This is a long, long overdue essay for the 100 Bloggers project. It was originally inspired by a post that Colene wrote.
For the first few weeks I lived in Dublin, I nearly died on a daily basis. They drive on the other side of the road there. I never actually got behind the wheel of a car, not in that backwards, backed-up city. Nor did I risk death on a bicycle. I looked the wrong way before I crossed the street.
My parents didn’t instil the habit of looking both ways, and I’d regularly break my stride off the curb inches from a passing bus. Pasty Irish faces would zoom past my nose, leaving me dizzy in a cloud of diesel fumes. In Canada, pedestrians are king. In Dublin, they’re insects–quarter is neither asked nor given from drivers.
My friend Colene recently wondered aloud about her lack of wanderlust. In particular, she doesn’t want to live abroad: “Is it too simple to say that I am constantly learning more and exploring the mysteries and possibilities of where I am now?”
Those of us who live in the West have the privilege of living in another country. In human history, this kind of mass migration is an extremely new idea. In previous
centuries, living on another continent was strictly for the very lucky or the very unlucky.
Why live abroad? There are as many answers as countries to choose from. To escape; to be discovered. To advance your career or to pause it. To learn a new language; to forget the old one. To follow love, or leave it behind.
For me, it was mostly boredom. Life was too easy in Vancouver (a city that specializes in complacency–just look at our sports teams). I saw living abroad
as a challenge–a means of shaking up my life.
But where to live? Having never lived outside of Canada before, I took a scientific approach. For my first time, I wasn’t keen to try work and live in a foreign language. That left the UK, United States, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. The US was immediately rejected, for reputation and proximity to my home nation.
Australia and New Zealand seemed too similar to Canada. They’re both nations of a similar age with strong ties to Britain. They both feature enormous land masses with small populations along their habitable edges. They both massacred their indigenous populations.
In the UK, only London appealed. I wanted to live in a large city. Thanks to British cinema, in my mind, Liverpool and Manchester were horrible sprawls of row-housing and Soviet apartment blocks.
That left Dublin. My analysis was borne of ignorance. We enter new nations as we enter the world–utterly naive. Before you go, you think you know what you’ll struggle with. You see the glaring differences as the most difficult–the accent, for example, or differing social attitudes. In truth, it’s the thousand tiny details that throw you.
At the corner store, the clerk asks “are ya okay?” Am I okay or not? Which do I choose if I need assistance? It’s an extremely Irish phrase, reflective of their disdain for the service industry. At the bank, your deposit is a lodgement. At the pub, chips are crisps and fries are chips. Importantly, pants are underwear.
But that’s just terminology. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the busy sidewalks of Dublin’s shopping quarters. To this day, when I visit I find myself narrowly missing oncoming pedestrians. It may have to do with the wrong-side-of-the-road syndrome, but compensating for that doesn’t help. I solved most of these tiny differences, but walking down the street has proved far too nuanced.
Adam Gopnik captures these tiny differences brilliantly in his extraordinary book about moving abroad with his young family, Paris to the Moon:
Fish and plugs are the two great differences, the two things that are never quite alike from country to country. Fish are sort of alike, but maddeningly not exactly alike. You have to learn the translations. A bar is sort of but not quite a sea bass, a ronget like a red snapper but actually smaller and more dapper–weirdly snappier. A turbot is not a flounder. Even French oysters, the most delicious in the world, have a salty, sea brine, bracing taste, not better than plump, sweet American oysters, but different–far more different than the difference, real though it is, between French lamb and American, or a French chicken and a good American one.
In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes this sense of otherness as the mirror-world. Here his American narrator describes London:
The plugs on appliance are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.
When you combine the few major differences and the thousand tiny ones, you get a transformative experience. It’s a cliche to say that travel broadens the mind, but it’s a cliche because it’s true.
I’m a fundamentally different person because of my time in Ireland. Not just because I say “everything’s gone pear-shaped” or “that’s bollocks”, but because I understand how another part of the world thinks.
Understanding two nations helps you understand all the others. Living abroad makes you a better human.