Chapter 3: Canadian Soil (continued from Panic Attacks)
I mean that in all manners: it was fast, sensory overload, a long-time ago, and it was disconcerting.
I know that I experienced full-on culture shock. I remember walking Ben on the streets at dusk thinking that someone had quietly dropped a neutron bomb while I was inside – where were all the people?
I was stunned at how clean the world was again and I don’t mean that disparagingly with respect to Poland or the places I’ve visited; I don’t say it because this is my country and I am biased, though I have no doubt my subjectivity is part of my perception. I say it as a person who returned to his home as an outsider.
I had to relearn what it was like to live here; it was familiar – hauntingly familiar – but startlingly different. It would be like seeing again a relative with whom you grew up, but hadn’t seen in 20 years; like hooking up with your high-school best friend you haven’t seen for 10 years and connecting again. I knew this country; I knew this city. I knew these streets. I knew the people. Very little of it had changed; remarkably little in fact. But all the while it was still like looking at the world through a fog. As I watched all the blurry forms and listened to the accented words, I knew these weren’t my glasses.
People I knew talked to me like they knew me. Everyone seemed to be fascinated by my life and the last four years in particular. And like some form of ethnocentrism, people were more fascinated by my single year in China over the three years I had spent in Poland – it was like they felt they already knew “Poland” because it was largely a white European country. But China – what was that like they all wanted to know. Conversations would invariably start with something like: “Welcome back to Canada. What was it like over there?” and after I took but a few drops out of my bucket of experiences, the conversation would change to something like “Oh yeah – and I just spent the weekend in Banff hiking.” And my brain was left spinning like a freight train just derailed, on its back, its wheels turning needlessly in the air. Andrea’s experiences were the same and we’d return home at the end of it and retreat to our bed where we’d hide under the covers petting Ben and pretending that this was still Poland while we shared in the superficiality of the conversations we’d had and ask each other if we had done the right thing in returning.
Through all of this, Ben was an anchor, a beacon of stability while I tried to find my feet. I’d go to the grocery store and stand overwhelmed at the aisles of food and choices – what seemed like a hundred varieties of everything. How many kinds of pasta, yogurt, eggs, or bread does any one culture need? I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of junk food – and yes, the Poles had junk food, but not on the scale Canadian groceries were selling the stuff. “But I just wanted a bag of chips,” I mumble to Ben, stroking him over and over, like some PTSD character out of a Joseph Conrad novel. “Just a bag a of chips.”
Ben acclimatized with virtual ease. He loved the wide-open spaces in which to run; he loved the big house in which he got to live; he loved the ‘grandparent’ additions to his pack which meant he was rarely alone anymore. He discovered new scents and new food. He had a yard of his own, a fenced yard, in which he could run and explore for as long as he wanted. And it wasn’t long, during our walks off leash in the back alley of the neighbourhood, that I’d be able to shout to Ben “Home” and he race off ahead of me like a cruise missile on a mission and fly through the open gate of “his” home. Ben had never been happier and he emblematized for me what it meant to be “resilient.”
I’d say that once the initial shock of Canadian culture washed over us, we started the biggest challenge of looking for work and trying to see what life in Canada would bring. The truth is the shock never really wore off. Yes, after 6 or so months went by, people no longer commented on my accent (and no, it wasn’t really a Polish accent I had acquired – it was an EFL accent as a result of four years of painstakingly enunciating for the benefit of my students); and, yes, after time, the streets stopped feeling like some remnant of the Blitz and the shopping stopped being fearsome. And friends started to feel like friends again when I started doing things with them again and I could relate to them about a present we shared rather than a past they didn’t know. Soon I got my eyesight back, at least enough not to feel the vertigo of being in Canada. But being back was never the same again.
I had changed.
Continued next … Chapter 3: Canadian Soil — Adjustments