Searching for the Sun

So you wake up and there is literally no sun to wake you and help you start your day. The pain and exhaustion of homesickness is felt in every cell of your body. You feel run down and tired. You feel lost, and empty, and alone. The festivities that surrounded Christmas are all gone and the novelty of the snow is wearing off and suddenly you miss home. You miss having something familiar to cling to.

You miss early morning runs at 05:00 on summer mornings; your feet hitting the tar, the fresh air in your chest, seeing the sun rise, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin and the thrill of completing a long run, the sweat on your skin, the dull ache in your legs and that feeling of satisfaction of knowing that you beat the lazy bug and got up and did something worthwhile with your day.

You miss sitting in your garden listening to the birds, feeling the warm sun on your skin and the soft grass under your feet. You miss lazy summer days and having a braai with friends.

You miss seeing your favourite band playing at your favourite spot or having a cappuccino at your local coffee shop. You miss brunch with your best friends talking about politics, religion, philosophy and everything in between…

You miss visiting the cinema and watching some philosophical film that makes you question everything you know. You miss sharing your latest music finds with friends and family and debating what the best songs or movies of all time are.

You miss snuggling up to your loved one and watching your favourite show in the peace and quiet of your home…You miss the noise of the pipes and the leaking of the roof and the cats wreaking havoc in the yard and dragging their kills into the house to show you.

You miss going to your favourite hatha yoga class; quietening the mind, focusing on your breathing, feeling your muscles stretch and taking in the splendour of a quiet mind…

You miss Sunday evening blues, and French toast and Rooibos tea and laughing until it hurts…

You miss working for hours until your back and head hurts, but feeling more alive than you have in years. You miss talking to someone who gets you; who knows what makes you tick and who loves you for it.

You miss all these things and more. But for now they are part of a past life, a life that sometimes feels like a distant dream. I life that resembles a place you used to know that feels very, very far away right now. Perhaps you have to know the bitter before you can truly appreciate the sweet. Perhaps you have to know the immense pain of a broken heart to truly understand the heart that is filled to the brim with joy… Perhaps you have to feel this longing and this emptiness now so that you will remind yourself to indulge in every precious second spent on those things you long for most when you finally have them again…

Let it snow

Growing up in South Africa means never seeing snow fall, since it is simply too hot. Even during our coldest winters, the temperature never drops too far below 0 degrees Celsius. One of the amazing benefits of moving to the other side of the world and settling so far up north, is the opportunity to see snow fall… What a sight! There are no words to express the sheer thrill and exhilaration one feels at the sight of your first ever snow fall…

We were greeted with grey skies when we arrived here for the first time and it was difficult to adjust to the lack of sunshine – one of the things you actually take for granted when you live in Africa. South Africans love the sun. We spend all our time in the sun, because it is the one thing we have in absolute abundance. In fact, we are so used to seeing the sun shine, that we become depressed if we are faced with more than three days of grey skies and rain…

Just as I was starting to feel depressed at the lack of sunshine, it started snowing and everything was covered in a glittering white blanket.

It is amazing how a little snow can transform the whole world… Suddenly everything looks different. Snow definitely brightens your day. It lights up the world in a uniquely fresh and clean way…

Suddenly a white Christmas is no longer just something you see in movies or read about in books. It is something you get to LIVE. So here is to our first white Xmas. It snowed all day and we stayed indoors and made a traditional South African home-cooked meal…  So we got to have the best of both worlds…

A snowy landscape awaited us when we awoke on Xmas morning
A cozy fireplace


And a delicious roast chicken

Everything in Extra Large

When we got married, my husband and I moved from our small hometown in the East of Johannesburg to Randburg which is a much larger suburb of greater Johannesburg. I remember how overwhelmed I felt back then. Everything seemed larger and busier than what we were used to in the East Rand. There was more traffic and larger shops and bigger houses. I struggled for months to orientate myself. But little did I know how small my perspective was…

I knew emigrating to Vancouver, Canada was going to cause the same level of distress, but what I hadn’t bargained on was how overwhelmingly big everything would be. Everything in Vancouver is extra large. It makes Johannesburg look like a small town. Even the suburb Coquitlam that we settled in, is like a mini-city. Back home you could drive to your nearest Woolies, or Spar down the road or quickly pop into the garage if you needed something in a rush. In Coquitlam, there are no small shops. There are only huge stores with layouts that stretch a whole street block and aisles that go on forever. Just have a look at some photos below.

This is inside Real Canadian Superstore, which is like a Macro on steroids
I have never seen fresh produce this big. I think all of these are hormone treated.
To give you some perspective. These are the same carrots at home next to my cellphone. They are huge.
Aisles and aisles of fresh produce. It is truly amazing. Most of it is imported from the US.
More fresh produce.
Then there is all the other stuff. Like soft drinks…
And aisles and aisles of sweets…
Look at these massive Lindt chocolate bars that are $15 or around R150 each!
They sell margarine in ice cream tubs!!
And thousands of pieces of chicken.

The bread choices are even more overwhelming…
It is almost impossible to choose between the many different options.
Everything is done in Jumbo size… Look at this bag of crisps – or what we call “chips”.

What this experience reminded me of, was how easy it is to lose perspective when everything is available in abundance. We often hear the statistics: “Half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. And 900 million people cannot read or write…“, but how many of us actually GET that?! Get the scary reality that in certain parts of the worlds, people have so much abundance that they are drowning in choices. These large superstores are enough to drive anyone to tears. There is just so much choice, that you literally walk from aisle to aisle for hours on end without making sense of it all. At least that was our reality. Every outing to the store, is a 2- or 3-hour affair and we arrive back home with whatever we made sense of before we became too overwhelmed and gave up. Nothing makes you long for simplicity as much as living in a place where abundance is taken too far.

In South Africa our lives were much simpler. We had choice. But just enough choice. And every day around you there were reminders of those who did not have what you have. Some people get accustomed to the abundance of a first world country. For me, it is a reminder of what is wrong with the world. I come from a place where water is scarce and some people are at real risk of dying from thirst or hunger. And now I live in a country that has one of the biggest fresh water supplies in the world and some of the cleanest tap water in the world. Every time I open a tap, I think of home and of how much my country is suffering and of how much we still need to learn.

Despite its beauty, its efficiency and its abundance, my new home is still missing something… a certain hardiness and humour, a certain level of humility and hope that is so characteristic of my old home.

Breyties decide to take on Canada

So, you decide that you want to emigrate. You have become disillusioned by the country you call home and you think that perhaps the grass is going to be greener somewhere else. You start racking up the reasons for your decision to emigrate – the economy is failing, the currency is worthless, crime is out of control, society is falling apart, no-one abides by the laws anymore, the government is corrupt, public services are dysfunctional, the educational system is failing etc. You are sick and tired of just getting by. You want to get back to the business of living. And you believe it can be accomplished by leaving, because you have heard of so many others making it work in other countries.

So, you choose your location, you begin the research and you start to wonder if you measure up and whether you will make the cut. You start looking for work. Perhaps you attend a few information seminars and you have experts assess your eligibility. If you are lucky – really lucky – like my husband, you are headhunted and offered the opportunity of a lifetime. You realise that there is never going to be another opportunity like this. Considering all the reasons why home is no longer a viable option (see reasons above), you decide that you would be a fool not to take this opportunity. Even though the location was not one of your choosing, you start warming to the idea, because everything you read about your potential new home is wonderful.

People are taken aback when you tell them you are leaving. Some take you seriously. Others do not. Most try to justify the hand they were dealt – i.e. having to stay in a country where the economy is failing and the crime is out of control and the currency is worthless and government is corrupt and dysfunctional etc. What else can they do? They did not win the lottery like you. You feel a little guilty. You feel like you have to defend your decision. You feel a little selfish. But you keep reminding yourself that you did “win the lottery” in this instance and that you would be foolish to give it up. You start having the “what if” conversations with your partner. What if we stay? Will we look back and wonder whether we should have gone? Will we perhaps regret it? What if we go and we hate it? Can we come back? Not likely. It is going to cost a fortune to get there in the first place.

So, you start the process. You sit for the language test. You subject yourself to the medical examinations. You obtain your police clearance. You fill in the mountains of documentation. You obtain references from previous employers. You validate your qualifications. You endure the grinding visa “interviews” (read “interrogations”). You jump through every single hoop they tell you to. You start reading up about your new home. You try to learn as much as possible about life over there – the weather, taxes, housing, transportation, the culture, activities and things to see and do etc. Some of the things sound weird to you. We don’t do it like that over here, you think. Others sound exciting. Wow, I can’t believe people have that over there. Your wander lust kicks in and the excitement builds about the places you are going to see and the new experiences you are going to have.

But the process is long. In the meantime, your life must go on. So, you keep working and doing your thing and waiting and waiting for that faithful day when you finally hear your visa is ready for collection. You put your house in the market, hoping you will sell it in time. But the economy is almost stagnant and no-one is buying and you wait and you wait. Frustration sets in. You might be stuck here with property you cannot dispose of. So, you devise plans for how you will manage it. Will you rent it out? Will you give someone else power of attorney to sell it on your behalf? What are you going to do without the money you are supposed to make off selling the house? You were kind of betting on that money to see you through the first two months in your new country, because you won’t be earning an income yet. So, you make another plan. You cancel all your insurance policies. You have your investments paid out to you. You sell your cars and appliances (they won’t work on the other side). You draw up budgets and you research what food and living expenses are going to be once you arrive in your new country. Reality starts setting in. This is going to be tough. We won’t have any money. We are going to struggle. We will need to spend wisely until we start working.

One year later, visa in hand, reality sinks in. It is time to book plane tickets. It is time to arrange accommodation. It is time to say goodbye. And you realise that despite all your research and preparation, you are not ready. Suddenly the fear sets in. You don’t want to leave. It is going to be too hard to say goodbye. So, you spend as much time as you can with loved ones. You commit to chatting via video call once you are on the other side. Then you realise the time difference means you will be cut off from people for most of the day… You stress eat and you don’t sleep and small things trigger a gush of tears. Your tickets are booked. There is no turning back now. People want to know if you are excited. You assess your internal space and you find you are not. You are simply overwhelmed and terrified and incredibly sad.

You say your goodbyes. You cry until you have no tears left. You get on a plane and you watch your home grow smaller in the distance as you say your final goodbye and embark on a journey you have convinced yourself for more than a year you wanted to take, but now you are not so sure anymore.

You arrive on the other side, shell-shocked and exhausted and pushed to your absolute emotional limit. Everything is so clean and efficient. People are friendly, but not warm, because you are foreign to them and they are foreign to you. You acquire your rental car and wonder what in the world you were thinking imagining that you would DRIVE YOURSELF to your accommodation! You get into the wrong side of the car and then remember that they drive on the other side of the road here. So, you get into the “right” side of the car and then realise that you have no idea what you are doing. Baby is screaming because she is tired and she can sense your angst. So, she is not pleased. Your first car ride through the city is not one of awe and amazement, but one of sheer terror as you try to get a screaming baby to calm down and navigate through traffic whilst remembering to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, which is now the “right” side of the road!

Considering the sheer level of exhaustion and overwhelm you are experiencing upon arrival, you feel like you could literally fall apart at the first sign of trouble. When you take the bigger picture into consideration, you suppose you had less setbacks than most people who embark on this journey. You have paid accommodation for the first 30 days and a rental car to get around. Most people who arrive here as immigrants start with nothing. They must figure out the public transport system on arrival and they end up living in someone’s basement for the first few months. So, you suppose it could be worse.

It nonetheless does not minimize the stress you are under to find permanent accommodation and to secure a driver’s license and/or figure out the public transport system. On top of that there is obtaining Social Insurance Numbers, opening bank accounts, orientating yourselves about the local environment – i.e. where the shops and the community centre are; where the nearest pharmacy is; how to obtain a family doctor etc. Your little baby girl gets sick within the first few days and suddenly the grass is not so green on the other side. You have to have a public medical services card to use the public medical health, but you can only obtain one if you have been here for three months. So currently you do not qualify. So what to do in the interim. So you go from walk-in clinic to walk-in clinic, only to be told that baby needs to be sicker before she can get help. No medicine. No help. So you make another plan. You self-medicate and you stay indoors because it’s too cold outside.

Days spent indoors… and frustration sets in. You feel overwhelmed, disoriented and you miss home so much it hurts. You wonder what everyone else is doing back home. You find yourself waking up at 02:00 or 03:00 in the morning, because you know it is afternoon back home and you send messages to loved ones inquiring how they are and what they are up to. It feels as if your life is standing still and you are simply waiting for the next moment when you can talk to someone back home. You spend your early mornings on video calls crying and having to be reassured by family who feel powerless to change your situation and who end up worrying about you and not being able to concentrate on their own lives that now have to go on without you.

Your mom-in-law sends you a picture of the photo she has next to her bed of her granddaughter that is now 16 000 km away. And you break down and cry. You are invited to visit a South African family who has walked the path before you and who has now made this their new home and you hear them tell you that their kids don’t realise they have grandparents because they were born here. And you find yourself thinking, but my baby girl knows her grandparents and she deserves to know them. Have I done her an injustice by taking her away from them? Did I do irreparable damage to her development? She was brought into a world filled with love. So many back home are heartbroken because they no longer get to spend time with her and you feel like the most selfish person in the world. What have you done? Home is where the heart is and your heart belongs to your family. What is life without the ones who love us authentically?

You hear your new “friends” (read “acquaintances”) say that you do what you need to do to survive over here. They tell you to make friends with others who are on the same journey, even if you would not have befriended them back home. It is better than being alone, they say. At least you share a common background, they say. But you ask yourself can I live my life like this? Will superficial, platonic relationships sustain me over time? And the answer is no. Those who have not experienced the immense satisfaction derived from deep authentic relationships with others, will probably not understand how it feeds your soul and empowers you during your darkest hours. Those who have not known the world of difference one hug could make from the right person, will not understand. But those of you who share that connection, know that it feels like your heart has been ripped out of your chest and you are now required to go on living without your heart.

You know yourself better than most people do. You have spent a lot of time analyzing your core motivations and fears. You have clarified your values. You know what matters. But perhaps you needed to travel to the other side of the world to realise what you would be willing to do to hold on to that which matters most…