My First Love Was a City: Victoria, British Columbia
When I was 23 years old, I moved from Ontario to British Columbia to get my Master’s degree in English Literature, and I fell in love with Victoria. I fell in love with its big trees and ocean smell; I fell in love with its cerebral-hippy vibe, its health food stores and bookshops and friendly pubs. It wasn’t my first move but it was my first love, the first place where I built a home that was properly mine.
Although I had worked since I was 16, this was the first time in my life that I was supporting myself completely on my own, through a combination of savings and scholarships and research and teaching assistantships. I had just enough money to get by, but I got to read all day, I was living in one of the most beautiful cities I had ever seen, and most importantly, I had Friends.
Ever since I was a little girl, I had wanted Friends. Not just friends—I had those all my life—but F.R.I.E.N.D.S. A tight-knit, mixed-gender gang of merry pals with a host of in-group references and perfectly-timed jokes. And finally, with my bookish, ragtag band of MAs, I had found that. We had a palpable, crackling group chemistry, even when doing the most mundane things: we watched terrible movies, had passionate debates about books, and danced and drank wine and gossiped. Some of us (including me) fell in love with each other. For two years, I was supremely, joyfully, buoyantly happy. My happiness was a hum in my heartstrings, vibrating at a pitch I never thought was unsustainable.
And then I completed my degree.
A month or so before I finished, I started applying for jobs. I applied as the scholarships payments stopped, as did my assistant positions. I applied as I finished my Master’s Essay. I applied as I graduated. I applied as my boyfriend, one year ahead, got hired by a sketchy online university’s physical campus, and then got fired months later when the campus went belly-up. I applied ever more desperately as my meagre savings dwindled. Eventually, it became clear that I was knocking on a door that wouldn’t open. It was time to go.
My boyfriend’s and my parents generously arranged for the pair of us to fly back to Ontario, where we would move back in with my parents in Mississauga, a suburban city outside of Toronto, and try our employment luck there. Even after the tickets were purchased and we told all our friends, I didn’t believe it. It wasn’t until three days before we left, when the final Harry Potter film opened, that it hit me: this is the end of so many eras. I sobbed through the film, and all the way back to my boyfriend’s apartment. Harry was gone and I was leaving Victoria.
Back in Toronto, I was heart-stricken; I felt worthless, embarrassed about my continued failure to find work, and then embarrassed about being heart-stricken. I love my family and I didn’t want them to see me like that, but keeping it together was slowly tearing me apart. Then one fateful day, my best friend, who was temporarily living in Ottawa for an articling position, asked if my boyfriend and I wanted to come stay with her “for as long as we wanted,” words I am certain she came to regret.
Sandwiched between trendy Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa sometimes feels like an overserious, unglamorous middle sister – the Mary Bennett of Canada. I had certainly never intended to live there. We just came to visit, to see the nation’s capital, to escape our unemployment shame and for me to be with my friend. But when a friend of hers got us interviews at a local placement agency (a feat that had proven impossible in both Victoria and Toronto) and we started getting temping positions, it became clearer and clearer that we might have come to stay.
In retrospect, it was probably the worst time and circumstances in which to move to Ottawa. Ottawa is absolutely gorgeous in the fall: its visually juicy mix of 19th century stone and brutalist architecture and shiny-new glass buildings all play nicely together in the pleasant grey gloom and brilliant carpet of fallen leaves. My boyfriend, having survived heartbreaking, out-of-his-control moves before, tried to point these things out to me. But I couldn’t see it. I was too stressed and wounded and self-loathing and guilty to notice. I couldn’t love this place because it wasn’t the place I loved.
By the time I had found a permanent job and we got our own apartment (three months later, dear god my friend was a saint), it was winter and it was bone-crunchingly cold. My boyfriend was still temping so we had no money, and therefore nothing to do and nowhere to go. We couldn’t afford furniture so our apartment was a disaster – in our living room, books sat in piles on the floor and we sat in uncomfortable folding office chairs.
I tried to put on my game face (because the story of “I had to leave somewhere I loved because I couldn’t make any money” only works if the end to that story is “and now I am happier than ever!”), but I was miserable. I didn’t like Ottawa. I stopped contacting my friends back in Victoria as often. I withdrew into myself. Why couldn’t I just get over it, I wondered? I had a job now, I should be grateful. I didn’t see why I was still so sad. I wanted simultaneously to shout my feelings from the rooftops and keep them hidden from the pointless platitudes of people who just didn’t seem to understand.
It wasn’t until over a year later, out on the other side, that I could finally put a name to those feelings: grief. I was grieving the loss of Victoria, a place where I was happy and belonged. I loved it and I had lost it, and it hurt. It’s such a modest pain, losing a place, and of course it can’t compare to losing an actual human person, so people don’t really seem to talk about it much or they talk about it in terms of “homesickness,” which forever sounds like a feeling for children at sleep-away camp. But mourning a place can hurt.
What hurt was not just the loss itself, but the loss of control. I know how it will sound, but was the first time in all of my privileged middle-class life that I had wanted something – not something outrageous, something I’d been raised to think was reasonable – and I just couldn’t have it. It felt unfair. I had read articles about the economy and I had played by the rules. I had tried to be realistic: I didn’t accrue any debt; I didn’t try to live in a glamorous, expensive city, like New York or even Vancouver; I was happy just for any job that would pay, having turned my back on academia because the prospects were poor and I knew I didn’t want my life to be dictated by the job. For my pragmatism, I had hoped to be rewarded with this small modicum of control.
Entitled, naive, and, by now, clichéd? Of course. But I still believe that everyone deserves to live a modest life in a place that makes them happy. I know that just isn’t the case and that I am better off than most; accepting that those things could be true and that I could still mourn my newly-recognized loss was a watershed moment. Slowly, things began to change.
It was nothing radical really, a combination of effort and circumstances: the snow melted and eventually so did I. My boyfriend found permanent work. We furnished our apartment. We adopted two badly behaved cats who have cost us a fortune and make our lives extremely difficult but also very rewarding. I made a few friends – not a large group, not Friends, but a handful of truly lovely people, scattered here and there, who made me laugh and think and filled my glass. I started to stay in better touch with my old friends.
I tried different restaurants. I started practicing yoga at a warm, welcoming studio. When I began to feel unfulfilled and overtaxed at the administrative job I had taken just to have a job, I left it for the scary world of freelance communications (jury is still out on that). I began to walk around a bit more – not just from place to place, but for the sake of walking. Ottawa, I realized, was actually quite a lovely place to live.
Last week, when I sat at my desk last week and watched live reports of gunfire and chaos less than a dozen blocks from where I live, I wasn’t afraid but I was flooded with an unexpected protectiveness and possessiveness. How could anyone? I thought, followed by mineminemine.
The next day I walked down towards the War Memorial and the cenotaph took my breath away as it often does; this time, I tried to really pay attention to it, to really feel that breathlessness. It dawned on me that, without my realizing, contentment and just keeping on had been transformed into a civic pride and a deep, hard-won affection.
I still won’t say I’m over Victoria. Like all first loves, Victoria will always know how to hurt me. When I went back to the West Coast this summer for vacation, I stayed with friends in Vancouver and purposefully avoided it. I still miss the trees and my friends and the life I had there. But I am becoming happy here. I have moved on from just making the best of things. Like the protagonists of a thousand books and films and ballads, I have grieved and I learned to love again.
Maddie Rodriguez lives, works, and emotionally processes in Ottawa
Image via Flickr