A few years ago, I worked at a small café where I prided myself with the ability to make latté-art and pour an extra-large coffee in less than four seconds. All without spilling a drop. At the same time, one of my coworkers played in a band called Love Banshee that I followed around. Of all the songs they wrote, one in particular stuck with me:
Well, I’m just a Townie
I’ve been all my life
I know every corner
And building in sight
One day is coming
Another rolls by
Oh, bury me here
When I lay down and die
I loved that song because it was the truth; I was born here, I grew up here and I hoped to someday die here. My entire life revolved around Kitchener-Waterloo, a small Southeastern-Ontario town where the majority of the night-life was built along King Street, a narrow road that wound through two cities. It was the kind of road that one could walk down and bump into an ex, a coworker, a family member or a friend without being surprised in the slightest. My entire world was KW – nothing else existed. Everything else was part of a plotline in a book, a setting in a movie or a discount vacation getaway, and for 19 years I existed in this singular reality. That reality was blown apart after moving to Europe.
What began as an extended vacation, turned into a permanent move from home. At first, I found Paris to be glamorous and romantic, a heady addiction that I refused to admit. The endless alleys, countless people and dizzying amount of boutiques were novel and interesting. After a while, I began to fall into a rhythm. Wake up, work, meet friends, go back home. Living abroad as a foreigner, one adopts new habits and picks up new slang from the locals, but despite all of this, I fell into the same routine of life that I thought I had left in Canada. The only difference was that now it was in a new language and currency. Time passed; I fell in love with Paris and all it had to offer.
I identify as a first-generation, Latin-Canadian. My first language was Spanish, and my customs Guatemalan. Instead of waiting for Christmas morning, my family stayed awake until midnight to wish each other a Feliz Navidad. Growing up, I rebelled against my roots and heritage and was determined to separate myself from the label of Hispanic. I wanted to be a Canadian.
Throughout my adolescence, I found myself unable to fit in, in a cultural sense. Although fluent in Spanish (and it being my first language) I have a slight accent while speaking it and so, was laughed at by my immigrant-Latino friends. “Just listen to you, you’re not Guatemalan”, they’d laugh. “You’re Canadian! You’re basically White!” For this reason, I began to reject my cultural heritage and was desperate to be recognized only as a Canadian. I kept this up until I realized that my White, Canadian peers had a similar mentality. They constantly joked around claiming I was their only non-White friend or the diversity-hire at work. I didn’t take any kind of offense to these remarks, because as insensitive as they might have seemed, they were meant in good humor. It was genuinely amusing. Yet soon thereafter, I began to find myself questioning where I belonged on the social spectrum, and more specifically, where was my home?
Fast-forward several years: While organizing my inbox, I glanced at an e-mail about my flight back to Canada from France. Immediately, panic set in at the unanswered questions I had ignored since childhood. Was home determined by the landscape and location or by people and personalities, and was it limited to only one place?
Was home defined by your roots? What about Guatemala? My roots were entrenched there, my parents were born there, and my first language was Spanish; I was undeniably Latino.
Was home defined by the place I was born and raised? What about Canada? I knew Kitchener-Waterloo so well; it was the place where I had lived for 19 years. The cafés and bars I went to knew my face and name.
Was home defined by the place I chose to live? What about France? In Paris, I was a foreigner who had a flimsy grasp on the language and its people. At times, I felt alienated and excluded but it was the city that stole my heart.
For days afterwards, I sat staring into space. Who was I and where did I belong? I was facing an existential crisis while losing all sense of direction. To take my mind off of the obvious issue, I began to read Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”. In this poem, he writes, “‘Home is where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.’” (124 – 125).
Concerning the line above, I don’t like to think that “they” – assuming it is family and/or friends – have to take you in out of guilt, or a sense of deep-seated obligation but more as a feeling of love and a desire to help (125). That line reverberated through my mind while sitting in the airplane, flying further away from my beloved France. The whole flight was a tidal wave of emotion and the moment I exited Pearson International Airport in Toronto and heard the familiar tones of English, I began to feel nervous. I was back to the place that I had left.
Having been back for a month now, I’ve come to terms with my cultural ambiguity (Was I Canadian, or was I Guatemalan? Why couldn’t I be both?) and have realized that home is what you make of it. It can be anywhere; it doesn’t have to be limited to one place. If according to Robert Frost, home is where you are helped, then I have many homes where I can depend on loved ones. I needn’t limit myself to a single place, because I can always return. It took me 6082 KM, two decades, and a single poem for me to realize that home is wherever I want it to be.
Bio: Originally from Kitchener, Ontario (a town an hour south-ish of Toronto) Scarlett decided to move to Paris to write and to experience another language; another culture. When not reading or writing articles, short stories or poems, you’ll often find her smoking, rock-climbing, drinking wine, playing pool or hitting on guys at terribly awful bars you’ve probably never heard of.
Synopsis: Facing a cultural-identity crisis, we reflect on what one defines as home and why that is. A personal essay based on experience from living abroad and travelling.