Are You Settled Now? Starting a New Life With the Kids South of the Border

new house

Always keep a pot pie in the freezer. This is the kind of innate knowledge we are all born with, yet it bears repeating. Perhaps you’ve been meal planning and are starting to get overconfident when it comes to dinner. Perhaps you don’t even love pot pies. Still.

It has been just over four months since my family of five has moved from Toronto to Washington, DC, and everybody keeps asking, “Are you settled now?” I suppose in a way we sort of are. You know, in that kind of way in which daily life literally piles up and settles all around you. All of a sudden school papers and kiddie crafts and everyday clutter are stacked on top of the boxes you haven’t yet gotten around to unpacking. A stray Christmas ornament on top of your kid’s study notes and some mail you’ve been meaning to get to, all sitting on a box marked MISCELLANEOUS LIVING ROOM.

I mean, yes, I’m starting to get used to measuring everything in miles, and I can’t quite remember what a butter tart tastes like, but I still need to apply for a social security number and change the mailing address on my bank statements.


I look down at my own ticket—G25—and try to resist hoping my turn will be soon. This is my third time at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (the MVA) and I know what’s up. Every ticket is assigned a letter and a number, but everyone else has different letters and they throw us all together in the same waiting room, calling out Gs, Cs, Ds, and so on in no discernible order. It might take a full 45 minutes between C67 and C68. Sometimes they call three Cs in a row.

They say that when someone close to you dies, needing to take care of all the arrangements right away is actually good for you. Dealing with the funeral and sorting through actual, physical stuff, gives you something to do while processing your grief. It’s useful to keep busy and let your emotions unfold in their own time. I am not in mourning by a long stretch, but picking my way through an endless maze of bureaucratic tasks is similarly distracting me from dwelling on things. Are the kids making friends? Do they still cry out from homesickness? How much do I miss my own mom? There’s no time to worry about that because the kids have projects due and I have to figure out how to navigate this ridiculous health care system!

So here I am again at the MVA. On this occasion, there were no spots left in the parking lot. The lot was so crowded, in fact, that unsuspecting cars would enter and then be forced to bump along through the maze of parking lanes until, blessedly, they could find their way back to the road. I finally found a spot around the corner and practically skipped past all the cars angling for the next free spot.

There are two sides to the MVA waiting room and I’ve come to realize that one is for driver’s licenses and one is for vehicle registration. Above the numbered counters there are several TV screens that show which numbers have been called. Every so often they flash the names of missing children and the dates they’ve last been seen. Madison Walker, missing since 2009. No pictures, just names and dates.

Many people who live in and around DC are from somewhere else. The cafeteria at my kids’ middle school is lined with flags from around the world representing students’ home countries. So when I once mentioned I’d spent most of my day at the MVA to another mom, she looked at me with a profound depth of understanding. “Oh boy, don’t we all have stories about that! I’ve been driving for twenty years, but it wasn’t good enough for the state of Maryland.”

Today there was a 30-minute wait just to get your assigned number at the front desk. Once I sit down, clutching my clean safety inspection and the G25 ticket, I realize I’ve forgotten my phone in the car. My eyes dart around desperate for some sort of diversion only to find wary faces and manic toddlers who keep wrestling out of their parents’ arms, trying to make a break for it. Who can blame them? I rummage in my purse for a pen and paper to make a list of all the tasks that still need completing.

I still need to get a grasp of the ins and outs of the school system here. I will surely have many columns to write just about the schools. The high school course options, the high-powered PTAs, the jockeying for accelerated classes, the never-ending standardized tests.


I’m willing myself not to get my hopes up. But it’s too late. I’m swept up in a wave of anticipation. Is it really true? Could I be out of here in under an hour? G25! I spring up, elated. That wasn’t bad at all!

The next thing I know my hands are shaking as I dial my husband’s number from inside our minivan. They won’t process our registration because we don’t have the physical title for our car. We only have the same green-tinted card everyone in Ontario has, what we call “the ownership,” but which is technically the registration. The bank we used to finance the car won’t disclose that the loan is paid off to the Maryland Vehicle Administration because of privacy restrictions, nor will they send us an email or fax a letter. The temporary registration we’ve been using expires tomorrow. WHY MUST IT BE SO HARD.

I make some calls and someone suggests paying for a CarFax report that will verify there’s no lien on the car. So I drive to an Office Depot to print out the report and then drive back and take another number. The report is not what they want, but it’s enough to buy us an extension on this registration until we can figure it out.

It will be enough time to meet with the middle school guidance counsellor and to find a good dentist and maybe even read with my eight-year-old before bed.

We’ll keep processing our new life here, bit by bit, until the next angry bureaucratic wave washes over us.

Meanwhile, the sun has long dropped below the horizon and the kids will be hungry soon. It’s a 45-minute rush-hour drive home and I know there’s not much in the fridge. I text my husband one last time before pulling away from the MVA: There’s a pot pie in the freezer you can cook for dinner.

There’s always a pot pie.



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