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My hand shakes a bit as I hold onto the varnished handrail. It is my first morning here. I’m nervous and too close to my dream. My father had said I should behave quietly in a foreign country, so I step carefully, trying not to make noise. But the house is old. Everything seems to creak and crack, as if the floors and the walls are alive. I don’t know if anyone is up yet.
I think about the emptiness of words, and I like the silence. The best thing about being here so far has been waking up alone without having to listen to my parents argue. If they are fighting so much at that age maybe couples should rethink their lives. Travelling abroad is a way for me to get distant from them as much as I can.
My parents are always going through a crisis and I feel stuck in the middle, having to take sides. As a child, I searched for solace in my room, but it wasn’t enough. When the opportunity to travel came along in high school, I didn’t think twice. I spoke to the counsellor and filled out the forms to start the procedures. I convinced my parents that English was essential for my future, and that I had to go to another country to learn it. “It is mind-opening going overseas,” I told them.
My grades weren’t the best, but it didn’t matter as I wasn’t being evaluated or applying to university. I was attending a language school. All I had to do was pay the tuition, send the application, apply for a visa and hope for the best. When everything was ready, I couldn’t wait for the day of my trip to arrive.
After crossing the customs and security area in the Brazilian airport, I felt a surge of panic and fear to be travelling on my own and wanted to go back to the safety of my home.
But slowly I got used to the idea of the unknown, of tracing my own destiny alone.
I made friends with an older lady, not exactly old, but around forty, sitting beside me. She was going to Vancouver to visit her sister who lived there. She did this every year.
“Aren’t you afraid of travelling on your own?” I asked. I was not embarrassed about my high school English.
The woman replied. “You get used to the silence. It is very soothing.”
And I know this is true now. I walk down the stairs as drops of rain fall heavy on the window. It feels welcoming after such a long journey. I watched movies in the plane for nine hours and changed aircrafts in Toronto, headed to Vancouver. On the train from the airport to downtown, the city seemed grey and industrial at first, with greenery and residential areas as I approached the city canter.
I took a cab to the house after getting off at the Skytrain station. All I could think of was falling asleep in the bedroom of the homestay where I would spend the next few months. I found the key under the mat, just as the email had informed me. I was staying in the basement suite and there was a private entrance to my room, furnished with a small kitchen.
Upstairs I could hear people moving about, but thought I’d better not disrupt their routine. I didn’t know if they were like my parents, who didn’t like to be interrupted after dinner. I changed my clothes and had a shower. Tired, I ate a bowl of cereal with milk just like I had seen people do on television.
The fridge had bread, milk, cheese and jam. There were also other items I had never eaten before at home, like peanut butter and maple syrup. I read the welcoming greetings my homestay parents had left me at the entrance and watched the news, trying to understand what the announcer said, but he spoke very fast. I was falling asleep on the couch when I decided to go to bed. I put my shoes near the heater, as they were wet from the storm.
Because it was raining, my hair became flat and formless, despite the blow dry I had received before leaving Brazil. I wanted to look beautiful when traversing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. There was no real winter in South America, not as far as I was concerned.
There were many small details I had to learn about my new routine. There was a set of instructions telling me what time to get up, which bus to take, what to recycle. My homestay parents would be establishing the rules. I was supposed to have dinners at the homestay and lunch in the school.
Because of the time difference, I ended up waking up in the middle of the night. With nothing else to do, I started to unpack my bag and fill the drawers with my pullovers. I had to write down on a sheet of paper what kind of meat I wanted to eat. I chose chicken most of the days, because my mother had said that in Canada it was free range and that was very expensive and hard to find in Brazil. The other days I chose salmon, because it was supposed to be good and was from the Pacific Ocean. I liked sweets, but I watched my weight.
At home we had a maid, Rosita, and my mother used to tell her what to do for dinner and lunch every day. The week before I left for Canada my mother accused my father of being too flirtatious with Rosita, and they had another fight.
This homestay was a house well looked after, though I suspected they didn’t have a helper. I was advised in the list about when to clean my bathroom and change my sheets.
Now that it is finally morning, I am free to explore. I discover that the main floor is dark, sober and penetrating. Great windows cover the wall descending from the attic, but rose curtains wrapped with a red lace block the light. From the kitchen, I can see a park and a covered green area for children.
“I wish I was your age,” my father told me before I left. “I would make other choices.”
That comment made me think about my own decision to leave the country and my fear of being too close to boys, wondering if they would be like him, demanding, unfaithful but also unsatisfied. My father liked to complain, and his middle-class apartment with two bedrooms, a small living room and a view to other buildings was just one of his problems.
I found it difficult to understand what he wanted from life after his retirement and I think he didn’t know either. I truly didn’t know if there was any other kind of love apart from the one I learned at home. My mother explained that this was what frustrated people liked to do, regret, and that’s why my trip to Canada was so necessary. It would introduce me into a new world without so much anger.
“It is important to speak your own language,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, wondering if my English wasn’t good enough to live in a foreign country.
“I’m not talking about your English. Your English is fine, you will improve it if you need to. What I mean is your own way of being in life, your desire, your decisions,” she said, as if just mentioning it made her anxious. “I didn’t have this opportunity.”
Now, after travelling for almost twenty-four hours, I already sensed that my mother was right. A foreign place can change your way of being in the world just by offering its unknown space and new possibilities.
In the living room, the fireplace is lit, and two blue couches are protected by a plastic cover. When I enter, Mr. Robert is there, the hems of his pajama’s pants dragging on the blue and white rug. He is a man of small stature, wearing flip-flops. My father would never wear his sleeping clothes outside of his own bedroom. He can’t ever really relax and is always dressed as if he is going to work. This other man, on the contrary, seems at ease in his house garments. I follow him as he walks to the kitchen with a sleepy face. He appears very calm as he starts to slice round pieces of bread.
The radio is turned on. Not bothered by my presence, he goes to the living room and grabs two different cups from a special cupboard. “I like to serve my guests the best,” he says. The American kitchen style is identical to the ones I’ve seen on TV. On the speakers, the classical music is a tranquil piano intermixed with English sentences. I sneeze. The blow calls his attention.
“Bom dia,” he says in Portuguese, pulling out a chair for me to sit. “How was your trip?”
I tell him everything in my rough English, tired of being inside of my own head for so long. He is patient and moves his eyebrows as if used to this ritual of listening. Once again, I think about my dad, and how every single morning he used to complain about the
weather and the political conditions of the country. He never really asked how my day was.
“Do all Canadians listen to CBC?” I ask, trying to sound casual, not knowing how to make conversation with a man I’ve just met.
He raises his shoulders. “I really don’t know.”
He has almost imperceptible grey, round glasses that fall from his thin and delicate nose. It makes him appear younger. Maybe he is just different, more attentive, because he is not my father. I wonder how it must feel to be married to a man like that and I am immediately ashamed of having such thoughts. I am still deciphering my mother’s wisdom.
His nose doesn’t have hairs coming out of his nostrils and he doesn’t have hairy hands. His kindness is foreign, strange. I only know men with tanned skin and brown eyes. His are penetrating like an angora cat. He smiles and gives me an empty cup. The music continues to play. Imprinted on the porcelain of the cup is the saying Unified Health System.
“Are you a doctor?” I ask.
“Music teacher,” he replies.
Perhaps if my father had more opportunities, he would have been a different man, less bitter, my mother suggested. I feel guilty for being critical in my judgment. But it is hard to know what kind of woman I am. I don’t have a boyfriend yet, despite being eighteen. Most girls in my school have already dated but I am shy and confused. The pressure of getting married is a concern of many girls in Brazil.
Two slices of bread jump from the toaster, interrupting my thoughts. Mr. Robert grabs the electric kettle and pours water into his cup.
“Do you want coffee?” he asks.
I don’t know. Nobody has ever asked me this question before. At home, I only drink chocolate powder and milk. He opens a jar of instant coffee and gives me a spoon. I add the same quantity to my cup as he does to his. The wooden table occupies half of the kitchen. There is a newspaper wrapped in a plastic bag.
The rubber soles of my shoes make noise against the tiles. Once in a while I touch my backpack on the floor, trying to emanate naturalness.
“Is your class at nine?” he asks.
I nod yes, sipping the bitter coffee with difficulty. He eats his bread with jam. A red stream runs down his fingers. Without understanding why, I want to touch him, making our inadequacies concrete. I don’t remember hugging my dad before I left. I unwrap the newspaper’s plastic cover instead.
“Have a good class,” he says. “Later you will meet my wife and children.”
This takes me away from my strange inner fantasies. Suddenly exposed, I rush out of the room, realizing I will be late for class. In that moment, I project my life into the future: I want to have a home like this one, an assurance of who I am outside of the world of my family. I don’t even know if that is possible.
I pass an aroma of lavender and mint coming from a cupboard with spices. Near the entrance there are many different sizes of shoes piled in a dresser. Outside, the cold air invades my skin, despite the long coat and merino wool pullover. I identify the bus stop on the other side of the street. The seats are soft and the place has maps, not like the public transportation in Brazil where everything is precarious and there are rectangular signs attached to tree trunks in the avenues.
Still, I already miss it. Here, the grey light of November leaves everything monochrome. At this time of the year in Brazil there is lots of sun, mangoes and persimmon.
Alone again, I feel relieved. In the bus, people talk hurriedly, and words are pronounced without pauses, different from how I learned at school.
When I enter the classroom with its small chairs, I place my backpack against the wall. The students are the same age as me. The teacher wears a yellow dress with blue flowers and doesn’t seem cold, taking off her jacket and exposing her white skin. On the break, adults drink tea and coffee. The bell rings.
Carelessly, I brush against a boy ahead of me going up the stairs. Distracted, I apologize in Portuguese, desculpe. His smile is open and receptive.
“Are you Brazilian?” he asks with a thick accent.
“I’m …” I say, my heart beating fast. I don’t answer, suddenly nervous, and I hurry toward the classroom.
He follows me.
“My father is Brazilian but I’m from Spain,” he says. “I came here to learn English. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Juan.”
He extends his hand and I grab it sideways while we walk.
Feeling afflicted, I sit at the back of the room and flip through the phrasal verb book compulsively, hoping I can find words to help me say something else about myself. Once in a while, I see Juan looking at me. The teacher distributes a list to be memorized.
My own world, veiled inside, begins to speak, surprising me. I move my chair close to Juan’s and we practice the exercises together, breathing deeper whenever we are lost or without words.
Published in This Place is a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone.