Where are you from?
I never know how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” I’m Canadian. Sometimes (outside Canada) that’s all that is required. But I was born in Scotland to Canadian parents, who are “from” Saint John, New Brunswick. I grew up mostly in Newfoundland, with a brief stint in England, and I went to high school in Fredericton, NB. I lived in Ontario for 16 years. My parents moved a couple of times since I moved out, so I once found myself saying, “I’m going home for Christmas,” to refer to a province I had never even visited. At the end of that visit, I claimed to be going, “home” to university, leading me to the claim, “Home is wherever I’m not.” That is, it is a place I can be going to, but I never seem to quite get there.
I track these moves and living situations through my relationship to my immediate environment. Blueberry barrens. Fog. Ocean. Cliffs. Break.
Clapboard houses. Sirens. Harbour. The smell of the brewery. Piles of snow taller than the house. The field out back. Break.
Pebble beaches. Row houses. Sausage and mashed potatoes. Hedges. Thousand-year-old cottages and cathedrals. Dog poop. I’m afraid my memory of England is highly focused on avoiding dog poop on the sidewalks. Break.
Who’s Your Grandfather?
From the ages of 4 to 7, I lived in the fishing village in the first picture, but my father taught at the university, so I couldn’t be “from” there. Not ever. Your grandparents had to have been born there for you to be “from” that place. I live somewhere like that now. Here is a conversation I was recently party to in New Waterford.
Person A: “Are you from here?”
Person B: “Oh. No. I’m from Glace Bay.”
This is how you get from New Waterford to Glace Bay:
It is, according to Google Maps, a distance of 16.3 km, or slightly farther than 10 miles. That’s with the bends in the road.
No. Even if I stay the rest of my life, I cannot be from here. Even my children, one of whom was born here, cannot be from here. If they married a MacDonald and had kids, their kids might be from here.
There was a time in my life that Toronto was a mythical place far off to the west, home to The King of Kensington and the CN Tower. My friend’s older siblings sometimes went there, but they never came home again. It was as unreal to me as the Emerald City. But when I was 18, I went to Ontario for a summer job, and I fell in love. With the province, with the rivers, with a boy who broke up with me during frosh week after I transferred to his university. But at least it was the university I had wanted to go to in the first place, so that worked out in the end.
I spent 7 years at the University of Waterloo (which is not in Toronto), longer than I had lived anywhere before I moved out of my parents house. I studied engineering, and hung out at Carl Pollock Hall and environs for three years:
and then I studied physics and hung out over here for four years:
It felt a lot like home, that campus. But you can’t be from a university.
I went for four months, and stayed in Ontario for 16 years. I went to four universities. The campuses all had that lovely collegial feel, green spaces, interesting libraries. I had good friends, did lots of theatre, had interesting jobs, got married, had kids, bought and renovated a house within walking distance of the downtown in Guelph, found good restaurants and farmer’s markets. It was a beautiful place, and my life (despite financial troubles) was charmed, filled with laughter and opportunities. But I never felt like I had settled down. I never felt home. The air smelled wrong. The ocean was missing. The summers were too hot. The trees lost their leaves in the winter, and not just the specimens in the park, but the ones in the forest as well! Also, I couldn’t actually afford to live there.
But I worked in and around Toronto and spent so much of my leisure time there that in retrospect, it is Toronto that I most identify with the last 10 years I was in Ontario. Sometimes now I think I might be from Toronto, even though I never spent my nights there (which is how we claim to live somewhere.)
Wherever I’m Not
I’m not from anywhere in particular, not the way people mean when they ask me around here… although I have an unnatural fondness for fog, cold oceans, and wood frame houses that prejudices me to prefer the local climate. An Australian I met was thrilled when she found out I was born in Scotland. She said that I had to understand that for her, I was an exotic other. (It was one of the great thrills of my life to be called exotic, but that’s just evidence of my profound whiteness and middle class upbringing.) Everybody’s from somewhere. I’m just from somewhere bigger than most people around here claim. Like… Atlantic Canada. Or Canada. One of those would do in most circumstances, except when I’m in Atlantic Canada, which is where I spend the vast majority of my days.
In my heart, though, I still long for a community of people who think I’m a part of them, not somebody who arrived mysteriously from somewhere else. When I confront that, I don’t think I will ever find this mythical place called home. There are no ruby slippers for me, because there never was a Kansas to start with. So I will have to find something else in its stead, if only I could figure out what that might be.