Tag: home country

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expat, home

Our stories, our roots

A few weeks ago, I entered my neighbourhood café in Athens, laptop in hand, intending to take advantage of an hour free of household-related distractions (lovingly loud
Greek family, adoringly attached toddler) to do some work. The place was full, so I asked an elderly gentleman if I could join him. He was sitting on the couch at the corner, not knowing that it was my favourite spot. He smiled warmly, invitingly. “Of course, please sit down. I just got here as well.” He stood up to go get his coffee from the counter, but his hands were shaking and, on his way back, he spilled a little on the lady who was sitting at the table next to us. He apologized profusely. He was visibly embarrassed. “That’s what happens when you get old…” The lady was really nice about it. “It could happen to anyone,” she said kindly and gave him a big smile. She saw me watching and smiled at me too.
Soon after he sat down, a friend of his entered the café. I guessed that they probably met there every morning because they didn’t look surprised to see each other. Instead of a
greeting, the newcomer started reciting a passage from Plato’s “Republic,” something about the blessing of celibacy in old age. It was meant to be funny and they both laughed. Very naturally, as if they were continuing an unfinished conversation, they started talking about politics, the state of the economy, the state of their country, switching back and forth between the present and “the old days…” Occasionally, they threw in a passage from some Greek literary work or a quote from a historical figure to illustrate how it’s all linked, the then and the now. At some point, this being Greece, there was a brief, light-hearted argument about who would pay for the coffees (“You invited
me last time, now it’s my turn” “No, it was you who invited me! You’re becoming forgetful in your old age”), coming to a peaceful conclusion (“Well, I’ll let you invite me, but only if you agree to officially adopt me”).
I found the whole scene so extraordinarily charming, that I’d forgotten about my work. I was captivated, absorbed by their conversation. A few times I couldn’t help but smile and as they noticed, they smiled back timidly, apologetically, with an almost paternal “So sorry to distract you from your work, my girl;” or “I apologise for my friend. He talks
way too much.”
Eventually, they had to leave because their grandchildren were waiting for them to take them to the playground “now that the weather has warmed up” (it was already 20 degrees Celsius that morning, but for Greek standards not warm enough for children to be out and about).
I wished they’d stay. I felt an unexpected connection with these elderly men. I appreciated where they were coming from. I got their stories. The way they talked and behaved – with dignity, respect, affection – resonated with me. Their words, infused with a sense of rootedness and history spoke to me. I felt that we shared the same values; that their stories were my stories, their roots my roots.
I realised later that I felt more connected to those representatives of another generation than to any of my own. Maybe it was because their stories showed me where
I come from – my life’s trajectory, that of my parents. They knew my story because they are my story. Maybe the older I become, the more interested I am in that aspect of my identity.
I suspect that I managed to hold on to that connection because I left Greece. My link was not eroded by the everyday. I was not disillusioned by current events. I did not rebel or disengage, like young people my age have. Surprisingly, I think that for the same reason – because I left – I am not as connected to my own generation. We haven’t shared the milestones, the victories, the frustrations, the hopes or the disappointments. We don’t share a present or a future. I wasn’t there and, most likely, I won’t be there. As sad as that makes me sometimes, I know that I can always look to the past and find a sense of belonging. Is this just me or are there more who have felt this way?

What if

 

My seasonal foreignness was not so bad this year.
Maybe because I was too busy vacationing to deal with existential issues. Maybe because when you are expecting something, it is almost never as bad as you expect it to be. It wasn’t. The irony is that when things go well on the foreignness front, another set of existential issues comes to the surface – the “what ifs.”
I felt cosy and comfortable being around family, seeing familiar faces that I had not seen in a while and meeting some new ones. It was – momentarily and in the un-real-life context of a vacation – as if I had never left. One thing led to another and at some point, I could not help thinking, wondering how it would feel if I actually lived there. What would happen if I returned? What would real life there look like? Would my children be happy? Would I still feel like a foreigner at home and if I did, would that be such a
big deal?
I indulged myself, building scenarios in my head,
imagining scenes from our daily life in Athens. I visualised the late summer days, still warm and sunny, with the evenings a little bit cooler and the sun setting earlier, announcing the onset of autumn. The city filling up again. The first autumn rain after several months of dryness (there is actually a word for that in Greek). What would it be like to spend winter there again and not just a couple of sun-drenched weeks on the beach? Would I create my own daily routines? Would the constant presence of my extended family be bliss or torture? Would I get used – again – to calling 15 degrees Celsius (the temperature this August morning in my current home town) “winter temperatures?” Would I be able to reconnect with all those – inevitably – long lost friends? Would I make new ones?
For a moment there, I did not think of all the reasons why this is an impossible scenario. I did not rationalise and it felt good. I felt free. But eventually, I did feel sad. Because the “what if…?” is always followed by the “why not.” Without a question mark at the end.

Seasonal foreignness

 

Every year , around the start of summer vacation, I hear the same familiar complaint from my children: “Why do we always have to go to Greece for vacation? Why can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” Every year, my answer is the same (including the part where I tell them how spoiled they are and that other kids – not to mention adults – would be thrilled to go to Greece for
vacation, while they are being so difficult about it): “Because your mother is from Greece, which makes you half-Greek, and this is our home.” But is it really?
Lately, I have been reading a lot about what happens to people when they move back to their home country after having lived abroad; how the experience is predictably rewarding but can also be unpredictably challenging. The fact that the challenges catch most people completely by surprise is the main reason why repatriation is so hard to cope with. Not having been through it myself, I have been trying to find ways to relate to that experience, so that I can write about it.
In fact, a lot of what I have been reading about re-entry reminds me of what happens when I return home for longer periods of time, which is the case every summer. Many expatriates who go back to their passport countries find that home does not feel like home any more; that they have become foreigners where they least expected that to happen; that their loyalty is divided between two (or more) “homes.” That’s something to which I can relate. It does not make such a big impression on me now – maybe because I have been used to it over the years – but being home always reveals that split in my life and in my identity. On the one hand, I have a strong bond with Greece. It overwhelms me with euphoria the moment the airplane touches down on Greek soil and crushes me with nostalgia when that other airplane takes me away. I love everything about “my” country – its natural beauty and its (disorganised) chaos; the warmth of the weather and that of the people; the fact that I can understand both the text and the subtext when I interact with them; the feeling of belonging.
On the other hand, when I am in Greece, I am always the visitor; the tourist; the foreigner. Nothing much is expected of me. I am not supposed to completely fit in, but that feels strange rather than liberating. There are moments when I miss the comfort of being a foreigner somewhere where I am actually justified in being one, rather than somewhere where I really shouldn’t. And, of course, after a while
I start missing my “other” home; my house; my routines. To quote Kundera, (my) life is elsewhere.
Many of us perpetual foreigners experience this duality – the “split personality,” the unexpected emotional connections to different places at the same time. The contrast is always there, but it is only when we come “home” that it becomes blindingly obvious.
Do you feel foreign, at home?

The phone call

 

The last time I saw my father was a couple of weeks before he passed away, only four days before my scheduled monthly trip to go visit him. Four days. The day before, I could not get him on the phone for our daily chat. He was too weak. It didn’t occur to me then. I refused to even consider the possibility until the phone rang at 7am the next morning, as we were getting the kids ready for school. Before I even picked up, before I even saw that it was coming from my parents’ home, before I heard my brother’s voice on the other side – who would not, normally, have been there so early in the day –, I knew.
I had been dreading that call. I had been dreading being away when my father’s time came. Shouldn’t I have sensed something? Why didn’t I change my ticket and fly back to see him earlier? Why couldn’t I have been there by his side? Why did I choose to live in another country?
I’m not the only one haunted by the “dreaded phone call.” Most of us who have chosen the nomadic lifestyle and live far away from ageing parents or other close relatives, are bound to feel that at some point. It is part of all the things we miss while we are away. But, more than birthdays, graduations or weddings, missing death – or rather, missing life – may be what haunts us the most. I have many friends and family who, at some point or another, have had to drop everything and get on a plane to go help out when a parent got sick; who have had to change their lives to accommodate taking care of an ageing relative; or who worry if they can’t get them on the phone at a time when they should be reachable. It’s not easy, yet we accept it as an integral part of our fragmented mobile life. We are fully aware of the consequences but we still choose that life.
Sometimes we even change our life plans, willingly. I dream of living in California and would move there in an instant; but at this point, I know that not even the East Coast would be a realistic option. I don’t think my mother would ever forgive me for taking us – especially her grandchildren – so far away from her, where even the transatlantic journey to visit us would increasingly become a challenge for her. Others would still choose to go – and have. Indeed, life is too short. But I use the same argument for my choice not to go. I want to be around, as much as possible. I want to be able to be a couple of hours away, not a whole day’s journey. I also want my children to be around
their family. I want them to hear the stories and create the memories that will become part of their identity. A while ago, my husband, having just come back, enchanted, from a trip to Australia, asked me when we are moving to Sydney. My reply was: “When all our relatives are dead.”
Do you live far away from (ageing) family? How do you cope with that?