Written by Jasmine Mah
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a piazza in a small town in Northern Italy when from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a blue baseball cap with an unmistakable white embroidered maple leaf. A Torontonian. A Canadian. My heart was pounding with adrenaline, the ecstatic fearful kind of rush like when you see unexpectedly see your first love somewhere and you’re wearing the perfect outfit. Canada and Canadians are like that for me- the one that got away but that will always hold pieces of your heart, no matter the time that passes or the distance. Shamelessly and more so, proudly, I yelled across about fifty people sipping on prosecco “hey, are you Canadian?!”. Heads turned, probably because of the English than the brashness, the former a rarity in my adopted city. He smiled from ear to ear and I had my answer, no words needed.
There is a camaraderie between Canadians abroad, an unspoken connectivity that runs deeper than a shared love of maple syrup and poutine. I’ve lived in Italy for two years now and there’s nothing that makes me happier than meeting my fellow countrymen by chance. I literally have to resist urges to hug these strangers, these fragments of home. I can hear a Canadian accent now- jovial and unassuming, clear and neutral, I can hear it a mile away. I stalk backpackers through Italian cities, following the little stitched-on Canadian flags, inexplicably drawn to their mere presence. Though I moved to one of the world’s most coveted and romantic countries, I often struggle with missing Canada. I was born and raised in Alberta and ironically all I ever wanted to do was leave. Mine is a story that is has been written time and time again. Edmonton felt too small for me, I wanted the world. I wanted cobblestone streets, cheap wine, and never-ending carbohydrates. I yearned for the chatter of foreign tongues and the challenge that comes with transplanting your life across the Atlantic.
Turns out, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone and there’s a myriad of things that Canada has that I didn’t know it had until I found myself across the pond. I speak for Alberta in particular when I say the first thing I miss is the endless blue sky. The kind of sky that makes you dream and at the same time, makes you feel irrelevant. I spend hours when I’m back with my head tilted back, amazed. The air is different. Cleaner and purer, a proper cliché but the truth. The air in Italy tastes ancient as if it’s been breathed a million times over, the same air of the Romans, and rightfully so. Not better or worse, just different.
In Canada, if you have a craving for pho, for ramen, for spaghetti alla carbonara, for cabbage rolls, for butter chicken, you name it…you can find a friend and find a place to curb that craving. In other parts of the world, it’s not that easy and you may have that craving for years until it’s satiated as many other Canadians abroad will know. There have been times I would have murdered someone for decent dim sum. Another beautiful and underrated thing is that you can find a friend to go with, someone who knows exactly what all these ethnic dishes are, how they are pronounced, and loves them as much as you do because you both grew up with them. You probably had a best friend whose mom made the best pelmeni and you’d steal them from her lunchbox when she wasn’t looking. While it can be argued that multiculturalism in Canada isn’t perfect, it’s far ahead of the rest of the globe.
We also acknowledge strangers as they pass, even with just a look, a nod. In Italy, I had to be told to stop smiling at random people on the street as it’s gotten me into trouble more than once, people mistaking friendliness for seductiveness or naivety. Apparently being overly friendly could actually be a flaw. It made me an easy target abroad and I quickly learned to clench my jaw and suppress my instinct to smile, my Canadian instinct, in order to prevent misunderstandings and being taken advantage of.
Another thing I love about Canada is that no one stares at mixed couples as if we’re an abomination of nature. If they do, it’s out of intrigue and not disdain, a stark difference that makes all the difference to me as one-half of a mixed couple (my other half is Italian). I’ve also never been asked how much I cost or where I’m “really from” after I tell someone I’m Canadian, both of which have been all-too-common occurrences over the past two years. It’s cringe worthy, I know, especially on the receiving end. I used to be surprised and offended to hear these remarks until realizing and accepting that they come from people who haven’t had the privilege of being raised in a country like Canada.
If you’ve travelled or lived in another country, you might also recall being stared at for looking different or for speaking a language that doesn’t “belong” to the country you were in. People telling you that you don’t look Canadian followed by confused looks when you try to explain for the umpteenth time that you were born there. I have often found myself wondering what a Canadian looks like and what Canadian is supposed to sound like. I’ve decided that the answer is at the airport, I saw and heard it in action when I flew back this time. The off-tune singsong of different languages in the customs line is our language and everyone looks Canadian despite the color of their passports or their skin. When the customs officer said “welcome home”, I nearly broke down in tears. It struck me how privileged we are to call Canada home.
I am blessed to know two countries, two languages, and two ways of living, however there is a saying in Italian: non si possono avere due paradisi: uno di qua e uno di là. You can’t have two paradises, one here and one there. You can’t have both at once. I’m back in Canada, dreaming under the blue skies of Alberta and for the moment, it is paradise. Perhaps one day, many years from now, I’ll have the same feeling of belonging, the same tears, when the plane lands in Milan. Of this, I am uncertain, but there is one thing that I know for sure- you will never catch me yelling across a crowded piazza upon glimpsing the tricolore, the Italian flag. That’s something I’d only do and will always do…for a maple leaf.