The dual dilemma

Dual DilemmaPeople 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!


  1. davidprosser · January 8, 2015

    Happy New Year to you both.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  2. Suzanne et Pierre · January 8, 2015

    Very interesting for me to read as we are trying to resettled in Montreal. We lived in France only for 2 1/2 years but lived in Toronto for 25 years before that so we haven’t lived in Montreal for almost 28 years. Everything is different and unfamiliar and we are going through a very stressful time as we deal with everything from buying a real winter coat to finding an apartment to getting registered on the health system…Happy New Year to you as well! (Suzanne)

    P.S. And the Quebec accent may be different than the Parisian accent but it isn’t worst or better than some of the regional French accents and patois which are also very difficult to understand. There is a snobbery from Parisian French who look down on the Quebecois accent as a lesser version of French which isn’t really true! It is simply different…

    • MELewis · January 8, 2015

      That is so true! I am rather ashamed sometimes by the snobbery of the Parisian French, and would be horrified if people thought I felt that way. I have a hard time with comprehension of accents in general, and especially in French, and as I learned French in Paris it is easier for me to understand. We live near Switzerland and our French friends sometimes make fun of the Swiss French accent, which makes me feel embarrassed for them. The fact is – everybody is from somewhere, and we all have an accent!

      Sorry to hear the return to Montreal is stressful for you both – but not surprised. It’s a huge change, and you will need to adapt. As you’ve done it before, you will manage just fine, but it will take time. People change, and so places. C’est la vie! 🙂 And maybe the materials for some new blogs soon?

      • Suzanne et Pierre · January 8, 2015

        Thanks Mel for your reply and sorry if I misread your text about the Quebecois accent. It is so true that everyone has an accent…

        We were expecting that the return would be difficult and so we are dealing with it. We have found an apartment today so that should help us feel more settled in the coming weeks. It has been very cold so we also have to adjust to the new climate! Still haven’t had time to think about the blog (old or new). I think it will have to wait a few more weeks as we aren’t really equipped right now to process pictures…

  3. Colin Bisset · January 8, 2015

    I really relate to this! Everything always feels so familiar when I return to the UK from Australia and then I notice all the things that have changed, and then I start remembering why I’m quite happy NOT living in the UK. But it’s an odd feeling having a boot in both camps, as it were, and travelling between them is always unsettling. Hope you have had a lovely return to la belle France, Madame La Canadienne!.

    • MELewis · January 9, 2015

      Interesting that you should experience similar feelings between two English-speaking countries. But as they are, both literally and figuratively, worlds apart – perhaps not so surprising. As you say it is the change from one world to the other that is strangely unsettling. I always think of it as parallel universes – we feel so close from a distance but the reality is like a complete other dimension. Bonne année to you!

  4. Leana Delle · January 13, 2015

    Great post. And I can totally relate. I left before the GTA was “the GTA,” but it’s still home turf when I visit. Bonne Année, mon ami!

    • MELewis · January 13, 2015

      Happy New Year to you, Leana! I guess we’re always Torontonians at heart.

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