In expatria: forbidden fruit

Saturday, January 17, 2015 9 Permalink 13

It’s been well over four years now. Did most of you realize that better than me? Four years. It went by fast, 10% of my life to date lived in France, and there is no end in sight. We intend to grow old and die here, so the reckoning is becoming quite acute of what it means to be who I am here, as opposed to who I am anywhere else.

This is it. The major discoveries are behind me. There are going to be few high-profile surprises from now on. The learning has gotten noticeably more subtle. I know the score by now: culture, language, landscape, seasons. And so I can see more clearly now the place and people with whom I have chosen to continue. These are my people. This is my place.

And at the same time it is clear by now that I will never be one of them, only here among them, on the land but not of it, in the culture and steeping in it by the year, but never to be fully fused with it in my being like a native.

I have never been more grateful to be married to one who is like me. At least we are here together. And I think it is some small insight into why perhaps after all these years Mkm chose me, was ready for me. I did not realize until years into it that one of the impulses I now know was at work was the simple fact of being alike, of being American men of a certain sympathetic class who are loose and wandering on this globe. Now we wander together, and it is much nicer for both of us.

Yesterday I attended my French lesson for the first time since getting sick. I am still under the weather but getting out, even on a cold misty damp day, did me much good.

This is a journal however about the more interior journey, that as described above of choosing to live as an expat indefinitely, which is to say as a stranger in a strange land always. It is an overtly Faustian bargain, because to know a new place you have to leave the old one, and if you ever do return, the first seems as foreign as the second. Once the eyes of your eyes have been opened, they cannot be closed again. You are forever to be the odd man out in all places, to walk the earth a misfit, but also perhaps with truly sage insights which cannot be gained any other way. Odd has its place, and benefits for the group. But it is not an entirely easy role to play.

At the table yesterday in the teacher’s home not far from here, we sat looking out the large glass windows of the solarium living room through the trees onto the ancestral house of her husband’s family, which is under renovation.

That is not atypical here, to live beside the house where you grew up; the sense of place runs infinitely deep. The family stays rooted in place, inextricable from the land. This family did live elsewhere, in Orléans for a time, and even briefly abroad, but they have returned to the ancestral stead and their daughter is renovating the old house with her husband for yet another generation to persist on those grounds.

The two family houses are separated by a small orchard of truly immense apple trees. We were served the pressings of this year’s apples from those trees.

Now that is the kind of gracious living we came here for and aspire to.

The lesson began with a round-robin reading of the French Wikipédia article on le gateau de roi. Tis still the season. A fève modeled on Donald Duck’s head and a gold paper crown were passed around the table as cultural artifacts.

Having been a child at some point in my lifelong wanderings in the elementary schools of New Orleans and Grand Isle, I knew all about this tradition. Riffing from it into the broader issues, I proved most helpful in a compare and contrast of American remnants of France (Acadia, Haiti, the wars, the voodoo, the balconies thrown in) versus French native tradition (which believes sometimes as a matter of unquestioning superiority that it has always been so, the Universal Progenitrix), and the information that has actually passed both ways between hemispheres over time, mutually informing, not just one direction.

I mean, Donald Duck, for godsake. And anyway, le Bébé has become a mere secular Jesus-hating bean? Really, a Burger King crown? That technology is borrowed from us, non? Oh non, Monsieur, this paper crown of the Magi was borrowed first by your King of Burgers from us, you know. The tradition of a paper crown is ancient beyond drive-thrus.

And so it went along, our class yesterday in that beautiful room. I know a lot about this stuff, actually. I’m sure it is a bore to some, but this group seemed at least to find it useful for practicing live conversation.

There was an English couple present whom I had met before at such classes – younger than me, an electrician and his wife, a school teacher. They are behind me in French language, but their beauty and zeal is commanding. And they have each other in the class and for the after-class debriefing on the drive home. They will surpass me quickly.

And also they are English, and this is where the conversation took aim at me. Because, well, as much as the French and English revile each other, they are both still acutely aware that they are more like each other than either are like the Americans.

We Americans (which could be expanded to include all New Worlders or even just all colonials everywhere) are, truly, a breed apart. And there I sat alone with my torch – my liberty torch, if you will. Bombastic. Loud. Over-gesticulating. Swilling. Absolute (yet inconstant).

Between us, Mkm and I have counted 47 discrete moves of address, or déménagements. This fact was deployed late as a coup-de-grace in the fight to defend an entire type of person which also happens to be me, and it had its usual effect. A loud collective gasp rose from all present, followed by a quick reconfirmation that I had not just misspoken some tricky numerals in French. And then the electrician said, Wow, we really are more alike, we English and French, than either of us are like you. He laid out three zones with his hands on the tablecloth. We are over here, and you people are something else, way over there.

As if that were not already obvious.

I remember when I was much younger, after I had traveled relatively far but before my mother had, I tried to explain to her a miracle I had discovered in my first long forays in to the world which might help her not to fear travel so much. It was this: how little there was to a change of place. I wanted her not to be afraid of the unknown, because it all is already known, in a way.

Rain streaking across the window of a train looks the very same in India as it does in France, I said to her. Blades of grass, leaves on trees, books on shelves almost invariably, with only very minor variations, look identical to the ones you knew in the place you call home.

When you are cold, you pull on a sweater. When you are hot, you turn on a fan or drink a glass of water – out of some type of glass, sometimes even the exact same kind of glass you have at home in your own cupboard. This is particularly true in the age of Ikea. You will find that coffee cups in a hostel in Berlin will be the same exact cups in China and Brazil. And you will find that taking a shower, no matter how small the stall and no matter how petty the plumbing or the language written on the faucets (C means chaud in France, and that means hot), and no matter how exotic the soap smells, is really just taking a shower, the same as you always have. Lather, rinse, repeat. The basic mundane facts of existence hold stable no matter how far you move on the globe.

So even though travel is a radical undertaking – climbing foreign mountains, traversing far seas, learning new languages – in another way it can be fundamentally disappointing, or rather more optimistically put it can instill a sense of inescapable baseline bedrock of stability. No matter where you go, there you are, as they say.

The place where you stand, no matter where it is, has a way of seeming familiar very quickly. Even very strange places. Even when you are not standing but just passing through in a great hurry. Nothing really changes. Up is up, down is down, plants reach into the soil and up to the sky, the wind sweeps your hair into your eyes and mouth, you feel hunger when you need to eat, you get headaches staring too long into the sun, which is actually the very same sun, ditto the moon, and you still have to wait for the tea to cool.

But there is another side to travel which as I have grown older I have come to appreciate as the exact complement of the fearlessness that comes with trusting the absolute baseline of the mundane. It is perhaps the logic that comes from being experienced too much in the mundane and so able to distinguish subtler shades of everyday experience. It is the product of long living in many places, long enough to really know them, and to know myself in them. And there is the flipside: It really does matter where you are.

This is ironic in that it was perhaps the same clingy-fearful logic that I was trying to assuage in my mother so long ago, so that the beginning and the end are really the same point of homesickness amid exotica. You travel so long and then one day you realize you have lost your way back home, in as much as there is nowhere to which to return, no origin, no first place.

Living as an expat can bring this to weigh on you sometimes tearfully in an abrupt bout of – let us not say homesickness, but let us say instead awareness of displacement, of outsider status, of fragmentation. Because they also say that to know two is to know one for the first time. That is, you cannot really know completely what an apple is until you have tasted an orange to which to compare it by similarity and contrast. We learn by differentiations of multiplicities, and the more of those you engage, the more fragmented you become.

If you live in one place all your life, you will know it very very well – in shades of distinction that no foreigner can discern, and in that way a microcosm of the whole wide world in your limited experience. But you may not be able to see it fully in other ways as a stranger can, with his arsenal of comparisons, because the wall you have always stared at and taken shelter beside is after all just a wall – indeed, often the wall.

But if you have known many walls, in many rooms, in many buildings in many countries, then you can notice certain unique things about the wall by which you sleep on this particular night. But just by staring at that wall and thinking such knowing thoughts, you must reflexively remember all of the other walls at once which this wall is not.

It can feel a bit like a panic. You can never have them all. No matter where you are, you will always know and imagine and miss and long for all the other places where you are not. The grass is always greener is not exactly an apt metaphor – no doubt you prefer to be exactly where you are, or you would find a way to be in the other place at that moment.

But however choice and verdant your current pasture, it does not put an end to the longing. There is no resignation to one place forsaking all others. To know two is to know one for the first time, and you can never unknow either of them in comparison after that – and you repeat this process fractally, exponentially, as your horizons expand.

In doing so, you have learned something terrible, and it breaks you apart, so that sometimes tears can come for no reason, wondering whether a certain mimosa tree is still standing by a porch you have not visited since childhood, or whether the water of a mountain lake still shimmers with the first sunlight through a high pass where you slept on many spring hikes – your place, your tree, your water, a spring when you were more alive than ever. And yet they are nothing to do with you now, only memories. It may occur to you that it is 10h30 in Rome or 4h30 Mexico City at this moment, and time for afternoon tea, but it is still local time where you are. You must bow to that loss.

That is I hope a way of tapping into every person’s experience to better express to them the nature of being an expat fulltime. It is this familiar sensation of fragmentation and displacement writ large 1000 times every hour, nonstop day after day, so that there is no here and now, eventually, but really just shifting sand, shifting molecules which out of convenience we call the present, but which have no meaning in the next moment we will also call the present. We are here, but we will be there, to be here. We were then, but are now, and will be then in the next now.

An expat is in that way never home, yet always home, always traveling toward the next home, to miss where he is now. There is no home, there are only the in betweens, the comparisons, the apples and the oranges in sequence, an inability to unlearn either, an inability to taste both at the same time.

Crows land in our driveway in the afternoons to look for seed and pebbles out in the open lane between the lines of sycamores. The rosy light comes in through the colonnade of trees from the right, from my vantage point in the windows of the house, and causes their slick black feathers to turn bright white in the reflection. They are like silver birds, then, statues of birds, quicksilver mercurial birds, no longer here now but on a beach in Florida, or in the hayfields in Tennessee, or on fenceposts in Minais Gerais, or picking through the remains of a morning market in Bangalore, or on the broken clay rooftop of an unrenovated back street in Chicxulub. I can’t see them and keep them here in our allée. They materialize into other places before my eyes. All those places at once, a freewheeling kaleidoscope of being actually nowhere, really.

I must be getting very old. This does not feel exactly tired, but just slipping out of place involuntarily, like a joint that won’t stay in socket and hold my weight anymore. What I do know is the next right thing to do. We must cultivate our fruit trees here on this farm and press that fruit into juice to serve at a table one day with students of language and culture who share with us in our Faustian bargain. We need them, those trees, and the fruit, and also the companions on that mercurial tree-lined drive.