By Caitlin Kelly
Not sure what else to call it.
Maybe a ghost life.
I don’t mean you’re haunted.
It’s a conversation I’ve had with other people who chose to emigrate, leaving a country behind where they likely grew up and were educated, leaving behind easy access to their childhood home(s) and earliest memories. In my case, leaving behind a thriving career as a reporter and writer, since I moved to New York at 30 — with no job, no connections and no American educational credentials, (in a city where Ivy League degrees proliferate.) It took me six months to find my first job, as senior editor of a national magazine, aided by my French and Spanish skills.
I’ve now lived in New York longer than I lived in my native Canada.
Some of my Canadian friends, some who stayed home their whole lives, have risen to stunning heights of achievement, one of whom runs the CBC; she and I used to argue ferociously as university freshmen in our philosophy class. Maybe not surprisingly, we followed oddly similar paths, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, and I kept bumping into her along the way.
If you spend your entire career in the same Canadian city, you don’t have to re-invent or explain to Americans that U of T is not Texas but Toronto…
I recently met up with a fellow Canadian who’s also lived in New York for decades, also a writer and editor.
And, as we did, I guess predictably, we wondered what would life be like had we never left — who (if anyone) would we have married? Where would we be living? Would we, as most of my friends now do, head for the cottage every weekend between May and October? Would we attend our high school and university events and reunions? Would we have regretted not leaving and trying for our American dream?
There are no do-overs!
And yet she and I actually own our own NY homes, apartments, in a place people assume is only for millionaires — we were both very lucky to buy ours decades ago and each of us aided by an inheritance. There is nothing anywhere in our native Ontario now we could afford to buy, including in remote northern towns. That decision to stay in NY, alone, has proven a lucky and fortunate one.
We don’t regret our move, and both love living here; unlike many parts of the United States now, New York City and environs remains largely diverse, liberal, full of work opportunities and interesting, high achieving creatives. People are not legally allowed to own or carry guns; (there has been a frightening uptick in stabbings and shootings in the city, especially on public transit.)
I left Canada for a variety of reasons:
- I could, thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. I was able to easily obtain a “green card”, to become what’s now as an alien (!) I renew the card every decade.
- Canada has only a few major cities, and I’m usually a pretty urban person. They’re very different in character, history and climate and the only truly affordable one, Montreal, has brutally long winters and, even for a bilingual Anglophone reporter, limited longterm job prospects.
- Half my family — my mother’s side — is American, some highly accomplished. I was always intrigued by them and their lives. Ironically, I never see any of them and am only in touch with one cousin, in California, in her late 80s.
- I wanted to see if I had the skills to compete in a larger, tougher place. Canada, with only 38 million people, has the population of New York State — and one-tenth of the U.S.
- I had always wanted to live in New York; I’ve lived, instead, in a small historic town 25 miles north of it, its towers visible from our street and easily reached within 45 minutes’ train or drive. Works for me.
- I was bored of Toronto and its intensely vicious media gossips. I knew I couldn’t take another few decades genuflecting to the same half dozen people in power. New York journalism has plenty of its own drama, but — as I like to joke — I’ve clawed my way to the bottom of the middle. I have enough access to the people I want, but I remain powerless enough to avoid attack, slander and sabotage. A few people even lied and gossiped about me in Toronto; if that was the price of local success (as it was), thank God I had good options to leave and never return.
- I wasn’t emotionally close to my father and his wife or to my mother, so no need to stick around for emotional reasons.
We head back to Canada today for a visit to Charlevoix, a region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence — ironically with lots of local advice from a fellow Canadian I knew when we were both baby reporters in the 80s, who became a U.S. network news reporter for decades. Then four days in Montreal, seeing friends and eating at our favorite restaurants and savoring sights both new and deeply familiar — I lived there for a year at 12 and for 18 months at 30 as a reporter for the Gazette.
I love speaking and hearing French, seeing familiar foods in the grocery stores — butter tarts! Shreddies cereal! — and once more being around people with whom I can share political and cultural references, even specific words, without explanation. Because, for anyone who’s an immigrant, there’s a lot your friends, neighbors and colleagues in your new country will never understand or even ask you about.
We’re very fortunate that Canada’s border is within 5.5 hours’ drive so, when and if I want to go back, it’s easy. That, or a 90-minute flight. I do miss it and I miss our friends especially.
Have you lived outside your native land?
Is this a question for you as well sometimes?