On the Sunshine Coast of BC two years ago, capturing the last frames of Canadiana for a while… (photos by Paulo)
September 28, 2013
took pity on me kindly drove me and my heavy suitcases of computer equipment from my apartment in Toronto to Pearson Airport. There I met up with Paulo, who had landed on a connecting flight that departed Vancouver that morning. I had flown the night before to use the last of my Aeroplan frequent flyer mileage and pick up the equipment that I didn’t want travelling in the back of my car, 4,358km across the country. It made for a nutty itinerary on my last day in Canada, but in the end everything went according to plan and we flew that evening from Pearson together, everything intact and no baggage fees (thanks SATA!).
September 28, 2015
Two years later, I have a ticket booked for Canada — at Christmastime. By the time I arrive, I will have been away 26.5 months. It’s not a record, come to think of it. I left Canada in November 1991 and was away for about a month longer, returning in early 1994 for a couple of weeks before flying back to the UK to resume work. I’ve calculated that in the past 25 years, I have lived outside of Canada for 6.5 years, or 26% of my adult life. The stints were late 1991 to early 1995 (Australia, UK), then late 2004 to early 2006 (USA), then late 2013 to today in Portugal. The major difference between then and now, apart from life experience, is the internet. It’s changed the expat experience completely.
What It Was Like Being An Expat in the Early ’90s
- Keeping in touch with people was either slow, costly, or next-to-impossible. I wrote a TON of letters and bought phone cards. In the rare instance I found a broken payphone, I would proceed to call everyone in my address book (remember those?) who might be awake and then hog the payphone until someone harassed me or the phone company cut me off.
- I lost track of people who were nomadic. Sometimes I would resort to calling their parents, if I had their contact details. Occasionally someone would give me the phone number of a parent or grandparent who spoke no English at all. Fun times on the phone!
- I had no blog back then for people to read what was I was up to or update where I was. Everything I told one person, I had to repeat to another. Since I had no plan, everything was a surprise (even to me). To make sure I wasn’t repeating information to the same people (no copy/paste, no automatic archives), I kept dated lists. I would send postcards by the batch, writing variations of the same news, then kept one of the postcards with a summary of the news plus the list of recipients who received it. I also copied the date beside the person in my address book to keep a tally of how often that person was updated. This was my system for a long time, and it worked.
- I was completely out of touch with what was going on in Canada. I didn’t know about the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver until well after it happened (unlike the riot in 2011 when I was in Portugal and saw the news on my laptop). I remember arriving in London in February 1993 from Thailand, and visiting Canada House in Trafalgar Square soon after. In the lobby was a giant portrait of former Governor General Jeanne Sauvé (the first woman appointed to this post in Canada), announcing that she had passed away. I stood there in some disbelief that I would find out this way in London and not through a Canadian broadcaster. What was even stranger was that I had already been out of the country for more than a year and accustomed to receiving news from Canada in tiny dribs and drabs, if anything, and usually from a shop window or airport TV screen. It would take a catastrophe in Canada to show up in an international news feed. I was surprised at my own reaction at Trafalgar House, it was as if a distant relative had died and nobody told me.
What It’s Like Being An Expat in 2015
- So much information. Two decades ago, living outside of Canada meant being quite cut off from what was happening and where. These days the news comes regurgitated and diluted from all directions; it takes filters and dams to keep it at a reasonable level. There’s quite a lot of nonsense, too, which makes it necessary to fetch news from different sources.
- Social media is a beast. It’s an odd thing to have a mixture of acquaintances, close friends, distant family, and immediate family members all jumbled together virtually. Every channel has a different mix of people in it, a phenomenon that would never happen in real life, except at your own funeral — which of course you’d never be able to attend. Social media is like having a virtual room and inviting people you know to talk to you, but unlike a real world room where most people would naturally turn to talk to other people, too, in general those people are there to talk to YOU. In the virtual rooms, it’s perfectly OK to not say a word for long periods of time, unlike in real life where once you know someone is around, there would probably be (much) more interaction.
- Social media abets (and begets) laziness. I must admit I’m far less diligent now about staying in touch with people even though it’s much easier and mostly free. Through the magic of the internet, people see what you’re doing and you see what they’re doing, but until someone says something you either assume they know and haven’t commented on it yet or jump to wild conclusions why they haven’t acknowledged it.
- FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is in the Oxford Dictionary, believe it or not. I’m far too old for FOMO the Millennium Edition, but I got the antiquated version of FOMO out of my system when it meant using one’s imagination only. Nowadays, social media will provide the visual reminder of what the distant people in your life are doing without you. For new expats and millennials, this can be a form of torture — “I’m missing friends and parties!” For Gen-X expats (and older), the modern version of FOMO is a generational difference, a likelihood and acceptance that the next flight home might be for a funeral rather than a wedding. Pre-internet, it was only possible to hear about someone’s terminal illness, but these days it is possible to witness it in real-time through a screen.
- It’s easier to find people, and be found. This one can be an emotional landmine. No explanation necessary.
- It’s easier to do (most) things long-distance. There was a time when the phone was a necessary device for making arrangements and reservations, maybe even a fax machine, currency exchange was a pain, and time zones were inconvenient. Now it matters far less, with many options for research, communication, confirmations, verifications, and payments. There’s email, SMS, MMS, contact forms, DMs, PMs, QR codes. However, the people who were always hard to reach are still hard to reach (I’m talking to you, Dad).
- Technology still can’t fetch me a fresh Montreal bagel, but I can find the closest bagel shop. This is huge. There are mobile apps for all sorts of things, from maps to dating. If someone hasn’t yet built an app for finding which store now stocks real Canadian maple syrup, it’s just a matter of time. I remain hopeful.
I can also tell you that being a Canadian abroad is not what it used to be, thanks to current policies regarding voting status:
If current policy continues, October 19 will be the last General Election in which I’m eligible to vote. Yes, I’m voting, even though I have issues with the eligibility requirements. I take civic duty seriously, like I did when I was in Canada. It doesn’t change just because I don’t live there. Although it is stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that voting is part of our democratic rights as Canadians, it is trumped by this current policy that Canadians who live abroad for more than five years can’t vote. My personal view is that if the previous policy of letting the five-year rule reset with visits were reinstated, that would be enough for me. But there are plenty of arguments for why this arbitrary five-year rule doesn’t make sense on top of being unconstitutional, and there is a growing opposition towards it among the Canadian expat community.
The popular line is that we are “un-Canadian” because we don’t live in Canada. But talk to a Canadian abroad and you’ll see why choosing where to live is not the same as calling it home. See here for more Canadian expats who want to vote, and their stories.
I’m excited about our trip to Vancouver in December, to see people and to eat all the food. I’ve spent two Christmases in Portugal and it’s time for a break. Although it’s not for another two and a half months, I’m already thinking about what to eat! But above all, I’m there to see people. In the past two years, an aunt passed away, my nieces and nephew have moved across the border to Washington State, a close friend got married, another close friend has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and is currently undergoing aggressive treatment, another friend has come out as transgender and is in transition. Time marches on, and there are probably other big life events that I’ve missed in the meantime. I lived in Toronto for more than seven years and got used to flying the five hours each away from Vancouver, but the distance from Porto to Vancouver is such that there are no direct flights and it makes for a much longer travel day (12.5 flight hours each way there, plus overnight in Amsterdam there and two stops on the return). Trips like this won’t be frequent, but I’ll make them count.
Here is the last gallery of photos I took during our epic cross-Canada road trip which I call Lua de Mel 2: Canada (our second honeymoon).