I spent part of my Christmas holidays in the house that I grew up in, located in the suburbs of Montreal. I haven’t lived in Montreal full-time since I left to go to university, more than (shudder) 15 years ago. And even then, I didn’t really live in Montreal growing up. And yet, in my mind, I’ve built up my home city to the point where there could be nowhere better to live.
Pop culture wasn’t helping either. Before I left for the trip, not one but two travel/eating shows featured Montreal. My husband and I watched, and I heard the French/Québécois accents, saw the old, narrow streets, the distinct architecture, and immediately couldn’t wait to get on a plane and get back “home.” I always relax a little when we land in Montreal and the announcement is first made in French, “Bienvenue à Montreal.”
Of course, it’s never that simple. The city may feel like home, but the house where I grew up most definitely does not. I am reminded of all of the reasons I left more than 15 years earlier for my undergraduate degree and never went back. It is home in all of the worst ways: oppressive, limiting, and confining. It was my home, but I am no longer that person and I no longer fit into the place where I used to, for better or for worse, belong. Couple that with the fact that I am traveling with my own very young kids, one who doesn’t travel well, and the trip was less of a vacation and more of an endurance test, made worse by my own unrealistic expectations.
Reading the now infamous piece in the Atlantic lamenting the life lived as a professor in Iowa, I am reminded of my own situation, a transplanted Montrealer and Canadian, living in the rural South. How much should we expect to adapt to our new surroundings in order to make them feel like home versus how much we try to reshape our surroundings for that same purpose? Bloom laments the expectations/biases of the people he met, their inflexibility, but how much of his unhappiness is a result of his own inability to adapt himself? And, if he were to move back to San Francisco, would he be any happier or feel more at home after 20 years?
As academics, we are told we need to be flexible or realistic when it comes to where we end up living for our academic careers. If we aren’t willing to be flexible and accept certain sacrifices for the tenure-track, then we need to be realistic about our chances of making a good living in academia. But there is always the danger of over-romanticizing either option, be it the tenure-track job in the middle of nowhere or adjunct teaching in the big city (or getting out of academia all together). Montreal is a distant memory, largely divorced from reality at this point. And I am largely in control of my own happiness - I can either make the best of things here or keep pining for Montreal (or some other big city). Is that fair to my family to never feel like we’re home?
My experience and memories of Montreal are unique. Certainly, I have common cultural moments, shared by almost all Montrealers (cheering for the Canadiens, the now-defunct Expos, the Ice Storm of 1998, among others), but I grew up Anglophone in the West Island (aka the English suburb), which is different from being French from the East End, an immigrant living in an ethnic neighborhood, or a Jew from Westmount (my Montreal is not Mordecai Richler’s Montreal, Michel Tremblay’s Montreal, Dany Laferrière’s Montreal). It also has to do with the time I grew up in Montreal; as a young teen, I was largely insulated from the economic depression of the early 1990s. I lived in Montreal, with bagels and smoked meat and sugaring off and linguistic tensions, but I came of age elsewhere, looking back on where I grew up with eyes filled with nostalgia.
While in Montreal, I made the mistake of telling my son that we were going home when I meant we were going back to my parents’ house, my old home. He got excited, then completely despondent when he realized what I really meant. For him, home is where his things are, where his friends live, where we all live. As my daughter explained to the border agent, she was born in California, her brother in Florida, her Dad in Edmonton, and her mom in Montreal, but we live in Kentucky. Home for her and her brother is wherever we live, our family born at four corners of North America, living together in a space filled with love.
I’m not going to lie; I still miss the food and hearing French. But I wouldn’t trade my life for either of those things. I am, finally, home.
Morehead, Kentucky in the US.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at College Ready Writing and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.