Why Do We Have to Leave? A Little Boy in Canada

‘Why do we have to leave, dad?’ He said to me as fired the ball into the net with an ice hockey stick.

He was playing street hockey with his friends on this last summer in Montreal, as he had done the summer before and the summer before that. Soon after an early breakfast they – he and his brother and other boys and girls – would be out on a street that was more for people than for cars. The hockey would go on for hours, and in the breaks they would roam the park across the street for tossed-aside bottles, take them up to the depanneur on the corner and buy a ‘Mr Freezy’ – a long cold piece of red or green or blue or yellow ice, full of those dreadful colours and tastes that kids love because they are bad for you. Or they would go to someone’s place for a toilet stop or lunch or dinner. Or perhaps they would venture a great distance, perhaps a street or two away, seeking some mythical treasure. The adults of course knew them all, and kept a quiet eye on them. Not a difficult task, for most of the adults sat out on their balconies in the summer heat, vainly seeking relief and wondering how the kids kept up their energy levels all day … and almost all night: for they would play on after dinner until the light faded. Reluctantly, after repeated calls from parents, they returned home, for a quick wash and then bed, before beginning the whole process again the next day.

—–

‘Why do we have to leave?’ He asked me again, with a pure Canadian accent.

When we arrived he had an Australian accent. But he was at that age – four – when you can gain a new accent without a trace of the old. And the change marked his own sense of home, for at his age he could not remember Australia. Canada, or rather Quebec, was home. He had his friends, loved the winters and summers, mixed his English in with French exclamations and phrases, and couldn’t imagine another life.

Yet he was the same little boy. He saw opportunities to test out the world around him, opportunities that passed others by. So, having noticed that one put air into a car tyre through the valve, he reasoned that air must also come out by the same mechanism. Out on the street, with a glance around to make sure no-one was looking, he bent down by a car in the front of our place. Valve cap off; stick small finger in valve; hear air hissing out with its rubber smell. A neighbour quietly sitting on his balcony wondered and smiled to himself – and told me later with a laugh.

And he did everything at full throttle, with a full zest for life. When alighting from the yellow school, he would toss his bag out on the snow first and then leap down. Then he would tear off home, through the park.

‘Don’t run so fast’, I would call after him. ‘You’ll fall’.

‘No I won’t’, he would yell back.

Of course he did, and I would have to pick him up.

Or in the first full Montreal summer, he was given a bicycle for his birthday. He pedalled around for a little, gaining his balance and working out how the bicycle functioned. Then he was off, noticing quickly that on a downhill run the bicycle went much faster. The longer the slope the better – especially the one that ends on a road. Setting off from the top of the hill, he spun a few times and then took his feet off the pedals. He dropped like a stone, in a way that would make a professional cyclist green with envy. I suddenly had images of him careening out of control onto the road, so I ran after him, calling out in alarm. Just as my hand was about to grab him from behind, he simply veered off the path at the last minute and fell down in the grass.

Frightened and angry, I said, ‘Don’t do that again! You’ll run into a car. You’ve got your feet up and don’t have control of your brakes!’

‘It’s fine, dad,’ he said. ‘I knew I could fall off on the grass first’.

He still lives that way, although with age and a little more wisdom, he realises that one has at least some limits.

—-

‘Why do we have to leave, dad?’ He said again.

We had arrived a little more than three years earlier. Three deep winters, heavy with snow and endless hours skating and sledding in the park across the road; three springs in the riot of life and fecundity; three hot summers of 20-hour days; three autumns of the deep yellows and reds of maples preparing for the cold to come. Enough time for the local accent to sound normal, enough time to explore a city, a province, a country (we travelled to its eastward, westward and northern parts), enough time to settle in and feel at home.

He had turned seven in the last summer, and already wanted to stay the rest of his life. His father was a little bit older (30), but he too deeply wanted to stay.

Of course, you can only feel that way, only appreciate a place with such intensity, precisely because you know you are leaving.

Pleasure of Departure

I love departures. Not because I can’t wait to leave or because I can’t wait to get to the next place, but because departure is always caught between the hold of a place and the pull of road.

As the train rolls out of the station or as the ship leaves the harbour, I look longingly at the familiar lie of the land, at the streets and people and spaces that have become so familiar. I want to stay a little longer, savour the pleasures I am farewelling. But I am also filled with excitement about the journey begun, new places to see, chance encounters to experience, unexpected turns to negotiate.

The deep enjoyment of leaving is found precisely in this tension. Even more, the ability to appreciate a place, fully and deeply, depends on the fact that I know I will leave. It may be today or it may be weeks, months or even years down the track. But I will leave. And so I look at the placei which I am differently, feel the undertow of my emotions. Experiences – people met, vistas pondered, quiet corners – gain an intensity that is missing from the ordinary run of life.

But I also wonder what it is like to live in the same place for the whole of one’s life. I recall a conversation with an older woman, a grandmother of many. Hearing that I was leaving, yet again, she was absolutely fascinated at distant and exotic places.

‘I’ve never been much of traveller’, she said. ‘I have travelled on a couple of occasions – went down south for the Melbourne Cup, but that was enough’.

I have also tried to imagine what it was like for my parents and grandparents to make that crucial decision to emigrate half-way around the world. Not so long ago (some 60 years) but it seems like an eternity, for then you made the journey never to return. What would it be like to leave a place, an ancestral home? Some never make the transition fully, longing for what was lost. Some still feel, deep in their bodies, that home is still back there. But others do make the shift, thrilled by the new place, knowing that in but a short time they will have changed too much to return.

What would I have done? I would have emigrated as well.

But where is home? On the road, I feel another tension. It is a type of homesickness, a longing for home, but not in the conventional sense. In each place travelled, I wonder, ‘Could I live here?’ ‘Would this become home?’ In some places, the answer is ‘no way’. But in others, the ‘maybe’ may well shift to a ‘why not?’ To these places I have a tendency to return. Yet, before I get too carried away with such desires, I remind myself that there are too many places in the world like this.

After all, is not home always elsewhere?