Our nine-year-old, in a French playground, stares at the little boy’s mother. Slim, stylishly dressed, smoking… is it the woman’s cigarette that’s shocking our daughter? Back in Canada she’d rarely seen anybody smoking, and certainly not around children. As we watch, the young woman beckons her whining boy over… and slaps him hard on the legs. Our daughter’s mouth drops open.
It occurs to me that this is why we’re passing a whole year in Nice, on the French Riviera. Yes, for the sunshine, the beauty of the rippling coast like a bright ribbon tossed between the hills and the Mediterranean; for the pains au chocolat, of course, and the sense of history (we just came across Napoleon’s apartment); for the French language, bien sûr, because what better gift to give our kids than being bilingual; but most of all for moments like this, when our kids are forced to register in an unforgettable way that the world is not all the same. Our globe holds delicious differences, as well as nasty ones, such as the wail of a smacked child. Despite jet travel, despite globalization, despite the internet, it’s still, thank goodness, not yet homogenous; in the worlds of the poet Louis MacNeice, it’s incorrigibly plural.
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The kind of revelation my daughter had in the playground struck me at nine, too. We were a Dublin Catholic family, and I remember my childhood as placid, stable, samey. But then my father took a job in New York for a year, and he and my mother brought along their three youngest (the other five being already launched into adult life). Well, Manhattan knocked my socks off: loud voices, pizza, yellow cabs, faces of all colors. Cigarettes that weren’t tobacco but something called pot. Divorced people! (This was 1979, sixteen years before the Irish would finally-and warily-vote to legalize divorce.) I was in shock, thrown off balance, like a time traveler stumbling through a hatch into the future. Estranged, sometimes alienated, often charmed. By the end of the year I didn’t want to go home.
I did, of course, and I lived in Dublin for another ten years. But at several subsequent points in my life, I’ve found myself in the same position—an ignorant newcomer in an unfamiliar country. I moved to England at 20, then to Canada at 28, and I’ve spent long stretches of time in France in my 30s and 40s.
I don’t want to exaggerate: I’m not some fearless world traveler. (The one time I’ve been to China, for instance, it was part of a tour of English-language literary festivals, and I relied helplessly on a volunteer guide for haggling in markets and even crossing busy roads.) I’ve always been too focused on the big things-work and love—to take the time to seek out novel experience for its own sake. But each time my life has happened to lead me to settle somewhere new, along with the anxiety came that remembered pleasure of biting into new experience, like watermelon to a mouth that’s more used to apples.
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You’d imagine that one of the things I learn when I go abroad is the language—that after spending a cumulative total of three years in France (after a degree in French and English, too), I must be fluent. Cue hollow laughter! I don’t think my ghastly, present-tense, is-it-le-or-la French has got any better in the past quarter of a century. That’s because I spend my time in France reading and writing in English, and talking English to my family.
But I maintain that there are things I learn; subtler things. Even when French culture frustrates me—when I trek to a shop at lunchtime, forgetting that the staff aren’t there for my convenience, so of course it’ll be shut for three hours to enable them to have a very leisurely lunch—it’s educational. I struggle with the post office schedules (the reality never matching what the website promises), or the unwritten norms of a dinner party, or the difficulty of staying pro-union when the transit strikes are twice a week, every week… and I feel distinctly more awake, more alive.
One of the first and most humbling things you learn when you move abroad is how little you knew before, and how much of it was wrong. Crossing the Irish Sea to start a PhD in English in Cambridge, back in 1990 (when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing), I steeled myself against the notorious anti-Irish prejudice I’d heard so much about. Instead, I kept getting compliments from the English on my “lovely accent.” They weren’t all uptight bigots, and I found just as much warmth and wit and spontaneity in Cambridge as back in Dublin. I took on some new English habits, which included vegetarianism, a concern for animal rights, and enjoying the satirical eloquence of the broadsheet newspapers.
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When I did come across some real cultural differences, I found them funny. For instance, I once spent a long car trip riding along with an English friend. I’d ripped open my bag of lemon sherbets and laid it between us, in what I thought was a clear gesture: help yourself. Whereas she spent the entire journey from Cambridge to Cornwall wondering, with growing irritation, why I lacked the manners to offer her one. Or again, when an old friend visited from Ireland, my English friends were troubled by the fact that we kept mocking each other savagely—slagging, as we’d say in Dublin—and I had to explain that this was a sign not of hostility but its opposite, a trust so deep it allowed for making fun. In fact, it demanded mockery, because how else could you express your fondness without sounding soppy and sentimental?
I’m fascinated by what happens when you start all over again in a new place; the extent to which you can reinvent yourself, but all the baggage you lug along as well. I have a hunch that the stamps in my passport have contributed most of my insights, and prompted most of my questions. Moving country is a shortcut to seeing the stuff of everyday life as if for the first time; it haloes the most everyday interactions and objects with strangeness, what the Formalist poets of the early twentieth century called defamiliarization.
Moving to a new place also makes you realize what’s vivid—by comparison—about where you usually live. We came back to Canada after our recent year in France grateful for the fact that parents don’t hit their children here. And that we may have to tell an official that we’re a two-mother family, but we won’t be called on to explain or justify it; that famed Canadian politeness includes a deep respect for everyone’s civil rights.
Of course emigrants like myself end up neither fish nor fowl: not entirely of their place of origin, nor of the place they’ve settled, and frequently griping about both. (These days I complain about how much it rains back in Ireland and how long the winters last here in Canada.) Living in a strange country is an interesting condition, and it’s like the broader human condition: we hark back to our childhood, or at least harp on it, but it’s a country to which we can never return.
About the Author
Emma Donoghue is the best-selling author of Room. Her most recent novel is The Wonder. She also writes literary history and plays for stage and radio. She lives in Canada with her partner and their two children.