Monday, October 8, 2012

Has set my mind to wander

There's a joke in my family when one of us goes on holiday. It's that we won't come back. There's an assumption that a day before we're due to return home there will be a cheerful phone-call followed by a flurry of activity and before you know it, some of our belongings are being boxed up and shoved into an attic somewhere while the rest are being shipped off halfway round the world to meet us.

It's a legitimate concern. My parents started it back in 1968 when they traveled down from Toronto and boarded the ‘France’ from New York Harbour bound for two years in London. The Canadian in Dad gave up after twenty-five years or so and he went back, but my Mum is still here, nestled in an idyllic 'black and white' village near Wales.


I was next to follow, when I went to Toronto for two weeks holiday in 1992 and tossed my ticket into the bin at the airport at 5am on my day of return and stayed for four years. I’d just moved out of the house I’d been sharing with my ex-boyfriend and two friends and was bored with Birmingham and its brutalist skyline; boxy squat grey buildings that seemed to permanently block out the light. I was ‘in-between’ things. In-between jobs, in between boyfriends, in between places to live, and so the attraction of Toronto's dizzying skyline and leafy avenues seemed a lot more appealing than drab Birmingham. I fell in love with the funky character houses and eclectic bars and restaurants and all-night diners. It was all so interesting. I’d wander round Chinatown where rank smells wafted up against delicious smells and stacks of strange vegetables were piled high outside the stores. In the Italian quarter, fat women dressed from head to toe in black chattered loudly to their neighbours whilst doing chores on their balconies, their husbands sat on street corners a block away playing chess and not speaking to each other. There were gallery openings and late night gigs and warehouse parties every night, and when I felt homesick I’d catch the ferry out to Toronto Island and stare back at the stunning skyline and I’d remind myself that I wasn’t in Birmingham anymore.  And whatever highs or lows I might be going through, they were definitely more appealing than the task that was waiting for me back home. The task of sorting through the hurriedly packed boxes I'd thrown together to get away from my ex who'd decided after we broke up that taking a cricket bat and some eggs to my belongings was a nice way of saying goodbye. My clothes and artwork and photos sat waiting for me in boxes in my mum’s attic feeling sorry for themselves, all crusted with dried egg and shattered glass. 

Next to follow suit was my brother, who visited me in Toronto a couple of years later. He's still in Canada now. Then lastly, my boyfriend (an infinitely better boyfriend then the cricket-bat-and-egg ex) and I played the stay-on-holiday-game by taking a year-long trip to Vancouver that lasted over a decade and saw us return, a ten year marriage and two children later.

In the cumulative fourteen years I lived abroad, there were two things that were guaranteed to make me homesick. Architecture and words.

The architecture is easy to understand. Canada, especially the west coast is a new country and we have different ideas of old. I was once late to my cousins wedding because my uncle told me it was in an old stone church and my friend drove me up and down the street in his battered up car nick-named the 'shoe' while I peered through the torrential rain looking for an old church. Finally he pulled the soaked Shoe up in front of a new church that we’d driven past three times and irked, asked me if I was blind. That was the first time I really understood that Canadian old and European old are not the same thing. And I like European old, with foot steps worn into stone staircases, crumbling gargoyles and beams so low you whack your head when you stand up straight.

And then there were words. I guess that all languages have their own special words, and just because you speak English, it doesn’t mean you speak the same English. Hell, you only have to go a mile down the road in Britain to find a strange new dialect or a different use for a word you thought you knew. So five-thousand miles across the world I'd find that every time I came across a word, more specifically a Briticism that my Canadian friends didn’t know, the same thing would happen: a few moments of confusion, a couple of questions, an explanation and perhaps some laughter. But then I’d find myself wistful and dreaming of home.

Here’s a list of examples:


So on that last-holiday-that-turned-permanent, we’d been in Canada for about seven years and were on our way back from a weekend in Seattle. I was listening to Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, a favourite of mine that I hadn’t listened to for a long time. I got to the chirpy Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying and these lines jumped out at me:

Oh, that wasn't what I meant to say at all,
From where I'm sitting, rain,
Washing against the lonely tenement,
Has set my mind to wander…

I hadn’t heard the word tenement for a long time and there was this painful tug deep down within me and I knew, in that exact moment, that I couldn’t live the rest of my life in Canada. My eyes welled up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe because suddenly the stunning wilderness and wild ocean and remote beaches and tall, tall redwoods and the west coast islands and breath-taking glass towers of Vancouver….well, they just weren’t home. 

So yeah, there’s a joke in my family about going on holidays but none of us quite knows what the punch line is yet.

1 comment:

  1. 1) I went to Toronto when I was 20 and never wanted to return. It's still my intention to live there some day - I am so envious that you did.

    2) Being Scottish living in England sometimes gives the same pang for language. So many words I didn't know were Glaswegian until I lived down here. For example, a splinter in Scotland is a 'skelf' and any sort of liquid that you drink is 'juice' - so you'd call a can of Coke a can of 'juice'. It only takes three days in Scotland to knock all the nostalgic stuffing out of me though...

    3) I really like your writing, although I see it's been a while since you posted anything. I'm looking forward to going through the archives for now.

    4) 'Tenement' is a great word, and one of the things I miss most about the motherland is living in them.