Living in limbo


casgrain.jpgI started from scratch three times in Canada, the way it goes in fairy tales. Tales are important to mention here, because I've always loved storytelling, and it was the idea of becoming a writer that first pushed me to leave the comforts of my home and my country.

When I arrived in Vancouver to go to Writing School, I thought I had it all figured out: I was going to write about important, universal things, in English, the universal language. I knew nothing about Canada. During that first year, from my basement room and venturing only to campus and the IGA, Canada was a blandness of wet weather, sameness of landscape and architecture, ultra-leftist views and annoying speech intonation. My first reaction to living abroad was a total refusal to integrate. I try to remember how I must have been then, lonely and scornful, judging everyone from my corner in workshops. But what Vancouver gave me, aside from a different perspective of the world, was the freedom of becoming unmoored. Once you pick up and leave, you see how easy it would be to just do it all over again.

Moving to Montreal, I wasn't a foreign student from an exotic land any more: on my way from the airport, the Arabic taxi driver guessed my ethnicity AND paid me a compliment in stilted Romanian. Montreal seduced me with its charm, different brand of multiculturality, and with a first very short and easy winter. I applied for Canadian residency, though I knew it might take a long time to get it. In this new life, everywhere around me, in French language school and restaurant kitchen jobs, I met adults returned to beginners just like me, stumbling through their own fresh starts. People who had troubles, families, busy schedules, various sorts of accents; who paced along corridors for hours on the phone to some mysterious distant place; who knew to ask about my "papers" and nod, offer advice and share their experiences. A thick complicity enveloped us, like on night buses where everyone who's not out partying is dozing off the nightshift, propped onto arm holders, anxious not to miss their stop.

Then I had to return to Romania, but I knew I just couldn't go back to how I used to live. The years spent in Canada had changed me in ways I couldn't explain to my friends, and made me less likely to embrace the safe and familiar. My contemporaries had gotten married, had children, had built careers, were vacationing in places in Europe where I'd never go, because my life was on hold waiting for a decision from Ottawa on my residency. Those days of aimlessly lingering online, I edited my facebook profile, only instead of replacing "Montreal" with a Romanian town as 'location', on a dark whim I looked up "Limbo" and turned up a series of cities of that name all over the world. I chose the Limbo in Sonora, Mexico, then inevitably had to reassure acquaintances that no, I hadn't moved again overnight, it was just a metaphor, for God's sake. Facebook sidebar, of course, took me for a Canadian expat in Mexico until I changed my 'location' again.

It took me six years to become a Canadian resident and now, living here, I am still waiting to see if at any point I will start feeling fully Canadian. The people I relate to most and whom I seek out are still usually trilingual, have memories about residency applications, and somewhere else to be nostalgic about. Since settling, I have become much more aware of my privilege in having been able to pick a place on the map and go live in it. I am also more aware of the loss that this kind of choice entails. I can see how, in the colorful culture mix Canada is proud of, roots and connections get lost, some subsisting only as meaningless echoes - in a lilt, a shade of skin, the curvature of a nose, a heirloom ring of forgotten origins. If I have children, they will be Canadian, will maybe visit Romania on holidays, and their children might not even speak Romanian at all.

I have continued to collect stories, in the hope that I'll write them someday. "Necessity" versus "choice" is a key point in all immigrant narratives I hear, on a par with "here" versus "there". What I have realized is that these stories are not just inventories of immigrant hardship: they speak of distinct individual journeys, like any human has. In telling them, we honor where we are in life as well as what brought us here and every step we took along the way.

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