I was surrounded by boxes, coming to terms with the fact that our year in Quebec would be over in a few hours. So many times over the past months I had longed to be home in Vancouver, close to family and friends, but now it felt strange to be leaving. Quebec was just starting to feel like home.
When I picked up my 10-year-old daughter from a goodbye party held in her honour I felt perhaps we shouldn't have come at all. It was a warm summer evening. When I arrived, I found seven little girls sitting around a table in the backyard, quietly exchanging e-mail addresses.
My presence signalled the end of the party and the goodbyes began. First, there were hugs and giggles, then tears and sobbing. The host mother and I began to get teary ourselves. These girls had become good friends over the course of the year and now their circle was being broken. As we drove off, the girls gathered and waved goodbye, then chased our car down the street until they could no longer keep up. It was a heartbreaking scene.
We had moved to Quebec in August, 2008, for my husband's sabbatical year from his university job. Aside from work reasons, we wanted to improve our French and experience the culture - a bit of joie de vivre . My husband and I were relying on the French we had learned in high school, but our children had minimal French instruction and could not carry on a conversation. Undaunted, we decided they would attend French school to maximize the experience. Our son would be in Grade 9 and our daughter in Grade 5; they would both attend the same middle school in our neighbourhood on the outskirts of Quebec City.
My daughter was relieved to learn her teacher spoke English. But three days into the term, Madame informed her there would be no more English in the classroom, only French. My daughter panicked and I tried to reassure her. I told her how, as the seven-year-old daughter of new immigrants to Canada from Portugal, I too had sat in a classroom not understanding a word, and I had managed. But it's been four decades and my selective memory has blanked out many of the difficulties I must have encountered.
My son was in a slightly more comfortable situation. Most of the kids in his grade could speak some English. Still, except for his advanced English class, all his subjects were in French. Much of the time, he caught only glimpses of what was being taught.
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I had thought integrating into life in Quebec would be easy. I was interested in their culture, so I expected immediate and genuine interest in me. Reality was different. We found it hard to meet people. The children took the school bus to and from school, so meeting other parents was difficult. I volunteered at the school library, but worked largely on my own. My son joined the local soccer team, but few parents approached us to chat at games. We felt isolated and lonely and I began to wonder what on earth we had done.
There was a positive side: Our family gelled. We spent many snowy evenings together, struggling through French homework and playing board games. We decided we loved winter. We cross-country skied and skated and learned to downhill ski and snowboard. We were having fun as a family, but I had quietly noted that, for months, there had been no play dates for my daughter, no phone calls for my son.
One day, shortly after spring break, my daughter received a phone call. I overheard her speaking French and she sounded fluent to me, complete with the Québécois accent. She had been invited to a birthday party.
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Soon after, life seemed to turn around. There were school outings and concerts, a few play dates and more birthday parties. Suddenly, my daughter seemed to be fully integrated. It was harder to gauge my son's progress. Having turned 15, he decided to tell his mother as little as possible about his "private" life at school, but he seemed content. Although he wouldn't speak French in front of me, he'd often correct me in a restaurant or at a store, or translate when either his father or I didn't understand something quickly enough for his impatient mind.
Ever so slowly, we started meeting people. We were invited on a canoeing daytrip with new friends, and the next-door neighbour and I started chatting over the fence, en français . I even attended a cinq à sept , a wine and cheese party, for volunteers at the library. I began to see that blending into life in a strange place happens slowly, but at least I left with the knowledge that it was starting to happen. If only we could have stayed two years.
I hope this experience has made my children more compassionate and understanding. I hope they'll be more welcoming to new children at school. I hope they've learned to adapt and developed a stronger sense of who they are. I hope all these things for me, too.
As we drove away from our Quebec house for the last time, my daughter's eyes filled with tears. How could I explain to her that sadness, loss and goodbyes are hard but they're also what enable us to live our lives fully? As I tucked her into bed later that night, she told me, chin trembling, that she wished we hadn't come to Quebec because she was so sad about leaving. I stopped myself from giving her clichéd answers and just hugged her. I couldn't make her sadness go away, but I could tell her I love her.
Esmeralda Cabral lives in Vancouver.
Illustration by Louise Delorme.