Watching the Winter Olympics From Afar

23419_872172577282_3779904_nOne night during my first year living in London, I gathered with a group of fellow international students in the kitchen of our graduate residence, huddled around a flickering television set that looked like it was straight out of the 1980s.

It was the eve of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and though it was past midnight, and the BBC feed fuzzy, I was determined to watch the Opening Ceremonies in their entirety. I felt it was the least I could do, to make up for being out of the country the first time in my living memory the Olympic Games were being held in Canada.

As the 82 countries – and the hours – progressed, our audience dwindled to a few. An American friend, scoffing at my visible Canadian pride, was warning of the dangers of the division he felt the Olympic Games inspired.  ‘Nationalism,’ he huffed, ‘the root of all the world’s problems.’

In London, I had spent a few months feeling like I had found my home away from home. But when the Games rolled around, for the first time I felt homesick and, in a way, guilty, for being abroad when all the world’s eyes were fixed on the slopes of Vancouver. Sharing in the joy of the Olympics – observing the almost superhuman athletic feats, the emotional highs and lows – wouldn’t be quite the same, cheering from a distance in the UK. I only had one red item of clothing in my wardrobe! What was I thinking coming over here without a flag? What were the odds of getting my hands on a pair of those adorable red mittens…

Thus when my friend was going off about nationalism, I wondered. Was the sole byproduct of patriotism quick hits of smugness when your country’s star was on the upswing, alternating with pangs of homesickness? Did all this only serve to prevent you from being fully present in your current surroundings?

The revelation that came to me over the next two weeks – one that has been enforced by another Olympic Games and various July 1st celebrations in Trafalgar Square – is that cheering for your country, kilometres away from friends and family, can be one of the best ways to integrate yourself into your new home while simultaneously remembering where you’re from.

Being away for the Olympics makes the second largest landmass in the world smaller. When skier Alexandre Bilodeau became the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil, I proclaimed to any Brit who would listen that were practically neighbours (I have cousins in Rosemère and we visit them every year). I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I was bending ears for the duration of the Games, extolling its beauty and relaxed pace of life.

Watching from afar also means bringing fellow travellers together. It’s quite a sight to behold, a horde of Canadians taking over a Fleet Street pub, relieved to have found the one place with a license to stay open past midnight to broadcast the hockey games. The crowd was peppered with Vancouver Canucks jerseys, Calgary Flames caps and Montreal Canadiens t-shirts – combined with a lot of flannel and quite a few toques. Canadians more resourceful than I had obtained red mittens (I’ll admit I may have co-opted a few pairs for the festivities).

imageOn top of the sporting highlights, I remember bumping into old acquaintances from the University of Toronto I had lost touch with, while strangers in matching UBC sweatshirts discovered mutual friends and reminisced about old campus haunts. All sharing stories about what brought us there in the first place: the broadening of education, a new career move, an inexorable yearning for adventure.

For Canadians in London, the Winter Games remind us where we hail from and let us shed some of that national politeness to unabashedly trumpet the skills and perseverance of our athletes. We get to trade stories with our adopted hosts – the history of The Hockey Sweater for an explanation of what countries actually make up TeamGB. We are proud to be considered gracious yet fierce, with an innate ability to harness winter and churn out gold.

So while I never needed a comparative experience to yell my heart out with friends and family back home, I now know what it means to be outside of my native element, surrounded by people who are proudly Canadian not just by virtue of logistics but also by choice.

After Sidney Crosby’s winning goal in the men’s hockey final, I wasn’t able to witness the CN Tower lit up in a stream of gold, except via Facebook feeds and Twitter streams. But as my compatriots and I ran out towards St Paul’s Cathedral with our flags draped around our shoulders and stopped traffic, the few British motorists left on the street rolled down their windows and tooted their horns. Not sure if they knew what we were on about, but it sure felt like home.

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Four years later, I’m still in London, but I’m better prepared for Sochi 2014 viewing. Reconnaissance has been done on pub opening hours, and I have quite a few flags lying about my flat. I have my own pair of red mittens, acquired over the Christmas holidays – but I won’t feel too bad if they get passed on to someone experiencing her first year away and just a little unsure of what it means to be a Canadian abroad.


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