Pinch Me

feel fine

We were smack in the middle of expat limbo. We’d been living in Houston for not even a year when G was offered a job in Qatar. For a healthy dose of geographical schizophrenia we went backwards to our old life. We returned to Canada for a weekend. We did what we said we could never do. We revisited, reflected, and planted ourselves in the middle of what was. The old us.

I didn’t do well in my first year in Canada. I was that woman that you meet who’s new in town and isn’t happy. I struggled, more than anywhere before. It remains to be my toughest move. I had three very small children, a husband who travelled extensively, and a budget that had us exploring one hundred ways to cook mince. We’d taken out our first mortgage and it wasn’t how I had dreamed – a pink house in the burbs, they called it Californian salmon in the brochure – but it was pink.

I was miserable. This was not what I’d signed up for. I wanted the exotic, the foreign language, the extremes of power outages and tracking down supplies. Instead I was in a mini-van in the burbs, I was shopping at warehouse supermarkets and watching Oprah while folding the washing.

“I could have this life in Australia” I said to G more than once “I don’t understand why we’re here? We could be doing the same thing at home, but with better weather!”

The little travellers were in heaven. We lived on a cul-de-sac, there were kids to play with, bikes to ride, a basement full of toys. Libya became a distant memory for them, we were now a family with snow suits, toboggans and toques. I hated the cold, I didn’t ski, I was geographically mismatched. I was an eskimo in the desert, a Caribbean reggae band performing in the Alps.

I think the major change came when I returned to the office. Calgary was in the height of the boom and the pace was fast, we all got swept up in it. It was the modern day gold rush – people came out west for jobs and opportunity. We watched friends build businesses while others sold to corporations. I made girlfriends, really good girlfriends. I giggled at work and felt good about seeing people get jobs that they were happy about. I learnt how to speak Canadian, I drank beer at hockey games, listened to the Bare Naked Ladies and found tears on my cheeks when the little travellers sang the National Anthem in French.

And when the time came to leave, I realized I didn’t want to go.

There it was again. That problem, the home/heart problem. Where was my heart? Somehow, maybe when it initially broke, my heart had managed to separate, compartmentalize and save a little piece for Canada. It happened when I wasn’t looking. I knew how it worked, I was going to have to leave that piece behind, it would sting initially and then move into a dull ache that would resurrect itself in the form of a Facebook status update “Stampede time!” or the words of a song “It’s the perfect time of year, somewhere far away from here…”

Over the weekend that we returned, we didn’t so much slide, we plunged straight back in to our old life. The little travellers attended birthday parties and played on the same cul-de-sac. We sat at familiar tables in houses that could have been our own, we knew where to find the wine glasses. The neighbours sang Happy Birthday to the third little traveller and made him cupcakes – and for a minute I was about to suggest that we all go back over to our house, and then I remembered that it now belonged to a South African doctor and his family.

That evening at the local hotel we sat with the hockey playing in the background while catching up and retelling old stories. I looked out into the car park and saw the beginning of snow. It began lightly and within minutes it changed to huge, fat, cotton ball snow. My favourite kind. The snow that makes you stop and notice. It was the first for the season, October 4th 2009.

The third little traveller has woken me up every day this week with a running commentary of how many sleeps until his birthday. We are down to one. This morning as he lay inches from my face he asked “remember when we went back to Canada for my birthday Mum? And it snowed? And now I’m going to go swimming on my birthday in Qatar! What do you prefer? The snow or the sun?” He knows my answer will always be the sun, but I know that my answer no longer comes with the same speed and ease that it used to.

The compartmentalization comes into play. It was all a surprise, I wasn’t meant to fall in love with Canada. Thinking of  snow now makes me see faces, houses, favourite ice-cream shops, lakes and mountains. The snow takes me to dance lessons with little girls in pink leotards, drinks after work with suits, concerts and hockey games that require a walk in minus 20 temps to get inside the building.

It doesn’t matter where I am, or what I’d prefer, when you leave a piece of your heart somewhere, it will always be the perfect time of year, somewhere very far from here.

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  1. Oh so true. My hardest move was to Romania and it’s so close to home but oh so different.
    I left a huge piece of my heart in Libya, Australia got a piece and New Zealand of course. In this countries our children live now and I miss my school runs, lunches and Price giving events. A thing that doesn’t exist in Austria. Is the school system new to you every time or is it like in Australia?
    I always had to get used to new rules.

    Cheers, Angela

  2. Oh so true. My hardest move was to Romania and it’s so close to home but oh so different.
    I left a huge piece of my heart in Libya, Australia got a piece and New Zealand of course. In this countries our children live now and I miss my school runs, lunches and Price giving events. A thing that doesn’t exist in Austria. Is the school system new to you every time or is it like in Australia?
    I always had to get used to new rules.

    Cheers, Angela

  3. Same here 🙂 It’s the ying/yang with being an expat.
    We’ve never really left Sydney tho we’ve not lived there for the past 6 years. Every time we visit, it’s like leaving for the first time all over again for everyone, not just us.
    We hoped to enjoy Ireland – we LOVED IT and the friends we made are still dear to us;
    We hoped to enjoy Japan too – we LOVED IT, even tho the daily frustrations and illiteracy were tiresome, we got used to our new groove in our new home.
    Now we are learning to love the UK, tho we miss being different in Japan and it’s not quite like Sydney.
    I can totally relate to your use of the word compentalization.
    it’s the only way to cope

  4. Thailand! I spent a goodly part of my childhood there and was SO excited when a chance for a posting came up recently (been back in the UK for almost 3 years now and we’re ready to move on again). Sadly The Husband didn’t get the job and we were left pretty devastated by it. Oh well, England isn’t that bad I suppose!

  5. It’s fair to say I didn’t love Sth Africa when we moved there. Six years in fast paced big city Hong Kong with a job I loved all over with a move to sleepy Durban & no prospect of a work visa. I didn’t realise how much I didn’t like it until after a year everyone I would meet again without exception asked me ‘How are you liking it now, you weren’t enjoying it much last time I spoke to you’ . I began to feel a slight horror about how I must have come across. In the end, as we now know it was an absolute wrench to leave for both big & little family members. Friends, experiences & takkies as a term are forever part of our lives. Miss 6 – her Sth African accent fading fast in lieu of a slight southern drawl explained one day at the bus stop to a friend the following when asked ‘where are you really from!?’ ‘I’ve lived in a lot of places, I’m Australian but not born there, I was born in Hong Kong, but this accent you hear me talking to you now with – It’s Soul’ African’

  6. Oops I meant ‘Sou’ African’

  7. If you truly live a part of your life there, you leave one, too. Really enjoyed this.

  8. This is your best writing. Ever. Very very good post. Bonus points for BNL.

  9. What have I told you about making me cry? You know what the stupid part is? I’m living in Canada right now and I get morbidly sentimental about it. You’re right, Canada DOES get under your skin in a surreptitious kind of way. It happens while you’re moaning about the unimaginative commercial architecture and the expensive dairy products. You realise, in moments of Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus clarity, that you’re in love with the Canadian dream: the raw beauty of nature, cottage life, peace and acceptance. But can we make that dream a reality for ourselves? And how do you know if you’ll truly miss a place until you leave it? Oh the indecision of expat life!

  10. Well Miss Kirsty, Canada, in particular Calgary, and all of those you left behind miss you very much as well. I promise to have a good play in the snow, when some actually accumulates on the ground, just for you. I miss the nights out after work as well. And all of the great stories you shared. I love to read your blog entries so it seems like I’m am sitting across the table from you listening to you. Audra- xo

  11. Cynthia Berthiaume says

    Great piece Kirsty, glad I inspired you!! 🙂


  12. Exactly. Unfortunately, you normally only notice that a chunk of your heart is missing when you want to pack it up and leave.

  13. We had our first snow fall last weekend. I saw big smiles with rosy cheeks to accentuate them. The 10-year-old twins that moved in next door were throwing snowballs with such fervor that our snowfall could have been mistaken for a hail storm had my blinds been drawn. Bam! Bam!
    We’re coming up on our 1 year in Alaska and I still have days when I ask myself why we moved here. Then I open the door to a street filled with happy kids and neighbours that wave. I find miscellaneous mitts and snow pants scattered near the door and follow the trail only to find 2-year-old Lulu playing in the house with an apologetic yet relieved Aussie dad knocking on the door soon after. We’ve had business professionals with button up cardigans perform hip hop in our living room after a bottle of wine. So, the question as to why we’re here does pop up but I get my answer in many forms. That makes it easier to switch off the lamp at the end of the day and head to bed feeling content that all is as it should be.

  14. Thank you for putting words to how I feel today. Or this week. Burst out into tears today when my husband came home for lunch. We are European expats that have been in Houston for three years, and it is time to make a decision on what to do next. It is leaning strongly towards staying longer, and I thought this was what I wanted. But I am still having a meltdown missing our previous location in Germany so much. Weather was bad there, our finances too. Heck, even our marriage. But I miss my girlfriends so much. The Kindergarten my daughter went to. The food. The change of season. My girlfriends even more. Your post was spot on! Thank you so much!

  15. I was a recruiter in Calgary in the 1980’s. It was fun but I found the winters too cold (even though I was born and raised in Medicine Hat) We moved to the Vancouver area in 1989 and it has been our home ever since. I know I only moved provinces (nothing like moving countries) but it took me 2 years to get over being homesick and I still get twinges of it when I read an article like yours. I still think I would like to live in another country for awhile at least.

  16. I do love reading your posts. Everyone can relate to this. I felt sorry for the Oprah watching clothes folding Kirsty, elated for the suited, giggling with happiness girl, and sadness as it all got folded up and put away in the suitcase. As far as returning to the past goes, you pulled that one off as well. There is a lot to be said for delving into a forgotten drawer and pulling out some satisfying memories.

  17. Heartbreaking and absolutely true (as usual). Going to hide out and have a little weep at the thought of all those places lived and lost that will never be the same again.

  18. Wonderful post Kirsty – can so relate. I remember thinking the same about Houston when we lived there as it was just too much like life in Oz etc etc – kids loved it and its still their favourite place to live. When you mentioned first snowfalls I’m reminded of my friend calling me at 7am one morning to tell me to look outside at our ‘first’ Russian snowfall. I hate the cold but loved Siberia 😉

    • I really don’t mind the cold. Manfred & I still speak how Siberia was one of our favorite posts. A lot, had to do with all the friends we had there and everything we did with them. The best place was the Mexican Restaurant/Club. Oh do I have the stories for that place. So much fun!!

  19. Very true! It reminded me of a song by Diana Krall. Although she writes about coming home, I think that a lot of us expats feel as if we ‘come home and then leave again’. It takes a while before we feel at home in a new place and often it only happens when we have to leave again, or even only after we have left.

    I just get home and then I leave again
    It’s long ago and far away
    Now we’re skimming stones and exchanging rings
    They’re scattering and sailing from departure bay


  20. So true, this post really resonated with me as our family is currently in a geographic location I don’t care for much. Yet, with opportunities on the horizon and so many fond “homes” in our past, my heart has left little bits in each. And like you said “it will always be the perfect time of year somehwere far from here”.

  21. Like other commenters above, I loved this post, and thought it was beautifully written. You captured thoughts I didn’t even realise I had, especially the part about the compartmentalization of our expat hearts. Our family lived for years in Tokyo, and when we moved to Helsinki I found myself demonizing Japan and thinking only of the parts of life there that I’d hated. Two years down the track, I realize I was just trying to stop myself feeling sad about leaving. Last week, a Japanese friend sent me a box full of bits and pieces, and I found myself in tears with a package of dried seaweed in my hands.

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