I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about my life and career so far, what forces pulled me and pushed me, and how I ended up where I am. I don’t think I’m saying much here that hasn’t already been said in other posts on this blog, but it’s never been assembled like this. Some things can’t really be seen when they’re happening – you have to wait until afterward to realize they happened at all. And for me, personal realizations tend to quickly move from a novel discovery to a conventional understanding that I’ve always had. So I’m writing this short autobiography mostly for me, but you can read it too, if you want.
I grew up outside of a small town of about five thousand people in New Brunswick, Canada. My teenage years were filled with old computers, shareware compilers, and free Ubuntu CDs. Software seemed to be my future, and I loved math, so I enrolled at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton – only a hundred kilometres away.
During my time at UNB, I taught myself to build iPhone apps. I started making a professional name for myself as an iPhone developer. I got married. We graduated, and my wife pursued a Masters degree at the University of Toronto. I was afraid of moving to the big city, but my wife’s uncle assured me that Toronto os safe, that Toronto is cool, and that Toronto would suit me. He was totally right. I was already growing frustrated with my home province, and I started looking forward to leaving.
After moving to Tortono, I wasted no time getting involved in the software developer community. After work, I attended meetups (shoutout to TACOW) and even started speaking about my work at meetups and conferences. At the 2013 360iDev conference in Denver, I met Mike Lee, who told me all about Appsterdam. After my wife graduated, we moved to the Netherlands.
My last TACOW meetup ended with a farewell. “Maybe I’ll be back someday”, I told some friends. One of them chuckled and said “no, Ash, you won’t ever move back to Toronto.” He was right – I think I knew he was right at the time, but I didn’t want to admit it.
So my wife and I, and our two cats, moved to Amsterdam – mostly on a whim – to have an adventure. I have such a complicated relationship with this decision. The decision to leave Canada only for a year would turn into a seven-year absence, much longer than anyone had thought. Living abroad is really difficult. But leaving also led to many new friends, and many professional opportunities. Leaving gave me a new perspective on my home that I really value.
I can’t say I regret this decision, but I will say that it wasn’t really well thought-out. I was suffering from severe depression at the time and wasn’t really thinking that clearly. Moving abroad didn’t help my depression at all – it just added a new source of stress. My wife and I didn’t really know what we wanted in life, but we thought living abroad would help us find it. I guess we were right.
My first Dutch job fell through almost immediately, so I started doing contract work for MindSea out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. They’re an amazing team, and I appreciated the work. During a conference in Amsterdam, I spent a weekend pair programming on open source software at the CocoaPods Airbnb. It was amazing! After dinner with Orta, he told me that if I ever wanted a job at Artsy, then I should send him a Twitter direct message. So I did.
A condition of joining Artsy was that, after our one-year Dutch visa expired, we would move to New York so I could work in the office in-person. A whim had brought us to Amsterdam, and a job would bring us to New York.
New York was amazing, and we made so many friends, but it never felt like home. In some ways, it was tougher living in New York than in Amsterdam: Amsterdam was definitely not home, but New York fell into an uncanny valley. Similar enough to feel like home on the surface, but different enough in fine detail that it repulsed us a bit. After working on a temporary worker visa for a few years, we became immigrants – legal permanent residents with green cards and everything. Being white Canadians living in America is probably the easiest way to be an immigrant anywhere in the world, but it’s still pretty hard.
My wife and I felt increasingly alienated. Our travelling had tapered off – it wasn’t a priority anymore. The only place we were travelling to was back home. “Hey, let’s just like, move back to Canada. Just kidding, haha… unless?” I once joked that our next apartment was either going to be in Brooklyn or New Brunswick (the Canadian province, not New Jersey). But our desire to move home always felt so abstract.
Then the pandemic hit.
Everything we’d been thinking about came to the surface. Our life priorities and goals came into sharper focus than ever before. We had still been living in the “let’s have an adventure” mode that pulled us to Amsterdam, but we had had our adventure. It had been great, but after visiting so many countries that I lost count, well, it was time for the adventure to come to a close. We missed home. We missed our families. I even missed New Brunswick.
This contradiction between what we wanted from life and where we lived was heightened by the pandemic. While I think that we would have moved home to Canada eventually, the pandemic accelerated things significantly. In an odd way, I’m glad it did.
We decided to move back to Fredericton in the summer of 2020. I’m not sure our families believed us until we were actually on the road. Some lingering health issues following a surgery in May forced me to wait until the fall to move. This indefinite waiting was brutal.
Eventually, on October 3rd, I got the thumbs up from my doctor. The following four weeks were ridiculously stressful. We packed up everything we owned, rented a U-Haul, booked movers, found an apartment, got COVID clearance to enter Canada, and finally on Hallowe’en, we drove north to the border. I was also interviewing at Shopify, leading my team at Artsy, and trying to kill my father, god of the Greek underworld. It was a stressful month, with a stressful ending.
At midnight, we crossed the border. Before merging onto the Trans-Canada Highway, we pulled off on a familiar road and waited. My dad showed up and did a contactless drop-off of our new apartment keys. My parents had already stocked the kitchen for us, and dropped off some furniture. We continued driving and arrived in Fredericton in the early hours of the morning, starting our two-week quarantine.
Fredericton changed in the decade we were gone. But then again, we had changed too. We moved to the quiet side of the river – something we would never have even considered as students. We still catch ourselves marvelling things the city residents seemingly take for granted. The city is small – an outdoorsy college town. It feels like home.
It took us ten years to realize that, no, actually, we’re not big city people after all. Those ten years weigh heavily on me. When I missed the birth of my sister’s first child because of border visa nonsense… that was the first time I could really articulate that something was seriously wrong with my life. But like I said, those ten years also made me who I am – personally and professionally. So who can say if they’re good or bad?
The whole time living in Toronto, then Amsterdam, and then New York, we never really had a longterm plan. We didn’t know what we wanted out of life, so we just kind of let our circumstances push and pull us through life. But now, things feel different. We know what we want out of our lives together, and we know where we want to be for the rest of our lives.
My niece and nephew are growing up so quickly – it’s equally amazing and terrifying. I’m glad that we moved home while they’re still so little, so we can be a big part of their life. Being home means I get to be an active member of my family again, and that means more to me now than ever.
My wife and I have bought a house! The sale closes in less than a week and we can’t wait to move in. Buying a home in Fredericton would have seemed ridiculous to me, even a few years ago. But it seemed like the obvious next step for us. Longterm, we’re still figuring our life plan out, but the contradiction between what we want from life and how we’re living is gone.
Whatever happens next, it will happen here.