Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Going Home

I have long enjoyed the idea of being semi-nomadic. Certainly, we both love to travel and we get itchy feet when we're in one place for too long. We take some pride in our love of moving around, living in new and different places, not getting tied down to one location. In the twenty years since I graduated from high school I have lived in 14 houses and apartments in 8 towns and cities - not counting the university summers I spent abroad. The longest I've lived in one house as an adult was 4 years. Apart from the house we bought in MacGregor - and only lived in for a few months - we've also always rented. So it's easy to consider ourselves nomads.

And yet, when I think about it, I have not moved around nearly as much as some and certainly not much at all in my early life.

I moved to MacGregor when I was two, and apart from the year that we took off to travel around North America, I lived there until I finished high school. We lived in one house until I was 10, and then moved only once, just up the street, to a larger place. I didn't particularly want to move, despite the many obvious benefits of the new house. I remember crying at the idea of leaving my tiny bedroom behind.

I also remember touring the new house, which was rented out at the time to a family with rowdy little boys, with my father. I remember standing in the bedroom that would become mine, bare and cold, with sloping walls, and strewn with cheap toys. I picked up a hard plastic ring, about the diameter of a coffee cup. It was a dull yellow or orange colour, and I have no idea what purpose it served or what toy it belonged to. I bent it a little, ostensibly to see how flexible it was, and it snapped in my hands. My father was angry with me, and I suppose that on some level I had done it on purpose as a form of protest against the move and the knowledge that the renters with their wild children would be relocating temporarily to our old house. I was ashamed at having been so disrespectful with the kids' toy, and for being so childish. But when I learned a few weeks later that the renters' children had bent the towel rack at the old house through their roughhousing, I felt a surge of petty vindication. Those little brats had, after all, taken and damaged my home.

Although I was ambivalent about the move, I soon became attached to the new house, and I missed it during our year of North American travel and my year in Brazil. It was home even when I ceased to live there and even when I was an adult with a family of my own, and when my parents sold it I felt an undeniable pang of loss. Perhaps because of our history of renting and our many moves, I have placed more emotional significance on the family cabin, or on my parents' and my inlaws' homes, than I have on whatever place we happen to have rented at the moment. For years, while I was away at university first in New Brunswick and later in B.C., home was Manitoba generally and my parents' place specifically. The longer we lived in Vancouver, the less accurate this became. But rather than Vancouver becoming more solidly home to us, we just felt more rootless.

Perhaps home is a telescoping concept: it expands and contracts depending on one's intended use of the word as well as one's circumstances. It is a fluid notion.Writ large, my home is probably still Canada, but when we are out in Lima and the children say they want to go home, they usually mean the apartment we have inhabited on a temporary basis since late October. I was surprised, coming back from our recent trip to Canada, at how happy the children were to be reunited with their beds here. "I've missed these paintings," said my youngest.

Home can mean the place you happen to be living right now, or it can mean the place where you feel most yourself, or safest, or connected. It can simply mean a place of relative familiarity, in a sea of unknown people and sights. What was once a home may cease to be; there are places I have lived that I can barely call to mind now. And like that bare bedroom in which I broke that toy almost 30 years ago, or this apartment, an initially inhospitable place can begin to feel like home.

I have found myself thinking a lot about the concept of home in the past few months. We are living in a company apartment, waiting for the company to find us a house, where we will live for the next two and a half years. The house we left behind in Vancouver was merely a rental, although we had lived there for two years and it felt more like home than the student housing we'd lived in for the previous four. The house we were in before student housing was provided by the company during our last Peruvian adventure. Like I said, rootless. From my perspective, the past six years represented the third in a set of temporary Vancouver sojourns; we have a history of leaving and going back there, and as my husband says after some 14 years of mostly living there, we don't necessarily see ourselves being in Vancouver "long term".

Manitoba remains home, in the broader sense. It is where the extended family is on both sides and it is the bedrock of the familiar. I still find a bright day with a high of -20 easier to take than five degrees above and raining. The crackling feeling of parched grass between my toes in late August, the smell of lilacs in May and of lake water and canola fields in July, the starchy crunch of dry snow underfoot in winter: these are all deeply nostalgic. So in late November 2013 as we prepared to fly back to Canada, I was happy to be going home. The children were happy to be going as well, which came as no surprise. They have spent most of their Christmases and summers in Manitoba. Their grandparents are there, and their cousins are all either in Manitoba or neighbouring Saskatchewan. It was important to us that they have a sense of where we come from. In China, the region from which a person's family comes is called their "laojia" - literally, "old home". The laojia is an important part of one's identity, even if one has never actually lived there, and the concept hits - well - home for us. We want our kids to know their laojia.

We flew into Winnipeg at the beginning of December. Landing at the "new" airport is still a jarring feeling, as I knew the old one so well. But the snow was the same, and Portage Avenue and the gigantic three kings lined up above the door of the Sun Life building and the static electricity making everything crackle and the Golden Boy caught mid step off the top of the Legislature, just like when I'd visited the city as a kid. The children tend to retreat into their own little world whenever we're in the car, but I did my best to point out landmarks and memorable locations, and they expressed some interest. They were thrilled to see their cousins, eager to ski and toboggan. Traditional holiday baking was of prime importance. But at a certain point, they both said they wished we could have gone "real home" on the trip - to Vancouver.

I, who had blithely been establishing permanent residency in Manitoba for the duration of this Peruvian interlude, who had been telling anyone who would listen that we're not sure we'll move back to Vancouver, had never considered that for my kids, Vancouver was not a temporary home. It is where they were born. It is where they lived for all but a year of their lives. We hadn't even really moved around much in Vancouver after we got back from Peru the first time; the kids went to one school from kindergarten onward, and we only moved once - just up the street, like my own family had done when I was 10. I was reminded again of the upheaval I felt, the resentment toward the people who would be taking over my house following a relatively small move. I was reminded of just how differently two people can experience the same place and time. I had expected the children to miss their friends, their house, and Vancouver. But it had never occurred to me that their understanding of what Vancouver is and means was so different from my own. It is, to them, home in the way that Manitoba is to me.

It is with this increased perspective, I hope, that we now find ourselves going home in another way. We are soon to be going home to Arequipa, where we lived for over a year before, and which the boys find familiar. But we are also going to an unknown home, as we will have to move into a new house where we will probably live for years. It will be the house in which the eldest becomes a teenager, the house in which they learn to truly speak Spanish, the house from which their South American adventures will be launched, and to which they will return when the outside world is too strange and overwhelming. It will also be the house where we hope to host many of you. It will be an important house, which is why choosing and moving into it in the next few weeks matters so much to me.

I am nervous, and unmoored, and impatiently waiting to go home. I look forward to welcoming you into it, once I've found it.


  1. There is so much of this that I love and feel. "But rather than Vancouver becoming more solidly home to us, we just felt more rootless." I came here in '97, expecting to leave, but life has a way of changing plans and now I own a home here - but Vancouver has never felt like "home". I moved enough as a kid that I didn't have a childhood home, heck I didn't even have a childhood province! But Newfoundland has always been my touchstone, even though I haven't lived there since grade two - the age Jakob is now.

    I don't think I'll ever embrace the rain. Or even like it. I still prefer -20 and sunny to rain and +10. I miss distinct seasons. I have never felt that I belonged in Vancouver.

    Yet, my kids too were born here. It is their home. Simon has only ever lived here, and while Jakob has visited Ontario and Germany many times, he has no memory of living in either.

    One of my profs (in Ontario) used to say that he got his mail in Ontario but home was still BC. That concept echoed with me.

    My husband lived in the same house his entire life (except for that year if conscript service) until he left for grad school in Canada. My upbringing was transient, yet I married a barnacle :-) I'm itchy to move house (budget notwithstanding), my husband has no interest in ever moving.

    So, my working definition of "home" is "inside my husband's arms". That's a safe and cosy place, and portable too.

    1. I like that! Lately I feel that I'm living a mixture of "home is where the heart is" and "home is where I hang my hat." Viewing houses this weekend - I'll be updating!

  2. Great post!

    It makes me feel better to know someone else has the same kinds of feelings. It's not quite the same for me because we spent so long in Qualicum Beach, so I suppose that feels like home but for it not being a place to live. But at the same time, I don't really feel at home there and feel (and felt) so out of place and rootless in Victoria, Vancouver, France, and Ottawa.

    So amazing to think your kids will be getting the experience to be rooted as considering the normalities (culture, weather, etc.) of Vancouver and Arequipa both to be "home"

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I worry that we're putting them through too much upheaval, but I am hopeful that the overall benefit will outweigh the costs.

  3. I think of travelling to you paternal grandmother's place of birth, Nova Scotia, for the first time and being asked, "how long are you home for?"