"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Monday, September 8, 2008

Expat Musings

In the months that preceded my going away for the summer, I felt pangs of nostalgia whenever I thought that we might soon have to leave India and move to another country. I imagined ideas for stories set in India. I kept telling myself that I needed to fill my eyes, and ears and mind with images, sounds and memories of the place, so I could carry them with me, and most of all, not feel that I didn't take full advantage of my being here - the way I often do about my time in Nigeria. To avoid having regrets.

I feel the need to add a note, here, about the repercussions that the departure preparations can have on a person in the long term. After four years in India, I have come to the conclusion that the reason Nigeria has not left me any respite - especially as a writer - is due to the fact that I didn't leave the country in a way that would have brought closure to the whole experience. I just wanted to be out of there : I was seven months pregnant, in a hurry to settle in the place where I was going to give birth, all the while dealing with the anxiety linked to any international move, on top of my daughter going through several bouts of malaria for almost two months, until we found out that the medications she'd been taking were fake and her whole immune system was pretty shot, my husband being relocated to India, to a city that we knew basically nothing about, etc, etc. Not exactly peaceful circumstances to help with the transition. I remember vividly how I just yearned, almost physically, to be on the plane out of Enugu, as it would mean I was finally moving on to the next stage of my life. Now, having read Third Culture Kids, by Pollock and Van Reken, and Expat Expert Robin Pascoe, I knew that I needed to prepare my almost 4-year-old daughter to this move, and I did, thoroughly. We took pictures, said good bye to the trees, the birds, and everyone and everything around. But I completely overlooked my own preparation. Huge mistake !

Back to India, before the summer, where we're waiting to hear about our relocation. Anyone who knows me well enough, also knows that I'm not exactly zen ; more your pretty average control freak. I like to know what I'm doing tomorrow, and possibly next month, too. Which doesn't preclude adventure. I love adventure. I don't think I would have lived the life I have, so far, if I didn't. But I have to be able to PLAN it. So, the "not knowing where we're going next" part is not something I'm very good at negotiating.

During the whole month of May, I felt terrible. I mean, physically bad. As if something heavy and hard was sitting somewhere in my gut, making it difficult for me to breathe. Until a light bulb went up in my mind and I realized that for the past twenty years of my life, I had never lived in the same place for more than 3 years. It was as if my body and my mind were screaming their need to move, as if I have some internal clock telling me, "woman, it's time, where are the packing boxes and all the usual preparations"? As soon as I realized that, I felt better. I could breathe again. I just told myself : "we will be moving, sooner or later, but this time, it looks as if we may be staying in one place a little longer than we've been used to for the past two decades, so, just relax." And I did.

Then, started my crazy continent-hopping summer.

I left for France, and during the four weeks I was there, I kept thinking that I loved it there. France is such a beautiful country. The weather was gorgeous. The food, well, do I need to say more? Everything felt familiar. The quality of life is high, even though the French love to complain about pretty much anything under the sun. I didn't want to go. I wished I could stay longer. I didn't think forever, mind you. I know better. But I felt good there.

Then, we went to Haiti, where I spent over a week. And once more, I realized how much I love that country, its people, so joyous and dignified in spite of all the hardship. At my mother in law's house, the house were my husband grew up, there was no electricity most of the time. They rely on inverters and ancient gas lamps. Comfort is sparse. And yet, I was sad to leave and would have liked to stay longer. No, not forever. Because, yes, I know better. But definitely longer.

Then, I landed in New York, and I was so happy and moved to be walking the streets of Manhattan. Slipping into old habits was so totally comfortable. I was home again. And of course, it was much too short.

I didn't see much of Los Angeles. I was too busy with the conference. But there again, I recognized places and names - I lived in LA for four months, in 1989, and drove myself around a lot - and it would have been lovely to be able to hang out in Santa Monica or Venice Beach, and to revisit old spots. So, there also, I would have liked to stay longer. Not forever, we know that by now, but longer. Then again, how much longer?

I flew back to New York, and we spent three wonderful days with friends, in Brooklyn. English, French, Spanish and Portuguese could be heard in that lovely, crowded apartment in Sunset Park, with our children who represent so many countries - France, Spain, Haiti, Brazil, Germany, all of them US citizens - playing together as if they'd known each other all their lives. We went to a concert in Prospect Park, the way we used to do it so often when I lived there. The night was lovely, a little cool, and Lila Downs was singing on the stage, and people sat all around on blankets, and I remembered how much I love New York. More than in any other part in the world, I think - and that includes France - I feel at home, there. Then again, I also remember that I when I lived there, I needed to get out once in a while, and I HAD to go to France at least once a year. So, yes, I wanted to stay longer. Much, much longer. But by now, and even though I dream of New York becoming a base when I grow older, I also know that I can't be there - anywhere? - forever.

Finally, as my husband returned to India to resume work, I flew to Spain with my daughters. We stayed at my aunt's small apartment, in the working class neighborhood where I spent most of my summers, growing up, and even though a lot has changed in Malaga, that particular neighborhood hasn't. The streets are pretty much the same. The place where we used to eat ice creams and drink "horchata" is still there, as is the church where I used to practice my piano at the harmonium, seating on my father's lap, as my legs were not long enough to push the pedals. We went to the beach where I played so many afternoons, as a child. And we went to La Feria, and I was so happy to dress my girls as beautiful gitanas. By then, I had been leaving in suitcases for a month, and I couldn't stand it anymore. I just wanted to get back. But I also felt sad to leave, even more so because my brother now lives in Madrid and I'd love to go and visit him, and it was also great to speak Spanish and eat Spanish food, and hear Spanish music. So, there again, longer would have been nice. Not forever. Just longer.

And it occurs to me that having moved around the way I have, and having roots in these different places, too, I have formed strong emotional attachments with them all. As usual, there are two ways of looking at this.

I can feel torn, and I can feel as if I'm leaving threads and pieces of myself everywhere, and give in to a feeling of sadness and "uprootedness".

OR, I can accept the nostalgia, even nurture it, but still rejoice, because at the end of the day, all these places are a part of me, and they make my world so much bigger and richer. It's a bitter sweet statement, but truth is that all things considered, if I were given the choice between staying put in the same place and not having to deal with some of the heart break mentioned here, or doing it the same way all over again, I would still go for the second option. So, it would look as if this is the right choice for me, after all (unless I'm just a nutcase-sucker-for-pain, of course, but we're not gonna go there, today).

And I can also look forward to the day when I'm able to control my time a little better so I can actually stay in once place until I've had my fill, and then move to another, and start all over again. Or is that just another illusion?


Jo Ann von Haff said...

I understand you well !
When I arrived in France I was telling myself I had to find a place to live after !
But now... I just have this great love for France and Montpellier and I don't feel like moving back and forth like I have been since I was a newborn. I feel I could have some roots for a moment... and I felt safe for the first time in a long time...

Katia said...

I'm glad you found a place where you feel good, and safe, Jo Ann. I can think of worse places than Montpellier to grow some roots. Seems to me you chose well. Until... :)

Jo Ann von Haff said...

Yeah, until... What do I know ? :-D

Vijaya said...

Katia, I understand your torn feeling ... and now that I feel thoroughly settled (I mean, we actually bought a house and some furniture) I feel so much more ... grounded.

Yes, you do leave a bit of your heart in the places you've been, but you're also richer for it ... I know I'd make all the same choices again.

Good luck with the move.

Valentina Acava Mmaka said...

Wow this post I could have write it as it fully represents my feelings Katia, especially now that I'm soon going to be an expat again. As maybe you knew from Facebook I accepted and decided to moove to Tanzania with lots of projects to get involved in. Actually my daughters are all happy about the moove and very curious as usually kids are. Of course they will see big changes but they all know how beautiful it is to see the world from different eyes, to know that there is not only one way to live, to dress, to pray, to eat, to play, to dance, etc.... I believe they percept what we feel, if we as parents we are not happy they also aren't so... also about the move is like that. Anyway I'm curious about the book you mention. What are the main points if you can sumarize them?
Do you already know your destination?

Katia said...

Thank you, Vijaya, for stopping by. It's important, isn't it? To know that we'd make the same choices again? I prefer that to maybe a life without so much turmoil, but knowing that you run the risk of having regrets, later...
No move at the horizon, for now. We're still waiting to know...

Katia said...

Hey, Valentina! So, you chose Tanzania over India? For some reason, and even though I don't know you, I'm not surprised. As for children, I suppose they get used to moving around as small kids. Things get harder when they reach the teenage years, though. Friends become so important, and following parents around is no longer fun. At least, that's what I read and hear. I'm not there, yet. Good luck with the installation in Tanzania. Do keep in touch... And no, we don't know where we're going next, nor when... Agh !

Katia said...

Sorry, Valentina, I forgot. The book I mention is "Third Culture Kids," by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken. If you haven't read it, you must. It's the bible of expat parents. And Robin Pascoe is the expats' guru - Robin, if you read this, I know you'll laugh :)

valentina acava mmaka said...

Thank's Katia, yes Africa is in my DNA and I 'm so happy about it evn though I know I'll find difficultuies to face. About the book, once I'll be out of here I'll try to get it as well as yours. Yes it's true when children are small everything is easier when you travel. I think the right age to start getting used to changes is within 10/11. A first big change at 12-14 it's very hard. I remember when I came from South Africa I was 14, and was a big shock. I think my daughters (and yours too) are in the right age to adapt themselves to the new and to get all the advantages of the new experience. Also nowadays it's much easy to leave and continue getting in touch with people and also job activities thank's to internet. At my times wasn't there.
cheers Valentina:))

Janet Brown said...

Dear Katia--
I just finished reading your encouraging comments on my return to Bkk--then came here to read your essay, which so wonderfully articulates the ambivalent feelings of being a global nomad.
I am devoutly hoping that your next move keeps you in Asia--if not bringing you to Thailand!

Katia said...

Janet, wherever you are, and wherever I end up, I have a feeling that we'll manage to meet. If only because we both really, really want it to happen :)

Shalin said...

Being that I'm from NY as well, and considering moving to india, how did you like your stay?
I actually just blogged about my own Pros and Cons

Please feel free to comment on it.

rilla said...

hey katia,
great post. i know how you feel. i've been roving all my life, and just the sight of a moving truck getting loaded up with boxes makes my stomach full of butterflies with the excitement...even when they're not my boxes!

and, every time i've moved...i've never looked back. sure, i've missed people here and there but that's it. and people you can stay in touch with, even chat with at midnight on facebook. and, yes, all those experiences have enriched my life. i wouldn't change a thing.

however, something has happened to this the most hardened of gypsies. i've found a place i don't want to leave, at least not for a long time. i didn't think it could ever happen. i felt like i was searching for that perfect place and that that's what my life would be...the search. but now i'm here and actually feeling 'settled' for once in my life, i wonder how it could have happened, and why. could it be that i'm just growing old? ha ha...or...could it be that for the first time in my life i am...yes, i'm going to say it...really happy. and that, i hope, will last for a long while ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks you for visiting my blog. I agree entirely with what you have written. I read somewhere (can't remember who said it) that when you move around a lot you place your root outwards instead of downwards, and that makes sense to me. Two years is generally long enough for me in any given place, but every time I go back to Paris I find it harder to leave again. That might be my place, one day.