Sunday, 7 June 2009

What does home mean to you?

“We go to Canada for a new life, and you go back the other way,” says my grandfather with a mixture of sadness and humour.

I have repeated this line countless times over the past few years, and it was the first thing I thought of when I was asked to participate in this year’s Refugee Week Scotland. The theme of this year’s event is "Home: what does it mean to you?" Organizers have been asking bloggers around Scotland to share their thoughts about “home.”

My grandfather had been referring to his and my grandmother’s decision to leave Germany in 1958 and make a go of life in Canada. After the war, life was not the same. For my mother’s parents, it meant using false papers to get across the border into West Germany in 1951, with my then one-year-old mother. Already not able to go home, my grandfather began to dream of a new life for his family. He taught himself English and journeyed to Canada by boat, finding work wherever he could and generally getting things organized for my grandmother to follow six months later with my mother and my aunt.

Years later in 1989 when the wall came down, we sat around the television watching the news. My grandparents cried. Then came the fear that other people who had fled to the west before the wall, would come back and claim their properties. Our family was lucky - no one claimed the house they had called home for decades.

For my paternal grandfather, it was a similar story of having no home to return to. He grew up in a small town in what had been Prussia, but after the war that part of the world belonged to Poland. Already cut lose from the section of the earth he had known, after several years he simply saw no reason to stay. He took a job on a farm in Ontario, and many months later my father, then five years old, followed on a boat to Canada with his mother.

My family recently celebrated 50 years in Canada. So after all of that struggle, all of that working for a new life, why did I pick up and move to Scotland? And why do I stay? I have not been displaced by war, I am not threatened by my government for my beliefs. Other immigrants who have left their countries not by choice but by necessity, look at me quizzically and say “but…Canada is a GOOD country,” implying that once you’ve made it to a free, safe place, why leave?

That’s the difference between being an immigrant and being a refugee. The difference between my being drawn to Scotland and all of its history, gorgeous stones and haunting music, and the story of the Iraqi man I met in Oslo, who had left his country because of the war and who was waiting in agony through each and every long day, hoping that things would improve so that he could go home again without fear of violence.

My mom tells me of how her and her sister’s journey to trying to fit in in their new country, included practicing their pronunciation of “Toronto” in the Canadian way, so that it slurred together like “tor-on-no.”

Last week I met a man from Poland who has lived in Glasgow for five years. His accent is littered with Scottish phrases like “alright - on you go then.” I realized that he and I are doing the same thing: trying to hang pieces of Scotland from our accents, trying to fit in so that when we speak, we won’t be immediately hit with the question we have already had to answer so many times: “Where are you from? How did you get here? Why did you come here?”

We are lucky, this Polish man and I. Our white skin helps us to blend into the crowd, and it is only when we speak that we are recognized as being different. Those with brown skin probably get asked for their stories a lot more than white European immigrants. Or worse - they don’t get asked their stories. They are stared at instead, layers of silent judgement cast over them like a matador’s cape.

I love reminding people of the substantial influence that Scottish immigrants have had around the world. I tell them of how often I moved around British Columbia, and how no matter if the town was small, or if the January snows were piling up, somehow, somewhere, someone would be holding a Burns Supper.

And I love to ask people who have left Scotland for new shores, where they consider their home to be. Some say it will always be Scotland, while others say they are completely at home in their new country. Most just can’t imagine being without either place in their lives. Despite being in Canada for so long, my father’s mother still refers to Germany as “home” and she still gets emotional if she thinks too long about it. But at the same time, she wouldn't want to move back there. “Too many people,” she says.

So where is my home? Like many immigrants, I can’t decide. I think about the ranching country of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and the smell of the willows and the pines in the spring, and there is a pain in my chest that brings tears to my eyes.

But the same thing happens when I walk to work in the morning, and see the Scottish Saltire flying above the government buildings, and Edinburgh castle jutting out atop a mountain of ancient volcanic rock, bold and black like it was carved from the stone itself.

It happens when I think of my friends and family, especially my grandmother, because I feel guilty for not being there. But then I think of JP and our glorious adventures around this little country, and a flush of love pulses through me that is so strong it feels like it will cause my bones to dissolve.

This is what I have learned: Home is the place that makes your heart lurch like the squeaky stair that betrays your presence to a silent household. That’s home. But it doesn’t have to be just one place. It can be two or even more. And it can be a person, someone with whom the world seems to be set to right. Someone with whom you would face any foe.

Here are the photos I promised to post:

The Cariboo’s beautiful Lac des Roches in the autumn:

And a view in the Highlands around Fort William during the same time of year:
A ferry pulling into the harbour on B.C.’s West Coast:
And a view out to the wide Atlantic in the far north of Scotland:
My father (that’s him in the sailor suit and hat) and his mother on the boat, about to leave for Canada. My grandmother’s sister is in the foreground with her daughter.
And part of our ever-expanding clan in Canada:
Thanks to Refugee Week Scotland for asking me to be involved in this fantastic project. I am so, so grateful to be living in this country. Refugee Week runs from 15-21 June and you can learn all about it here, or by taking a look at their YouTube channel.


Rikkij said...

I'm not sure home can be pinpointed on a map. My heart yearns for things, places and happenings. these are home to me.
Wonderful post. ~rick

Anonymous said...

ah, dearest amie. i was writing my blog in my head while i worked today (as i do). I wanted to convey to my readers how i felt moving into this new house. my new home. you hit the nail on the head with "a flush of love pulses through me that is so strong it feels like it will cause my bones to dissolve."
thank you.

Dale said...

Absolutely, you can have more homes than one. More deep places in your heart than one.

Steffe said...

Wow, this was an interesting read. Your family has moved around a bit. Mine has been in Sweden for as long back as we have been able to search. I'd like to see a world where everyone can choose for themselves were to live.

Lorna Currie said...

This is a stunning post. Thank you once again for taking part.

Angela Recada said...

We have much in common. My parents left Germany for Canada in the 50s, too, and I was born there. We lived in Canada several years, my father always looking for just the right spot. For a few years, when we lived in Ontario, I thought I was Scottish because of all the new Scottish immigrants and bagpipe music.

After moving back to Germany, we ended up and have seetled in the US. Now my college-age daughter is planning a move back to Germany. I often get that urge to move on, too, but my husband is had to move.

Personally, I consider myself a proud German/Canadian/American and love all three of my homes.

This post was just wonderful and it's so interesting to know your story.

Thanks, too, for the lovely postcard. I posted it on my blog today.

D.M. McGowan said...

Great post!
I feel sorry for those who have not experienced some of the variety out there and some times crave a bit more. However I've seen a few too many moons to go through it all again.
And I'm back in the Peace Country (for 28 years now) that I have considered home since '62.
If you need a 'home fix' you can always read about it.
My second novel 'Partners' comes to a close in the Cariboo Country. It starts in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. My third, 'Homesteader - Finding Sharon' takes place around Calgary and should be available in about a week.

fullonmommy said...

Oh I do understand. I felt that way for Australia, very strongly. I know I could live there.
But I also love Northern Ontario. Cities I guess I could take or leave, they exist everywhere and each is vibrant in it's own way. But the scent of pine needles dropped on the forest floor. The scent of Canadian shield, wet with lake water, it's like home to me. Also, the sound of the fiddle- also of bagpipes, mezmerizes me. It brings to life something inside myself. Something I know I once knew. Must be those centries old genes...dancing around.
This was lovely, I want to go to Scotland!

Suzy said...

Never been to Scotland but after reading your blog, I'd LOVE to go.

LDWatkins said...

Beautiful post! Thank you. I believe I lived in Scotland in another life. You make me yearn to be there again! Thankful for my country and home. Thanks for sharing.

Irish Gumbo said...

What a lovely, lovely post...makes me want to move to Scotland (grin)...but then, I'm still finding my home here.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff...

Marcheline said...

Long Island is my home because I was born and raised here.

But the home of my heart will always be Scotland. I wrote this poem in honor of that truth:

I have been to Scotland
And now I am returned
Nothing looks the same here
My heart, I think, has turned
My thoughts across the sea remain
A fool could see my lack
Though Scotland wooed my soul awa'
I brought my body back

- M

PurestGreen said...

I swoon over all of these comments. It's amazing what a strong subject this is - how the idea of home will make people's emotions lurch with recognition.

How absolutely wonderful. Thank you, thank you.

Pearl said...

I really enjoy how you write.


Cheryl said...

Home is here, the SF bay area, where I was born and have spent most of my life. But it's also a place I know so well that I feel I can get around with my eyes closed. Which is why I'm forever looking for any excuse to leave it. Hopefully one day I will.

Great photos! The one of your family leaving for Canada is really beautiful.

PS - I have a package for you! (what took you so long! - sorry) Will send it out tomorrow.

Colinus said...

Great Post!

I think it easy to forget in the West that we are so lucky to have the freedom, wealth and choice to travel. Its a true luxury, taken for granted by many. Home for me is a modest upper flat in Protobello, overlooking the Forth estuary through big sash windows. Ever changing, wind, rain and light are my view. Plants, books and sunshine make up the living room. I really miss it now.