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.
— Juliette Giannesini (@Xiaozhuli) May 20, 2018