The Unraveling

Uganda was familiar yet so much had changed. It still remains running in my blood, when I look at my daughter I am there, she wraps the county around me so I can still smell it and feel it, even long for it. I see in her the people I knew for 4 years, the people on the street, in the shops, walking along the road. I see them all when I look at her. And miss them.

How lucky I am to have lived in the country my daughter is from for 4 years. To know that part of her.

The city is choking. Day after day I found myself unable to breathe. When the rains came it was perfection and I loved it and then the dry would come and with each minute, day, week, month, as the moisture left the air turned brown, then grey, then dark.

My daughter started to get asthma.

My son seemed pale.

The dry season slammed us.

I started to pull in, worry. Shut myself up. Wait for the rain.

And in that waiting…

…there was the horrible food poisoning that laid my son and I down for weeks.

…the middle of the night emergency room run where no doctor was available.

…the yellow fever outbreak running through the villages coming closer to the city.

And then the election.

The president of Uganda, Museveni, was running again, his  86th term (or there about) and word was his main competitor was not going to let the election be “stolen” again.

I was hanging on when I heard phones might be shut off. I was hanging on when I was assured the UN would evacuate us if need be. I was hanging on.

And then my dear English friend who raised her children all over Africa, my dear friend who thought nothing of being in a car in the worst neighborhood without a cell phone, my dear friend who seemed to have no fear said, “Oh no, but darling you must evacuate. It’s not going to be pretty.” And then she left.

That’s when I heard the opposition was planning to burn the city down.

By the day of the election, with most of my friends gone, I was no longer hanging on.

Me, to my husband, “But how will we get out if we need to?”

Husband, “Don’t worry, we will.”

Me, “But if the city is on fire how will we get to the airport?”

Husband, “The UN will get us to the airport.”


Now I know my husband would have never let us be in a dangerous situation, but I no longer heard him. I had let go and 8 years of wandering came flooding out of me….

And then we heard the gun shots.  The walkie talkie comes on to tell of riots. The government shuts off all social media. We hear the opposition has been arrested, the streets are filled with soldiers, more riots, an occasional yell pierces through the deep silence and I felt adrift and lost and terrified! I ran to my bedroom and crawled under the bed and called my neighbor who was thankfully still there. Through sobs I told her I needed to know there was a way out. She told me she had the Irish ambassadors helicopter as her escape plan and no matter what the children and I would be on it if need be. She promised not to leave me behind. I will never forget her kindness. Those words soothed me, saved me and buffered me as we stayed by the walkie talkie and listened to it all unfold, my heart pounding in my chest while I clung to my children.

There were no fires.

The riots were very small.

I can safely assume no one else crawled under their beds with fear.

But it was clear that I needed a break. It was clear there was something more going on. It was all too much, too wonderful, too scary, too full of adventure, too much chaos to find a new center after I’d left all I’d known so very long ago.

I needed a break. I needed to go home. I needed clean air, and good food, and to just catch my breath, to feel connected. I needed to rest.

I could have never imagined when we made that choice  for me to come back that I would end up not at home, but in another country, alone on a mountainside, on a tiny island with my 2 children and nothing else and it would be nothing like rest, there would be snowstorms and power outages, my husband a million continents away. I would be more cut off than I’d ever been, more isolated and more vulnerable than I thought possible, and that it would prove to be the best and most wonderful 2 years of my life.

You can’t go home again

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?

Olympic fever

Once every four years I get to watch men and women run, swim, jump, fly. Once every four years, for two weeks, I am satiated, riveted. Sure, the winter games are on as well, but it’s the sweat and heat that brings me down. The States tried to take it from me, my once-every-four-years ice cream cone. In America all that matters is ratings. Which network wins which prize and how much money they can make from it. For one week I sat in the dungeon of NBC coverage while finishing my too-long-stay back from where I came. Coverage which showed almost exclusively American athletes, ridiculous ratings driven “home stories,” and worst of all simply 3 hours a night after all the results were already in and covered in the preceding news program.
So imagine my delight when finally returning to my home in Rome to find full 24 hour coverage, LIVE! It’s Sunday and I am finally lifting my head from the screen. Thank you, Rome. It feels so good to be home.