief.  Everything feels so familiar.  I mean first of all, people here speak English.  I can actually assume this when I meet them, without doing the whole awkward do-you-don’t-you dance and feeling terribly guilty for not speaking Flemish/French/German.  But it’s not just the language.  It’s the little things.  Costa coffee and Minstrels and Scotrail tickets and Hello magazine…

With gossip in English about celebrities I actually know!
Every little detail I used to take for granted now gives me a little tug of nostalgia.
The feeling intensifies when I visit Glasgow.  This pub, that bus stop, that street corner… everything is infused with memories.  And suddenly I feel really sentimental.  Suddenly this feels like home.

It’s not that I don’t like Ghent.  It’s just that I’m still so new to it.  Having moved only four months ago, I still don’t really know the city.  With time, who knows?  It may grow to feel like home.  But right now I’m still finding my way, and it still feels very unfamiliar.  So it’s not just Glasgow that I miss.  It’s that feeling of being settled, of knowing my way around.  It’s the comfort and familiarity in my day-to-day life.
And now I’m back in Toronto, where I lived the first 24 years of my life.  Surely this should feel like home, even more than Glasgow did.  Right?  Well, it does and it doesn’t.

I haven’t lived in Toronto for 3 years, and a lot can happen in 3 years.  Shops can close down and be replaced.  Prices can go up.  People can move.  Nieces and nephews can grow up.  And even the things that used to feel normal can become distant and strange.
For example.  When I first moved to Glasgow, I remember thinking everything was very small and quaint.  Well, at some point I must have gotten used to things being on a smaller, more European scale.  Because now when I come back to Toronto I’m overwhelmed by just how big everything is!  Canadians have lots of space, and we use it to live large.  Six-lane highways, skyscrapers, endless fields… everything seems to be on growth hormones!  And it’s not just the size of things, it’s the extent of them.  The millions and millions of options.  You don’t just watch tv, you choose from thousands of satellite channels.  You don’t just buy your food at a shop, you go to a giant supermarket the size of a city block and choose your breakfast cereal from about 900 different brand names.

I recommend the Apple Jacks.

Did I used to think this was normal?  Apparently yes.  But now I feel a sort of reverse culture shock when I visit my family.  It all feels very familiar, and yet very unfamiliar at the same time.
And what about me?  Am I now unfamiliar for Canada?  Have I changed too much?  Having spent so long away, I can’t help but wonder if there is a place for me here anymore.  My family and friends enjoy seeing me and catching up.  But can we really catch up?  Or is there just too much to catch up on?  We all like to think there would always be a place for us if we returned to where we came from.  But perhaps it’s unfair to expect everyone to keep the home fires burning.

The truth is, I can never really return to the Toronto I know.  Not the way I'd like to.  Because nothing ever stays the same.  Just like I’m not the same person who left Toronto, Toronto is not the same city I left behind.  And perhaps it’s moved on just as much as I have.
So where is my home now?  Where do I belong?  Perhaps I don’t have a home.  And perhaps I have many homes.  I will always feel deep ties to my Canadian family and background.  But I’ll also enjoy reminiscing with British ex-pats about things like X Factor and Tunnock’s teacakes.  In time, I will settle into my place in Belgium, and this will start to feel like home too.  And who knows how many other countries I might live in, in the years to come?

Sometimes, like my laptop, I feel confused.  I wish my life was simpler.  I wish I was like Dorothy, and I only had one home and there was no place like it.  And instead of planning complicated trips with trains and airport changes, I could just click my heels and be there.
Beats Easyjet any day!

But I’m grateful for all the homes I’ve had, and the memories they’ve given me.  Because there’s no place like Toronto, but there’s also no place like Glasgow.  And there’s no place like Ghent, or even like Gothenburg.  Each of these places has become part of who I am, and they have made my life all the richer.

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