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Marianne Grier

Home Is Where the Bagel Is

Copyright: homank76 / 123RF Stock Photo

What do you mean when you say the word “home”? Amongst other definitions, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines “home” as “the place where one lives,” “a house or dwelling place” or “the place where a thing originates or is native or most common.”  As someone with nomadic tendencies, these definitions have often clashed for me. In German, to be “at home” is to be “zu Hause,” which refers to a physical dwelling. The broader “Heimat,” often translated as “homeland,” can also mean “habitat.”  These different definitions of “home” make me wonder how our language shapes our understanding of ideas and terms. And the question of what the word really means has occupied my thoughts as we approach a significant birthday for Canada.

When I lived abroad, I found it interesting how people responded to the oft-asked question, “Where are you from?” My default response was “Canada,” which I narrowed down if people were curious. Rarely would I get past “Nova Scotia,” as many didn’t believe there was a part of Canada east of Quebec. The Belgians I met referred to Brussels, Flanders or Wallonia instead of Belgium. I met Americans from “the Bay Area,” and was amazed at their confidence that others would know exactly where they were talking about.

As a foreigner, I felt the need to rekindle the feeling of “home” when it came to mundane things and momentous occasions. The day the humble bagel was introduced to Bern, Switzerland, I spent $22 Canadian dollars on a toasted sesame version with Philadelphia cream cheese. It was worth every penny as it let me pretend for a moment that I was in a Canadian café. In 2010, when Sidney Crosby scored the goal to win Canadian Olympic gold for the men’s hockey team, my family and I crowded into a London hotel room to celebrate with lukewarm bottles of Moosehead. We’d purchased them at an exorbitant price from Selfridges, laughing as the iconic yellow bag was walked around from behind the counter and handed to us as if it held the finest champagne. These actions can seem ridiculous from the outside, but for me that bagel offered a few minutes of familiarity. And it would be wrong to toast a Canadian win with British pints.

When we work with authors, of course not every word in their work is as nuance-laden as “home” is for me. But it is useful to be mindful of how our backgrounds influence our understanding of words, and of how simple word edits might change more than we realize.

For me, “home” is now less a physical place and more a reference to people, customs and the things we share. The definition of the word is nebulous, changing depending on the context in which I’m using it and the person I’m speaking to.  As we celebrate Canada this upcoming month, let’s give some thought to the words we use to describe our country and how these might be different for the millions who call it home.


Previous post from Marianne Grier: German Lessons With Mrs. Cheese.

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9 Comments on “Home Is Where the Bagel Is”

  • Wilf Popoff


    I think you have helped to distinguish «home» from «house,» Marianne, two words that are often wrongly used interchangeably.

    My blood pressure goes up when I see real estate agents offering «homes» for sale when all they can offer is a «house.»

    I recall my uncle and aunt’s wedding of 65 years ago when the pastor said. «A man can build a ‘house’ but only God can build a ‘home.'»

    • Marianne Grier


      I agree, Wilf, that houses are just buildings and need something more to become homes. Thanks for your comments!

  • Frances Peck


    What an excellent post, Marianne! The question «Where are you from?» is one that’s preoccupied me for ages, but not in the context of living abroad. To me, it’s striking how many Canadians (and I am one of them) struggle with that question, or at least pause before answering it. My instinctive answer is always Nova Scotia, because I instinctively take the question to mean «What are your origins?» I wasn’t even born in Nova Scotia; I moved there from Saskatchewan when I was three. But it’s without question where I’m «from.» I’m also from B.C., in that that’s where I actually live, but I have just as hard a time saying that as I did saying «I’m from Ottawa» during the nearly two decades I lived there.

    Other Canadians who’ve moved around as adults have said they feel the same way: that where they’re from is distinct from where they live. There’s something elemental about the former and something random about the latter, often chosen for reasons of education, employment, romance or whim. I think it says something about our country that for many of us who grew up in a single place, that place is forever where we’ll be from, no matter where life carries us.

    • Paul Buckingham


      Frances: elemental versus random—yes, that’s a nice way to put it.

      Marianne: Thanks for weaving your own story into the discussion on word usage. What a way to enrich your message!

      • Marianne Grier


        I agree, Paul–I like the «elemental» vs. «random» distinction you mention, Frances.

        I lived in a few places for years at a time and knew they would never feel like home, no matter how long I stayed–they were generally chosen for school or work. I moved from Halifax to Antigonish when I was 5. Some Antigonish friends were recently devastated when they found out that I wasn’t born at the local hospital, and I was promptly labelled a «Come From Away». Perhaps that’s partly why I think of Nova Scotia as home more than Antigonish itself. It’s fascinating how these things work!

  • Ann Kennedy


    I really enjoyed this post, both for its timeliness as we approach Canada Day, and for the important reminder about context. Thanks!

    • Marianne Grier


      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, Ann!

  • Paul Cipywnyk


    Great post! To me «home» is wherever I live now. I’ve resided in several places so anything else would be complicated. And to be truthful, «home» as in where I was born and spent the first dozen or so years of my life, has had little feeling of home to me for a long time.

    If home = place of birth, I left home over 40 years ago. Both my parents died many years ago.

    I think to relatives who are still there, my detachment is sometimes hard to understand. They always want to fill me in on births and marriages and deaths, and I have to remind them that I haven’t interacted with folks there for decades, so I no longer know them. I have always had a volunteer/community ethic, and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to do that in many places. But my ties to my hometown these days are slim.

    I’ve also come to realize that places that were important to me in the past, may not be so now. Or may have changed to an extent that I can no longer relate. That is sad sometimes, but so be it.

    Japan, Tokyo to be specific, was «home» for some 14 years. How can you call a 30+ million metropolis home? Well, parts of Tokyo were home. I had favorite shops, parks, hiking routes on the western outskirts. I had «bottle keeps» in a couple of nice bars. . . But there again, you can’t go home again. I moved back to Canada some 18 years ago, and as the Japan visits decreased, so did my connections there.

    I was somewhat lost the last visit to Tokyo. So much had changed in the communities that I’d lived in, worked in.

    So, yeah, home is where I’m living now.

    • Marianne Grier


      It’s interesting how the lives of places we live carry on after we’ve left them. Thank you for your comments, Paul.

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