I keep thinking of Hilary Mantel, winner of the Booker Prize, twice. The New Yorker did a wonderful article on her in which she referenced an old belief that one must return to one’s own country within 10 years of leaving or risk never fitting in again (she lived abroad for 9 years before returning to England). We’ve been out five years now but I already feel that old adage wrapping me up in string. I feel a part of Rome; I am becoming etched in its stone. Perhaps it is in my blood, my grandmother being Sicilian, or perhaps I have simply fallen in love with the Italian way of life; I have.
Halloween just passed. I think of the holiday back home, the costumes, candy, fright. To what end? Halloween is All Saints Day here in Italy. It is a day to remember those who have passed, to be with family, feast in honor of the dead. Everything has weight here; everything rests here.
When I returned to the States earlier this year it was like walking into an old closet and putting on your favorite sweater. I felt warm, at ease, comfortable. But then I started to notice how some buttons were missing, a tear where I had not known there to be one, fabric scratching my skin. When I caught my reflection in a mirror I realized the sweater no longer fit me.
I’ve met many ex-pats here, there, around who move like currents over the earth or find new shells to grow old in far away from where they were born and raised. When you no longer see through your culture’s eyes can it still be called home?
When I was 15 I lived in Australia for a year as an exchange student. Already pounding against the boundaries of what I knew, I picked the furthest place I could, where I could still be understood. Plopped down in the outback, or very near to it, I went horse riding on a cattle ranch with my host family one weekend. I had grown up on horses. My first memories are the smell of dust and feel of wet, hot hair pressing against my legs. For leisure I would ride through old cow graveyards, using bones as a maze to lead the horse through. For competition I jumped and showed and took home many ribbons and trophies. But the outback is a far cry from Florida and the horses were mighty big. Used to being ridden by large men, stooping under heavy weight, I was not so much a feather on the horse chosen for me and he quickly pushed against his own boundaries of all he knew, or had been forced to learn. Taking the bit in his mouth, he tore off like lightening through the field and into the abyss. All alone, and yes terrified, I held on for dear life. I cannot begin to explain how fast this horse ran. I was practically thrown into the air, with only the wind and my death grip on the saddle holding me down. I knew enough to lean into him. To not fight it. To just go. After what seemed like forever I heard shouting behind me and suddenly men appeared on horses running for their own lives to catch mine. Just like you see in the movies, after several tries, they managed to grab my horse’s reins and slowly bring him to a halt. I collapsed off the horse, to the ground, as faces filled with fear and relief gathered around me.
My time in California is coming to an end. It’s been a wonderful 4 months; it was nice to rest, to be in the familiar, but now I have to return to my nomadic life, having married into movement, and keep going. I think of that horse, how scared I was, how dangerous it was, but how I leaned into it, let it take me, and wow, it was one hell of a ride.
California is hot. Then cold. Then hot. Cold. Nothing that happened the day before can prepare you for the next. I’ve taken to wearing my swimsuit under my parka.
I’ve been back for 2 months. I felt a tug, or more like I was thrown overboard after attaching my anchor to a speeding boat passing by on its way to refuel and somehow landed here.
Americans are nice. So nice. And they’re everywhere here in America.
I’ve often told people abroad, when faced with not-so-nice comments about my birth country, to think of Americans like puppies. We’re new, young, inexperienced. We can be awfully cute and really like to play. Okay, so sometimes we pee on your rug, but if you just scratch us behind our ears you’ll see our foot stomp as pure ecstasy crosses over our face, and really all we want to do is ride really fast with our heads out the window, panting.
I didn’t expect the refitting to be so awkward. My summers in NY were a homecoming, yet I knew they were a short stop on a u-turn back. This California detour will be a little longer and I find my head doesn’t fit out the window so easily anymore. It’s thicker with the things I’ve seen, the difference I have tasted, so instead of the ride blowing back my ears, I remain in the passenger seat watchful, even as the air feels lovely.
Being an ex-pat is hard. You live alone, isolated from comfort, but it stretches you like silly putty and you start to be able to press against anything and find its image somewhere in the shallows. The more you stretch, the softer you become, reflecting even more, perhaps something now stuck deep within.
I am happy I am back for a while. But it doesn’t feel like a full stop. It doesn’t really feel like home anymore in a weird way. Just another adventure to be had along the road.
I can’t seem to catch my breath; I collapse at night. While never exactly remembering sleeping before, the experience has always been tangible, as if I could reach backwards into the night just past and almost touch the place I had been. Now I fall into darkness and morning rushes towards me with no understanding of the in-between, of where I’ve just come from, so my days feel like an old torn screen on an cabin’s backdoor, eyes open at points with black holes I disappear into when they close.
Coffee. Breakfast. Pack lunch. School clothes. Bookbag. Car. Metro. Walk. Look for apartments. Study. Back to school. Walk. Bus. Walk. Cook dinner. Plan breakfast. Plan lunch. Laundry. Out.
But it’s more than that.
One of the things I have written about is how lonely the life of a traveling ex-pat can be. One of things I did not realize is how comforting loneliness can be. Having moved our daughter to an English International school, I am forced to converse, spinning in every direction with hello’s and hi’s and how are you this morning. I am opened up and dissected and expected to do the same in return. At first it felt wonderful to share in the language I rest in, but that rest quickly turned to exhaustion, and I now wonder if my true language, the one I feel most at home with, is silence, the place I grew up in.
There is a wonderful book, a collection of stories, called Only Child. Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing up Solo. Alissa Quart, in her story ‘The Hotline’ writes,
“As an only child, I learned early…that basic transformation was impossible–I would always be the single child, watching the shadows the bookshelves made on the ceiling from reflected streetlights, a gloomy lattice of Culture–and that special solitude could not be changed.”
This life fits me. Moving and surrendering into a three, where one is easily found. Outside the door though is becoming another story.