The following post is a reflection of my time in Scotland, and is not at all related to issues surrounding the vote for Scottish independence, or my views on the referendum.
This summer marked an important date for me: July 29th. That day, five years ago, was the day I left Canada and moved to Scotland to be with my then boyfriend, now husband. It was a big chance to take – having left a good, permanent job with Edmonton Public Schools and permanent teaching certification in the province of Alberta – for what was supposed to be a two-year leave of absence. The plan was to return to Canada together after those two years to start a life in either Alberta or British Columbia.
Things changed, our situation changed. What was supposed to be a quick two years in Scotland turned into indefinitely. I had relied on going back to Canada, and subconsciously hadn’t let myself fully settle into life in Scotland nor embrace it as my home away from home. While Scotland is an English-speaking country, the culture here is vastly different to that of Canada, and this was something I struggled with my first years here. The Scottish sense of humour, the media, the things that were issues here but not in Canada (like immigration, racism), the banking system, the way government and local councils are run were all aspects of day to day life that I struggled with.
For many, the idea of living in another country seems so romantic, so exciting, and like Wow, that person is living life! But when you go through the experience, it’s completely different. There is no amount of mental and emotional preparation you can do, advice anyone can give, or assumptions you can make that will help. The reality is that living in another country is really difficult.
I was hit pretty hard financially: going from a good, full time job with a great starting salary and health benefits, to a part-time job (all I could get at the time), earning about half my salary. Teachers in Scotland don’t make nearly what they do in Alberta. I had a shedload of student debt and living-beyond-my-means debt, to pay off as well, and earning significantly less affected my first few years in Scotland and how I was able to live them. Earning a lower salary forced me to start living more realistically though. I went from driving a too expensive 2006 VW Golf with high monthly payments, to a 1998 Peugeot 206; I had to only pay the car repairs to get it back on the road. I had a horrible Starbucks addiction (1-2 lattes a day!), and, at the time, begrudgingly gave up my morning fix as the closest Starbucks was 40 minutes away. I also wasn’t surrounded by Lululemon-clad, Ugg-wearing, designer-jeans sporting people, nor was I surrounded by North American consumerism, and found myself with less pressure to keep up with the Jones’. Finally, living with my husband, who has never been in debt and is a saver, really changed things financially for me. I was envious that he could actually use his entire monthly salary rather than having monthly payments. Moving to Scotland actually forced me to be better with money. I now drive an older car and own it outright. I can save money every month. I can pay for almost everything in cash, except when my older car requires repairs – like it did four times this year so far. I can also travel to many other parts of Europe, something I couldn’t afford my first few years here.
I was a very prim and proper, perfectionist and sensitive Canadian when I moved to Scotland, and starting a job working with teenagers with behavioural and emotional needs – totally opposite from my students in Edmonton – broke me of those controlling qualities. What made me a good teacher with mainstream 9-10 year olds, made me a horrible teacher with Scottish teenagers, coming from some pretty rough areas around the country. I realised that I had lived my life in a wonderful bubble until this point. I couldn’t relate to them at all, and we didn’t have any common ground to start with; I didn’t, and still don’t, like football (soccer), so couldn’t even have the typical football banter. I was stuck, but as I had no control over certain aspects of my life – my students, my day-to-day timetable, my life in some ways – I strived to control areas where I could. My perfectionism drove my students crazy, and the concept of mainstream teaching and moulding your students into smaller versions of you just didn’t work. The longer I stayed in this controlled life, the more unhappy I became.
Relationships were also difficult to form initially because I was starting from scratch with everyone, all at the same time. In life, you start a new job, start school, join a team, volunteer, take classes, etc. where you meet new people. You get to know each other because you’re all new to each other. But at the same time, you still have your family behind you, perhaps a significant other, and other friends from elsewhere; all people with whom you’ve already got a history. You’ve got people around you with whom you share inside jokes, and you can ay “Remember that time when…” In Scotland, the only person I could do that with was Pat. It wasn’t fair on him to be my everything, and on the flip side, it’s not healthy for our relationship to make him my everything. I needed my own friends, my own life. And going from a completely independent person with an active life, to starting from scratch was very difficult.
I struggled my first few years to make friendships because at the time, I had this notion that they had to be people who were like my friends at home. Yes, I had Pat’s siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to spend time with, which I genuinely enjoy doing, but I also wanted to spend time with people whose surname wasn’t Duncan. I couldn’t find a common bond with my colleagues, despite most of us being around the same age. The drinking and pub culture here was a massive shock to me, and I used to scoff at the idea of going to the pub regularly and other’s alcohol consumption. We just didn’t do that in Canada – at least in my social circles. My friends and I could get together without any alcohol and still have a good time. In Canada, all my friends were exactly like me. In Scotland, it became very difficult to find friends that were exactly like me, but I think part of the reason for this was because I also wasn’t involved in anything the way I am now. The other part was that I was trying to replicate the same life I had in Canada when my life wasn’t the same at all. Rather than look down on people because they weren’t like me, I should’ve looked at the good qualities they had, but couldn’t see past my blurred, control.
My first two years in Scotland were crap basically, but now looking back, most of it was my own fault. Then, into year three, something changed. I was fed up feeling like this but couldn’t explain what the issue was to Pat. I said that it was really difficult to look around our house and to feel like it is mine, it is my home. I said it felt like I couldn’t be totally settled in our own home or our life. He said “Oh my God, Danielle, you’re homesick.” Pat is an extensive world traveller. His passport is loaded with stamps and work visas. He’s been away from home for periods of time starting when he was an older teenager. He knew how it felt.
I always thought homesick meant that you missed your friends, family, events back home; I didn’t think it meant a deep feeling of disconnect to your new surroundings, where you can’t feel truly settled and comfortable. This is how I felt all the time. My homesickness, combined with a need to control everything, was truly affecting my time in Scotland and how I viewed the country. I thought it wasn’t as good as Canada and the only way I could enjoy life was if I lived in Canada. I was wrong. It wasn’t Scotland’s fault, it was my fault.
So I started to let go. I needed to accept that Scotland was now my home and that I needed to start living in the present rather than holding on to the past. I relaxed with my students and found that if I could make them laugh and be a wee bit cheeky to them, but still maintain discipline in class, I could be a teacher they liked. I started to appreciate my surroundings and was finally able to see that I do live in a wonderful place.
I got a full time contract at work and my pay improved significantly, as did my quality of life. Pat and I started to travel more within Europe, and I was doing things, seeing places I had only every dreamed of. I joined the running group in Laurencekirk and have made some good, close friends. My colleagues changed and I’ve now become good friends with them; they’re the reason I work where I work. Letting go made my life better.
My world also got smaller. I now have the luxury of using my passport every time I travel, and getting stamps in most places. I have a good collection of UK and Germany stamps, but no evidence of having travelled through and visited Italy, France and Switzerland.
I’ve visited countries and places I never fathomed I’d ever go to, like Portugal and the Canary Islands. Next spring, I may go to Poland. Next summer, potentially Ireland. Everything is now on my front doorstep. Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver got replaced by Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Stockholm. Visiting Scandinavia is something I’ve only every dreamed of doing, and now I can actually go. This may sound like bragging; that’s not my intention. It’s simply to point out how things have changed and how surreal it can be.
I still have difficulties but now they’re different and at times, more humourous. I’m pretty well versed in Scottish and British English, having to say trousers when I mean pants, and pants when I mean underwear, and I’m fully able to comprehend almost all Scots, mainly because of where I work. I didnae hink I could ever understaund fa Scots were sayin, ya ken! (I didn’t think I could ever understand what Scots were saying, you know!). I did have to go through a period of thinking before I spoke to make sure I was using UK English as opposed to North American English, but now it comes too naturally to me, to the point where I use Scottish phrases all the time, without knowing. We’ll see what like the weather is before we decide…I also have a tiny accent, that’s very noticeable with certain words. I honestly can’t remember how to pronounce the word road with a Canadian accent because I know say it like a Scot! There are still times when I say a Canadian word and my colleagues bend over in stitches. Apparently chugging and double-fisting don’t mean the same things here!!!!!! And by the way, I’ve got plenty of inside jokes and history with them now.
My main difficulty now is to acknowledge where home is. Home used to be a very tangible, easy thing to identify. Winnipeg was home: it’s where I grew up, where my family is, where my roots are. Edmonton was home for a bit, and it’s where I still have a storage container full of stuff! Now however, the concept of home is so much more complex and abstract. I will always have ties with Canada, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. I will continue to go home to Winnipeg for a visit for years to come. My passport says I’m Canadian, but I’m starting to feel Scottish as well. In the lead up to today’s vote for Scottish independence, I was starting to include myself in the collective term of ‘We’ when referring to the Scottish, and completely caught myself off guard. I will never abandon Canada as my home, nor my nationality, but I will take on another. My history and a piece of my heart will always be with Canada, but currently, my heart is also in Scotland and so is my life. I know I can’t have the best of both worlds – well I did on our wedding day when my family was here! – so I do what I can to make my world smaller. It also helps that my family and friends have visited through various points of my time in Scotland.
I honestly don’t know how I’d feel if I ever moved back to Canada. I’m a totally different person, and even when I do go home to Winnipeg, I find it difficult to slip back into Canadian Danielle. When I’m there, I feel like Scotland is a dream, or like I lead two separate lives. My journey has been hard, unhappy and confusing at times, but I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m truly happy with my life here in Scotland, and I’ve become a better person along the way.
For more insight into the expat life, read this article.
Have you ever lived in another country?
Which countries of the world do you want to see?
What’s your most coveted passport stamp?
Mine’s New Zealand…. 🙂