A few weeks ago when I was leaving the Rome airport, the agent at passport control didn’t bother looking at my ticket. He just slid it, along with my passport, back under the glass and asked, “Dove andiamo? Andiamo in vacanza?” Where are we going? Are we going on vacation?
I tried not to but I think I sighed audibly, not at all keen on trying to fit the saga of how I’ve spent the last four months of my life living out of a suitcase into one, quick sentence. If he had opened my passport and flipped through the pages of the recent stamps, if he had actually looked at my ticket the story might have told itself. It would show how I’d just been in Europe for a little over a month. My boarding pass was for a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok with an ongoing flight to Brisbane and really, I’d just been on vacation. “Dai,” he insisted, “Andiamo in vacanza.”
Come on, let’s go on vacation.
If I had the energy to tell him how I’d just spent a month in Barcelona followed by a week in Rome, it would have certainly sounded like I was on vacation. It would have sounded like I am independently wealthy and have the luxury to live carefree with the freedom and flexibility to do and go where I please. Put it like that and my whole life sounds like one big vacation yet I assure you, it is not. It is a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants adventure–yes–but the fun parts are also wrought with nervousness, not knowing and dragging over-packed suitcases through endless security screenings. My pseudo vacation-like life of late, while it comes with perks; it also comes with body scans and frisking. It involves taking a lot of public transportation in places you aren’t familiar with sometimes in languages you don’t know. Compared to a more regular life with a routine, mine involves more headaches and walking than most. In fact, most days I’m only barely certain of where I am and where I’m going. I have become rather accustomed to living out my days in a hazy, in-between state, a mere city block away from knowing where I am. Being lost has become a norm.
All this traveling and getting lost has made me feel like Forrest Gump. Back when I started journeying beyond borders I was gung-ho and clean-cut and now, I’m just tired, hairy and showing my age. My shoes are worn out, what was my best suitcase is now ripping at the seam and I would kill for some chips and queso, accompanied by a margarita on the rocks and a background of mariachis.
Little did the Italian custom agent know that his question was basically the question of the century. “Where are we going?” Sure, there was what my plane ticket said but there was a whole other itinerary, too. The one I had yet to finalize. The options I’d been painstakingly keeping a list of roughly amounted to nine different scenarios. Each carrying enough complications to make me freeze up and stall, delaying the decision-making as long as possible.
Without going too far into the nitty-gritty, my plight (in a nutshell) is that while I have a visa for New Zealand, I don’t have one for Australia and Australia was where we were going. Not to get all Elizabeth Gilbert-y / Eat-Pray-Love-y about it but for me, these are the old familiar hazards of being in a relationship with someone from another country. The other plight is that all my stuff is in boxes in New Zealand and I still don’t have a job yet. I was really hoping to have that sorted by now and that perhaps it would give me an indication of a geographical location.
If I wanted a job in Australia (or even to stay there at all) I would have to go through an expensive, rigorous visa application process. Peering down that avenue and seeing how paved with paperwork it would be caused my breathing passages to constrict. Filing for that visa would require me to involve Italy in the mess, too, seeing as how I lived there for over a decade. Visa paperwork involving two countries so that I could go live in a third? Honestly, I’m tired of bureaucracy. That and when it comes right down to it, after trying really hard to make myself want to live in the southern hemisphere, I finally choked up then fessed up. I plain just. don’t. want. to. Afterall, I’ve done it before—twice, now—moved to a new country and did my best to make a home from a country that was not mine. It was good and I loved the experiences. But for as much as there is to love about this opposite hemisphere, I don’t want to put roots down in it. I don’t want to be a world away anymore. I want to go to home, or rather, I want to go to the place I will call home.
Yes, but where? DOVE? Dove andiamo?
To buy time while I worked out the conclusion to that question, I tacked extra days onto our trip. Thai Airways was nice enough to let me change our flight not once, but twice, free of charge. We stayed in Rome for four more days than we had originally anticipated. We arrived in Bangkok for our eighteen hour layover and again, I didn’t want to move forward. Moving forward meant making a decision about what to do when we got where we were going, and where. It was easier and more fun to procrastinate and pretend as long as possible.
They always say that coming to the decision is the hardest part about making a decision. I know that to be true. The process is full of anxiety and anguish and uncertainty. Then of course, after you make the decision there’s the freedom that comes with the options you’ve excluded—the ‘no turning back now’ part of things that inevitably leads to moments of glorious, peaceful clarity before oscillating back to dark self-doubting.
When my own self-doubting demons woke me up it was four in the morning. I was in Brisbane and I’d already made my decision. I’d booked a one-way ticket to Dallas. The following morning Nick would be leaving for a new job in the jungle of Papua New Guinea working for an Australian mining company, scouting out potential areas that might be mined for gold. While he’s gone I won’t even get to hear from him as he will be roughing it, camping in the bush. The thought of him so far out of reach combined with the thought of going home sent me into mental spasms. This powerlessness, I decided, was a natural feeling, a result of an accumulation of thirteen years of jetlag. There was nothing I could do. Nothing except proceed to quietly unwrap, then eat a bite-sized Snickers bar.
During these thirteen years I’ve been away, people I know have often told me when times were particularly tough, “You should just come home.” They said it as if my decision to live elsewhere in the world was a battle in which I’d foolishly engaged and that if I just give up now, all will be right As if I’m a stubborn, child refusing to do as she’s told. These people, I love them and know they had my best interest at heart when they voiced their opinion. I’m sure they didn’t really understand how I could live anywhere else but home. But they have misunderstood and taken my decision to leave personally.
I have been asked on more than one occasion, “Aren’t we good enough for you?” As if I harbor some secret dissent with regard for America or Americans. I don’t. I love my country. I love Americans. That’s not the point. You don’t leave somewhere because it’s not good enough. Searching for something new doesn’t always equate to searching for something better. Sometimes a journey toward the unknown can just be for the sake of growth, or exploration. I just wanted to see the world, know other realities. See how other people go about their days. Learn another language. Not that it really matters but I wonder if these same people are now going to look at my “coming home” as me finally coming to my senses. (I would have thought it was obvious by now that I have no sense.)
I blogged about the subject of home not long ago. I wrote about how home can be cruel, a source of painful reminders. You grow up, you leave, you come back and are awash with memories. You experience various forms of regret—either a type of nostalgia of years past or an empty longing for things you wish had turned out differently.
While I was in Melbourne in May I saw some street art that read, “God protect us from what’s to come.” In a way, that speaks to any stage in life. But it wasn’t until I was nearly thirty-something when the realization of the meaning of “Shit Happens” finally sank in. Now that I’ve had time for that realization to sink in, I think it’s safe to substitute the word “shit” for “life.”
What do you know! Life Happens. Indeed. What a revelation.
Here’s what’s happening for me: I’m flying on a one-way ticket from Auckland to LAX to Dallas and I have three suitcases. Three suitcases and a lot of baggage. Let’s face it: it’s not exactly the pinnacle of success when you go home at thirty-three, divorced and jobless to live with your mom. It tends to bring about a tendency to feel deflated, defeated and disappointed. I had other plans for myself when I lived at home. I certainly never would have dreamed my life would turn out quite like this. (Does anybody think, “Yes, I always knew my life would turn out just like this”? If so, please contact me. I would like to hear how you accomplished that right before I tell you that you’re a big fat liar.)
By now, I’ve been gone long enough and gone far enough away to know, more or less, what I’m in for in my conclusion to come home. There will be the standard reverse culture-shock scenarios I spent years informing my students of in numerous Re-entry Workshops upon their return home after four months abroad. The most common challenges being that “no one wants to hear” or that they expect a one-sentence summation of your immensely formative time abroad. There will also be the constant, tormenting comparisons (mostly going on in my mind) such as,
“In Australia they have gas grills in public parks”
“In New Zealand it’s so clean you can go barefoot everywhere,”
“Italian food in Italy tastes so much better.”
Nevermind that while in Australia I never once actually used a public gas grill or that I thought it was slightly dangerous to walk around barefoot anywhere, much less New Zealand and that when I was in Italy I used to complain that all there was to eat was Italian food.
I say I know what to expect. But there’s knowing what to expect and then there’s bracing yourself for living out what’s going to happen.
God protect us from what’s to come.
Still, I feel ready. I suppose that my years as an expat taught me the same lessons, albeit through different challenges that I would have learned if I had been at home. Such as, no matter what, any expectations you thought you were entitled to were, are and will always be futile. No matter where one is, I imagine that to different degrees we’re all humbled in our own ways on a daily basis, reminded constantly of how very little we know about the world and how it works. And how the only certainty any of us ever have is that whatever it is, even though we might not be able to change it, what we can change is how you react to it.
My reaction to coming home? That’ll be Tricky with a capital “T.” Muddled with mixed emotions. Yet if anything, my travels have ironically been a preparation for this moment: coming home. Funny how I am approach my return Home in the same way I would approach going Somewhere I’ve Never Been Before. Afterall, we—home and me—are now two vastly different elements. Almost strangers, but not quite.
My decision to come home doesn’t mean anything huge unless being ready to come home is huge and I guess in its own way it sort of it is. It’s like Forrest Gump when he decided to stop running. Eventually we all knew he would. What we DIDN’T know was what the circumstances that would bring about his decision to stop running would be. When he finally did stop running it felt right; a progressive, natural course of events. His next step was simply not to take any more steps. Not at the pace he’d been taking them anyway. It didn’t mean anything. It just meant he’d been there done that and could stop now.
Two weeks ago I was in Rome. Before that, Barcelona. Last week I was in Bangkok, this week; Brisbane. Tomorrow I’ll be in Auckland for one day before flying East towards home. I imagine filling out my custom’s form in LAX. There’s that big blank where the US government wants to you fill in all the countries you’ve visited prior to returning home. It has been fourteen months since I’ve been home. The longest stretch I’ve ever been away without coming home once. When I left home last time I had no intention of leaving for that long just like I had no intention of becoming a de facto expat for thirteen years. I will fill the blank on my customs form like this: Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, UAE, Italy (again), Spain (again), Thailand, Australia (again), New Zealand (again). But that hardly sums it up. That’s only a fourteen-month illustration of a thirteen-year hiatus.
Sitting in the Brisbane airport waiting to board my flight, it is nice to know where I’m going. I’m taking a long-jump twenty-hour flight across the Pacific. There’s actually nothing I look forward to more right now (other than seeing all my friends and the babies they’ve managed to make while I’ve been gone) than whining and complaining lovingly about my own country from up close for once. Yep, you heard it, straight from Oz: There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.