It’s been one month since the “abroad” part of my life was left behind when we returned to Canada from Jerusalem. A busy month, a discombobulating month.
“Are you happy to be home?”
Family, friends, acquaintances, strangers alike ask this question.
It is a simple question, like “How are you?”
I should be able to smile and say “Yes.” And most often I do.
Except for the day that I found cat shit bundled up in a curtain stuffed on a shelf in the bathroom. Except for the day I found rodent detritus in three different places in the house. Except for the day we learned the storage company lost our antique loveseat, among other things.
But then, when I was putting out garbage, a neighbour came by on her usual leisurely morning stroll, looking not a day older than when we left eight years ago, at which time I could hardly understand her English. And she said, “You happy to be home? No soldiers with guns?”
Which put things in perspective.
There is nothing like manual work to make you forget what you have left behind. Cleaning, shifting boxes, moving things from room to room. More cleaning. As I put on clothes, then peel off clothes, I have a flash memory of the dry hot climate I left a month ago, compared to this humid one.
Another flash comes at the local grocery store, where I spy a package of pastries with Hebrew lettering on them. And something called Jerusalem Hummus.
A day or two after we occupied our house, there was a neighbourhood garage sale. Since our things were still in storage or on a boat coming from Haifa, we had nothing to sell. My husband went in search of cutlery for our take-away food, and I went out to say hello to the neighbours.
“We heard you were coming back,” said one.
Again, I am flummoxed by a simple statement. How did she hear this when we ourselves were not certain we were coming back?
Yet here we are, enjoying the experience of the very thing we missed abroad: community.
At this point, I should wax philosophical about the meaning of home, community, of what it means to belong. Instead, I refer you to one of the first books I unpacked, which was in a box of kitchen things. The introduction seems to capture exactly the bewilderment and separation that I feel.
Every single one of us wants, needs, and yearns to belong. … Wanting to belong must be a primal kind of thing, whether we admit it or not. … Our need for community, our search for ourselves, our tribe, our people, is a never-ending quest. Most of us are still looking.
-Teresa Toten, “My Piece,” in Piece by Piece: Stories about Fitting into Canada, edited by Teresa Toten, published by Penguin 2010, hardcover.
Teresa Toten is writing about authors who are immigrants to Canada. The essays seem angry to me, at first: anger at racism, anger at remaking identity, then hurt at changing a name, followed by linguistic contemplations. While I found the essays interesting, particularly Dimitri Nasrallah’s “The Languages I’ve Learned,” Rui Umezawa’s “Shadow Play,” and Marina Nemat’s “Crossing Yonge Street,” they don’t speak to my situation. There are levels of pain that I do not share. I am not an immigrant, and although people have asked me if I am Irish or Dutch or what all, I trip around with the entitlement of having been born in the country that I am moving to.
Jokingly I tell people, “Patience, please, I am a foreigner, I’ve been away eight years, I don’t know what you are talking about.” I go in the exit door, I drive the wrong way in mall parking lots, I give the cashier my credit card instead of tapping it on the proffered machine. I am surprised by how little I am asked to pay for my bakery purchase (three items for only six dollars!) because in London a good loaf was that much. The cashier at the bakery says that most people find that expensive.
Once everyone has determined that I am happy to be home, the next question will be: do you find it different. Any big changes?
Yes, there is more traffic. Yes, we can’t get a doctor. Yes, and this is a big disappointment, I don’t like some of the programmes on CBC radio. (See “Voices” for my CBC anticipation.) And no, I don’t know who to vote for.
Besides, everyone here is so nice. Yes, that is the real shock. I am walking down the sidewalk and the person coming in the other direction says “Hello” and we don’t even know each other. He is not a man with a gun, he doesn’t hate my dog, he doesn’t judge my modesty clothing level, and he simply says a neighbourly hello. Welcome home.
Other books off the top of my head about home and belonging:
- Lezli Rubin-Kunda, At Home: Talks with Canadian Artists about Place and Practice (Goose Lane Regal Projects 2018).
- Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung (Freehand Books 2018).
- Isabel Huggan, Belonging: Home Away from Home (Penguin RandomHouse 2004).
- And me, Debra Martens, on making a writing space wherever home may be: “Routine.”
- Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile, reviewed in The Atlantic.
Suggestions for others?
Feature photo: Temple of the Sacred Goat, in Israel, taken by Debra Martens.