6 days ago I boarded a plane away from my life in Québec. As the plane took off and I got my last glimpse of the city lights of Montréal in the dimming night, I knew I had turned my back for all that could have been: my temporary work permit could have been extended, turned into a permanent residence, and in the end, maybe one day, I would have held my Canadian passport in my own trembling hands after having cheerfully chanted the lyrics of O, Canada in front of a jury. In the very end, if I had chosen otherwise, I would have become a Canadian.
But I chose a different life. So as the lights of Montréal slowly faded away and disappeared behind a wall of clouds, I tried very hard to think forward, hold back the tears and remain grateful for all that I experienced as a resident of Canada, for I have inevitably been changed forever.
I never considered Canada - not before meeting Alexandre, that is. In my mind Canada was just a stereotyped and distant country on a continent I had never even visited, yet alone thought of one day calling my homeland. Lumberjacks, plaid shirts, maple syrup, ice hockey, polite people always saying sorry, all that jazz. But it wasn't for me, who had long since fallen in love with a whole different kind of culture. And as life worked in its mysterious ways and I one sunny summer day found myself standing in that very same P.-E. Trudeau airport for the first time, exhausted from the longest flight I had ever taken, I was a tabula rasa. A blank board, ready take in all that Canada would throw at my face, in good and bad. I had no expectations and no prejudices. My only experience of a Canadian person was the man, Alex, who waved at me from the residents' queue a few meters and border guards away, while I was stuck in the much longer and insanely slow visitors' line. Alex was about to introduce me to Canada, his Canada, and I was prepared for everything. That entrance hall on that airport in Montréal was, and always will be, my very first breath of a country that would, in the upcoming years, end up filling my lungs with its love, hate and completely unpredictable adventures.
I have said good bye five times on P.-E. Trudeau airport. Sometimes I've been the one leaving, other times I've stayed. But every time - every single damn time - Canada has shot its little harpoons at me, and every time those good byes get a little harder as Canada is pulling me back. The first time, 2 years ago, I cried because of Alex and the thought of not seeing him for 2 months was scaring the living crap out of me. 6 days ago everything was different. After 2 years of being shot with little Canadian harpoons time after time my feet, my heart and my stomach hungry for more poutine were so tied to this land, and I didn't cry only because of Alex - I cried because I was about to lose not only his Canada, the one he had showed me from that magic carpet of his (precisely a 2005 Toyota Echo), but my own.
In 2 years I had had time to observe, learn, experience and get attached to a Canada that would be special to me, and only me. My personal relationship with Canada had been formed and was no longer dependent on my dear Canadian ambassador, waving at me encouragingly from that queue back in the days. My Canada is no longer a distant stereotype of lumberjacks, plaid shirts, maple syrup, ice hockey and polite people always saying sorry. Well, yes. Actually. But there's something else now.
|Poutine: french fries, cheese and gravy|
My Canada speaks French. It greeted me with a cheerful Bonjour! and started whipping me to repeat it to an extent where I wanted to spit on its pretty little francophone face. My Canada is full of people of minority who love their language, their culture and their heritage so much it hurts, they squeeze it like a scared child is squeezing his toy on a nightly trip to a bathroom across the corridor. They laugh loud like Americans, pull off their plaid shirts and beards like the most stereotypical English Canadian lumberjacks, eat like the British and love like the French. They hug you tight and they give you their all, whether its kisses on the cheeks or food from a nearby vending machine when you're out of change. Les québécoises, they will love you like a tiger mother loves her cubs, as long as you try and roar at least remotely as loud as she can. That francophone folk, in all their infinite and furious passion and willpower to fight against oppression, are the most easily flammable material I've ever encountered. Vive le Québec libre! is the first sentence my Canadian ambassador ever taught me, on that damp but lovely little flat on Highfield Street in Leicester, and whether or not they all agree on these political views, they all have one. Even the ones who say they don't, as I pose the question, they all engage into an inner monologue about independence. My French-speaking Canadians love all this so much they occasionally forget there are other ones out there, ones like themselves, as minor and a bit lost.
|My friend Will and his weird Guinness|
Despite turning inwards, Québec is inhabited by the most loving, caring, friendly and polite people I've ever encountered - and I'm not kidding. The stereotypes are all true, and I love them for proving them all right. My Canada is about people who let me throw myself into their arms, knowing I would be safe and sound, and that whatever I say or do, they will love me for it. During the past years I have been impressed, astonished and utterly amazed by their habit of always finding ways to show me how much they can care. My Canada sounds like an annoyingly polite counter-question "... but what would YOU like?", reeks of weed at night on a street I can't remember, and feels like a gentle touch on my shoulder as I press my drunken head in shame against the bar desk after spilling my drink. And on that moment, as I, drunk as mentioned, encountered a barman who brought me a new drink for free instead of kicking me out like in Finland, I started crying. (Honestly, this happened and it's my friends' favourite running gag: "Mel I know I'm being really nice right now but please don't start crying") So many times Canadians have made me burst from happiness as I jump into their arms in the middle of the office or fall asleep on their couch during an insane nightly winter storm. They have made me laugh so much my abs hurt, and they've made me cry, they've made me angry and disappointed, and as I'm fighting with them on the phone at dawn after a party that turned weird, they always lower their heads, say they're sorry and make everything alright.
My Canada is full of people who are overly self-conscious, unreasonably insecure and sorry to an extent where I want to grab them from their plaid shirted shoulders and shake, shake, shake them into the realisation that their tiny little francophone culture has so much to offer and so much to teach to the world, that instead of throwing their flaming passion into strangers' face as a defense mechanism, they should OPEN, and share that crazy national dish of a poutine with the outside. My
Canada has the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen, the incredibly vast and empty wilderness, humbling mountain horizons and waters like nowhere else in the world. Its hiking trails have put me to my knees so many times I'm constantly bruised, but once I reach the top, every damn time I feel like screaming from the top of my lungs how incredibly grateful I am to stand right there, right at that moment, sharing a glimpse of this magnificent land, wanting to ask the rest of the world why you don't love Canada and Québec like I do. Canada is a country of people who don't know what they're sitting on - their shared smiles in a bus or sun-glazed mountain tops in a distant horizon from the window in the morning commute are the kind of moments they pass with a shrug, but I cherish forever.
My Canada, my dearest Canada, the one I saw last as mere dimming city lights from an airplane window: you are a land of internal struggles and conflicts, things you want to forget and things you have promised never to forget, as stated on all of Québec's license plates. But you're also a land of people with so much potential, so much love to share, so much unleashed energy and so much furious fire I've seen in all those eyes I've stared at on street corners, in the dark of the night, on door steps, across the table. You have changed me. The girl in that entrance hall, scared of the unknown, no longer exists. I breath you in and I will never let you go. Whatever emotions are loaded into all those license plates I've seen during the past 2 years, I now know what Québec's motto means to me.
Je me souviens. Lest we forget.