Why Do You Live Where You Live?

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Toronto from the 50th floor of 14 York Street, Toronto, May 2018

Why do you live where you live? What brought you—or made you stay—where you are? Is this where you grew up, where your family has roots? Did you move there for university? Did you find a job opportunity? Did you follow your spouse? Did you select the city or town where you’d buy a house, make a living and do the stuff grownups are supposed to do based on gut feeling or careful data analysis?

It’s funny how we end up where we are. When I ask around, few people actually chose where they are living. It just sort of happened—you were there so you stayed there, you came there for whatever reason and you stayed there.

I’m one of the “came here, wasn’t planning to stay” people. I had no idea I would actually end up spending the past fifteen years in Ottawa, a city where neither Feng nor I had roots or career prospects and for which we had no interest.

This is how it happened. Feng was born and raised in Shenyang, China, then he spent his teenage years in a small town in Manitoba before going to university in Winnipeg. After he graduated, he lived briefly in several places in Canada and abroad. I was born and raised in Nantes, France. After graduating from high school—and catching the travel bug at the age of 16—I went to work in Hong Kong.

If you’re wondering how the hell we met… well, read this.

So late 2001, Feng was working in Los Angeles and I was in China. We met in Mexico City and embarked upon a trip through Central and South America. We reached our goal, Rio de Janeiro, in February 2002 and began considering going “home” because we had no money left—except technically, we both didn’t have a home or a return ticket. I was still 18, so I was expected back at my parents’. I don’t know if Feng had a plan except “flying back to Canada, wherever.”

I didn’t feel like going back to France so Feng and I bought a one-way ticket to Toronto together. I even made Feng a fake student ID to get a cheaper airfare—don’t judge, we were really broke.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, was my first glimpse of North America. After a long layover and another three-hour flight, we landed in Toronto. I spent my first night in Canada at the HI Toronto Hostel in the female dorm where a bunch of Korean women spent their time stripping down to their underwear and giggling—don’t ask me why, I don’t speak Korean—while I was meticulously layering my warmer clothes (a Peruvian jacket bought in the Andes, a leather jacket bought in Argentina) because I was freezing. Still, I was excited to be in Toronto. We had a burger and fries in a diner, we went to read magazines at Chapters, I had my first cup of Starbucks coffee and, after a few months in Latin America where neither of us spoke Spanish and Portuguese, I found it amazing that every transaction was smooth and efficient.

We spent a couple of days in Toronto but we couldn’t have stayed much longer. You need more than a few hundred dollars and the content of a backpack to start a new life in Canada’s largest city.

Feng didn’t have a home but his parents did. They had just moved from Manitoba to a small town in Ontario and they had bought a house in Ottawa, where they were planning to retire. Feng called his parents who sounded happy their only child was still alive after his foolish trip to Latin America and we bought two Greyhound tickets to Ottawa.

They were already two of Feng’s father acquaintances housesitting but there was enough room for us—and two more people when my in-laws eventually came to visit and learned their son had somehow picked up a French chick in Latin America.

I spent three weeks in Canada before flying back to France. Feng ended up staying in Ottawa because he just wanted to work and save money to travel again. I came back to live with my parents in Nantes for the same reason.

Nine months later, we meet again in New Zealand and when we eventually parted ways in Sydney, Feng flew back to Ottawa a few hours after I boarded a plane to Paris. Once again, we worked, saved money and went backpacking together in Central America.

That time, I didn’t fly back to France. At the end of the trip, I stayed in Ottawa with Feng.

It’s in Ottawa that I had my visitor visa extended, it’s to Ottawa that I came back with a work visa, it’s in Ottawa that I applied for permanent residence, it’s in Ottawa that I became a Canadian citizen.

“It’s temporary, anyway” was our private joke for a long time. We never really settled down the way many couples do because we had zero interest in doing so. I literally lived out of my backpack for a year, not bothering using the walk-in closet.

We stayed in Canada because, as Feng put it before I got permanent residence status, “at least one of us is legal here.” And we stayed in Ottawa because we were already there. Turned out that Feng’s father wasn’t ready to retire yet—he finally did when I was pregnant, ten years later, but by then, they had bought another house in a newer suburb.

Over the years, I visited different places in Canada—Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and many other smaller towns and cities. The only place where I was interested in living was Toronto.

For some reason—or rather, for many of them—we never moved to Toronto. It was never a cheap city to begin with but with the housing market boom, it became less and less appealing from a practical perspective.

I don’t regret not moving to Toronto because we did travel a lot these past fifteen years and this matters more to me than the actual address on my driver’s licence. I’m not in love in Ottawa but we made it work. But sometimes, I can’t help wondering how life would have been if we had moved to Toronto, if we were living in a condo somewhere downtown instead of a house in the suburb.

Just as well, we have a few long weekends here and there to try a new lifestyle for just a few days.

I’ll report back on condo living, promise.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

20 Comments

  1. At some point, I do envy who can live here and there — any part of the world. I’d love to hear their stories. It’s different with go there for vacation.
    In my circle, most of them – born and raised in Jakarta.

  2. Very thought-provoking piece, which I can totally relate.

    And yes, I agree, we don’t really choose where we live. I live in Berlin, because back in 2012, the only job offer I had when I was searching for a post-doc was in Berlin. I applied to labs and research institutes located in Paris, Boston, Kent, Berlin (two institutes), Sydney, and rural Pennsylvania. One of the labs in Berlin said yes, and of course I imagine what life would have been like if things have been different.

    Before Berlin, as you know, I lived in Buffalo, because the only graduate school program that accepted me with full funding was located there. This time, I was probably a little arrogant and unwise because I only applied there, already knowing that I would get it. I wonder what it would have been like if I didn’t go to graduate school at all. I probably would have remained in the Philippines, miserable.

    And speaking of Buffalo, I was there for 7 years but yes, for me it was temporary. I could pack all of my belongings and close my apartment within an afternoon. I didn’t have big furniture: I slept in an airbed. I didn’t date. All because I knew that I wasn’t staying, and I was moving on after graduation.

    Berlin was different. I started planting roots. And yes, even though I love travelling, every time I return there’s this weird fuzzy feeling of arriving home, right when the aeroplane touches down.

    • You do sound happy and at home in Berlin and like you said, it’s probably because you planted roots. Or maybe you did find your happy place in this big world, after experiencing so many different lives in so many different countries!

      I “met” you when you were in Buffalo and I can easily picture you as “Jeruen, studying in Buffalo” but I can’t see you as a Filipino. Maybe occasionally when you mention some food you crave (cheese bread!)… but rarely. However, these days, I mostly see you as a fellow European because you “get” Europe and as a French, I can mention something typically European you’d get culturally speaking. Life is funny, isn’t it!

  3. Martin Penwald on

    If I had to choose a Canadian town to settle, I would hesitate between Québec and Vancouver. Québec is a really nice town, but not very diverse. Vancouver has the SkyTrain and the SeaBus.

    • I thought Quebec City was very cute (and looked like a French city) but culturally speaking, I don’t think I’d fit in. I have yet to visit Vancouver… based on what I hear about it, I think I could like it. However, it’s far from Europe so I’m not sure about that… and maybe too outdoorsy for me. Who knows…

  4. Enjoy ! I hated Toronto the first and only time I went there. I’ve read so many things about it for seven years that I’m totally ready to come back and enjoy this city. I just need a plan to leave my daughters to someone ;)) Montreal was definitely a choice. We chose it as a place to live, we didn’t move for a job, or for an opportunity. We wanted to leave France, studied different options and went for this one because it sounded like the best for us. No regrets until now.

    • Out of curiosity, what other places did you consider?

      I’ve always loved Toronto much like I’ve always felt “meh” about Montreal, and I can’t explain why. I enjoy Montreal as the occasional tourist but I can’t picture myself living there. I could have fit better in Toronto, I think, although I no longer want to live there for practical reasons. Many French dislike Toronto when they visit the city for the first 😉 What did you hate about it? Too American?

      • Martin Penwald on

        Going to Toronto by the highway, coming from the East, you start being in a urban area largely before being effectively in Toronto. It renders the trip very long for an European, and gives a bad first impression.

          • We were only in Toronto for one little day. We were on the city center, around the big mall, looking for a nice and small restaurant, without success. I didn’t see the small neighborhoods around, the nice places, not even the lake. I really have to come back 🙂 We never consider any other place than Montreal, in Canada. But at the very beginning of our love story, our plan was to go to Sydney (still pretty typical) or NZ. And you, have you ever thought of immigrating to another country ?

          • I feel for you because I think we have the same bad luck every time we come to Montreal! We end up in places where we can’t find what we’re looking for, or everything is closed, or it’s just the same shitty franchise restaurants as in Ottawa, etc. And I *know* there are cool places in Montreal! Same goes with Toronto. It sounds like you were at Yonge and Dundas, close to the Eaton Centre. It’s a busy area but not the best place to relax and enjoy small restaurants. I’d recommend Chinatown, Kensington Market, little Portugal… all places within walking distance but of course, you gotta know they exist in the first place!

            I vaguely considered staying in Australia and New Zealand when we first visited in 2003 but I wasn’t a big fan of the culture (especially in OZ) and it felt very far from other places I like in the world, like Europe. We came back to Australia in 2010 and I can’t say I have any regrets. I enjoy the country as a tourist but that’s it.

            I thought I’d live in China considering my background (Langues’O…) 😆

  5. I feel like I both chose to live in Lyon and was lucky to be from the area. Like luck and choice really mixted. I’m from a very country…ish countryside, in the mountains between Lyon and Saint-Etienne. Absolutely loved growing up there. It’s a big part of who I am today. Both my parents are from the Lyon area originally (well, my dad is from Spain originally but he spent his teenagehood in the Lyon area).
    I had a choice to pick either Grenoble, Lyon or Sainté for my studies and the choice was obvious for me, the attraction of the biggest city was too much! It’s been 13 years, on and off with all the travelling. I’m so happy here. It’s the perfect region for me, despite the lack of ocean (well, I still have the sea not far away)! So I was lucky.
    Still, today, things have changed, and I think I have changed as well. It’s too polluted, too expensive. I’m looking elsewhere but, where? Meh, it’s temporary. 😉

    • Have you ever considered going back to the countryside or was staying in Lyon the logical thing to do after you graduated?

      I always both envy and admire your passion for Lyon, even if I can understand that after a while, you may need a change of scenery. And it’s a cool place to live, I agree!

      • No, I didn’t! My parents sold our house. It felt like I didn’t have a home anymore… Still, the Monts du Lyonnais still feel like home. I go back there at least once a year…
        I never considered going back to the countryside (any countryside) until last year. Now that’s the only thing I’m thinking about! But we both have to figure out the job situation before…

        • Isa je viens du même endroit c’est drôle ! Pour ma part c’est resté le lieu de famille car mes parents eux mêmes ont quitté la région après ma naissance pour partir à Grenoble 🙂

          • Oh bah c’est pas vrai, que le monde est petit ! Tu viens d’où exactement ?! (St Sym pour moi !)

        • Oh, I hear you about the “feeling of not having a home”! I’m ridiculously happy my parents are still living in the apartment where I grew up.

          Yeah, I assume moving outside the city also means fewer job opportunities. I always find it weird that people go “oh, you should live in a cheaper place!” Well, there’s a reason why people move to Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, etc. It’s much harder to find a job in “le Larzac”, right?!

          • J’adorerais vivre au Larzac !!! Mais je me destine pas trop à l’élevage de chèvres donc, faut reconnaître…

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