I’m a Legal Alien

I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear,
I like my toast done on one side
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I’m an Englishman in New York…

Sting said it so well twenty years ago, and this past Monday, the 19th of April, marked the ten-year anniversary of my living in Canada.  I still vividly remember how I was the day I left home: a young, impressionable, nerdy teenager whose sadness at leaving behind family and friends was balanced by the excitement at the prospect of everything a new continent had to offer.

My parents had taken us to visit Canada once before we moved – three weeks in mid-August, where the city was bathed in sunshine, culture and crowds. We explored neighbourhoods and schools, in one of which I was taken on a tour, soaking in the cliques, the bright colours, the mohawks and the compliments on my accent.  The houses were enormous – I’d be going from living in a house attached at the seams to neighbours we’d hear day and night; children crying, music blaring. The houses here were castles, with basements and three storeys, hardwood floors and space on either side. Approaching  fifteen, I was excited for this adventure.

Soon after we officially arrived, the novelty wore off. I didn’t know anyone. I was put into the IB Program, where the students who actually liked school were given opportunities to fast-track their education, reaching university level courses by the end of high school, and were taught a more challenging, more interesting curriculum. I loved the education, but I didn’t feel I belonged. I watched the “regular program” kids form their friendships, talking of their weekends together, laughing in the hallways, while I sat in the science room eating my lunch, watching the world go by.  I was the quiet new girl, on the outside of something that seemed to have finished forming before I got here.  And, eventually, that was okay.

I spent some time over the next few  years in university, searching for myself, for friends, for a sense of belonging. Anyone who showed the slightest bit of romantic interest in me was given my heart in a hurry, hoping it would be returned in a sense of finally belonging somewhere – to someone. I learned those life lessons the hard way, and my past is littered with naive mistakes, and people, who to this day, continue to define me by them. Yet still, I stand by the belief that those experiences taught me huge amounts about myself, and fuelled my desire to become worthy in my own eyes – to become okay with who I am as a person, and comfortable knowing I’m doing the best I can to be the best person I can.

This city, above everything, has given me an education. An education in school, where I learned how much I loved to – well, learn. Opportunities to learn more about other people, and subsequently about myself. An education in life. And that is quite possibly the most valuable thing I could ever have. But still, ten years later, this city doesn’t feel like home. I don’t look upon it as comforting, nor do I look upon it as something I’m particularly proud of belonging to.  It’s full of things and people that hurt me. It’s bitterly cold for at least six months out of twelve, with temperatures plunging to minus thirty, where people are surrounded by darkness and cold and don’t venture out of their homes unless they have to. The cold kills my back so much. A huge percentage of people here are on social welfare, and choose to remain that way, rather than taking advantage of the resources available to help them achieve independence (I sound horrid, but I’ve worked in the system). I carry leaflets with resources in my purse instead of change. The sidewalks are covered in spit and litter, and the air is filled with cursing and inanity. On 20th of April every year, hundreds of people gather at the city’s legislative building and advocate for smoking marijuana and the stoner lifestyle – lazing around, getting high, and wasting away their lives rather than taking in real life, learning, growing, and contributing to society.  For two weeks in June, the city’s abundant trees (which line every street) are taken over by something bizarre called the canker worm – small green worms that build webs down from the leaves and hang from them in the air, resulting in getting caught on your clothes or in your hair. It’s terrifying. The summers are beautiful but are sabotaged by mosquitoes – I moved into this house in January, 2009, excited at the thought of soaking in the skyline view on summer evenings, on the bank of the river… These thoughts remain dreams, as the skies are filled with blood suckers and the house is covered in fish flies.  There are no historical buildings dating further back than maybe a hundred years – no history, no culture, no identity. No feasts for the eyes – the whole province is flatter than Gwen Stefani’s stomach and any road trips are a test in consciousness.  Elsewhere in the world, whole nations band together with pride at what their country has to offer – beautiful architecture, great music, literature – This place seems to have little to offer the world except Neil Young and Slurpees.

It’s a daily goal of mine to count my blessings, and I am lucky to live in a place that isn’t worn-torn or disease-ridden, in a place where I have a good job and a handful of incredible people. For all these things, I’m truly thankful. But I can’t help but feel I belong somewhere else.  A decade is enough to give somewhere, is it not? To try and make it home? I long for the days of living in England, a country of which I remain proud to this day. A country that offers incredible imagination to the world in the form of entertainment, that is proud to preserve historical sites thousands of years old, that has produced some of the greatest literature ever written.  I know there are places elsewhere in the world where I wouldn’t be haunted by people who insist on reminding me of my past. Places where the arts are treasured and promoted, and where the days are long, sunny and warm. Where there’s culture, and mountains, and sea; beautiful buildings, museums, and open skies.  Somewhere to fit in and soak up and feel at home. Somewhere people will welcome me. Somewhere I can feel proud to belong. I feel such a strong calling to get out of this place, but it’s hard when I don’t know where I’m being called to. Australia? A whole new adventure in Ireland, or New Zealand?

My ten year anniversary here is indeed bittersweet, but it’s a chapter of my life I will always cherish, for being full of growth and of learning.  My eyes are open to the possibilities the future may hold, and I’m fuelled by a desire for more. I’m hoping this summer’s trip to England will open my boyfriend’s eyes to the world outside our little city, and who knows, maybe together, we’ll be working towards a common dream… one that isn’t solely mine. It’s so hard to settle when there’s such a big world out there.

Happy ten years, Winnipeg – and thanks for the education.  In the words of the ever-poetic Jason Webley: you may not be my lover, but you’re the map I use to find her. One day, I’ll find somewhere I can call home again.  Until then, I’ll wish hard on my shooting star, and hold onto it tightly until it lands me somewhere I truly belong.

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51 comments

  1. This is a beautiful post, Em.
    I don’t know if you ever blogged about this, but why did your family move to Canada in the first place?

    I hope you find the place where you belong – together with Sweets. You never know, maybe he’ll fall in love with England on your trip 🙂

    1. It wasn’t a very long story – they just felt it would be a better quality of life. Cheaper houses, more open space, etc. I liked it for a while. And I know moving back to the UK isn’t a wise option at this point in time (financially and economically). Maybe I just need to find another city here that isn’t this one. The other places I’ve seen in Canada feel way more comfortable.

  2. I’ve been trying to find a sense of belonging to a place for most of my life since I wasn’t even born in the country of which I currently hold citizenship. But I’ve found over the years that it’s mainly the people that make the place and that can make it feel like home. In that sense I’ve been able to chose where my “home” will be and have had several where I’ve felt I belong.

    However, if you and Sweet are not really all that happy with where you are, perhaps you want to move in the direction of making some geographical changes? I know it’s very difficult, but it is a possibility.

    1. I know – and that’s what I keep telling myself. People move around the globe all the time. It’s not the easiest option – but sometimes the things that are right for us aren’t easy.

  3. 10 years is a good long time, Em. Certainly long enough to know where your heart is, and it looks like it isn’t there. I hope you can get where you truly belong sometime soon. I know what you mean about wanting to be part of a city you’re proud of and can identify with. I feel that I have that here in Milwaukee, apart from the 6 months of brutal cold, as you mentioned. 🙂 But then again, I guess that’s part of the character of the place.

    I’ll be making my first trip to England sometime this summer – I can’t wait.

    I don’t have much wisdom to add to this post, but I just want you to know that wherever you end up, you’ll always have a friend from Milwaukee.

  4. em does sweet want to move as well? its hard when 1 person does and the other doesn’t. i hope he loves england as much as you do and you guys can come over and live here. it was bad a couple of years ago and last year but it seems like the economy’s getting back on track. you’ve got to listen to your heart and it sounds like its telling you to get out of there. follow your heart and dreams em you do it so well with everything else and look how far you’ve come… maybe this is the next step on your journey.

    1. Thanks sweetie. It’s hard when I feel like I’m not sure whether I’m longing to go home or longing just to leave this city. I hope things become clearer 🙂

  5. Oh Em. I wish I could give you a hug. I think the midwest is a tough place to live. I really do. I mean, every part of the country has its challenges, but the dark, drab, ferociously cold winters are so tough on people. And I think coming from a country that is so rich and full of culture and heritage and pride, it’s probably tough to feel like Winnepeg is home & is a place you can feel proud of.

    I hope you & Sweet can come up with something that you are both comfortable with… it’s so tough picking a city to live in, let alone which continent.

    Hang in there my dear! And happy 10 year anniversary. I love that quote at the end!!

  6. Hey Emily,
    You may or may not remember me, I’m not sure how deep in the recesses of your mind I sit but you and I worked together for a brief period of time a few years back. I have to say, I love your writing. I think you have an eloquent way with words, but this post struck me, struck me hard. I was born and raised in Winnipeg, and have lived here my whole 26 years. I too have felt what you feel about this city, about the people in this city and some of the more frequent “activities” that Winnipeg citizens partake in but I have to say as I read this, I couldn’t help but feel the hairs on my neck begin to rise. This city, has a lot of great things to offer, but when your stuck in the mind set of “I want to get out” you are blind to this. I felt slightly angered reading your post. I felt the juvenile attitude of “if you don’t like my city you can leave” beginning to whirl around my brain. Some of the things you have mentioned are problems that every city, no matter how big or small, how rich or poor have to deal with. I have never been to England but I imagine it rich in history and more culture to immerse yourself in then one has time for in a life but only seeing the good of your home town and having a sour attitude toward the one you are residing in will only leave you with the sick feeling you have. Loving England is something that no one should ask you to stop feeling but as a Winnipegger (and sometimes proud of it) I think you should give this city more of a chance. Perhaps the things in your life that happened and have led you down this path are unsettling but you aren’t in high school anymore, and definitely don’t seem like the shy quiet girl you once were. Don’t let the past hold you back from something that could be beautiful. I can’t argue about the weather (it SUCKS) but I hope as someone who has been able to see “the light” you will too. Winnipeg can be amazing if you give it a better shot. I hope you and your soon-to-be hubby do find all the happiness in the world (wherever it may be) and if you do get your wish and move, I hope you remember this city fondly and not for it’s problems.
    All the best for you!
    Patricia
    P.S. Thank you for helping me see the other side of things too. If I meet someone from another country starting up here, I think I’m going to go out of my way to help them and show them the things that you may have missed! 🙂

    1. Hey – thank you so much for taking the time to write! I know Winnipeg has a few good things – I ADORE the Fringe Festival, the summers are beautiful, and the big open parks – but it’s just outweighed by the things I really don’t like, on top of my longing to be somewhere else. I’m content with being here for a little while but something inside me is telling me this isn’t home, nor is it going to be. If I do move, I definitely will remember Winnipeg fondly – it’s brought me some of the best times of my life, and it’s the city I “grew up” in 🙂

  7. This post actually makes me really, really sad. It’s abundantly clear that while you’re grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given, this place doesn’t fit you. If it’s been 10 years and it still doesn’t feel like a place where you belong, maybe it’s time to look for making a change. I mean, you do have to consider Sweet and how he feels, of course.

    I’ve lived in Florida my whole life and I love this place to death. Other people who live here or move here complain and complain and complain about the heat and humidity but I just feel so connected to where I am and so in love with this state. I want you to have that same feeling.

  8. I really do hope that in the near future you’ll be able to settle somewhere that will make you happy. England would be awesome of course, maybe Sweet will love it as much as you do!! And there’s always America (ahem…California! ;P) as well. The whole world is at your fingertips, and once the two of you decide what it is you want, nothing will be able to hold you back! 🙂

    1. I hope so! It’s just difficult figuring out WHERE to go… England is always wonderful but realistically? Not financially smart 😦 I guess we’ll just have to do some exploring I think!

  9. Very well said, Emily. It sounds as though you have truly learned a lot about life in the time you’ve lived in Canada. The old saying is true… home is where the heart is. I hope that you are able to find a place where your heart will be truly happy. You deserve it. Hugs.

  10. I understand your love for England. I love it too. I stare and gawk at all the old, beautiful buildings. America is even worse than Canada at preserving anything old. We like to tear down the old and always put up new.

    But there is something about San Diego I will always love. Maybe I was born here and I am a part of it? I complain about the abundance of sunny days we have, but that’s a bit silly, huh? There’s something really satisfying about a perfect sunny day. A part of me definitely belongs here and that’s a good feeling.

    I’m SURE your fiance will love SOMETHING about England when you go. It’s one of my favorite places 🙂

    1. I definitely think there’s a lot to be said for the place you grew up in. I’ve been talking to a friend about this recently too, and she said all the things I feel about England, she feels about here – because it’s home. But I know that doesn’t mean there aren’t other places that could potentially be better – I just haven’t found them yet 🙂

  11. The best thing is that you always see what’s beautiful amidst all the ugly. Hope you find what you yearn for really soon. For all you know, it’s right at your face already, why not! 🙂

    Love that quote at the end:)

  12. I hope you find a place to be proud of. I imagine it’s a lot like everything else where you have to move at the risk of making a mistake and if that doesn’t work, then try some place new and keep going.

    PS: I am from the west coast of the US, so 100 year old buildings are ancient to me! Ha ha.

  13. There are parts of Canada that are much nicer, I promise!

    I’ve only been to Winnipeg once, and it was for the PanAm games, so they had cleared out all the homeless people and cleaned the streets. So I THOUGHT it was a beautiful city, but what you wrote (beautifully) here is pretty much what I’ve heard from everyone else about Winnipeg.

    Um, I like Ottawa? And Montreal? And I’ve heard Vancouver is great though I haven’t been yet!

    Though, living in the UK right now, I can understand the line “There are no historical buildings dating further back than maybe a hundred years – no history, no culture, no identity.” Part of the reason I moved to the UK is because of the rich history. There are pubs here that are older than all of Canada. There are office buildings built in the 1700s, which would be classified as “historical properties” in Canada.]

    I hope you can find a city that you really love. If you do, let me know, because I’ve been looking for one too.

    1. You know what? I’ve lost count how many times in the last week I’ve heard how awesome Ottawa is. Sweet’s been, and said he (by fate of terrible navigational skills) pretty much walked the whole city. And it was clean, and cultured, and gorgeous – I think I might actually really like it there! I’d love to visit Montreal one day too.

      1. And it has trees, too! There are great cafés and restaurants and even museums! And there are nice little neighbourhoods you can live in, like the Glebe or Westboro that aren’t as “downtown” as the core but have everything you need and less than an 20 min bus ride to the centre!

        I’ve lived there for 21 years, though only one downtown, the rest in the suburbs. And I hated it for a while (like everyone hates the city they’re from), but when I moved downtown I realized it really was a nice city. And when I moved to England, I realized that Ottawa is very clean and safe, especially compared to Newcastle!

  14. I can’t reaaly relate, as I’ve lived in Jozi all my life. But I’m sure if I were to move somewhere (not of my choosing) that I’d miss this scary, busy city. 🙂

    I hope that you get to go home one day…for good!

  15. my cousin had a drug problem when she lived here in Ontario. her parents uprooted her and they moved to the prairies to start a new life- but it only got worse. she’s been a full-blown junkie for as long as i can remember, and any time she (or my aunt) have described their city, they really have nothing nice to say about it. it’s cold, it’s ugly, it’s BORING, there’s nothing for miles, everybody’s a cowboy… haha.

    i’m sorry you can’t call your city home. i can’t imagine how hard that must be. i hope your dreams take you where you and sweet are meant to be.

    xoxo

    – e

  16. This post resonates with me so much. I felt the same when I lived for five years in Las Vegas. Weather-wise it was the opposite of your problems, but what I really missed was the history and culture I had grown up with on the East Coast. I missed the character and also the proximity of cities and nature.

    I tend to disagree with the above commenter who made the sweeping statement that Americans are bad about preservation. I think the East Coast is good about preserving things. There are many historical sites to see, some dating back to when the first colonies began, as well as older homes, particularly in the cities. There is a respect for preserving history here that I didn’t find in Vegas, where everything is a strip mall.

    I can tell you that even though you are living in the seeming middle of nowhere (like I was), and even though you don’t know where you want to go (like I didn’t), it’s possible to come to a decision and put what you want into motion. I’m proof it can happen.

  17. I thought you should know that I had the line “I’m an Englishman in New York” stuck in my head all day after reading this post 🙂

    I’m sorry that you don’t feel at home where you are. Hopefully you and your Sweet can figure out a living situation that works for you both.

  18. While not the same thing, I have the same kind of split desires about living here in North Carolina. The South is SO different than the midwest (grew up in Kansas). I am happy hear though, after 5 years. I hope you find a place to call “home” whether in Canada, England, or somewhere else!

  19. i had a whole comment typed out and my computer freaked out.

    boo.

    basically – i understand how you felt when you moved. it’s harder than hell to go through that, especially at the age you did.

    i think you are darling and am glad you are where you are now. if you hadn’t of moved i may have never gotten to know you through the blog world! 🙂 who knows where you’d be.

    hope you are doing well beautiful lady!

    1. Thanks lovely! Yes it’s so strange how where you are in the world can pretty much shape your entire life. Who knows if I’d even have started blogging had I been somewhere else 🙂

  20. I am sorry that you still haven’t found the place where you belong. I had lived in the same place for the first 15 years of my life. Since then I have moved all over the place. I have come to understand that my home is wherever my husband and I are together and we always try to make the best out of it. I hope you will find that balance one day.

  21. Hi! Just wanted to check out your blog since you commented on mine. So, I lived in England for seven years (met my husband over there while studying abroad) before moving back to the U.S. We moved back because of the big houses and space (I missed the forest) and because the exchange rate was so good. It was the perfect time, financially, to move, but now we’re thinking of going back. It’s only been three years.
    I always thought that Canada was the “happy medium” between the U.S. and England, but maybe I’m wrong. I think you have the “in-betweener” syndrome that so many people are experiencing as the world seems to shrink. You know, when you go back to England for a visit you may realize that the England you left behind is just that, the past. If only one could visit there. Even so, your trip will be illuminating, I’m sure.

  22. Great post! To be honest, if you are really unhappy living in Winnipeg, I’d seriously consider moving somewhere else, if that is at all possible. Not necessarily back to England, but just try another place, maybe one that has less harsh winters (I am pretty sure I could not deal with that, and that canker worm sounds disgusting, omg!), that is far enough away to be different and close enough to visit. I think it is so important to be able to feel at home where you live, and to have a feeling of belonging. Not having that, in my opinion, is something you can do for a few years, but not for the rest of your life.
    Well, regardless, I hope you and Sweet will enjoy your trip to England and that maybe he’ll open his mind to possibly moving away from Winnipeg.

    1. I think he’s open to moving – it’s just a big thing for him. I have to remember sometimes that I’ve hopped about from country to country, apartment to apartment a lot and he’s been here in Winnipeg in one place his whole life – I know it must be a hugely intimidating thought!

  23. Okay so you know me and so you’d know I’d say this — but 90% of people who smoke aren’t your stereotypical unproductive stoner! Just the OBVIOUS ones are the ones people think of. Like my Dad? A diehard Republican conservative here? Smokes and gets his stash from THE SHERIFF. My friend Matt, the kid who aced his SATs (literally, the highest score is a 1600 and that’s what he got.. while stoned out of his mind lol).

    I don’t smoke simply because its boring lol, BUT I advocate it because there are so many uses, so little point to wasting dollars on jail and crimes and its such a green-worthy plant compared to the damage cotton does to the environment!

    And I’m rambling again.. ❤

  24. As a fellow former Winnipegger(although I am soon to return!) I can understand this all too well. There are so many wonderful things about Winnipeg, but it is not home despite my being born and raised there. I laughed at the Neil Young and Slurpee comment because it’s so true. That and The Winnipeg Jets are the only 3 things people EVER mention about Winnipeg. I set about wandering 2 years ago now and am determined to live in as many cities as possible although living in Canmore, Alberta DID give me a little home feeling. After that, touching down on the tarmack at YWG just didn’t feel as shiny anymore. Vancouver is exceedingly lovely, Ottawa and Montreal are also so great. Malaysia is a place I will never ever desire to live in. All I can say is that it is torture to stay in a place where you feel you are being held due to circumstance rather than choice and it is worth it to find a place where you truly can build a real ‘home’.

    Ps – I followed your facebook link off of your 20SB Profile and we definitely have 2 mutual friends. That’s Winnipeg for ya.

  25. Pingback: Oh, Canada… «

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