The longest place I lived as an adult was in Montreal. I spent three quarters of a decade there. It was a bad marriage from the start. I moved there unwilling, five months pregnant with my first and only child, and with the very heavy news that my father had stage four cancer and would most likely not make it to meet his grandson. The winter was dark and I was even darker. There was no light and there was no love in my heart for this new city. It was not really Montreal’s fault. We started our relationship together and I had “une tonne de bagages”.
I barely made it, mentally, through that first winter. I watched myself grow to enormous proportions as I watched my always larger than life father, shrink in equal measure. I was trying to find joy to prepare for the new life that was coming, while my heart was breaking as I slowly said goodbye the life of the man who had taught me everything.
My son was born in January, in the wee hours of the morning. A storm was raging outside and our car broke down while I was in labour. My husband had gone home for a brief rest and ended up in a garage. Devon took three and a half days to leave my body. In the end I ended up with an emergency C section and he ended up in Intensive care for a few extra days. Perhaps he knew about all the stress and sadness that was going on for his family outside in the world.
As soon as we returned home, my father was eagerly awaiting our Skype date. Each day he would sit behind his computer, and sing out in his radiation ravaged voice, “the itsy bitsy spider” to my son, who would listen bobble headed and tiny. It was a bittersweet moment the first time he held him in person. We were all so happy that he got his wish, and all so sad that we knew it could be his last.
My father died in April. He left this earth as the blooms began to spring out of the ground. He did get to see his grandson after all. He held him many times. He held him every day he could tolerate it. One sunny yet windy day, he weakly stumbled down to the ocean so he could dip my son’s feet into the waters of Cape Cod. It was my father’s hope that he would love this place as much as he did , and that in baptizing him this way, he would always return here and understand a little piece of who his grandfather was . I sadly watched as my mother and he slowly walked toward the water, arm and arm, carrying my son as I clicked away taking hundreds of photos. Savouring this last ritual for all of us.
So, as you can see, that first winter in Montreal could not have been much worse for me, both physically and emotionally. And as Spring approached and the snow began to melt and my heart began to melt ever so slightly, I found myself out and about. I was finally ready to meet society and to give Montreal a chance for me to embrace it with something of an open heart. I was ready to love my new home.
I remember those first few months of Spring. I would strap my son into a carrier and I would stride out along the bike path near our house, eager for sunshine and more so for human contact after beging lonely and sad for so many months during that dark winter. I remember the birds chirping, the bees buzzing, the flowers and weeds growing to epic proportions seemingly overnight. I also remember, the people not making eye contact, no one smiling, and no one stopping to talk to me or to admire my new baby.
No matter, I trudged on, smiling away, like a dimwit and saying good morning to everyone who passed me by. The most I would get was a grumble or perhaps a head nod. But usually, the people would lower their eyes to the pavement or speed up to get by. I was devastated. I thought , “Is it me? Is something wrong with me?”. “Aha, perhaps it’s because I am not speaking French”, I thought. So then, I bravely practiced my French greetings, and went out the next day, “Bon JOUR” I smiled away. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Another event, which sticks so clear in my mind is my son being four years old and getting a BATMAN costume for Halloween. This costume was so desired and cherished that we bought it a month in advance and he could not wait to wear it. I had to make a trip to the local mall, and he asked to don it as we went. I was reluctant at first, and then thought…”why not”. Who could resist a four year old who thinks he is the real Batman once he puts his mask on.
He was SO PROUD and SO EXCITED as he walked in the mall. You could see the blush of excitement creeping up through the little eyeholes of the mask. He would walk up to people, look at them, expecting them to say something , anything. In his mind, he was Batman, and Batman was loved and needed some adoration. Nothing, literally nothing. Not one person could find the kindness to say something to him and give him that jolt of excitement every four year old deserves. He walked back to the car deflated, sad, and asking why no one liked his costume. My heart truly broke for him.
As the years progressed on, I realized that No, our neighbors were never going to take that invitation to come have a drink, a burger, or swim in our pool even though they all had kids that were dying to do so. I also learned that , No, most people were not going to hold the door open for a lady and her baby as she struggled out holding 4 full bags leaving a store. Just because I had a baby carriage and was trying to cross the street in the pouring rain, did not mean that the person driving by me was going to stop. In fact, it meant, they might just speed up to get to their all important destination and splash us both!
One day I found myself cursing inside my head as I witnessed a woman trying to lug her baby carriage up two flights of stairs in the Metro and no one stopped to assist her. I ran up the stairs and picked up the other side. She literally cried because of this small gesture of kindness. Another day I offered an elderly lady my seat on the metro, and she said to me, “I see your mother raised you right, this rarely happens”. All of these things added up and added up and became an insurmountable hatred that I could no longer climb over.
Eventually, over the many years, I made peace with Montreal and it’s inhabitants. I realized that it was okay that my neighbors did not want to cross over the fence, and that small polite chatter was all I would ever get. I made peace with the fact that no one was going to stop and ask how I was doing, even as just a courtesy. I accepted that no one would help or hold a door or wait for you to cross the street.
I learned to live with it. I learned to find things that were lovely about the place. The stunning and unparalleled nature that could be found nearby. The excellent craft beer. The delicious French Patisserie. The family oriented activities. Eventually, through all the disappointment, I started to find people who were kind and decent. I started to make friends and to realize that it was not such a dark place after all. It took years, but in the end, I would even venture to say, I loved Montreal and was reluctant to leave.
But now, I face another spring, in another continent. In another place and time in my life. What I have to say is this, I realize now, that it was NOT okay. None of it. I may have had some sort of Stockholm Syndrome or maybe I just gave up?
Since arriving in Japan I have come to realize that living in a place where you have to constantly MAKE yourself feel okay, is never…well…okay. Though I will gladly go back and visit friends and see the gorgeous places I cherished, I do not miss living in that particular social emotional climate one bit. To me it was a desolate landscape that even after 7 years of trying, I could not navigate. It was sometimes as cold as the temperatures outside.
Each morning I wake here and I walk my son to the bus. People smile at me. They nod their heads and bow and say good morning. The other day a new friend and I were completely lost, and three school girls stopped, took out their phones and attempted to find where we needed to go. Though none of us spoke a word of the other’s language, they managed to sort out our destination, they got off their bicycles and walked what may have been twenty minutes out of their way to make sure we got to our kids school. I was awestruck. I could not bow enough times.
Each time my son is on the subway, something amazing happens. Once, I was standing, and he was sitting next to a woman who then got up to allow an elderly lady to sit in her chair. The elderly lady began to have a conversation with the other woman in Japanese and the woman informed me that she would like permission to “get to know my son”. She asked him questions through her newly acquired translator. As she left the train, she gestured that we were both beautiful and she asked if she could give him some candy. On another day, a college student got on and had a twenty minute conversation with my son about his LEGO book. These incidents seem to be endless and each one amazes me.
This morning, I passed by a random stall selling fruits and vegetables. It literally just popped up out of no where as I took my son to his bus. I stopped to buy some things. The man was having the time of his life trying to talk to the Gaijin lady. But through gestures and counting and smiling, we got the job done and he sent me on my way with five or six bows and a beaming smile. It was before 8 am and I already had my fill of neighborhood friendliness.
People hold doors, they help children in the park that are not their own to get across a zipline. They stop to tell you they like your beautiful eyes, and they do it with respect. They make sure you are not lost in a train station, before you even ask. They help you count out the correct change when you are still a bit silly on what coins are what. They talk to your child and are truly interested in what they have to say.
Yes, I realize that we are “special” here and we are a bit of a curiosity. I also realize that this may wear thin, and there are things that I may grow to dislike and that frustrations will come. But, truly, right now I could not be happier. All I can say is I am so filled with the love of Spring and I am so filled with the love of basic human interaction and basic kindness. Every day here I feel like I receive 1,000 acts of kindness. And every day I hope to at least give a small percentage back.
P.S. – For those of you in Montreal who read this, you are part of the reason I was able to find the love, so MERCI BOUCOUP!