I’m back! I’ve been in Canada, saying my goodbyes to friends and family before returning to take up permanent residence in beautiful Munich — at least, as long as Germany is willing to have me. I’m like Cher, with her endless rounds of "Farewell Tours", though sadly I lack her retinue of glamorous drag-queens.
A strange twist of fate brought me to live abroad. I never imagined that I’d live anywhere else but Canada, so it gives me an odd sense of dislocation to think of myself as an "immigrant". It makes me realize that I think of Canada as a land that people come to from Europe and places beyond, not the other way around. It is, after all, a wonderful, kaleidoscopic nation of immigrants. What would my ancestors, who made what a century and more ago was a momentous decision and a gruelling trip across the ocean, who struggled to become established against obstacles that we can barely imagine today — what would they think of a distant daughter who reversed their choices and took the ship back?
In a weird and exquisitely ironic way, moving to Munich has moved me
closer to my own history. I am becoming acquainted with places on maps
that until now have been faded labels on a dusty geneological tree. And
somehow, being an immigrant myself now helps me to better understand
the experience that is so much a part of every Canadian’s heritage
(apart from the First-Nations People, of course).
Then again, perhaps the "immigrant experience" is not wholly new to me,
after all. I’m the type of person who, left undisturbed, would probably
have lived my entire life and died in the town I was born. But I was
uprooted, like so many people around the world, by political unrest.
I’ve wandered ever since.
I was a teenager pulled out of my secure little existence in the
Montreal of 1976/7, and unceremoniously planted into a southwestern
Ontario social landscape as desolate as Mars. Montreal… its name
pronounced like a sigh… The anglo community had survived the FLQ
crisis fairly intact, but the ongoing political tension and finally the
election of the Parti Québecois in 1976 was enough to displace hordes
of panicked Anglos, sending them west on the 401 to Ontario —
including my family.
Kitchener, Ontario of 1977 was an odd little place, so wholly
unconnected and disinterested in the momentous events unfolding in
Quebec that it could very well have been in a different country. There was
little sensitivity to the heavy sense of loss and displacement that
newcomers like me carried in our chests. The school I attended eventually
awoke to the presence of newcomers from Quebec in its midst, and
decided it would be an interesting exercise to educate everyone on why we were there. The school invited Jacques Parizeau to address the
student body as an honoured guest, expounding his bigotry and
separatist ideals. No, I did not adjust well to the place. As soon as I
became independant and had the opportunity, I left town.
Kitchener was not unique in its inability to appreciate the
significance of events going on in Quebec — it was the same all over
the country. But the town did have one interesting attribute: Kitchener
was, and still is, strongly German in ethnicity. My schoolmates had
names like Schneider, Arndt, and Wettlaufer, and the streets had names
like Weber, Eby, and Krug. For the first two weeks of October each
year, residents wore funny leather shorts and hats with feathers, and
pinafore dresses with low-cut peasant blouses, and they performed
strange slapping folk dances at the Schwaben and Alpine Clubs (?…
there are no mountains in Kitchener!) for the world’s second largest
Oktoberfest. Students preferred to learn German in school, not French,
and though the town had been a German community for over a century,
many of my classmates were children of immigrants
from post World-War II Germany. They were fiercely proud of their
heritage, and for the most part, good people. But in that adolescent
haze of grief and needing to belong, the clannish-ness only served
to reinforce my sense of isolation.
I associate Kitchener with an unhappy time, and when I left I would
have liked to have put it behind me forever. However, like many severed
relationships, family realities forced Kitchener and I to co-exist on
at least an occasional basis. 30 years later, I’ve made a sort of peace
with the place, and no longer get a rash when I pull into town to visit
Ironically, "home", and connection to "place", is one of the enduring
struggles of my life. I’ve lived in several cities across Canada. My
relationships with these places have been marked by ambivalence and in
some cases affection and even a certain attachment, but in spite of my longing
for a home, never by a commitment. It is a kind statelessness that I’ve
grown to believe may even be my special destiny. But now, in middle
age, a strange twist of fate brings me to Germany. A country who’s
citizens seem to revere the beauty of Canada in a way that I probably
never have. Of all places: Munich. It’s a glorious city that combines
the best of every city I’ve ever lived in — natural and architectural
beauty, culture, history, an unmatched civic and outdoor lifestyle. The
Bavarian customs and traditions that seemed overly quaint and parochial to me
in Kitchener assume an elegance of meaning and appropriateness here in
their natural setting. I understand now what those people were longing
for, while I stood among them and longed for somewhere else.
Above all, it’s a place that stridently demands commitment — to a new
language, a new culture, and a new environment. When it comes to
appreciating any immigrant experience, that’s the element most
essential and the one I found most difficult of all to understand. It doesn’t mean abandoning our past; it means embracing this new place in our present, and envisioning it in our future.
Amazingly, my history has finally caught up with me. I think my ancestors would approve.