That Irish Girl

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We return home to our apartment each day. And it is our home already, even if it’s only been for six weeks. Home is wherever our little family lives, as we tell our sons. It’s a fluid concept – not a concrete place. When we meet people we explain that we’re not on holidays here. We live here, in Canada. Categories and distinctions are of utmost importance to a four-year-old. We were living in Ireland. We now live in Montreal. We were born in Ireland. We are Irish. We’re not Canadian. My son is adamant that he speaks only English, not French. Even as those pesky French words continue to sneak into his resistant brain.

Yet I still have to correct myself in conversation when I refer to something as ‘back home’ when I actually mean in Ireland. For almost forty years Ireland is where each of my homes has been based. The one constant. I’m not sure if or when that phrase will ever refer to somewhere else. Friendships and family ties can wither fast without careful tending, but some part of my roots cling to Irish soil. They burrow deep where they can hibernate for however long the winter may last. Slumbering patiently. Occasionally stirring to remind me that something remains there. An anchor to my past.

Most days we simply live our life. Where is irrelevant. Meals must still be made. Laundry and cleaning lurk in the background. Work has to be squeezed in, somehow. The children need to be looked after. There are never enough hours in the day. The minor details of doing all these tasks are a little different to before, but you become used to new building layouts and products in different packaging on their shelves.

Even the sound of French conversation becomes background noise. French words are not all that strange to hear thanks to secondary school lessons. The steady advance of the European Union into daily Irish life has made us far more cosmopolitan than previous generations. Most of our favourite TV shows are American imports. Thus American or French-Canadian accents are not unusual to my ears. “Bonjour Hi”, say shop assistants and I know now to respond with “Hi”. Otherwise, confusion will ensue. It didn’t take long to learn that you indicate your fluency based on the salutation returned. The language barrier has an easy cushion here so you don’t bruise yourself on the edges very often.

Most of the time I am lulled into the security of everyday living. I’m unaware of exactly where I am on the map because it’s of little importance. Our new normal has become… normal. It’s small things that jolt me out of complacency with the sudden realisation that I am somewhere foreign. A place where things are mostly the same but can be startlingly different at times. I understand the words being spoken, but not the cultural nuances and hidden subtexts that are crystal clear to a native. Little things surprise me, and the world goes slightly out of focus while my mind plays catch-up.

I miss some things about Ireland already. Laughing with friends that we’ve known for years. Silky chocolate and rich creamy yoghurt. The bouncy feel of buttered bread that’s not laden with preservatives. The briny smell of the sea. Lush green fields born of mostly grey skies. But I’m not homesick. Not yet anyway. We’ve been getting along just fine with Montreal and enjoying what new experiences the city has to offer us.

Then I hear the sound of an Irish country accent weaving through a conversation for the first time since moving here and my subconscious radar pings. I don’t hear what they’re saying. I hear the sound of familiarity wrapping itself around me. In that moment I deeply miss the lilting accents of various counties I’ve grown up hearing – even though I hadn’t noted their absence until right then. How much more do I not realise I’m missing, hidden amongst the adjustments to this new life? How many more changes have I not really noticed yet, and when will they catch me unawares?

It was on only our fifth day of living in Canada that I first encountered my Irishness with a brand new perspective. Montreal is a multicultural city. A common question when you’re introduced to someone for the first time is, “How long have you been here for?” Not a question I’m used to answering. Still fresh off the plane, the response awkwardly tripped out of my mouth as I mentally counted the days. On hearing me speak, my new acquaintance thought for a moment and exclaimed, “Oh, you’re that Irish girl!” – casually identifying me solely by my country of origin.

Realisation hit that this is the first time in my life I have ever been so easily distinguishable from everyone else by my nationality alone. Until now it labelled me as belonging to a larger group, for better or worse. Now it singles me out as being different. Just like that, I’m in a minority. And that’s ok. It’s certainly not the first time or the last. We’re always in some minority. Being Irish is not a new label for me, but its meaning is different here. Another obvious effect of emigration that hadn’t registered with me yet. The world tilts askew for a moment while I consider that perhaps in this country I will always be “that Irish girl”.

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6 thoughts on “That Irish Girl

  1. After 14 years, I am still that Irish girl over here in Germany.
    Great to hear you are settling in well.

    • Sophie

      There are worse things to be known as 🙂 Thanks – we’ve had a lot of problems with the relocation, but this is a great place to live in general. I think we’ll finally feel fully settled in before the winter hits, which is the main goal!

  2. I love this! I am currently living in my fourth country in my life. I’ve been Canadian for almost 20 years, that’s where I went to university, met my husband, had my first child, even though that’s not where I was born. I’ve gotten used to the “Where are you from?” question even though it isn’t always easy to answer. I am Canadian living in the USA and I’m still getting used to it. I still refer to Toronto as “back home” even after 2 years. My oldest daughter loves to point out that “mommy, daddy and me are from Canada and baby is from California”. Sometimes it can be really fun to be the exotic citizen of the world. Other times it can be quite lonely having to explain your life story over and over. You’ll get there 🙂

  3. Sophie

    Wow, that’s a lot of relocating. If we hadn’t moved to Canada this year then it would have been California! I hope your family is happy there. It’s interesting that the phrase ‘back home’ is a common one around the world.

  4. Lovely post, glad to hear things are settling. I love the way he describe it.

    • Sophie

      Thanks Naomi. I hope everything is well with you!

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