“How was Canada?”
That’s the question I’ve been asked most since I came home, and the question I most struggle to answer. How do you summarise more than a year into a sentence and actually be honest about it? It depends who’s asking, but usually I answer something like, “It was amazing – difficult, but amazing.” That’s the most sincere way I can describe it.
Fourteen months to the day after arriving in Vancouver, I left. I didn’t leave because I had to – my visa was valid for another ten months – I left because I couldn’t imagine staying another year. My time in Canada was broken neatly into stages, each completely separate and almost independent of each other. The first and longest stage, ‘Phase I’ as it grew to be known, spanned six months, and was made up mostly of rain, struggling for work and feeling lost (both physically and metaphorically). Phase II not only saw a change in the weather, but a complete change in what life in Vancouver had to offer, thanks in no small part to the friends that soon became my family away from home.
Once you drop the idea that you need a lot of money to travel and you find a solid bunch of people willing to go, pretty quickly you’ll realise that anywhere within a 400km radius is your playground. Although we had so much on our doorstep in Vancouver, the best part about my time there was going on trips away. In a very short space of time, I saw Whistler, Seattle, Kelowna, San Francisco, Vancouver Island, and so much more. Had I not been living in a new country, I never would have dreamed of taking that many breaks away.
Friendship is different when you’re very far from home. When you have no family to rely on when times get tough, your friends become the most important people in your life. If you’re in a city where you didn’t grow up or go to school, the chances are you only have a small number of friends, and together, your lives in that city grow around each other. Yet, because you’re in a different country, and particularly if you’re guilty of hanging out predominantly with other expats, people come and go from your life regularly. It might only be much later that you realise that each friend will take a part of what you loved about the place with them.
I often joked to people while I was living there that Vancouver was the city that I loved to hate. There were so many fantastic things about it – the mountains, the beaches, the parks, the sea wall – yet it was an extremely difficult city to live in. A simple trip to the grocery store could leave you crying into the fridge over the price of milk. By the time you paid for your rent, bills and phone plan, your bank balance positively mocked you. And there were times, usually between October and March, when it felt like the rain would never ever stop.
For me, life in Vancouver always felt temporary. I knew I could never settle there long-term, with the result that I feel I never settled there at all. I forewent buying things for my house or myself that I thought would be too difficult to bring home at a later date. After a certain point, I stopped thinking about what job I really wanted to do there or what part of the city I really wanted to live in, because I knew I would be leaving soon anyway. It’s ironic that by the time things started to properly come together for me, in what can now be considered the final phase of my Canadian dream, I had already decided to leave. Perhaps I can blame my distinct lack of interest in staying any longer in Canada on this fact. Or maybe it’s because even 7,000km from home, I still had itchy feet and was eager to get to the next adventure.
I’m terrible at saying goodbye. Part of that is because I never truly feel like I’m leaving a place until long after I’ve gone. I wasn’t sad leaving Vancouver. I travelled for three weeks afterwards without giving the place a second thought. It was only after I came back to Ireland, when January came and my friends who had returned home for Christmas began to slowly trickle back across the Atlantic, that I realised a part of me desperately wished I could go with them. Proof if ever there was any, that it’s the people that make a place.