While most expatriates prepare their move years in advance, the cultural shock and adaptation period is never an easy one. Nobody plans the unplannable, nobody knows whom and what you’ll miss the most, and you can’t plan when that will come and hit you. Sometimes I look back at the way that I moved from France to Canada with my family (mother, father and brother) and I think that my dad must have been
a little nuts.
I will tell you how, in 2 weeks, my teenage life turned upside down. So long ago.
My 15th year had been wonderful. My parents were still together living in Southwestern France in a nice little house (renovations almost finished). I had successfully sailed through my first year of lycée at a boarding school where I had met many new friends with whom I could share the dream of living of arts and music. I loved it. Spending the week by myself (meaning: without the parental constant control) was a dream come true; I’d dreamed to live away from my parents early in my life.
That year all music students had been very busy with the choir practices, rehearsals, and concerts even during some week-ends. I think most of us didn’t mind at all, but coming back “home” was always stressful; my parents complaining that they never saw me anymore or too little. That I was perfectly happy wasn’t the concern; I was growing up, slowly moving away from them, that was upsetting.
My dad had been talking about moving away for quite a while. My brother and I had been perfectly trilingual as kids when living in Hong-Kong. Yet, it seemed we couldn’t remember much English! Was it possible that we had become, sadly, monolingual in French? Well, not really because we’ve always spoken a bit of Spanish with mum and the Argentinian side of the family, but…
The summer vacation was almost over when my dad bought plane tickets for the whole family to go for 2 weeks in Canada. He told us all that we would go as tourists to visit, but if we liked it there we would be moving!
I remember that my brother and I asked what we should be packing then, only summer clothes or some books too?
I remember I met one of my close friend at the swimming pool a couple of days later. I told her I would be late starting school, but I might actually not be coming back… I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. We had planned to be roommates that year.
August 25, 1996, when we arrived at Montreal’s airport, the customs officer asked my dad what was the reason for our visit. My dad replied, “Actually we are moving here!”, to which the officer answered, “Bienvenue! Bienvenue!“. We later learned that the government of Quebec was so desperate for French immigrants that, coming from France, our immigration process might be easier. I don’t know if it’s true, all I know is that the cost of all our immigration process has been very expensive (I’m talking thousands of dollars here).
We spent the first week of our “vacation” the four of us visiting houses. My parents went back to France to sale the house, all that was in it, and make boxes with the rest. My brother and I never used our return tickets. We started school right away (in Quebec the school year starts a week or two earlier than France).
In two weeks we were living in a different country, surrounded by a different language (to our untrained ears), attending a different school, no friends (not yet), an empty house (waiting for our boxes)…
Our first couple of months were traumatizing. I think that of the 4 of us, I am the one who adapted the better because I could drain all my sadness or frustration into the piano two or three hours a day. That was the year I practiced the most. It didn’t stop me from crying a couple of (memorable) times when I felt alone, misunderstood or missing my friends terribly.
Then I realized that I couldn’t be in two places at once. My home wasn’t in France anymore, it was in Quebec. I did enjoy living in Montreal, very much. I loved being in a big multicultural city, and yet not to feel the insecurity that one feels usually in a big city, specially at night. I also liked to have Spanish speaking friends for the first time in my life.
Looking back at all that unfolded, I often wonder if it was worth it. My parents ended up divorcing, my mother now lives in Buenos-Aires, my father still wondering where to go (but not in Canada). My brother moved back to France. I am the only one who stayed. I don’t regret the big move to Canada because so much has happened in Montreal: I studied music, learned English, and above all I met my husband there.
Would we have met if we hadn’t been there and then? Probably. We think that if it hadn’t been in Canada, it would have been somewhere else.