That Irish Girl
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”.