Posted on April 28, 2009 by Bernadette Calonego
Translated by Peter Stenberg
I can still vividly recall the moment I decided to emigrate to Canada. I was sitting in front of a log cabin in the middle of the great temperate rainforest of British Columbia. In the distance was the roar of the Pacific Ocean, which surrounds the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada’s extreme northwest. The day before, with the Canadian man I had just fallen in love with, I had wandered 13 kilometers all the way down silvery-white North Beach, to Rose Spit, the mythological birthplace of the Haida First Nation.
Yes, I confess, it was love that gave me the final push to clear all the bureaucratic hurdles and to make a new life in Canada: love of a man, but most of all of this enormous country. Romantic, eh? But that’s not the whole truth. I wouldn’t be Swiss if I had just leaped into this adventure on the spur of the moment.
My attachment to Canada took place step by step. In the preceding three years I had visited different parts of the country, most recently for three months in 1999. At the time I was still foreign correspondent in Zurich for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung-a position that was almost more domestic than foreign. I was looking for more exotic assignments out there somewhere in the world.
Canada was terra incognita to me- a niche in the shadow of the United States, but for someone from little Switzerland it was impressive enough simply because of its size. Germany could have fit into it twenty-eight times.
Somewhere in a book of advice I had read that most recent immigrants are overwhelmed by a sense of euphoria. Later when everyday reality hits home, they fall into a dark hole. In my case luckily it never went that far. But as a security-conscious Swiss woman from a very prosperous land, a certain amount of existential fear was always my companion. To my great surprise, however, I never was in the least bit homesick.
I soon learned from West Coast Canadians that I shouldn’t take things too seriously, should live a little more in the present, and become laid back, less stressed out, more carefree. The friendly atmosphere of my new homeland worked like lubricating oil in the gearbox of every day life. It neutralizes stress. I love to be called by my first name and to partake in the cheerful banter of ritual greetings: “Hi, how are you doing?” “Fine, and yourself?” “Good. Nice to see you! Take care!”
Of course I tried to do all the things that my Swiss perspective assumed Canadians do. I tried fly-fishing, and pulled on hip-waders to do battle with gigantic salmon while attempting to not get dragged into the roaring Skeena River. With my Canadian, I paddled across remote lakes in a canoe (a Canadian icon!) and searched for masutake mushrooms in the bush. I watched grizzly bears while fishing in mountain streams and skimmed across the mighty Coastal Mountains of British Columbia in a float plane.
I bought myself an old pick-up truck (another Canadian icon) with lots of loading space. Somewhat nervously I survived an earthquake and more calmly a pine tree that crashed through the roof of my house during a storm and came to rest in my vestibule. But does that turn a Swiss woman into a Canadian?
A little more than a year ago I became a Canadian citizen. During the citizenship ceremony I had an anxious moment just before I had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Queen, who is still the official head of state of Canada. As a dyed-in the-wool republican everything in me was against that. The judge, a wise old man, noticed the second thoughts of the assembled almost-Canadians, and explained cordially: “It’s not that the Queen tells us what to do, rather we tell her what we have in mind.” So in that way order was restored as it should be in a democracy and I joined in enthusiastically in the singing of the national anthem, O Canada.
My love of this land continues unlike my relationship with the Canadian, whom I left after four years. My new roots are also reflected in my books. The first thriller I wrote still describes events taking place in Zürich, but the second one takes place in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. Does that make me a Canadian?
Actually that happened while I was on a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker sailing through the legendary Northwest Passage in the summer of 2007. As I stood on the deck under the midnight sun, the Arctic’s eternal ice all around us, overwhelming in its beauty, quiet and fragility, it suddenly occurred to me. The Arctic belongs to Canada. It belongs to us! A bit of it belongs to me! Watch out if you give us trouble on that score – I would defend it with my teeth and with my claws. And I suddenly realized: Only a real Canadian could be so possessive.