Well, it’s been a long time since my last post here at The Lost Salt Atlas, and tomorrow begins a new adventure: returning back to Seattle after living seven years overseas: four years in Vietnam and three years in Switzerland. Those years have been crucial in creating a new sense of who I am. My family and I have seen many places, learned new languages (well, my kids have anyway), and lived the day-to-day adventure of being something of a stranger in the place where you reside.
My partner Joanie said it much better than I could in an email to a colleague:
We now see the world in a different way than we did then, and so do our kids. They have firsthand knowledge of parts of the world that I could not have even pointed to on a map when I was their age. They know what it’s like to live on three continents, they speak fluently two languages and bits of others. We have deep friendships with people scattered around the world, and we’ve known an intensity of life that has at times been difficult but that has made us feel like we are truly living.
Going “home” after being an expat is a notoriously difficult experience. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Repatriation Blues,” a continual expat says that moving overseas “will mess you up for the rest of your life. You’re constantly torn between those places, and you’re a changed person.”
British-born literary critic James Wood (who has lived in the U.S. for most of his life) wrote about this in a great essay for the London Review of Books called “On Not Going Home.” After comparing his own experiences as a voluntary expat with the more difficult and tragic experiences of forced exiles, he concludes:
What is peculiar, even a little bitter about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life–is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of “afterwardness”: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that might be all right.
I don’t doubt going back to the U.S. will be hard, and not simply because of the new intensity of its politics and spiraling incidents of violence. It will be foreign to me, and to us, and I’m hoping to treat it like a new adventure, to experience America as an expat, or at least an outsider. Of course, that will be difficult since the U.S. is intricately part of my experience and nothing annoys or angers us quite like the folly of the place we come from.
But my daughters, especially my youngest, will in many ways be discovering the country and its culture (both good and bad) for the first time. The majority of their lives have been lived elsewhere.
That’s been a good thing: learning new languages and getting exposure to other ways of living is an incredibly valuable skill, and one that America should value more than it does.
I felt very at home in Hanoi and Vietnam, where I lived for four years. Of course nostalgia makes me forget the terrible air pollution, the hassles of completing simple household tasks, the constant chaos and state of disrepair. Geneva, Switzerland has been exactly the opposite: plenty of order, prompt public transport, clean, fresh air. And yet where Hanoi was a daily thrill, Geneva is beautiful but dull. I’ll readily admit there’s much here to admire about Switzerland: incredible access to mountains and the outdoors, the ease of travel to places all over Europe, and the constant presence of history wherever I go. To cite just one example, our apartment in the village of Commugny was located in an old forge that dates from the mid-16th century. It’s tough to find any buildings in North America that are that old.
But Switzerland always felt temporary to me. Finishing my first novel was my primary task, and I dedicated less time to building friendships and social connection than I probably should have. Plus, I was living in the suburbs, which has its own pressures of isolation.
But we made it work, and my children are now fluent in French–which, even if they don’t keep it up in the states, they may come back to later in life. That’s a gift. They have friends all over the world, and technology makes it easier than ever to keep in contact with them.
So I say goodbye to my home for the past three years, a place I’m ambivalent about, and which no doubt will seem much more attractive when I’m sitting in traffic on Denny Way. Right now, I’m feeling a lot of that uncanny “afterwardness” Woods refers to; as if the whole experience of living abroad was one long, complicated, beautiful, frustrating and unbelievable dream.
I’m not a huge fan of TED talks, but I do come back to one given by travel writer Pico Iyer from time to time. It’s entitled “Where is Home,” and it addresses this new world where over 200 million people live in countries they weren’t born in. “Home isn’t where you’re from, but where you’re going,” he says. There’s great wisdom in that, and in carrying your personal notion of home wherever you go. I will alway be a little bit of an exile, a little bit of a nomad, even when I’m living in the city closest to where I was born.
In his talk, Iyer refers to Proust’s famous quote about how the real adventure isn’t going to new places, but seeing things with new eyes. I went to find the complete quote, and it’s revealing because it also talks about the power of art to provide that new way of seeing. It’s in the fifth volume of The Remembrance of Things Past:
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of the Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.
And so I move on to the next voyage with eyes wide open. It’s a time to say goodbye; but as Rilke observed in the Duino Elegies, we’re doing that at every moment:
Who has turned us around this way
so that we’re always
whatever we do
in a posture of someone
who is leaving?Like a man
on the final hill
that shows him
his whole valley
one last time
who turns and stand there
that’s how we live