This post was originally published on August 30, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase.
Outside, the asphalt has gone soft and gummy from the heat. The cicadas in the trees along the river are screeching relentlessly, and the air smells faintly like garbage. I love Rome, but I have also never been quite so glad to escape Rome.
* * *
Arriving in Vancouver is a shock to the senses. The air is cool and the sky grey and low in that kind of typical West Coast summer way that actually feels nothing at all like summer. Everything is precise and orderly and clean and very Canadian, the opposite of Rome. The day after arriving, we wander the city in a jet-lagged haze under a soaking rain that creeps beneath our umbrellas. I drink a series of coffees, toting the paper to-go cups around with me in a way that I would never do in Italy. We eat burgers and fries for lunch, because it seems like a fitting introduction to North America, and Japanese food for dinner, because our goal is to eat only things that we can’t easily eat (or eat well) in Italy.
The next day we take the ferry over to the island, where I grew up. We rent a car – there is a mix-up, and we end up with the largest vehicle imaginable, a hulking boat of a SUV that gives me anxiety every time I think about parking it – and set out to explore, filling our days with the kind of hikes and outdoor activities that never really interested me while I was living here. We drive to Tofino, spend a few days walking forest trails and poking our fingers into tide pools along the area’s seemingly endless beaches. We eat a lot of fish. I exclaim endlessly over the way the air smells: sharply clean and briny, a mix of salt water, seaweed and damp rainforest underbrush that awakens all sorts of memories inside me.
We drive back down to Victoria, and I show Valerio the city I called home for twenty-six years: Favourite neighbourhood to stroll, favourite drive along the coast, favourite coffee shop with its tattooed hipster baristas and steady stream of cooler-than-you hipster customers (cooler-than-you hipsters are a prominent feature of Victoria). The weather cooperates, mostly. It doesn’t rain much, but I spend nearly the entire trip wearing the same two moderately-warm outfits and ignoring the suitcase full of summery skirts and dresses I packed (when you pack a suitcase in a heat wave, the possibility that you will not want light fabrics and bare legs in mid-August doesn’t fully penetrate your brain).
Two weeks seem to fly by. We have hiked, strolled, canoed, biked, and explored. We have eaten everything and anything that is not Italian (within a week and a half, we have been hit by an intense craving for anything and everything Italian). I have taught Valerio the rules of the road, Canada-style (mostly: the workings of a four-way-stop; lanes actually need to be respected; no, you can’t force slow-moving vehicles out of your way). Most importantly – I have appreciated the West Coast in a way I never did while living there.
* * *
Is there a word to describe a place that feels both foreign and deeply familiar? That’s what Canada is to me now, after seven years away. Part of it feels so effortless, like slipping into an old favourite t-shirt. After all, I was born and raised there. There are twenty-six years of that place inside me, making me who I am. But other parts feel strange and awkward – the precision, the enormous supermarkets with their freezing cold air and jaw-dropping variety of foods, the enormous empty spaces, the need to be excessively upbeat and chatty in all interactions, all situations. I kept forgetting English words, their Italian equivalents sliding into my mind instead.
Several times, when people asked us where we were from, I would say Italy, then hastily stop, backpedal, correct myself. We are not from Italy. One of us is genuinely Italian, the other is Canadian. Thoroughly Italianized after all these years – much more Rome than Victoria inside by now – but still Canadian. Canada may not be my home anymore, it may not be the culture I’ve settled into, but it’ll always be my homeland.