"You will see, Lina: We will move to Toronto where none of us wants to go. We have to leave our schools and our best friends and our family. And when we start being happy there, they'll take that away from us, too, and we'll have to move again."
That was our daughter, Anna, then 9, talking to her best friend in Cologne, Germany. "They" was us, her parents. The girls were standing next to a huge moving truck with a shipping container taking up three parking spots in front of our house. With 350 boxes and wrapped-up furniture, our lives were slowly swallowed into the depths of the gigantic container, and it was hard and painful to imagine all this would end up on an ocean liner. Would everything arrive in one piece?
Our journey started with a job posting from an international medical journal. My husband had handed it to me with a note asking one question: "Shall we do this?" He didn't say anything.
It hadn't been long since we had returned to Germany from living in Dallas for three years for my husband's medical career, and we had just started to re-establish our lives at home again. We were happy to be back with our families and friends, and our four children were older now and establishing deeper friendships and ties. My husband had worked hard to get his contract in Germany extended, but it would likely run out soon. Why not give Toronto a try?
I wrote one word: " Ja." Yes. Who would have thought then this vague idea would become a reality?
When you know you will be leaving, you live differently. Little things become special. You see familiar people and well-known places in a new light, and you feel a bit detached, almost left out. Questions about the future, such as teachers for the next school year, are not for you any more.
Instead, you deal with questions such as, "Where will we be living?" "Will there be good schools?" "Will we make friends?" "Will we be happy there?" We were alone with these questions. People said, "Lucky you! Canada - I would love to move there. All that great nature." Did they have any idea what a move like that means for a family? Would they give up everything to pack up and leave?
Since our children had to finish the school year in Cologne, we had to live separately for a few months. My husband started working in Toronto and needed to find a house for the family. What had seemed an easy task proved to be a challenge. Where do you start looking in a huge city like Toronto? What do you tell the real estate agent if you feel she doesn't understand what you're looking for? The movers were scheduled, the plane tickets bought, but there was no house in sight.
One day the moving company called me: "We need an address in Toronto."
"Sorry," I said.
That night, the phone call we had been waiting for came from Toronto. "I'm standing in front of a house with the real estate agent. Check the map and check if there are good schools," my husband said.
Three days later the house was bought. The former owners would be moving out on the day our flight was scheduled. Could this be a good omen?
The movers invaded our house in Cologne. We had only our electrical appliances left (making relatives and friends happy, since we couldn't take them with us because of the different voltage). We borrowed mattresses and folding tables and chairs from neighbours and friends. Camping at home!
Finally we were sitting on a plane to Toronto. It was exciting and scary. It was mid-July and the city seemed fairly empty. So was the house. We started like we left, with sleeping bags and plastic plates. Our children missed their friends and their familiar surroundings. We tried to make them see the good things - we could go to the beach every day, discover the zoo and the science centre. Our container arrived and it made a big difference to live among our own things again, although it took weeks to unpack all the boxes.
School started. Although we had felt prepared by our stay in the United States, we were surprised. Canadians are different, more reserved, and sometimes we felt excluded. But things slowly became easier for the children. They settled into their new schools and made friends while keeping contact with the friends they had left behind in Germany. We were welcomed by families who invited all of us over for dinner without even knowing us. We found a home in our parish, with a sense of familiarity that only a common faith can provide. We found great friends.
After four years we are looking back and Toronto has become a home. A friend from Ireland says, "Even if you should move back home, you will always be displaced."
Do we have a home at all? If you live somewhere for a while and get to know other places and people, you start being a different person and seeing your own heritage with different eyes. In that sense our friend is right.
We don't know what the future will hold for us. Will Anna's prediction to Lina come true? Would it be as gloomy as she put it? There is no answer, but our experience is that if you stand together firmly as a family, watching out for one another, if you trust your family and friends, wherever they may be, you do not have to feel displaced. You can feel at home - almost anywhere.
Ulrike Licht lives in Toronto.