The window seat on airplanes has always been my refuge. I can turn my face into it to hide my tears, or I can focus on a cloud while flashing back to an 11 year-old quietly sobbing on the nine-hour journey from London to Vancouver.
Most of us experience at least one traumatic event that shapes and alters everything to come. As a child, my move to Vancouver had a shocking air of finality. I watched my whole extended family gathered at Heathrow Airport to see us off. There were various aunts sobbing, stoic uncles wiping deceptive trickles off their cheeks and unaware cousins who scoffed at the hoopla around them. I opted for a British stiff upper lip, hoping it would allow me to show a sense of decorum and unflappability.
As I stood by the departure gate, I felt like I was going into exile. My younger sister and dad made the first move to go on ahead and waved back happily. This prompted a twinge of betrayal in me. How could they so easily say goodbye to their home?
Seeing them disappear behind the gate immediately set me off; I was overwhelmed with tears and sadness. I couldn’t even walk through the gates until half an hour before our flight took off. Going through the gates meant facing where that plane would take us and our new life ahead. Not even watching a R-rated film like Unfaithful or chomping on Froot Loops – my introduction to North American cereal – could keep me from sobbing throughout the flight.
My dad wanted to have a career break from his customs role at Heathrow Airport, and he liked a similar job in Vancouver. It meant uprooting our lives in Cranford, London, a place that still holds my best memories. Running out into the garden to wave at the 2pm British Airways flight passing over our house. Watching Bollywood films at the cinema and sneaking in homemade sweet and salty popcorn. Wandering between the houses of my grandparents and uncles and aunts who all lived on the same street.
I had no idea what Vancouver would be like beyond the hatred I had for it (experiencing a freak snowstorm and falling over on my first ski trip were reasons enough.) There was no family, no fun, and no connection in Vancouver to make me feel excited about it. It was just a place where I was forcibly planted.
I was downright annoyed at my father for thinking of his own happiness before mine, which only exacerbated my feelings of exile. I hadn’t quite finished growing up, and I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin until much later on.
That constant feeling of banishment finally subsided when I returned to London for my grandfather’s funeral in 2008. London had somehow lost its sheen. Perhaps it was my maturity, or seeing it in a sombre light, but it didn’t have such a hold on me. It was dreary and melancholic, and I couldn’t conjure back the happy memories. The planes that flew over my old house now started to bug me with their shrill sounds, and the once familiar neighborhoods had changed and gentrified.
On that plane ride home, the tears did come but it was more of a wistful epiphany that England had changed and I couldn’t hold onto static notions of identity when I came back. I could still be Indian, British and Canadian, but I didn’t have to hold onto that 11 year-old’s pain.
That initial heartbreak stemmed from the abruptness of my first trip, which shaped the way I travel. I was constantly at war with time and the memories I could’ve made if I had stayed in London. Every plane ride back had me questioning: Did I spend enough time with this family member? Did I make the most of my weeks there? Did I say all that I wanted when I was there?
After that trip in 2008, it’s become easier to reconcile the London I left behind to the one I experience each time I visit. Age helps; I’m no longer that precocious visiting kid. Some of my trips back have been wonderful — I’ve become choosier with my time and more in the moment when I’m with my family.
I’ve learned to embrace the ritualistic tears whenever I fly. I may not be carrying that feeling of banishment, but I still ponder those memories. Fortunately, that initial 30 minutes of crying is much less of an identity struggle. Usually, it’s a cathartic reminder that I’ve had a wonderful time where I was and really don’t want it to end. My commutes between London and Vancouver are much less distressing because that’s the privilege of planes journeys: I can feel at home in both places.