It’s that time of year when young dancers are moving away to new training schools and company members young and old are making their return or debut at work. In the spirit of this very exciting time in life I wanted to share a story I wrote a few years back on homesickness. This is something that I always struggled with and I have had many friends along the way who have shared this all too familiar feeling. I hope this helps any homesick child, big or small, out there know that they are not alone and that with a little distraction… it will pass.
“I am no stranger to living far from home. At the young age of nine, with the support of my parents, I moved across the country to follow my dream. I was determined that one day; I would become one of the graceful and elegant tutued ballerinas that so many little girls idolize. It was this determination that moved me from St. Albert, Alberta to the National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario.
Like most of the students at the school, I lived in the residence. It was not always easy living away from my family, especially in my younger years. Bouts of homesickness were frequent and the lack of personal space due to living so closely with 100 or so other students took some adjustment. Also missing was the comfort of my parents’ arms when I was feeling tired or sad. Most of us students found our ways of coping.
Grade 5 at the National Ballet School 1990
The first week at school was usually the hardest to get through. Upon arriving I would promptly unpack my belongings and try to make my room feel comfortable and homey. Then I would be sure to surround myself with friends. Keeping busy was key. Once it was time for “lights out” I would play solitaire by the light of my trusty Mag Light until my eyes could stay open no longer. By the time I graduated from the National Ballet School I thought I had homesickness under control. That was, until I moved to Hamburg, Germany.
As is the case with so many young dancers, I dreamed of going to Europe to dance for one of the great old companies. This opportunity presented itself to me when at the age of nineteen I was offered a contract with the Hamburg Ballet. My good friend Megan, who had grown up with me at the National, was going as well and we decided to get an apartment together. Over the ocean we flew with all the confidence and excitement of youth propelling us.
The first few weeks in Hamburg passed by in a blur. My homesickness was kept at bay by all the things I had to get done. I had to set up my apartment, open a bank account, and sign contracts for phones and television, all in a foreign language and in a country that seemed to have four steps and rules for every one we had in Canada. The hours at work were fast-paced. I learned three new ballets at once in the first two weeks and worked at getting to know my new colleagues. Of course I was missing home but things were so busy and new that I barely had time for proper homesickness.
By the third week in Hamburg I had everything set up and had settled in to the rhythm of my new workplace. With a bit of extra time on my hands I came to realize that this was not just a visit to Germany. This would be my home for a significant period of time. I could feel that old homesickness creeping up on me and knew that I had to do something to cheer myself up. Megan and I had heard there was a bookstore that sold English language books and we thought it might comfort us to see something from home. We made a date for the coming Saturday and planned a nice adventure around our visit to the bookstore.
On Saturday morning we woke up and got ourselves ready. We knew which trains we needed to take and at which station we needed to get off. With my German/English phrase book in hand, we ventured forth. Arriving at our destination, we found ourselves in a two-story shop that, at the time, seemed larger than most Chapters stores in Canada. Trying to locate the English language section was difficult because of the size of the store and the fact that all the signage was in German. I mustered up some courage, looked up how to ask for English books in my phrase book, and asked the first sales person I could find. “Entschuldigen Sie,” I said with much more confidence than I felt. “Wo sind die Englische Bücher?” The sales woman looked at me and paused, no doubt trying to determine whether or not I understood what I had asked her, and began directing me in fast German sentences. Unable to understand her words and too intimidated to ask again, Megan and I tried to recall her various hand signals as we made our way to where we thought she had directed us to go.
Arriving at what we hoped was the English language section we found ourselves staring at a row of dictionaries. This was not what we were looking for. Once again using the phrases from my book, with notably less confidence, I asked another clerk and was answered with another string of words I could not understand but with a few gestures that I hoped I could. We determined that we had been directed to the far end of the second floor. We soon found ourselves in the Anatomy section. Our frustration was becoming palpable and with a hint of hysteria creeping into my voice I asked my question of yet another employee. A similar response followed only this time there were no gestures to guide us. Feeling totally defeated, Megan and I made our way back down the stairs.
We didn’t know what to do or where to go. We just stood there looking around aimlessly and then met each other’s gaze. In that instant, all the homesickness and frustration I was feeling was reflected back at me through Megan’s eyes. Before I knew it we two were a sobbing heap on the floor of a Hamburg bookstore and so far from home. We sat there sobbing for at least five minutes before becoming aware of our surroundings and how we must have looked. Naturally enough, this brought on a fit of hysterical laughter. When we eventually calmed down and got up off the floor we realized that our meltdown had taken place right in the middle of the English language book section.
I don’t recall if either of us bought anything that day. What I do recall is that as soon as I got back to our apartment I called my parents at five a.m. Alberta time just to hear their voices and get the kind of comfort and reassurance only parents can give. This was probably one of my worst, or best, experiences with homesickness. I thought I knew how to cope with life away from home but somewhere inside of me there was still that nine year old girl leaving home for the first time.
That night I played solitaire by the light of that same trusty Mag Light until my eyes could stay open no longer. “
Backstage family visit Hamburg Ballet 1999