Homesickness is a funny thing.
In the eyes of the American government, I’m an alien. A legal one—I have a student visa to prove it—but an alien still, as though I arrived in a spaceship, and, with the blessing of the powers that be, must now be politely tolerated.
The Americans themselves are nicer than the wording on their government forms. They're very friendly, if a little loud. It’s a noisy place right now, with an election going on. My internet ads urge me to cast a ballot, forgetting that I’m not a citizen; the whole place is oblivious to the rules that dictate my life here. Ah, well, it’s not their fault. In the United States, we Canadians tend to blend in.
I’m walking down a busy hallway, thinking of such things, when I see something red on a windowsill. As I walk closer, I stop to stare. It’s a Remembrance Day poppy. A Canadian one.
Instinctively, I touch my left shoulder, thinking frantically, is it mine?
It isn’t. My poppy is right where I left it, pinned to my shirt. That’s a relief—back home, a lost poppy can be replaced at any checkout counter, but here, they’re special.
I stare at the poppy on the windowsill, stupefied. If it isn’t mine, where did it come from? What is it doing in a busy university hallway, miles away from home?
Remembrance Day is one of my favourite holidays. Every November eleventh, I turn on the TV and watch the national ceremony. I have for years. Even at home, with no one to see me, I stand for the national anthem and stay standing while the bugler plays the Last Post. I mouth the words to the Flanders Fields poem, and I watch until, at the end of the ceremony, the crowd surges forward to place their poppies on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Canadian poppies.
We start wearing them at the beginning of November, a daily reminder to remember our war-dead, as city buses and businesses flash the slogan Lest we Forget. And I don’t forget. With thousands of other Canadians, I leave a couple coins in a donation box at a checkout counter and I pick up a poppy. It’s a small, stylized flower made of velvety plastic with red petals and a black centre, held together with a dangerously sharp metal pin. People in Britain wear poppies in November too, but the British ones are all plastic, no pointy bits of metal to poke at unsuspecting fingers. I don’t know why the Canadian ones use pins, but I don’t worry. I’ve had practice, and I know how to stick the poppy to my shirt without stabbing myself, and I know to be cautious as I transfer it from one piece of clothing to another. It’s easy to lose one; not everyone knows the trick of weaving the pin through your clothing and then sticking it through one of the poppy’s petals to keep it in place. At home, when I see a poppy on the ground, I pick it up, dust it off, and keep it. Poppies aren’t garbage, they don’t belong on the ground. They mean too much.
I have the same instinct now, as I stare at the poppy on the windowsill. I want to rescue it. But if I do, the person who dropped it will never find it again. And they can’t get a new one; not in the United States.
I stand beside the windowsill for a long time. People walk past, talking in groups, looking at their phones. I look at each one carefully. Somewhere at this university is another Canadian. And not just any Canadian—a Canadian who took the time to pack a Remembrance Day poppy in their luggage before leaving for school in a foreign country, anticipating November eleventh months in advance. A Canadian like me.
I stand for a long time and I wait. I want someone to look at the windowsill and stop, pick up the poppy and exclaim, “Oh! That’s where this went!”
When they do, I’ll talk to them. I’ll ask which part of Canada they come from, and they’ll ask me the same question. Soon, we’ll be friends, we’ll exchange phone numbers. Maybe, on November eleventh, we can meet somewhere and watch the Remembrance Day ceremony together.
I wait for a very long time, rehearsing our imaginary conversation, not ready to accept the fact that it won’t happen. Whoever lost the poppy doesn’t know where to look, they might not walk down this hallway again for weeks. Finally, I know I need to go. I put on my backpack. I take one last look at the plastic flower on the windowsill; I’ll leave it there, just in case. Still, when I finally leave, it’s hard to walk away.
Homesickness is a funny thing.