Why would you move here?
When my husband Angus and I moved to England more than four years ago, we heard that question a lot.
The first time was within days of our arrival, when I applied for a National Insurance Number at the local job centre. The man with the clipboard who escorted me to my interview looked down at my last name and then at me. That part of England, we later discovered, was experiencing a wave of Polish immigration that was not always popular with the locals.
"Where are you from?" he asked somewhat hesitantly, as if my Polish surname didn't quite fit.
"Canada," I replied with pride.
"Canada?" he said with a bit of disbelief or maybe wistfulness in his voice. "It must be a beautiful country."
"Oh it is. Have you been there?"
"No, it's just that we don't get many people coming here from Canada, so that tells me it must be a pretty nice place. Why would you move here?" As if "here" was hell on Earth, and not my fairy-tale land of rolling green patchwork fields dotted with sheep and sleepy Cotswold villages.
I don't recall my reply on that occasion. It might have been any number of the stock responses I developed over the course of my four years living there. It was a complicated question, and a complicated answer was not always appropriate.
Why did we up sticks and leave our home, jobs, friends and family, all of which we loved dearly? To have the experience of living in another country. To take up an exciting career opportunity. To be closer to France (among other countries). To shake things up. To leave our comfort zones. To drive on the other side of the road.
From then on, I'd face that question in just about every conversation with someone for the first time. It was the common thread in small talk with co-workers, neighbours, estate agents, farmers at the local market, pub landlords and bed-and-breakfast hosts.
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It grew tiresome to constantly be asked the same question, so we would mix up our responses. One time, Angus's reply was that he just loved the history and how everything is so old. Yes, the woman asking replied dryly. It is. In those two words she managed to convey her disdain for unreliable Victorian plumbing, forehead-bruising archways, damp-ridden houses, drafty stone walls, every species of lichen and moss imaginable and pubs that haven't changed their snacks menu in 80 years.
In short, it was pretty much everything we loved about the country. How could our two perceptions be so different?
In time we grew to fit in more. Angus traded in his wooly red tuque for a woven flat cap. I began to carry an umbrella everywhere regardless of the forecast because you just never knew. Our accents softened. We discovered useful phrases like "awright?" instead of hello, "cheers" or "ta" instead of thank you. And eventually, we learned never, ever to say "have a nice day." It's just not British.
As the metamorphosis continued, the question grew less frequent. We began to settle into our lives, complain about the dull rainy weather and the traffic on the M40. We bought a two-up, two-down house and carefully cultivated runner beans for our village fete's vegetable competition.
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Just as abruptly as the adventure started, it seemed, the time came for us to return to Canada, to a job offer and family and friends. The contrast with England hit us in a mild form of reverse culture shock. It is hotter and sunnier here than either of us remembers. A mile's walk, which in England would have put me in the next village, is practically the same postal code. After years of missing decent peanut butter and Ontario wine, I now long for Marks & Spencer meals and our local, where we were known by name (and probably behind our backs as "the Canadians").
And it happened for the first time this past summer, just weeks after our return home. A liquor-store salesperson was giving out samples of a rosé from Provence and pitched it as the latest European trend.
"That's so true," I said. "We used to live in England, and in the last couple summers, rosés have been very popular, especially the dry ones."
"England?" he said incredulously. "Why would you move here?"
And so it begins. I smiled and gave him a short but truthful answer: work, family, friends and, ultimately, a better quality of life.
On my way home and ever since, I have wondered: Is it just that the grass is always greener? Or would people ask us the same question if we said we'd spent the last four years in Afghanistan?
We are, I've decided, generally blind to the things that make us great. If it's true that what I love about a place is what the people who were born there don't appreciate, it's probably true for me in my home country. And it was.
Julie Byczynski lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Neal Cresswell.