People sometimes ask me: “Where is home? Canada or France?” The answer is both. Toronto will always be where I’m from. But after living in France for so many years, it is my home. Je suis chez moi ici.
A funny thing happens when I go ‘home’ to Toronto now. Everything seems really familiar. People speak my language, in my accent. I know all the street names. I feel like I belong.
It doesn’t take long for that feeling to go AWOL.
“This is my country, eh? I’ll do the talking,” I say to my husband as we line up at Canadian customs and immigration in Montreal. For some reason known only to Air Canada, our direct flight to Toronto has us deplane and enter Canada in Montreal before continuing on to our destination. Baggage, duty free and all.
My husband and I cannot go anywhere without arguing. He considers himself a seasoned and erudite traveler, and takes pleasure in showing me where to line up and how to do basic operations at those automatic terminals that check you in and print your boarding pass. Most of the time, when he is not overly lording it up, I will listen to his wisdom. But not on my home turf. He may guide me in Europe, Canada is all mine.
The customs agent, a friendly young fellow with a strong Québecois accent, wants to know the purpose of our trip and our final destination. “Visiting family, in Toronto,” I reply in French. He studies our French passports and landing card with interest before stamping them and waving us through. But not before saying something absolutely incomprehensible. The French Canadian accent stretches my adopted tongue into an unrecognizable form of the lingo. I nod and smile as we leave, then turn to my husband for guidance. He may be foreign but his grasp of French will always be better than mine.
“What the hell did he say?” He gives me a look to say, I thought this was your country?
“He told you that he had ticked the box for returning Canadian citizens. I think he was hinting you should have a Canadian passport.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “I’m a French citizen now. Why should I bother keeping up two passports?”
“Because you can.” This is one of those silly arguments.
I repeat all the reasons I let my Canadian passport drop: it’s expensive, they have a special photo requirement, you need to have a guarantor. Besides, you don’t need a passport to be a Canadian citizen.
There are advantages to going through customs in the more licentious Québec rather than puritanical Ontario: no one questions our duty-free alcohol allowance. I had duly noted the allotted two bottles of wine on our landing card but neglected to declare a bottle of scotch and a magnum of champagne.
In Toronto, they often bring out sniffer dogs when you pick up your bags. I still remember how I trembled the last time we went through customs at Pearson aiport with two illegal raw-milk camemberts in a suitcase. It is strictly forbidden to bring in any plant or animal materials to Canada. I nearly fainted when a customs agent with a beagle wearing brightly colored Canadian maple leaf came right up to us before sniffing something more interesting in another passenger’s bag. “Relax, they’re only interested in drugs,” my husband whispered. Later, I almost fainted for a different reason when I unearthed those stinkers from our stuff. Never again, I swore.
Once we’ve arrived and settled in, I begin to notice that things are not quite as familiar as they first seem. We go shopping in downtown Toronto and I wonder where stores are that closed years ago. (“This is the Eaton Centre – but where’s Eatons?”). In the massive urban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area, I am no longer on familiar ground. Christmas Eve finds me doing last minute shopping in Ajax, a remote east-end suburb of the GTA where my parents live. It is big box store and shopping mall paradise. I exit the mall and cannot find the car. I stumble around in the freezing rain, cursing to myself until I realize: this is exactly the kind of thing that used to happen to me in France.
I want to go home, like Dorothy. I tap my heels together three times and find the car.
All of this reminds me of a song from my teenage years:
By the way, I’ve decided to renew my Canadian passport.
Happy New Year everybody!