He had been planning it for nine months: we would arrive in Kamloops, Canada on Christmas Eve, and surprise his family. The trap had been set. Julien posted fake flight itineraries on Facebook, made plans for the next year with friends, and persistently urged me not to mention our plans to a soul.
The day before Christmas eve, we boarded our final flight to complete our 6 month rendezvous around Southeast Asia. Saigon to Vancouver, via Taipei. It was the ending to one world, and the beginning of a new one, for both of us. Full of anticipation, excitement and nerves, plus the tiredness that only 22 hours of travel can bring, we separated on the way through immigration, and met up on the other side to collect our bags.
As we walked through customs, I was pulled aside. Please go this way. I was gestured towards the interrogation room. Oh no, I thought and looked at Julien saying, I have to go this way, and followed the line towards one of the officers. I want to make sure she gets through, I hear Julien come in behind me.
I am waved forward towards a stereotypical tough-butch-lesbian-type lady, who asks me to place my bags on the counter. She starts asking me questions. Where did you fly from? Why are you here? How long are you staying? Whom are you staying with? How do you know these people? For a moment I feel like a criminal who has been caught, and imagine that’s how refugees must feel. My hands are clammy and my heart is beating just that little bit faster. She opens every bag I own to look through my things.
From the corner of my eye I see Julien speaking to another customs officer, who comes over. When did you move to Australia? I reply: 1986 or 87 I think. I’m tired and my brain can’t seem to focus. I pray I answered all the questions correctly. Everything I say is truth, but for some reason I feel guilty.
The male customs officer looks over my things and then pulls my tough lady to the side and whispers something. She comes back to me. Why didn’t you tell me you were traveling with someone? she barks. I’m scared. You didn’t ask, I reply. Was I supposed to mention that? She calls Julien over and tells me to pack up my things. And then guides us to the exit. Enjoy your time in Canada; and welcome home! She nods to each of us. I am so relieved I could cry.
This is only the start so I pull my emotions together, and breathe in deeply.
We walk out towards the doors. Julien drops everything and just keeps walking until he is outside. What are you doing? I call after him confused. I see him outside taking big gulps of air. He comes back. I couldn’t stop myself! I just had to go outside and breathe the fresh air of home. I smile. I think it’s so special that he loves and appreciates his home country so much. There’s a part of me that wishes I felt that way too. About any place. Maybe one day, I will that way about Canada too. Maybe this country will adopt me, and I will take it into my heart, and hold it close forever.
We go outside together to hunt out his Papa’s car, and watch it drive up, the condensation from our breath and the engines around us filling the cold air. My job is to film the moment of embrace when Julien and his dad see each other again for the first time in 2 years. At the crucial moment an Indian couple run into my bag and knock my arm, making me miss the first moments of embrace. I manage to get the last few seconds of it. His papa’s girlfriend slides out of the passenger seat, we all introduce one another, loading the bags into the car, and head off toward the mountains.
It’s a four-hour drive, and already late, so we take a break at a pub. I look around and notice that Canadians are exactly as I imagined: big, friendly plaid-wearing giants. I ask for a cup of tea (very non-Canadian) and they have nachos and beer.
At two in the morning we roll into Kamloops, and I am given a middle-of-the-night tour. We get to Julien’s papa’s home, and quietly sneak inside with our bags, tiptoeing as to not make a sound. One of his brothers is asleep downstairs, and he doesn’t know we are here. We melt into bed with relief and tiredness, hands and feet wrapping themselves around one another, exhaustion diving us into a soundless sleep.
It’s 10.30am when we wake up. The brother is awake downstairs, and we decide to lure him into our bedroom under the guise of a Christmas present waiting for him. Julien messages him on Facebook, filled with anticipation, as we wait in silence and I hold the camera ready, listening for his footsteps.
The expression on his face as he opens the door is priceless. Brother-love. It’s magic.
We potter the day away. I wrap all the presents we collected over the past few months and place them under the tree. Jetlag is starting to set in as the final parcel almost has me on my knees. Julien goes out to pick up groceries in a disguise, just in case he runs into someone he knows, wearing my scarf, sunglasses and a tea cozy on his head. He looks ridiculous. It all makes me smile.
That evening, it’s Christmas eve and we drink and eat and wait for the other brother to arrive, to surprise him. We hear his ride, and scamper to the bedroom to hide. After a few minutes, we sneak out and I start filming as Julien rounds the corner to greet his baby brother. The reaction is hilarious: he is one part surprise and happy, and two parts pissed that this secret had been kept from him. Everyone laughed.
We stay up late chatting with one last surprise to do in the morning: Mama.
It’s Christmas morning. Julien wakes up early, too excited to sleep. The rest of us stumble out of bed around 10. Papa makes us eggs benedict for breakfast and we exchange presents and talk about our plans for the day. We prepare to head to Julien’s Mama’s house, the two brothers sit in the front of the car, Julien and I in the back, ready to get out a few doors down so she doesn’t see us.
We are dropped off, and wait, listening to the stillness echoing off the snow all around us, as the boys go inside and wait. Slowly we sneak up to the front door, ducking our heads so no one can see us through the windows. I hold the camera ready to record, as Julien rings the door bell. I hold my breath as we hear footsteps, and the door opens. A few seconds later, I hear a squeal and swing around so I can see the door. Julien’s Mama has tears and a look of disbelief in her eyes. The reunited embrace and I am doing everything I can to hold myself and the camera steady from the avalanche of emotions coursing around this tiny bubble of Earth in that moment.
You can watch the video of our big Christmas surprise here:
Our big Christmas surprise was something out of movies and story books. There is nothing more heartening than the overflowing tenderness, deep affection and connection that I witnessed over these few days, and has been generously shared with me. Love really is all there is. And that’s why I know everything is going to be ok.
Happy and merry everything folks.