Returning to Canada

I’m on a plane over the Atlantic, on my way back to Canada for the 4th time. It brought back memories of my previous trips. First time was in 2002 when I visited Toronto for the World Youth Day festival, where I got to attend Mass with Pope John Paul II. We also got to live with a family outside Toronto and camp in the forests in Ontario.

I came back in 2003 to visit my brother John who was studying in Queens University in Kingston. We’d a great trip with my dad exploring eastern Ontario in Fall. It was the last time I really spent quality time with John. The most recent trip back was to Vancouver, BC on the Pacific coast visiting my good friend Thomas in 2016. We got to Vancouver Island for the weekend and I got to see how he was settling in after a big move from home.

This time I’m back in Ottawa to visit a good friend and use it as a base to explore Quebec. I hope to visit Montreal & Quebec City to see some Quebecois history and culture and also get up to the mountains of Mont-Tremblant. We’re going to a hockey game and I hope to skate on the ice at some stage. Running around the parks, forests and trails is also going to be exciting. Who knows that wildlife and nature we’ll discover?

Summer in San Diego

That 2003 trip to John brings back happy memories. I have a photo which I love of John taken before he left. It’s probably the last photo I remember of him smiling, surrounded by friends. The location was a restaurant in San Diego. We’d spent the summer of 2003 on a J1 visa holiday, living in Pacific Beach.

We had a goodbye dinner for John, with a gang of the lads and girls from Tramore and beyond. About 8-10 of us gathered – John didn’t like all the fuss and was more likely to go home early than stay til the end, but we made him come out anyway. I can’t remember the details of the dinner (where, who) but I do know he had a good time, and everyone was genuinely sad to see him leave.

After 2 months together, taking the bus to work downtown, playing football at the weekends, swimming on the beach, sleeping on air mattresses in a condo and hanging out every day, we would miss him. Four of us shared a one room condo – Kevin, Michael, John and myself.

The photo sums up John – smiling after either making a smart comment to the girls, or else just joining in the banter at the dinner table. He had a sharp wit and sarcastic tone, so while he may be quiet for a while, he could pop up with a quick comment. He had a charm and even if he was shy, he was confident enough to go against the flow and do his own thing, even though it could be easier to just row in with the consensus.

Studying in Canada

John was leaving to jump on a plane to Toronto. While we were in San Diego for 3 months, John had to leave early, as he was starting a 1-year exchange in university in Canada. He had picked Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He didn’t know anybody going but not a bother to him, he’d settle in. He was hoping to play football with the university freshers soccer team. He was living in college dorms, so an easy way to meet people from all over the world.

This was in an age of stone age communication, as in we didn’t have Whatsapp or mobiles or even regular internet access at home. So once John went, we wouldn’t hear from him, save the odd email. I can’t remember if we got much info from him, as I don’t think I called him either, as he probably didn’t have a mobile phone over there.

We came home a month later in September and I started back in college in Dublin. My dad decided we should go over to visit John, just to make sure he was settling in ok. My dad was very caring and astute to plan and potentially address any concerns John may have had, whether it was college life, his accommodation or just missing home.

Visiting Kingston

We spent a week visiting John and exploring Ontario. John seemed to have settled in really well. He was popular, had made friends and busy enjoying the social life of student nightlife. I joined him in the pub one night and it was great fun meeting people from all over the world. John made good friends – a classmate from Trinity as well as friends from all over (Chile, USA, England, Finland).

He came on a river cruise with us up the Thousand Islands Route. It was autumn (“fall”) so the colour of the tree leaves was lovely. It was getting cold but no snow yet. I can’t remember what else we did with John but we did drive up to Ottawa for a day trip.


Football was John’s passion and he had attended trials for the freshers team when he arrived, but for some reason he didn’t get picked. I can’t remember exactly why – either they didn’t accept many newcomers, or else exchange students weren’t brought on board. That really annoyed him and possible affected his outlook on life.

He couldn’t play at the highest level, which he obviously thought he was good enough for. I don’t remember speaking to him about it but my dad and I did chat about it years after. Was it a trigger? Perhaps not but it was a disappointment for him I’m sure.

I think he played football socially with friends. He ran a bit and went to the gym. Plus, he tried out skating. John did have a girlfriend over there and that group of friends did travel around a bit, going skiing in Mont Tremblant and having longer trips down to Boston and other parts of Canada.


Since communication wasn’t as easy back then, I think I spoke to John a few times over the phone that year. He sent the odd email but didn’t share too much information with us. He prepared to come home that summer and I remember we met him at the airport. He spent the summer at home and then went off Croatia on holidays, I think. Then he prepared to go back to Trinity for his final year. That’s another story and year in his life.

So when I think of Canada, I do think of John. I wonder what was going on in his head at that time. Was he truly happy there? What did he discover in his time there? Did he enjoy being accepted by new friends, who didn’t care about his background, accent or views? Did he love the innocence of youth, in that people would do things and go places that perhaps older people are more hesitant to do? Did he miss out on football? Did he miss home, his friends and family?

Lots of questions. Everyone has their own answers. All I can do is remember the good times. Writing it down helps. Sharing it probably helps me too. Carpe diem, you never know when the moment will be gone.

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