02/03/2016

She's From Québec



I'm standing in a queue to enter Vancouver Art Gallery, chatting with a friend, when suddenly the man standing in front of us turns around and strikes up a conversation:

"Do you mind me asking where you're from?"

"From Québec", my friend answers for us. "Québec City."

"Québec! How delightful! I've been there once, and I'm actually planning on returning later this year. Well, quebeckers, could you give me some tips? I'd like to visit some smaller cities on my next trip, but I don't really know the province..."

"Well, you could start by Sherbrooke I guess?", I suggest. "It's a little to the South from Québec. Or Lac Saint-Jean in the North."

"Or Trois-Rivières!", goes my friend, being a little patriotic about his hometown. "And there's Granby."

"How about the Gaspé region? It's by the Atlantic", I say.

"And well, there's always Montréal, not really small but..."

I give a little look at my friend and smile. "... Or Lévis."

We both laugh, and the man looks confused.

~ * ~

I first landed in Québec in June 2014, taking my first step to the continent of North America. I was a Finn in Québec, and to keep it simple, I hated it. I hated pretty much everything about Québec from the attitude quebeckers tend to give me when I couldn't speak French to the architecture and food. It was my first-ever culture shock. Needless to say, I was more than terrified a year later when I realised I had made the decision to immigrate into this anomaly.

Seven months later I'm paying my hot chocolate at Second Cup in Banff, Alberta. I'm slightly exhausted from all things English Canadian happening around me - but then I stick my debit card into the reader and see the machine automatically change the language into French. I smile, grab my cup and return to my table.

"Cette machine me parle en français!"
"Pour vrai?", goes my friend.
"Ooouuiiii!"

In seven months my hatred triggered by the fear of the unknown had turned into tender affection. Instead of pouting at home, I found myself seeking ways to adapt, learn and understand my new homeland. The uncomfortability (discussed more in THIS POST) had turned into unconditional curiosity. Thoughts like "Why is everyone always trying to talk to me in public places?" morphed into "So what if I sound like an idiot when I say the word 'la porte' - I want this door open!"

Seven months ago I never would have thought that there will be a day when a man from Vancouver addresses me as a quebecker, and that one tiny word, that absolutely irrelevant little term of a definition, warms up my cheeks and frees the butterflies in my stomach. Seven months ago navigating through a payment process in French was my absolute nightmare, but today it makes my heart long for my new home when I'm lost in the western prairies.

A Christmas gift from my spouse
To be called a quebecker doesn't make my heart skip a beat because it somehow erases my identity as a Finn. My identity as a Finn might take new forms in the upcoming years, but nothing will ever take away my childhood eating rye bread and feeling awkward about other people in the elevator. To be called a quebecker hits the right spot because it means I belong - that after months and months of struggling, fighting, tears and frustration I have reached such a peace of mind with my new home that being addressed as one of its residents feels right.

A Local is something that every immigrant seeks to become. A traveller, however, voyages on in the crowd, bumping into people she will never meet again, sitting in cafes observing passersby going about their lives - and in the end, catches the train and leaves forever as all the locals go on with their routines, never having known about the girl who was there for that blink of an eye. I was sitting with my backpack in that Starbucks in Vancouver, watching those people desperately trying to catch the bus, being an outsider from somewhere else. Their routines were my adventures.

To become a local asks for more than catching that same bus with everyone else: it asks you to want to belong. Becoming a local means you have to stop observing things by asking what is different, and instead address things with the question of why does it even matter. The showers are really different in Québec compared to Finland - but so what, since I can very successfully wash myself in both? Door knobs might be a bit confusing for someone who has turned handles all their lives, but so far I have been able to enter and exit every room I wanted. Quebeckers wash their dishes with sponges, and so will I.

Seven months ago I was a Finn in Québec, comparing my every step to all the steps I had taken in Finland. As months passed, that hunch of bitterness and sickening I felt for my home country slowly turned into nostalgic memories and distant contacts as I dove into the mystery called French-speaking Canada. After the first shock passed I proceeded to explore my new home with a never ending hunger, to a point where my colleague once told everyone that "Mel probably knows this city far better than any of us, so if you need directions, ask her".

Rue du Petit Champlain, Québec City
Then I made a trip to British Columbia, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean - to the very other side of the world from Finland. At that moment, as Finland is so very far away, Québec is my home. I experienced the same distance I took to Finland by moving to Québec by travelling across the whole country to Vancouver, and it made me realise exactly how much I have fallen in love with Québec. I now sweep its streets with routine and breath in its damp winter air every morning as the snow keeps on falling, and it feels like with every inhale I absorb a little piece of this land within me.

~ * ~

I sit at my desk at work, Facebook open, when my friend sends me a message. It's a link to THIS YOUTUBE VIDEO about people answering to the question "What is it to be a quebecker". I watch it, little teary-eyed, and then proceed to ask him if he thinks I will one day become a quebecker.

"But Mel", he says. "I think you already are."
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