South Africa to Canada.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe our emigration story is to start at the end and work back. Suppose I begin with the emotional rollercoaster associated with leaving South Africa. In that case, this blog will be an uncomfortably (for you) pathetic mess of over-emotional, highly sensitive Cancerian. And I’ll never complete it. So, I’ll leave the ‘feels’ to the end.
The lead up to reaching day 14 of mandatory quarantine remains surreal. In fact, I’ve yet to digest that what used to be our down-the-road sea is now down-the-path Okanagan lake and that any swimming will not produce sticky, salty bodies but fresh-water icicle ones. I will not be testing out the theory that freezing water extends your life. Instead, I’ll see how many of my children make it back alive after challenging each other to swim around the pier once ‘released.’
We are officially Permanent Residents of Canada. After five thousand hours of travel time, we sat in an immigration queue, the length of which makes it hard to believe that any Canadian application is ever unsuccessful. There were a LOT of people. And one cat. It looked p*ssed off. Which is how cats always look. That’s why I’m a dog person. I wondered if it was plotting the demise of whoever had placed it in a carrier. Clearly, my hours of mask-wearing were dangerously limiting the oxygen levels required for logical cognitive function.
We got to move up a seat whenever ‘next!’ was yelled. We were instructed to keep 3 seats between ourselves and the next person due to social distancing. This after a the large majority of us had spent the duration of an international flight together. Airplanes aren’t known for generous seating space. So, I didn’t quite get the fuzzy logic. Anyhow.
Fortunately, there was further entertainment to be found while the queue slothed along. Us writers do like to create stories, even if only for our personal amusement. A flaxen-haired, young French girl repeatedly left her backpack behind every time she moved up a seat. A long-suffering man was occupying the immediate third seat behind her. He’d religiously get up and re-hand it to her. ‘Merci,’ she’d say. ‘Sure thing,’ he’d reply. Again, and again. She was either exceedingly stupid or attempting to get further away from the bomb in her backpack. However, there was no way that this chivalrous man was going to allow her the space to detonate it from a safe distance. I amused myself with this fictional story of the thwarted terrorist and the over-functioning do-gooder. Small things entertain sleep-deprived minds.
‘Next!’ Our turn arrived, and we approached the immigration counter. It was divided only by a protective COVID screen. While in SA, I imagined an interrogation room type set up. Genuinely. Between that and my captivating terrorist story, it was clear I had overdone the binge-watching of Homeland on Netflix. I had ‘schlepped’ an anything-but-light Lever Arch File of documents in my hand luggage. I wanted to have all the forms at our fingertips. One must have all the answers when being intensely interrogated around a metal table beneath a swinging fluorescent light bulb. The file proved entirely unnecessary.
Instead, the process was all relatively simple and not at all intense. Part of me may have been disappointed. We simply signed this and that and promised something and everything to the immigration officer before he mumbled, ‘Welcome to Canada. Your PR cards will arrive at your given address in 6-8 weeks’. Then a series of clickety-thuds from his impressive stamp. ‘This is your copy. I keep this one.’ Official. I should have whooped or at least danced a little; we all should have. We are, after all, very grateful to Canada. Instead, the kids said nothing, and I simply said, ‘thanks.’ I picked up my hand luggage and, clutching my documents, trundled towards the emblazoned ‘EXIT’ sign. The three teenagers followed, moving even slower than teenagers usually do. Miraculously they were still moving forward. I walked through the sliding door into Vancouver airport, dreaming not of snowcapped mountains and crackling fireplaces but of a bed and a puffy duvet.
We had a 6-hour wait for our flight to Kelowna. Tim Hortons, or ‘Tims’ if you’re a seasoned Canadian, afforded me an extra hour of energy. At the most. The rest of the family held out, but I fell asleep on my backpack. At least at Vancouver Airport, they allow you to sleep – in Greece, there is always an airport official at the ready to wake you up. Such cruelty.
We finally boarded an unsettlingly small propellor plane for the 45-minute flight to Kelowna airport. It was dark when we landed, but with wisps of softly falling snow. I have never been in snow, so it felt profoundly welcoming. ‘It’s a sign,’ I smiled, gazing upwards at this magical sight. A moment later, my vision was brutally blurred as a snowflake landed directly on my opened-widely-in-awe left eyeball. I chose not to read into that sign.
My sister-in-law had kindly stocked our rental with groceries and other essentials, and we headed straight there as per quarantine rules. Our rental surpassed what we had envisaged. Rentals are surprisingly difficult to come by in Kelowna. As a result, we’ve rented in a holiday resort. Twist our rubber arms – what a hidden gem we found. Being winter, we secured it for a fraction of peak season prices. It’s snuggly, comfortable, and fully furnished (we sold up, instead of paying roughly R170 000 for a container). The snowfall had adorned the resort, mimicking a fairytale winter wonderland reminiscent of childhood storybooks. The quaint streetlamps had leapt straight off the pages of a Harry Potter novel, and the falling snowflakes were reflected under their enchantingly warm light.
In some ways, the 14 days of quarantine is a good thing. For one, the jet lag is dire. It took a full week of waking up at 2h30 am before our internal clocks ticked over. The extra hours made the long quarantine days even longer. However, we couldn’t get out and be productive anyway, so it took the pressure off. It also afforded time to unclip the rollercoaster buckle and begin processing the big life change.
Emigration is hard. Harder than you think. Longer than you think. The idea of emigrating is often prompted by an event. Some too tragic to even discuss. Some are more pragmatic reasons: the economy, the crime, job losses, and just general unrest and uncertainty. You begin by discussing emigration with your family. Then around a braai with your friends that understand words like ‘kuk,’ ‘lekker,’ ‘bru’ and ‘yus-like.’ Mostly, it takes several months, years even, before you decide emigration is for you. Because no one really wants to leave one of the most picturesque and character-filled countries in the world.
It is once the application process begins that you clamber on board the rollercoaster. Suppose you’ve ever bought one of those unflattering official photos from a funfair park. The ones capturing the moment you drop down the 90 degrees stretch of rollercoaster. In that case, you’ll have an excellent visual of what an emigration application feels like. It leaves you screaming, square-mouthed, eyes startled, hair in utter disarray, wondering why you willingly got yourself into this free-falling situation.
Embassies don’t take phone calls. They do, however, love a form. Several trees depart our planet as the application pile grows – hard copies are required. It’s almost impossible not to lose self-confidence or still like your spouse when filling out the forms. Because doing that correctly, is reserved for nuclear physicists. It’s unexpectedly confusing and laborious. And once you’ve filled them in, it’s unlikely they’re all correct. That you only find out when the embassy returns them. Great for anxiety levels. We used a highly recommended agent to check ours, and there were still omissions and errors.
Embassies are also especially fond of requesting personal documentation that is the hardest to acquire. They like the browning, dust-covered archived ones that home affairs have forgotten about.
Eventually, the day arrives. You submit your application. You rejoice. You may or may not still be talking to your spouse. Then you wait. Then crickets begin to gather around you. Not a peep. It’s life in limbo. You’re not sure if your application is on track or lost. The communication is dismal, and at best, it’s automated. There are small victories along the way, but the length of time between them messes with your emotions. Accurately planning your future is impossible. My son had to deregister from his first semester at The University of British Columbia because of the exceeded processing time. Notice given at my daughter’s school had to be renegotiated. Work resignations were premature, directly impacting finances. And when exactly do you put your house on the market?
From acknowledgment of receipt to returned forms to additional documents required, to request for medicals, to biometrics – it is indeed a rollercoaster. It’s sudden highs and lose-your-stomach dips and turns. You live gingerly, with one toe in the Indian ocean and the other in Lake Okanagan. I’m part of the SA Canada Facebook group and another WhatsApp group – for most, anxiety and uncertainty are common ground.
The shiny visas do eventually arrive. It’s a good day when that happens, and I feel immensely grateful. But then reality hits like a freight train. Did I even want to leave? So consumed by the application process itself, I was unprepared for the goodbyes about to follow. It’s going to take me a long time to get over them. Not sure I ever will. I felt emotionally sapped with each farewell. Many mutual tears were shed.
My school friends are my sisters. Who will I talk to about the teacher who was so well endowed that she used to lift up and then rest her ‘melons’ on her desk? We have cried together over broken hearts, had blonde home hair dye jobs go orange, snuck into clubs at 16, and driven on the wrong side of the road with the sun coming up. Somehow, we survived. With whom will I reminisce? No one knows my history like they do.
I will miss the ‘school moms’. We cheered passionately at school rugby games together, got bored at cricket matches together, and threw name on the Clarens and Cape Town sports tours. Priceless memories.
My Wenches with Wine girls. My hooligans. My dancing, tequila drinking, headache guaranteed crazies. My I-can-be-exactly-me friends. My farewell gifts are treasured. The framed photo of us sits in our new lounge, and my oh-so-South-African Works of Heart travel bag will always remind me of home with all its South African-isms.
My ex-business partner and friend, Nix Firth, a fine artist and an even finer human being, painted farewell Baobabs for me – the name of the ad agency we started. We didn’t just grow a business together. We did morning sickness together while pregnant with our girls – devouring slice after slice of marmite on toast to get through the working day.
My ‘Pilgrims.’ My wise, intuitive go-to-when-I-feel-down friends. What will I do without you? I have never left one of our get-togethers without a fuller heart and a happier smile. We created a safe space for each other to vent, cry and share anything and everything. And we belly-laughed a LOT.
I’ve left behind THE best neighbours – from sundowners on ‘our’ beach to laughing our heads off. How will I ever replace being returned one night in your wheelbarrow? Now that was fun!
I said goodbye to the ‘Wives Club,’ to 11 years of lift club (my other daughters), to my goddaughters, to our precious Bongi, to Natalie, my soulmate friend. Add to that, dropping my brave-faced mom at the airport with a stack of luggage taller than her (fortunately, we will see her soon).
As departure day drew nearer, I began to reflect on the many blessings and memories ‘home’ holds. Running on the beach with my flappy-jowled Ed. The hours I spent staring into our forest teeming with ‘my’ precious birds. Waking with a smile to the off-key mimicking of my Natal Robin (his latest was imitating sirens!). I’d stand staring at our veranda, remembering the many times it turned into a dance floor. I’d drive past our beach and reflect on spontaneous beach nights – sipping beer out the bottle, holding in-depth conversation with special company while staring at the stars. Outlandish nights in the Umhlanga Village and raucously fun nights with our Blues at Beachwood family.
When we boarded that plane, a large part of my heart didn’t join me. Its bags remained unpacked and on SA soil. I’m more than ok with that. It’s a comfort to know that so much of my love remains with those I love, in the country I will always love.
Canada, thank you for the fresh new chapter. You may not yet be home, but we are embracing the opportunity with gratitude and hope. After just over 2 weeks, we have already experienced many extended hands of kindness. And plenty of passing smiles. With kindness and smiles, I think we will do just fine :).
Let’s just coddiwomple