Being An Alien In A Strange Land

24 Jan

The date was August 14, 2000.  I have no idea what time it was, but it was already dark, I had had a long day, and my head was several time zones to the west.  Even though I was sick with exhaustion, I felt the exhiliration of having arrived.  After months of planning and finding my way through bureaucratic tape, after some last-minute logistical crises, I was here, ready to start my new life.

The man behind the counter came back from wherever he had been, handed me my freshly stamped passport, and with a smile said, “Welcome to Canada”.

Well.  This was a nice change from the way airport officials had treated me in the United States earlier in the day.  This was back in the time when South African nationals were allowed to be in transit through the United States without a visa (I’d bet my left arm that this is no longer the case).  I had been made to sit in a departure lounge with security guys watching me from the doorway, as if I was about to take off and make a run for it.  The fact that my friend Kane had come out to meet me helped me ignore their suspicious gaze.

I mean, honestly. I was a smallish woman, bogged down with enough stuff to weigh down an elephant, and I had just travelled across seven time zones.  What damage did they think I was capable of?  I was barely capable of beating an egg.

But anyway.  Now I was in Canada – had been WELCOMED to Canada – and I was allowed beyond the confines of the airport.  I picked up my baggage, paid a visit to the foreign currency exchange desk, and caught a cab to where I would be staying for the first six weeks.  It was dark so I could not see much, but all the way to the rented furnished apartment I peered excitedly through the window like a little kid looking out for his first glimpse of the ocean.

By the time I got to the apartment and checked in, it was well past midnight.  I was tired, but the time change had played silly buggers with my mind, so sleep was out of the question.  I unpacked, called my parents to tell them I had arrived in one piece, and then spent the rest of the night poring over my travel guide.  I fell asleep at some point in the early hours of the morning.

I had a week to explore and find my way around before I was due to start my new job, and I got started right way, the day after I arrived.  My first venture into the City of Toronto is an experience I will never forget.  The apartment was located right in the city centre, so I reasoned that it would probably take a day for me to explore my immediate environs on foot.  I would tackle the subway system the following day.

Armed with my map, and with my camera hanging around my neck (face it, I may as well have had the word TOURIST stamped right on my head) I stepped out from the apartment building and started walking.  When I turned a corner not far from where I was staying, I saw a life-sized fibreglass moose, painted in bright colours.

I thought this was pretty cool.  I mean, a life-sized moose in the middle of Toronto. For someone who had just landed in Canada to see something so symbolic of – well, Canada – this was kind of neat.  I liked it.

It had the added bonus of being a handy landmark.  When I see the moose, I thought, I will be close to the apartment.

Four very confusing blocks later, I sat in a coffee shop reading an article about Toronto’s project to put brightly coloured moose sculptures on almost every street in the city.

So much for my landmark.

By the time I wanted to go back to the apartment, I was thoroughly lost.  Those damned moose!  I felt as if I should have sprinkled cookie crumbs in my trail so I could find my way back, like Hansel and Gretel (although look what happened to them – probably not the best example).

Eventually I found my way around.  I learned how to tell one moose from another, and I became proficient at travelling around on the subway.  It took a while for me to really get to know the place, and to build up a social support network, but as the saying goes, I got by with a little help from my friends.

It is strange to think that more than ten years have passed since then.  In that time, a lot has happened.  I have met my life partner and husband-to-be (and YES, it’s the same person!).  I have had two kids.  I have left one job and started another.  I have run races, made friends, weathered a financial crisis, travelled home to bury my father.  I have become a Canadian citizen and for the first time,exercised my right to vote in a Canadian election. A lifetime seems to have happened in the last decade.

It would be easy to reflect on the ways in which my life would be different if I had not packed my life into checked baggage and left South Africa. But that would be pointless.

It is enough for me to know that I have held onto cherished family relationships and friendships from my previous life, while forming some new ones here in Canada.  I feel like I have the best of both worlds, and I am exactly where I want to be.

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