If You’re Going to San Francisco…

This post has been long in the making, but I’m glad to see no one has abandoned my blog yet! I know, I know, I’m pretty slow at this, but that’s just how I roll. I’ve been back in Calgary less than a week now, and had to quickly do a final edit on my thesis and then print copies for my defense committee, but I’m happy to report that my monstrous thesis (which finally has a title: _Disconnect_) is now finished and will be defended on September 5th. I’m nervous as hell, but at the same time I know I can do this. It’s what I’ve been working on for 2 years, and I couldn’t have picked a better day to defend. Why is this such a great day? Because September 5, 2012, is exactly 2 years after I first arrived in Calgary. On Sunday, September 5, 2010, my mom and I hopped on a plane in Windsor and I left my old life behind. And my thesis is really about that leaving, so to defend it on that anniversary is pretty fantastic. I’ve so got this.

Aside from the thesis stuff, it’s been pretty hectic here lately. On August 7th, I left for my required “holy crap I’m done my thesis” vacation in Vancouver, which, aside from being on my bucket list for a few years, was predominantly so I could meet my German penpal, Marion. She was doing a conference in Portland, so Vancouver was the natural halfway meeting point. I’ve known her, on paper, for 12 years, so it was quite surreal to meet her in person. First, the backstory, like always:

Twelve years ago, when I was 15, I had the bright idea to start collecting penpals around the world. I don’t remember if it was my idea first, or my sister’s, but we both started writing to people. I think the point was to get stamps from other countries… Anyway, I had 3 German penpals, 2 in Egypt, 1 in Malaysia, 2 in England, 1 in France (who, yes, I wrote to in French), 1 in Ireland, 1 in the Netherlands, 3 in the US, and 1 in Canada. Over the years, most have dropped off the face of the earth. I still talk to one of the British guys, but we don’t write letters anymore – just creep each other on Facebook. The only one I still write actual letters to is Marion, who lives in Germany. She was one of my first penpals, and we’ve been carrying out a paper-based friendship for 12 years now. We saw each other through a few years of high school, undergrad, grad school, several cross-country moves, and other aspects of life. We’re both 27 now, both technically adults, and yet both still in school. I’m finishing my MA, she’s working on a PhD. Actually at times we were more than just friends – she helped me translate a German booklet I had from WW2, and I edited her entire Master’s thesis, which was in English. And then a week ago, we finally met in person for the first time, at a train station in Vancouver, BC.

I took the bus there – a very long overnight ride from Calgary – and arrived around 6am, meaning I had a good 5 hours to kill before Marion’s train pulled in from Seattle. My first stop was the bathroom so I could change and brush my teeth, and inside the stall, I saw the best “graffiti” I’d ever seen, one simple sentence markered onto the tile wall: “Live to experience.” That set the tone for my entire vacation. Outside, I met up with a couple who had been on my bus and who were waiting for their connection to Seattle. We chatted for a while, and the man gave me about $4 in change, the last of his Canadian money, because he wouldn’t be able to use it back home and it wasn’t worth exchanging. He said it was so I could get some breakfast, or at least coffee, in return for keeping them company while they waited. After they left, I met a young Native man who was trying to earn some money by drawing Native animals. I gave him the $4 from the Seattle-bound couple, plus another $2, and in exchange, he drew me an orca – the spirit of the traveler in Native mythology. We sat in the park for close to an hour and talked – turns out he used to live in Calgary. I bought him a coffee at the McDonalds inside the train station before he went on his way, because I wanted to thank him for talking to me, for telling me about his life and his experiences, not just for the orca. This trip, for me, turned into more than just meeting Marion or relaxing on the beach (which I did a LOT) or even seeing Vancouver – this trip was about meeting new people and truly experiencing life.

Marion was amazing, and we had a blast together, roaming the city on foot. We tested every cafe we passed, ate lunch at the most obscure little places overlooking the water, browsed hippie bookstores, and sat on the beach. Marion talked about her town in Germany, how different Europe is from Canada, and taught me how to swear in another language. We bought postcards to send home to family and friends, and when I found out my nephew had been born, I learned how to write “congratulations on becoming a big sister” in German on the postcard for my niece. After she left, I spent my last 2 days looking for new cafes and sitting on the beach. I had no idea how much I missed the water until my feet touched the Pacific, and then I didn’t want to leave. When it was all said and done, I felt like I had accomplished something huge: I had finally seen the Pacific coast. I’ve touched the Atlantic twice, once off the coast of Florida when I was 10, and again in Halifax when I was 26, and now I had made it to the other side of my country.

I thought when I arrived in Vancouver that I would wish I had moved there 2 years ago, but I realized that Calgary is where I was meant to go. This city, right in the heart of Alberta, is my home. For 2 years, I continued to think of Windsor as “home,” but now I realize my home is right here in Calgary. On the bus back here, when I could make out the downtown skyline from the Trans Canada, my heart soared just a little bit. This is my home. Windsor will always be where I’m from, but right now, Calgary is where I belong.

Over the course of my 5 days in Vancouver, I did manage to see a few things, like Canada Place and Gastown and Davie Village (the local LGBTQ neighbourhood, which turned out to have the best coffee in the city). I even took the Sea Bus to the North Shore one afternoon to peruse the Lonsdale Quay Market. There I met another fascinating woman, and bought my only Vancouver souvenir. I was attracted to the colourful bags at one of the market stalls and stopped to peruse the handmade jewelry and woven scarves, but what eventually caught my eye was a bracelet with a Tibetan Om symbol. I asked the woman at the stall about the meaning behind this symbol, and we ended up in a long conversation. She wasn’t much older than me, and I learned that she was born in Nepal to a Nepali father and a Tibetan mother, so most of her crafts incorporate symbols from both cultures. She came to Canada in her teens and settled in Vancouver because she loved the water, something I completely understand. The Tibetan Om, she explained, literally means “no sky,” as in no limit, but also means “untapped potential.” We have this saying in western culture, “the sky’s the limit,” but this is so much more beautiful. There is no limit to a person’s potential, not even the sky. There is no sky. This was how I wanted to remember my vacation, so I bought that bracelet. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of what that Nepali woman said to me: “There is no sky. There is no limit to what you can do with your life.” Yes. This is what Vancouver taught me, and it’s a lesson I hope I never forget.

“There is no sky.”

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