I have lived in London nearly 5 years and while I will always be a Canadian expat, I am inching closer to becoming a ‘real’ Londoner.
However, there are moments as an expat that are more difficult than others. Situations that are more challenging and firsts that break your heart. The first time you miss a funeral or another important loved one’s milestone. The first time you visit A&E alone and truly realize you are on the other side of the world.
What home means becomes less clear with every month that passes. I remember traveling back to Canada last Christmas and feeling annoyed that I had to buy health insurance to be safe in my own country. Over the years, I have caught myself more and more saying words like ‘queue’ instead of ‘line’. I used to say them to prove my London-ness, but now they are part of my natural speech.
As an expat, I feel comfortable everywhere but settled nowhere.
I travelled so much the last 18 months that London felt like an expensive layover where I stopped to change my clothes and try to sleep enough to leave again. Some weeks I felt like all I did was go to and from Heathrow in taxis at unsociable hours. Time stopped meaning much of anything as long as I made my flights.
I didn’t think about Canada much when London initially went into lockdown. COVID-19’s threat didn’t trigger a rush of patriotism that normally washes over when I celebrate Canada Day in London or, more embarrassingly, when Celin Dion comes on the radio. I was slightly surprised to receive messages from fellow expats asking whether I was planning to go home.
It wasn’t until I saw Justin Trudeau’s speech calling all Canadians home that my heart twisted and home once again became a confusing question. Around the same time, my inbox started to flood with messages from the Canadian Embassy about repatriation flights.
I spent most of my life trying to leave Canada and I rarely, except on my lowest days, question my decision to live abroad. I sometimes feel guilty for how easy I have found it to build a life in another country and away from my family. I find it hard to explain, and even sometimes hard to relate to others, who don’t dream of living an expat life.
My last night out in London before the lockdown was blurry and full of people I love. I drank red wine in a high-ceilinged, chandelier lit room overlooking Royal Albert Hall. At the end of the evening, I half-walked-half-weaved my way to South Kensingston Station to take the tube home. I manoeuvred easily through the stations, changing trains without looking at the signs, and not making eye contact with my fellow passengers. I smiled, as I always do, when I came out of Belsize Park Station and saw the distant London lights twinkling down Haverstock Hill. Less than 5 minutes to the door of my flat and the sound of my skeleton key clicking comfortingly in the lock.
Chris and I talked a lot that first week of lockdown as to whether I should fly back to Canada. I priced flights in panicked moments and mentally packed my bags dozens of times. In the end, we decided it was best for me to stay in London with my access to healthcare, my incredible friends, a job I love, and my flat where I am safe and happy. I can’t pretend it was an easy decision for either of us.
Today I was meant to be running the London Marathon. Chris was meant to be here for the finish line and tomorrow we were going to travel to Paris where I would hobble through our favourite streets and stuff myself full of croissants. Instead I ran just 5 miles this morning and nowhere near the marathon route. I now sit with my laptop, almost dressed, and drinking one of the many cups of tea that have become synonymous with lockdown. I am wearing mascara and a glittery sweatshirt I bought years ago at Monoprix in Paris. One day I know I will cross that finish line and Chris and I will celebrate in Paris.
London has become more permanent through this experience. My life here is normally at high speed and I rarely take the time to consider what makes London more than just an iconic backdrop to my dreams. Lockdown has proven the strength of my London friendships and I have rarely been lonely. My job, away from the noise of traveling, is stimulating and my colleagues are kind and supportive. I live in an area that provides stunning natural beauty with Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill on my doorstep and I spend hours each week exploring them.
London stripped bare of most of its glamour and excitement is still a lovely place to call home.