Graffiti in Nantes, August 2016
Graffiti in Nantes, August 2016

This is how I picture it in my head: I’m standing at the edge of this known unknown and I’m closing my eyes. I take a deep breath and I jump without looking back, eyes still shut. I brace for what is about to happen on the other side of the pond—ideally a perfect stuck landing, like a gymnast at the end of a routine, on my two feet, smoothly and safely.

I need a minute to absorb the impact force.

Then, and only then, I will open my eyes again.

I will stand straight, I will be strong and life will go on because it always does.

Yes, this is how I picture our trip across the “pond,” that body of water some people call the “Atlantic Ocean.” From Eastern Canada to Western France… and then from Western France to Eastern Canada because there is no such thing as a one-way trip.

Okay, technically I don’t jump—I’m the passenger in row 38E in the aircraft. We are lucky too, as far as immigrant pilgrimage goes, we have it easy—a seven-hour flight with one or two connections in Montreal, Toronto, London, Paris or Amsterdam. Tickets are affordable and plenty of airlines fly this route. Logistically speaking, travelling between France and Canada is probably much easier than visiting family in the South Pacific, Asia or Southern Africa.

But emotionally speaking, the trip is still draining. I can remain stoic in tough situations but I can’t stand endings, any kind of ending, happy or sad, logical or unexpected. I always find the best part of books and movies is the beginning, for instance. I was that kid who, in the middle of July, was already dreading going back to school in September—and I didn’t even mind school.

Of course, all trips end at one point. A few days before the unavoidable departure, it still feels unreal to think that Monday, we are in France and on Tuesday, we will be in Canada. My brain can’t compute this logical fact. I’m shopping at Monoprix but I can’t picture myself fill a basket at Walmart twenty-four hours later. These two worlds can’t coexist in my head.

If I picture the different steps of leaving—packing, saying goodbye, going to the airport, etc.—,I cry. I can’t stand leaving my family behind, can’t stand thinking about the last dinner we will have together, can’t stand saying goodbye.

Fifteen years ago, I wasn’t crying when I left France because I was on my way to cool adventures. I also had a return ticket t the place I called home, conveniently my parents’ place. I did cry when leaving Feng, though. And then at one point, I started crying when leaving France and when leaving Feng in Canada or somewhere in the world. I did that for two or three years in a row before sorting out my legal status and settling in Canada. Now I cry when I leave France but I have zero reason to cry when I leave Canada since Feng and Mark tag along.

I wish I could cry in the bus to the airport but Mark is sitting by my side and I don’t want to traumatize him, so I hold my tears and read the signs about the risk of fare evasion looking for typo or inconsistency (none, the message is crystal clear). If I start crying, I have an excuse ready: something in my eye. But it probably won’t fly, even for the very illogical brain of a 4-year-old. So I hide to cry. During the flight, every now and then, I escape to the bathroom and cry for five minutes, then come back to my seat and resume staring at the entertainment program that I don’t find super entertaining. I’m pretty sure the flight attendant suspect I’m doing drugs in the lavatory. Oh well.

I need the seven-hour plane ride to erase one file and replace it with another. The flight is like a catharsis. During these few hours up in the air, I’m no one, I have no past and no future and technically, despite what the sky map says, I’m nowhere.

I stop crying when we land. Suddenly, it doesn’t make sense to be emotional. I have a purpose. The page is turned, it’s time for a new chapter to begin. I’m not leaving, I’m arriving.

Everything makes sense again. I’m no longer French Juliette, I’m Canadian Juliette. I traded the world for another one but this new setting is familiar to me, I find my bearings quickly. I know how to talk to people, I know where I’m going, I even have some spare toonies and loonies in my wallet. I move quickly, with purpose. French file deleted, Canadian file loaded.

Life would be easier if I could make a definitive two-column chart of France versus Canada. On one side, a safety net—my family and France’s proverbial welfare state. On the other, the opportunity to be whatever I want, even if it requires me to be a Swiss Army knife (and not always the sharpest one at the end of the day…). Buttery treats versus exciting exotic foods. Cramped living spaces and tiny streets bursting with activity versus big open space that sometimes feel very empty. Specialty shops versus franchises. Sarcastic and hedonistic French versus friendly and overoptimistic North Americans. A world with a past and a legacy versus a new country that will celebrate a “young man milestone birthday” next year.

Everything has a trade off. Maybe it’s best to just go with the flow.

In the end, it’s up to me, the chameleon, to make the most of wherever I am.


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  1. Isa September 5, 2016 at 10:18 am

    It’s so hard. I can’t say I “know” how hard it is, but I can imagine it. That’s the reason why I didn’t want to be an expat full time. Good luck with loading your canadian files! September is going to be a beautiful month in Ottawa I bet. Enjoy!

    1. Zhu September 5, 2016 at 8:10 pm

      Thank you 🙂

      Well, I think you do *know* because as a traveler, you left places you loved 😉

  2. Eileen September 5, 2016 at 11:35 am

    I know how you feel. The trip is so easy, and yet so expensive and exhausting, that it seems surreal. I haven’t been “home” to Texas in a few years now but every time a family member visits here, I’ve started crying when they leave. I try to hide it because I typically get over it within a few days but it’s harder and harder! Maybe it’s because it’s clear that this way of living has become long-term.

    1. Zhu September 5, 2016 at 8:10 pm

      Yes, yes, YES! Surreal, that’s exactly that. And I also tend to hide to cry, not sure why… probably because like you, I know I will get over it.

  3. chez loup September 5, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    I feel exactly the same. For the longest time, I’ve been torn between North America and Europe. No amount of pros and cons will settle my mind, as you say, I don’t have that definitive 2-column list. So I just have to let go and live life, otherwise it will crumble into bitter regret.

    But I will allow myself to watch documentaries about France and weave my dreams of retiring there one day. I know it will not happen, but at least I can continue learning French which will keep my brain cells alive, if nothing else.

    1. Zhu September 5, 2016 at 8:12 pm

      Same here, I watch French documentaries on YouTube 😉

      This sentence is beautiful: “So I just have to let go and live life, otherwise it will crumble into bitter regret. ” Very well put.

      Why do you think your dream of retiring in France wouldn’t be possible?

  4. Martin Penwald September 5, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    It seems that some people do drugs with artificial tears. The hard part for me is the morning I leave up to getting into the train.

    1. Zhu September 5, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      Oh, these early mornings when, barely awake, you rush to catch your train… yep, I know these too. Bonus for the 6 a.m. train full of military guys going back to the “caserne” after the “permission”. Une p’tit Kro, madame? Nan, vraiment pas…

  5. Holly September 5, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    I could have written this. And I don’t know why – but even when I have a really good excuse for crying and I know everyone knows I am crying, I would still want to go inside the washroom to let the ugly cry out.

  6. Gagan September 7, 2016 at 10:41 am

    🙂 Cheers to that!

  7. Frenchie au Canada September 7, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I know the feeling! I used to never cry when living France but it started 4 years ago I think. My little half sister told me she loved me before I left and I shed a tear. Since then, I feel like crying every time and it’s harder every year (same when my inlaws come here). With time I’ve also realised how hard it i to be so far, especially when a crisis is ongoing like at the moment…
    Usually though by the time I leave the house my eyes are dry and I’m ready to travel.
    My Sottish other half never comes to France with me, and I only miss him (and Freddie) once I’m in France, going about life without them there….
    The more time goes the more I feel like maybe we went a little too far? But then again I don’t see myself going back to France and with the Brexit I don’t know that we could live in the UK.
    I guess we are lucky to be loved on both sides of the pond?

    1. Zhu September 8, 2016 at 1:15 am

      Eh, I love your conclusion! Never thought of it this way. You are right, actually… it is a good thing, after all, to be loved on both side of the pond. Beautifully put.

      It’s funny how we started to get emotional at one point but not at first.

      1. Frenchie au Canada September 8, 2016 at 10:54 am

        Yep, I’m blaming the fact that we are not 20 anymore 😉

  8. Mel September 7, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Wow. It’s like you wrote about the experience I have had my whole life, leaving one existence, a whole personality, for another. I went through it every summer. It’s like going through mourning, every time you travel. It’s a profound sense of loss, because you never know when the next time you’ll be back is. Obviously leaving the people behind is insanely difficult, but I feel like you are leaving behind a part of yourself, an alternate reality of yourself, the what-ifs of a life you could have led.

    But maybe that’s just me.

    All this to say, I know exactly how you feel. As soon as that plane lands, a new phase begins and you somehow get over it. Probably just a highly developed coping mechanism. I have definitely perfected that one over the years.

    We will make that coffee date happen soon!

    1. Zhu September 8, 2016 at 1:18 am

      And as I’m reading your comment, I realize that even though I know you’re also French, I don’t see this side of you very often because in Canada, of course, you’re Canadian. The funny part is, I know you get France, I know we have the same cultural references, we know the same places… yet it rarely comes up in the conversation, unless I’m just coming back from France or you are. In Canada, we are French speakers, that’s about it. This is so strange.

      I can’t imagine going through this process as a child and a teen… it must have been so weird. Like you said, you developed a coping mechanism.

  9. Lexie September 9, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Welcome home Canadian Juliette :))

    1. Zhu September 9, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      Merci bien, québécoise toi!

  10. I Say Oui September 16, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    It’s so hard to say goodbye to people you love, even those you know you’ll see again! I know what you mean about feeling ‘better’ or at least normal again at one point during the trip or upon arrival in the other country. I’ve had many times crying right as I’m about to go through security and then feeling okay (kind of ‘businesslike’) once I’m at the gate.

    1. Zhu September 16, 2016 at 10:46 pm

      Yes, “businesslike”, that’s exactly how it feels as you are going through the motions!

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