Not All Here

A peripatetic American expat finds that the familiarity of ‘home’ is always slightly out of reach.

Not All Here

Even now I find it hard to believe that I spent 32 years—three-quarters of my adult life—working and living abroad. Can’t possibly be, I mutter, but there it is, the same answer time after time at the end of the equation: 2014 minus 1982 equals 32.

I was 31 when I left Dallas for London in 1982, divorced, childless, eager to know what life might have been like if my forebears hadn’t emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. I was 63 when I left Paris for Chicago late last August, married, the mother of a serious 17-year-old determined to take her 15 years of ballet training to the next level.

If simple cross-town moves can be tough, those involving international borders are infinitely more fraught. But somehow I, and later we, mastered the art of changing countries and language while living the peripatetic expat life of foreign correspondents: London, Madrid, London, Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, Rome, Paris.

“Lucky you,” people often respond when they ask where we’ve lived. I’m always the first to agree. But I never know how to answer when they follow up with the inevitable, “What’s it like to be home?”

My gut response—a puzzled-sounding “Home?”—tends not to go down well. But the fact is I haven’t felt at home since we moved back, and didn’t expect I would.

Perhaps it’s because I left young, with parents and two grandparents living, and returned a woman of a certain age, the older generations buried. Perhaps it was remarrying and having a child in Italy, then shepherding her through the school system of France before the three of us returned to our passport home, minus a map to navigate.

It’s possible the culprit is the simple passage of time: When I left, Ronald Reagan was president, Britain was about to go to war with Argentina, and UConn was an unheralded basketball backwater. At the time, anyone who thought communism’s grip on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was only seven years from utter collapse would have been labeled mad.

Perhaps it’s the sea changes in American life that explain my unease. Who sent our factory jobs to the developing world while I was gone, our secretarial and administrative jobs to customers’ home computers? When did poisonous party politics replace public discourse? Who canonized a new class of oligarchs and decreed that stratospheric wealth was a heavenly nod from the Creator? When did public civility and civic obligation become quaint? How can white police shootings of young black men be back in the news, half a century after Selma—the march, not the movie?

Perhaps it’s the sheer size of this country—big enough to be several nations—that makes me feel unsettled. Whatever the cause, today’s Midwest is a very different country from the New England of my childhood, just as Dallas—where I moved at age 26, four years after graduation from Wellesley—was an altogether different country from my home state of Connecticut.

It may sound odd, but Dallas remains, even today, the most foreign city I ever got to know. Awaiting phone service, I remember stuffing a fistful of quarters into a 7-Eleven payphone to tell my parents I was safely installed. They thought I was kidding about the saddled horse tethered in the warm winter sunshine nearby.

But decades later, my father remembered that call, my voice sounding shaky as I tried to describe how the endless north Texas sky stretched so high and wide that it made me feel dizzy and lost, so totally uprooted, in fact, that moving to London five years later felt almost like moving home.

Our new temporary home of Chicago feels nearly as foreign as Dallas once did: the land too flat, the people too affable and polite, Lake Michigan constantly playing tricks, lulling me—with boat basins and gulls—into thinking I’m finally back to the saltwater life of my childhood.

But the only salt water here comes from the rock salt of winter used on icy roads and sidewalks. No matter how many times my daughter and I walk to the lake’s edge seeking that briny smell of Long Island Sound, we come away without it.

Lake Michigan constantly plays tricks, lulling me—with boat basins and gulls—into thinking I’m finally back to the saltwater life of my childhood.

The morning after our Paris-to-Chicago flight late last summer, an old family friend led us on our apartment hunt. By early afternoon, we’d signed a lease. By evening, we were using our new cellphones. Next morning, she drove us to Ikea to buy the bare-bones furniture needed for our 10-month stay. Mission semi-accomplished in record time, I foolishly dared to think that this umpteenth move might not be as wrenching as we’d all feared.

It helped that Chicago was lively, full of affordable music, dance, museums, and bright winter sunshine to make up for the bitter cold. College friends old and new welcomed us, took me to an opera rehearsal, found me the serious acupuncturist I needed to cure my insomnia, and drove me out of the city on a sunny September Saturday to hike in a hilly forest sprung from a glacial moraine.

A Wellesley classmate I barely knew kept us on budget, lending us dishes, cutlery, lamps, tools, and, perhaps most important for a family without a car living in downtown Chicago, one of those old-lady shopping carts you pull along behind you, just like the carts I’d been using in Europe for years.

Knowing I couldn’t hope to feel settled until I’d figured out how to feed us, I and my cart soon visited every supermarket within walking distance. I left each one feeling dizzy, benumbed. I don’t crave scarcity, but the two vast floors of choice at my local Mariano’s supermarket rattle me still. I loathe the sign they post in the produce department where I spend most of our food budget. The other day it read: Today’s Produce / Variety Count 967 / Organic Count 256.

No wonder food shopping took forever; too much choice simply inhibited decisions. Will my passport be revoked if I suggest that America doesn’t need sour-cream-onion-bacon-chipotle-barbecue potato chips, or seven kinds of Oreos, or a baby grand parked among the floral stalls?

All the years we were abroad, neither my husband (who left New Jersey on a Fulbright scholarship 15 years before I did) nor I ever felt anything but American. Living abroad only made us feel more American, not less so. Though I was charmed by nearly every country in which I set down roots, none ever enticed me to shed my American skin for a foreign one.

As time passed we grew comfortable in our otherness, a good thing it turns out, because that sense of otherness has persisted even though we’re back on American soil.

My husband suggests that we may be missing what the Germans call Idiotenfreiheit, or the freedom enjoyed by idiots, the insane, a freedom that can apply to foreigners as well. Foreigners living outside their home country often enjoy a large measure of psychological freedom; they may be treated much the same way a country treats its own citizens who are not quite “all there.”

But we’re not quite “all here” either, and I doubt we’ll feel differently no matter how long we stay. Having spent most of our lives physically away from our birth country, living in foreign ones, it’s hardly surprising we feel most at home in the expat netherworld we’ve happily been inhabiting, that our daughter’s closest friends in Chicago are Japanese, also studying ballet far from “home.”

No wonder the people who best understand us now that we’re back are those who were born elsewhere or lived elsewhere long enough to fall off the beaten track.

“Home” remains always slightly out of reach, somewhere between where we’ve been and where we’re headed. We remain, as ever, slightly out of step, but contentedly so, puzzling our way through to the next stop, wherever it may be.

Paula Butturini ’73 is a former foreign correspondent for United Press International and the Chicago Tribune and a longtime contributor to the New York Times travel section. Her book, Keeping the Feast, is a memoir about injury and healing told through food.

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