Christmas vacation loomed, a spectre haunting every conversation, a weight making every exchange fraught with expectation. The population of an international school is inherently migratory, several dozen flocks of geese all congregating together for this one moment in the history of space and time, each collection and each individual always on the verge of taking wing and disappearing into the sky. A holiday meant a great dispersal, a casting of our fragile community to the wind.
People everywhere talked vacation – destinations and ticket prices, buses and trains, planes and sturdy shoes. Many were homeward bound, to America, to the Philippines, to Korea, to England, to Australia. Canadians were thin on the ground, until I happened into conversation with a Newfoundlander.
We regaled each other with mutual Canadian paraphernalia, inasmuch as people who lived in vastly differently places in an enormous country could share a culture. We talked about the cold, about warm mittens and toques, about hot chocolate in a Tim Horton’s mug. We talked about shovelling snow and eating food, about the pristine quiet, about the slang and the voice. Her harsh, nasal, Maritime /a/s and my newscaster southern Ontario prattle betrayed only when I say the words boat and hose.
Nostalgia dripped from our conversation like a generous portion of maple syrup. We could understand one another’s wants, one another’s yearnings, without difficulty. We had a mutual reference point, an understanding of the word home that meant roughly the same thing, or as same a thing as you can get nestled far away in China. Christmas conjured up the same kind of visions, the same legends of Santa, the same kinds of cookies and the same kinds of turkey, the bitter winds and the bursting cold, the soft flutter of a million million snowflakes and the feeling of a down jacket over four layers of sweaters, and the sea of stars that littered the night like sand along a beach.
Mere hours after I arrived in Canada I careened down a white hill on a plastic discus adorned with the grinning face of Diego, Dora the Explorer’s erstwhile cousin. Fresh snow spun across my face and my hands as I rocketed down the slope. At the top, strangers came to join our midnight tobogganing run, sharing their beer in the dark and the cold. Our groups dared each other into greater and more daring and more stupidly dangerous sledding flights of daring.
I spent afternoons in coffee shops nursing London Fogs, tracing my thumb around the brim of the cup. I ate Mexican food wedged in tiny storefronts in hipster neighbourhoods and drank British Columbia craft beers in old haunts across the city. I rode the subways and the buses and the streetcars, pulled the cords to signal my stop, the familiar, responsive ding reverberating with the very sound of my soul. I ate Indian and Vietnamese and Thai and Korean and a carefully constructed cheese plate artfully arranged on a wooden cutting board, served before the crackling glow of a television set to play a burning fireplace from Netflix.
I saw people I had not seen in years and people I had seen only months before. Friends from every era of my life, piled high like different strata of the earth’s mantle, fossilized remnants of high school, university, my time in Korea. I talked and laughed and drank and ate and told people about my life and heard about theirs. I shared everything I had, and sometimes was content to just exist in the same house as the people I loved, the knowledge that they were ten metres away providing a deep, unfathomable harmony that I keep forgetting to relish.
Home is a place where you can turn off, where you can rest. Where you don’t really need to try, in all the ways you never knew that you weren’t actually trying all this time. You don’t have to try to speak. You don’t have to try to listen. You don’t have to try to walk down the street, or order from a menu, or try to gauge whether to nod at a stranger as they pass down a busy road. You don’t have to wonder about niceties and politeness because it comes naturally, as though it was threaded through your DNA in thymine and cytosine. All the people you know and all the people you’ve ever been are blocks away, rather than oceans.
Going home always makes you wonder why you left in the first place, and always reminds you of the reasons you had to leave. It assures you that your place is somewhere off on a distant shore, a plane or a train or a boat away, but that there’s also a little place carved out just for you somewhere else. Home fills up the spaces you didn’t know were emptying out, it recharges the batteries you forgot you had. Bits and pieces of you that wear down are stitched back up; lost pieces and shorn fragments of who you are float up to the surface to be renewed and reinstalled.
The act of leaving again seems ludicrous and absolutely necessary all at the same time: how could one ever leave a place so warm, so filled with love, so easy and comfortable and comprehensible and safe? While leaving means another going away, another series of so-longs and farewells, it also means a return in the future, a coming home around another bend.
Without adventure, respite becomes redolence. Without challenge, ease becomes laziness. I love the feeling of cool air across my back after letting my backpack slip to the ground for what I know will be some time. I love the feeling almost as much as I love stuffing it full of clothes and band aids and books and putting it back on. Picking up your burdens reminds you of what it feels like to be without them; setting out from home lets you know what its like to come back.