As international MA student Hailey Leah Rheault finds a home away from home, she wonders: who has a country now anyway?
Dépaysement: The feeling that comes from not being in one's home country; being a foreigner.
As a Canadian national obtaining an international Master of Sociology and Social Research degree between Italy and Germany, I have become accustomed to ‘being a foreigner’. From the first weeks of getting acquainted with the local “Alien Office” (i.e., a seemingly outdated titling for immigration services) to vast linguistic and cultural differences, I have often missed the ease of familiar customs and practices over the last two and a half years. At the same time, I have also loved these moments of discomfort, and I am grateful that my world views and perspectives have widened since moving from New Brunswick, Canada. Accordingly, I am often plagued with the binary, spatial question: will I stay in Europe or go back to Canada after graduating? With the shock, trauma, and hysteria surrounding the corona virus pandemic, this decision has been ever more magnified and pressing.
Parallel to the Government of Canada’s pleas (or subtle threats) for Canadians abroad to “come home while they still can”, there have been many European border closures, flight cancellations and delays, and growing risks for travel – all to which have restricted my movement. As Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, bluntly stated, “Let me be clear, if you’re abroad, it is time to come home” in a press conference, my lackluster feelings of ominousness were met with a surge of anxiety about my future whereabouts. To my friends and family back in Canada, it may seem as though I am blatantly ignoring the news, but I am constantly reading updates on an international level and re-assessing my options. At the same time, I am also trying to distance myself from those spreading fear and non-scientific information. Within this increasingly panicked and divisive context, both my homeland and life in Europe have started to feel foreign to me.
Photo and drawing by Hailey Leah Rheault
Knowing that my apartment contract in Cologne and part-time work for a German research institute would end this month (as my supposed graduation from my MA was scheduled for March 25th), I often joked that I was entering the “abyss” (i.e., job searching, planning travels, and life post grad school). As a natural planner, I had spent the last few months preparing and making decisions for the future – plans which would all collapse on Thursday last week with the sudden and overwhelming spike of Covid-19 positive cases across Europe. First, my graduation ceremony in Trento, Italy, was cancelled with respect to the alarmingly high numbers of infections and deaths amongst immunocompromised individuals across the northern regions. Then, and most saddening, I had to come to terms with the fact that my flight tickets to visit family in Mexico, with my boyfriend, would be completely compromised. In other cancellations, my presentation for the “International Migration Conference” from June 2-5 was postponed, and I dealt with the loss of money I had spent in pre-booking my respective flight to Macedonia. Lastly, I am unsure if my boyfriend and I will be able to come to Canada (together) this summer – a trip that we have been looking forward to for a long time.
Prior to the corona virus outbreaks, my boyfriend – who has dual Danish and Swiss citizenship – and I had agreed that it would be best to go to his parent’s house in Denmark for the month of April. However, this plan was also challenged with Denmark’s sudden decision to close its borders to foreigners. With only two and a half weeks left in our apartment contract, I felt as though the walls of our small apartment were closing in on us (well, in on me, specifically). Although it may seem melodramatic – the news of this border closure hurt the most, as I realized that I could potentially become homeless after the month of March. Although we had friends who would potentially open their doors to us, we decided against couchsurfing given the circumstances. Instead, we soon made, what felt like, a desperate attempt to move to Denmark.
With only two and a half weeks left in our apartment contract, I felt as though the walls of our small apartment were closing in on us (well, in on me, specifically)
Whilst packing up all my belongings, the words of a close friend stung in my mind: “[…] at the end of the day you don’t have citizenship”. I thought about how my new official stay permit, which will supposedly be valid for two years, wouldn’t arrive in Cologne for another six weeks. I pushed away these thoughts and I packed my passport with my temporary stay permit paper (lasting until mid-June). I quickly cleaned and packed as my boyfriend went to the airport to collect a rental car, and we left Cologne at 8pm. Expecting to be turned away, we both felt sick driving up to the flashing lights of the Denmark border at 3:30am. Luckily, I made it past the border control and arrived at my new “home away from home” at 4:30am. With the Canadian government’s decision to close borders to foreigners, my decision of going to Denmark was further confirmed.
“Keeping you safe is our top priority” — PM Justin Trudeau.
While I do believe the Canadian government is actively trying to do their best within the given circumstances, I believe that such “safety” efforts fall a bit short for those who are already abroad. For foreigners like myself, who are privileged enough to have access to a stable environment to practice “social distancing”, I do not believe it is ‘safer’ for me to travel back home at this moment considering the constant flight cancellations, delays and border closures, as well as the various cases of Covid-19 positive passengers infecting others during flights. Notably, the Canadian government promised to examine passengers thoroughly prior to them entering the plane and deny those who appear sick. Still, would individuals, without strong symptoms, inevitably pass the virus on to healthy individuals up in the air? Also, what happens to those who are denied and forced to undergo a quarantine prior to flying to Canada? Then, for the Canadians who do manage to make it home, they must wait in long lines to have their health re-assessed and receive public health information about self-quarantining for 14 days (again, amongst potentially infected Canadians abroad).
Whilst packing up all my belongings, the words of a close friend stung in my mind: “[…] at the end of the day you don’t have citizenship”.
Where the government, obviously, does not want to administer the provision of quarantine facilitation post-arrival to Canada, 14 days of self-quarantine is recommended to those who are returning to Canada.
To abet the immediate costs of travelling or quarantine accommodation, PM Justin Trudeau has introduced the “Special Financial Assistance Plan”, whereby temporary, $5,000 loans can be provided to those in need. I feel sincerely sorry for those who are travelling back to Canada within this stressed environment (especially those who are alone and experiencing issues with getting home; have to take a loan due to the limited, expensive flights; do not have family near the Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal airports for self-quarantine; and/or are stuck in more restrictive, foreign areas). Travelling back to Canada is not as ‘black and white’ as the Prime Minister has suggested.
Travelling aside, there is also the question of whether abroad Canadians return home to empty supermarkets. Like most westernized populations, many Canadians have seemingly fallen into the capitalist trap of over-consumption and greed with the stress of the pandemic. Although “solidarity” is a noun used to describe Canada’s governmental actions and communal responses, the mantra “you snooze, you lose” seems to ring truer as families line up hours before supermarket opening hours to bulk-buy essential resources. Notably, hurdles experienced by returning Canadians can never be compared to the struggles of, for example, marginalized and vulnerable communities. While some people say that they are simply being “prepared” when purchasing all available hand sanitizers, washes, disinfectants, toilet paper, and so on, this argument completely neglects the fact that we are not alone in this world pandemic. No matter where I am, I hope to remain a foreigner to such covetous and ignorant behaviour.
Although “solidarity” is a noun used to describe Canada’s governmental actions and communal responses, the mantra “you snooze, you lose” seems to ring truer as families line up hours before supermarket opening hours
Although I am still adjusting to my self-quarantine location, I feel very privileged to be in a secure and stable place. I wish that I could see and be near my family, but I am grateful to have their support in my decision to stay in Europe for the time being. I also hope that family – as well as concerned friends – understand that my situation is (luckily) different from those with tourist status in Europe. Once again, I am a foreigner to a new country, but I also feel as though everyone in the world is feeling a sense of ‘dépaysement’ at this time. It is hard to imagine your country being in a complete state of lockdown. Like everyone else, I have very little control within this ever-changing context; however, I do plan to spend the next few months coping with my anxieties through reading new books, painting, spending time in the nature, avoiding fear mongering social media posts, and being around people whom always try their best to make me feel at home.