I don't really celebrate my France anniversary. My transition to France was easier than what I experienced during my first two years abroad. At the time I moved to France permanently in September 2009, my French was pretty decent, I was moving to be with my now-husband, I knew the city (Bordeaux) that I was moving to having already lived here during my studies and I had the experience of living and moving to a few European countries under my belt.
My parents raised me to live in our Italian-Canadian community in Ottawa. I was supposed to marry an Italian-Canadian electrician, have a bunch of children, work in an government office as a secretary and live within a 10km radius of them. They taught me a lot about manners, generosity and hard work, but they did not teach me about the world.
The Den Nation that left Canada in 2002 was a very different person to the one that arrived in France in 2009. I was young and naive, I wasn't in a stable relationship, I didn't have a degree and I didn't have any world and life experience. It was my first time on my own, working a full-time job, living completely independent of my parents.
I can now say that I learned more in my first two years abroad than in any other year afterwards. I basically spent the first few years of my life abroad just floating along. I wouldn't change anything, though, even though there were some moments that have marked my life forever.
It was my first day at work at a new job in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I worked as an audio typist way back then. I remember having a difficult time trying to understand everyone's accent. I would listen to those tapes over and over again, trying to grasp the words that I was hearing. It was around 2 PM on that day and I was typing away. All of a sudden, an alarm went off over the loudspeaker. Everyone got up without saying anything and shuffled into the hallway. "No, you are not allowed to take the lift, you must take the stairs," said my colleagues. "What's going on?" I asked. "Bomb scare," they said, without even a hint of fear in their voices.
An anonymous caller had called into the police station to report a bomb that had been left in the open car park of the building next to ours. This was what normally happened, at least back then this was what happened. An anonymous caller would call in to report a bomb and the police would go in and blow up the bomb with their robots. At this point, 4 years after the peace agreement was concluded, terrorists usually planted their bombs with the intention of not killing anyone; they just wanted everyone to know that they were still there and that the fight was not over. Most of the calls coming in to report a bomb, however, were prank calls. In these cases, the police still had to respond and evacuate everyone from the neighbouring areas.
Only this time there actually was a bomb outside. The police blew it up as I was going down the stairs. I make it sound like it was a catastrophe, but thankfully the bomb was very small and the police knew what they were doing - the Northern Ireland police force is one of the most experienced police forces in the world when it comes to terrorism. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Honestly, it wasn't the bomb that shocked me the most, it was the recording in the stairwell and everyone's reaction. People were laughing and joking like it was nothing, even after the bomb had been exploded by the police force. And then there was that recording. The entire time I was going down those stairs, I kept hearing a recording of a voice telling everyone that there was a bomb scare and that they had to evacuate the building using the stairwell. This is what really shocked me - there was actually a recording for bomb scares instead of a live voice! And that voice, it sounded like the man was smiling as he was making the recording, and I fully expected him to exclaim, "Have a nice day!" at any moment.
I realised at that moment how blasé the local population had become about bomb warnings. I felt very sad for them. And I realised that things must have been very, very bad for them to react like this. It was at that moment that I started to lose some of my naivety and realised how messed up the world was sometimes.
I was 19 years old.
A few weeks later I was shopping with my ex-boyfriend's mother. I saw some toy water guns on the supermarket shelves. I instantly thought back to my childhood in Canada: running in the park on hot summer days squirting each other with those plastic water guns. Hiding behind some bushes and then jumping out when your friend was close and squirting them in the face. "Gotcha!" Those were the days before internet...
This is the conversation I had with the mother:
Me: Did your boys play with toy guns? (thinking that I would get an affirmative reply)
Mother: Oh, no, never. I never let my children play with any toy guns. Never. It was strictly forbidden.
Me, dumbfounded: Why not?
Mother: A soldier could have easily mistaken them for an aggressor and shot them. Sometimes when we ate dinner I would see the soldiers standing outside our kitchen window staring at us eating and pointing guns at us. There's no way I would let my children play with any toy guns.
What are you supposed to say in response to that?
At just past the two year mark I almost went back to Canada. I was living in London at that point and had just went though a breakup. That was the only time I ever seriously considered going back, for good. It was May and I was half-heartedly looking for a job, having just arrived in London. I spent a few weeks going over it, back and forth, again and again - Should I stay or should I go? I even looked at flights and one day I found a one way ticket direct to Ottawa for around 250 pounds. My hand hovered over the mouse, ready to hit the Purchase button. I pulled my hand away. I put it back on the mouse. My hand quivered. I thought:
Just stay the summer and then see. Have some fun, this is London, for goodness sake! Find a temp job, meet some people and have some picnics. Come on, just pull your hand away. Enjoy summer in London and then reevaluate the situation.
I pulled my hand away and walked out of that internet café to greet a glorious London summer. I didn't leave at the end of that summer and here I am 12 years later, married to a great man, travelling and living the life that I dreamed of having when I was a teenager. Yes, I really am lucky - I am (almost) living the dream that I had for myself back when I arrived in 2002.
I am so thankful that I never hit Purchase and pulled my hand away.
Here's to the next couple of years!
Here's to the next couple of years!