Adventures in … Saudi Arabia?

… or Calgary…

… or Saudi Arabia…

… or Calgary…

About a week ago, I discovered that it’s really hard to get any sleep when my brain is wrestling with itself. I place the blame for my insomnia squarely where it belongs: the post office.

Wait, what?

Yup, the post office. Maybe the one in Thailand, maybe the one in Canada – I’m not sure. There’s really no way to tell. What I do know is that one document went missing from all the documents I needed to complete my application packet for a PhD program in Montreal. An incomplete application won’t be processed, so instead of scouring real estate listings for character-filled, historic apartments in La Belle Ville, the doors to my future were suddenly thrown wide open. And I mean W-I-D-E open.

You know me. You know I have some reservations about living in Antarctica, but any other continent is fair game. Standing on such a precipice with my passport in hand is like going to the dairy section of a North American grocery store after spending years in Asia. There are so many choices, it’s thrilling and paralyzing all at once. But instead of choosing between 8 types of Brie and 12 kinds of Cheddar, I have to choose ONE place to live somewhere in the whole world.

After very little thought – really – almost no thought at all, I had narrowed the whole world down to two choices: Saudi Arabia or Calgary.

Because those are both pretty similar, right?

In one, all the moisture in my body would freeze, in the other it would all evaporate. Both sound equally uncomfortable.

In one, I’d trade considerable freedom for considerable finances. In the other, I’d have tons of freedom, but no funds available to enjoy it.

In one, I couldn’t drive if I wanted to. In the other, I wouldn’t want to drive if I could. (Seriously, the Deer Foot Trail in Calgary terrifies me.)

I was equally excited about both – and equally worried. Sure, the worries were different, but as far as my internal worry-o-meter goes, they were both about even.

As the roosters started crowing after my third sleepless night, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion: For me, the thought of moving back to Canada is scarier than the thought of moving to a country where people get beheaded for breaking the law.

How can Canada be scary?? (Not counting the Deer Foot Trail, of course, that’s obviously terrifying.) It’s not you, Canada. It’s me. Really.

When you’re living, travelling, working, snorkelling or eating your way through other countries, it’s easy to pick and choose elements of culture that resonate with you. It’s fun to identify things you love about your host culture (Giant Nation-Wide water fights? Yes please. Heated floors? Love ’em.) and easy to grumble about things you’re not so fond of (Get your elbows out of my rib cage, you horde of crazy grandmothers! Why is there a chunk of congealed blood in my soup?) But the not-so-awesome things are tolerable, because you know they’re temporary. Eventually you’ll move on, and you won’t have to take the unpleasant things with you.

Not wanting to confess, even to myself, that I’ve been actively avoiding my own country, my decision was made: Calgary.

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Nestled in the protective embrace of the Rocky Mountains, it’s home to the Calgary Stampede, giant belt buckles, and a university with a PhD program in Language and Diversity. It’s also stupidly expensive and unbearably cold.

After being away from Canada for 14 years, I find myself accessing Immigrant to Canada and expatriate websites to navigate my way back into my own country. That’s a little disconcerting. There are things I’m really excited about when I think of moving back, but I wonder how much trouble I’m going to have when I realize that Canada is home. I can’t pick and choose what I like about Canadian culture, and I can’t leave the bad stuff behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not terribly worried about those things. I’m not losing sleep over them anyway. I just wonder what it will be like to live in Canada again. If I do start to get anxious, I simply remind myself I’ll have 8 different types of Brie and 12 types of Cheddar waiting for me.

How did you wind up in your current home? How did you choose where to live?

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Adventures in Going Home (I)

I went home in August.

Well, I thought I did, but when I sat down to tell you all about it, I realized I might not have gone home at all.

Believe me, that revelation came as quite a shock – especially since I know I didn’t imagine the gazillion hours on the plane, or the bored-looking customs officer in Toronto glancing at my passport and saying, “Welcome Home.”

I didn’t imagine walking out into the arrivals hall at the airport, and it certainly looked like home: all the signs were in English and French; middle aged women were milling about wearing pastel coloured capris, showing just a bit of tannless ankle above their running shoes; I could eavesdrop on any conversation I wanted, because almost everyone was speaking English.

When my wonderful cousin Karen met me for lunch during my layover, she took me to a restaurant that had more than one variety of poutine on the menu…and I didn’t have to serve myself drinking water out of a bucket…and when I used the restroom, I didn’t have to take my own toilet paper with me, because it was included!! For free!!

I was definitely in Canada – and gloriously happy to be there. I was excited to be spending the month at home. The problem was, I’d been tossing that word around all willy-nilly, and using it with reckless abandon without taking time to consider what it really meant.

The next four weeks passed in an utterly delightful whirlwind of beloved family and friends as I drove, flew, bused and ferried my way across Canada. I ordered a medium double-double at every Tim Horton’s I came across…not because I wanted one, but because I could. In a moment of wild abandon, I tried to hug the cheese aisle at the grocery store, but my arms weren’t long enough. The cheese aisle returned my affection by delivering this delicious 3-in-1 cheese, which was perfect, because I couldn’t decide which kind to buy:

Thank you, cheese aisle.

Thank you, cheese aisle.

In short, I had a wonderful time. I was thrilled to be in Canada…and judging by this heartfelt welcome in the prairie sky, Canada was happy to see me too:

I love you too, Canada.

I love you too, Canada.

In fact, I had such a good time, it wasn’t until I was <ahem> back home again in Chiang Mai that I realized something:

In the entire month I spent in Canada, I never once set foot in a place I’d ever lived before. I never saw a school I used to attend, or a yard I’d built snow-forts in. I didn’t drive down a familiar road, or visit an old hang-out. I didn’t bump into an old classmate at the mall, or wave to a former neighbour.

That left me wondering, did I actually go home?

Some people stick to the old adage, Home is Where the Heart Is. (C’mon, admit it. You totally pictured that embroidered on lacy pillow when you read it, didn’t you? …right?) Some people, myself included, prefer the more practical, Home is Where Most of my Underpants Are. (Now picture that  embroidered on a pillow! You’re welcome.)

It’s a wonderful blessing to have so many people and places around the world that make me feel like I’m at home…I’m certainly not complaining! But the next time someone asks me, “Where’s home for you?” I think I’ll just change the subject, and ask about their favourite type of cheese.

Where’s home for you? And why?

Adventures in Concentration

I’ve never been confident in Math, which is why I always carry around this portable abacus:

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Fingers: more than just chicken-wing holders

I can’t tell you what 18+6 is without asking my fingers for help, but there is one equation that I know with certainty:

Summer = Vacation

That one fundamental equation, reinforced through a lifetime spent in the Canadian education system, is part of the national psyche. When summer arrives, vacation starts; it’ll be gone again soon, so you’d better make the most of it.

Okay, it might not be a strictly Canadian phenomenon, but I do love that for 2 months every year, Canada comes alive. Really alive. The kind of alive that allows your toes to run around sock-free, and makes you think that sunscreen smells awesome. The kind of alive that convinces you that if it can’t go on the BBQ, it’s not worth eating and eating outside makes everything taste better, especially if you’ve just pulled it out of the garden and rinsed it off with the hose.

Sure, some people complain about Heat & Humidity, as though the words are a pair of villainous twins bent on siphoning off all your energy and hoarding it until September. But even the nay-sayers know, we’ve never strained our backs shovelling humidity, nor numbed our fingers scraping sunshine off a windshield in the morning.

I know I’m not alone in this, because every summer my Facebook feed lights up with photos of friends enjoying lakes and tents and picnics and ice cream with fervent exuberance. Why? Because it’s in our DNA. From our very first summer as a grinning red-headed toddler in a cute yellow dress – okay that part might just be me – we’re taught that Summer is Special.

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Lovin’ Summer Training: The Early Years

Unfortunately, this deeply embedded Canadianism has been causing trouble lately. It’s been one continuous, non-stop, never-ending August for the past 3 years! Ever since moving to Thailand, every fibre of my being has been in vacation mode. I find it very difficult to concentrate.

Most of the time, I just roll with it, because – well, that’s what you do when you’re on vacation. But now, it’s crunch time.  I only have about 2 weeks before I fly home to enjoy a genuine Canadian August with my family, which means I only have 16-ish more days to finish writing the 1st full draft of my thesis.

It doesn’t help that both my work and research allow me almost unlimited flexibility in my schedule…like when you’re on vacation. It really doesn’t help that even my humble living room looks like a cottage…like where you might spend your time relaxing when you’re on vacation.

Summer sunshine beckons...every single day.

Summer sunshine and beckoning breezes…every single day.

You get the idea.

In theory, finishing this draft shouldn’t be too difficult. I am a writer, after all. The tough stuff is already done, so I should just be able to let my fingers fly and finish up, right?

RIGHT???

Nope. I’ve spent the past (You can insert your own ridiculous number of days here, because I’ve lost count. I only have so many fingers, you know.) days trying to concentrate on my thesis. It’s like my brain has stopped listening to the lifeguard, and refuses to get out of the pool. It’s on vacation, don’t ya know.

I’ve even scoured Google for advice on improving concentration, only to find impossible suggestions like, “Clear away all distractions.” Even the freckles on my own arms can be distracting. I recently discovered that one of them is shaped like a tiny tulip…and now I’ve just spent the past 3 minutes looking at it. Wait…um, what was that about clearing away distractions? I don’t see how ridding myself of skin pigment will help here folks. Sheesh.

I have a feeling that the only way to truly kick-start my ability to concentrate is with a pile of crunchy autumn leaves or a slushy snowstorm. Since Thailand is unlikely to deliver either of those in the next two weeks, I’ll need to find another solution. (Hopefully something better than blind panic 24-hours before my flight.) I’m afraid even my trusty travelling abacus can’t help me figure this one out.

How do you concentrate when there’s work to be done, but summertime beckons?