Nowhere Man

July 14th, 2003 | | 2 Comments »

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Nowhere Man

Tom Mueller

I suffer from a benign form of schizophrenia, which began on 17 September 1986. On that day, a little under half my life ago, I left my native United States and moved to England. The plan was to earn a two-year degree at Oxford, where I had chanced on a scholarship, then return. But two years stretched to three, after which I went to Seville to study classical guitar, worked in London and then in Berlin shortly after the Wall, and traveled in Latin America. In 1993 I moved to Italy, where I have lived ever since.

Silently, by degrees, something inside me has changed. Mind you, I am still an American. I have the frumpy blue passport with the gold eagle on it, and feel no need of another. I still eat boxed cereal for breakfast, root loudly for U.S. athletes in the Olympics, believe in the merit of a meritocracy, and harbor a vaguely puritanical faith in the cleansing o=power of strenuous exercise. Certainly, I am no Italian. I have poor taste in clothes, a violent aversion to siestas, and still cannot manage spaghetti without a mess. Yet with time, parts of me have come to feel very much at home here. It now seems more natural to address dogs and small children in Italian, I find I sleep better in structures built of ancient stone. And while I still convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in my head, snap judgments of cost, length and weight now come in euros, meters, kilos, When I travel to the States these days, I’ve begun to feel a peculiar sense of foreignness, a disjunction not only from the America of my childhood but from America as I stubbornly imagine it to be. I wander like a lost soul through malls and supermarkets, scurry like a hunted animal in my squat ’79 hatchback among the threatening herds of SUVs, sit bewildered before a TV full of 298 unfamiliar transmissions, clicking feebly. I am not Italian, not completely American anymore, neither fish nor fowl, but somewhere in between: an amphibian, a hybrid being. I am an expatriate.

In plainest terms, expatriates are those who live for a significant period of time ex patria, outside their native land. They aren’t travelers, for they establish a new home elsewhere, as travelers do not. Nor are they emigrants, who embrace their new home as their only home: naturalizing, creating another life, and rarely looking back. Expats settle in a new homeland, yet maintain some spiritual link with their country of birth, and often intend, however hypothetically, to return there someday. It is the tension between birthplace and new homeland that muddles things so badly – and makes them so interesting.

“The inhabitants … lead the most miserable existence of all mankind”, wrote a homesick Roman senator, sent as governor to a remote imperial outpost on the Danube, almost two millenniums ago. “For they cultivate no olives, and they drink no wine.” The expatriate is not a new species. As long as there have been large empires and long-distance trade, there have been people living abroad for long periods. Ancient Egyptian soldiers garrisoned beyond the Euphrates, the Jews of the Babylonian Exile, and Venetian merchants in their trading colonies in Byzantium were all, by any reasonable definition, expatriates. Yet until about 1914, the term frequently had a negative edge, which cut both ways. The expat lived in outer darkness, and yearned to return home to true Civilization. Even if he adored the place, he always felt somewhat of an exile. “High noon behind the tamarisks – the sun is hot above us,” wrote Kipling of his beloved India, “As at Home the Christmas day is breaking wan. They will drink our healths at dinner – those who tell us how they love us, and forget us till another year be gone!”

World War I changed all that. It brutally redrew the map of Europe, sweeping away old allegiances and a great many patriotic preconceptions. Paris of the 1920s was the haven of a different kind of expatriate – James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and the Lost Generation – who enthusiastically embraced foreignness and were not entirely unhappy to be out of step with their homelands.

Today, rampant globalism means you don’t have to be a bohemian artist or a child of empire to be an expat. It happens to tens of thousands of teachers, pilots, housewives, and oilfield engineers each year. People expatriate for all kinds of reasons. Some follow their careers or move to escape danger, misery, or plain boredom in their homelands. Others are drown to something new and alluring abroad –to serve a humanitarian cause, to find their roots, to find themselves. Still others begin life as expatriates, born of expatriate or two-culture unions. “Expatriate” has become less an external value judgment and more existential: a highly personal set of traits, perceptions, and associations that expats, for all their differences in background an outlook, often share.

Such as peanut butter. As an American I will always love the stuff, and I don’t know a right-minded person born outside of the United States who can stomach it. Food has long been one of the touchstones of the expatriate condition. The British and their Marmite, the Romans and their olives and wine, Adam and Eve and their apple – people have their signature foods for which they pine while abroad, and which to them signify the homeland. Conversely, the expatriate’s growing attachment to local foods and eating styles is a sure sign of settling. Nine years in Italy have changed my culinary habits dramatically. Spaghetti alla carbonara and gnocchi alla romana have edged out mashed potatoes and huevos rancheros as my quintessential comfort foods. My culinary clock has been reset: My stomach doesn’t start rumbling until 8 p.m., later in the summer. When I return to the United States, it seems strange to start with the salad, to drink flat tap water in great beakers piled high with ice, to find sugar everywhere –in tomato sauce, margarine, even my beloved peanut butter (in fact, I now prefer the un-sugared Danish brand I buy in Italy).

After a taste of another world, some people simply cannot return. Burton Anderson, arguably the world’s foremost authority on Italian wine and cuisine, was raised in the little town of Mahtomedi, Minnesota. His move to Italy in 1962 was the beginning of what he calls his “gastronomical enlightenment.” “Once I got into eating and drinking in Italy (and subsequently France), I had no desire to return to my roots.”

Nowadays, when traveling in the United States he misses the rich diversity of art, architecture, dialects, history – and of course food and wine – that he treasures in Italy. “I don’t consider moving back to America,” he says. “My home is here.” But does he think of himself as Italian? “My word, no,” he laughs. American? “Not entirely. I guess you could say I’m a man without a country.” Unlike our Roman senator, Anderson seems to delight in his rootlessness.

Another crucial barometer of the expatriate condition is language. Proficiency in a foreign tongue eases your interaction with the locals. With time, as proficiency becomes fluency, language also determines to what extent you may seem like a local yourself. After nine years here, I speak Italian well enough to be mistaken for a native speaker. And yet there are times (and there always will be) when a bookish turn of phrase, or an outright blunder, still unmasks me. I feel like a slightly colorblind chameleon, never quite sure how well I’m blending in. And even when no one else in the room knows my secret, it’s always with me: I’m forever waiting to be found out.

New foods, new words, a new you: Stripping away the woolly layers of habit and prejudice can be invigorating. Like living at high altitude, one’s vision seems preternaturally sharp, and mundane details emerge – the width and texture of sidewalks, the sound of the wind in unfamiliar trees, the uniquely local smell of woodsmoke – that escaped notice back home. At the same time, there is a sense of a broader perspective on human society. “As an expatriate, one feels rather above the fray,” observes Mark De Groot, an Oxford theoretical physicist turned venture capitalist who was born in South Africa and is now based in Montréal. “One begins to see the customs of any given country as rather arbitrary, and that while these customs serve a civic good – amongst other things, by building a sense of community – there is nothing absolute about them.”

But like life at high altitude, all this clarity and detachment can leave you gasping for oxygen. “ For the first six moths I was in Paris,” remembers John Rossant, Paris-based Europe editor of Business Week and a 20-year expat, “I walked to work each day thinking ‘There’s the Eiffel Tower, the Seine – this is faaaabulous!’ Then one morning I woke up in deepest depression, thinking, ‘I live here.’” It wasn’t home sickness, but the sudden realization that he had to build a new life here, which brought on this bout of melancholy. Francesca Kelly, who edits an expatriate e-zine as she leapfrogs from posting to posting with her foreign-service husband, agrees. “I have gotten used to the fact that for a good six months to a year after moving, I’m out of sorts, perhaps even clinically depressed, before I fall in love with a new country.”

Six months into my English stay, as I stood surveying my college quadrangle and feeling a bit adrift, the entire landscape – the medieval spires, the drifting mist of the fountain, the undergrads milling on the green lawn – suddenly went pale blue, as if someone were fiddling with my color settings. This dreary, disembodied sensation of seeing the world through tinted lenses lasted about a month – my own miniature version of Picasso’s Blue Phase. Then the flesh tones returned, and I got on with the business of living.

Even the most sheltered expatriates – corporate and military personnel on brief foreign postings – may be in for a shock when they go home. “The expatriate life can change you forever,” says Robin Pascoe, popular expatriate author and Web publisher. “And produce a sense of permanent loss when you repatriate.”

Or as novelist Tomas Wolfe put it, when he left his little North Carolina home for New York City and never recaptured that small-town warmth, You Can’t Go Home Again.

The operative term here is home. Depression often means the expat has begun to probe this crucial concept and to sense just how relative, how fragile, it actually is. Home, for example, may not be where you were born. This fluid sense of home is pronounced for Michael Nkambo Mugerwa, chemical engineer and entrepreneur, and probably the most absolute expatriate I know. Born in Holland of a Dutch mother and Ugandan father, he grew up on his father’s ranch outside Kampala. At age 16, as the regime of Idi Amin reached its murderous nadir, he continued his schooling in England. (Predictably, one of the most vivid memories of his new homeland is culinary: the fragrant bounty of British eggs, bacon, sausages, and toast after the maggot-laced porridge and weevil-ridden beans of Ugandan school fare.) Since then he has lived and worked around the globe, “going where the winds of life blow me.” He switches effortlessly between English, Dutch, Italian, and several other languages. He is transnationalism incarnate: His skin is cocoa-colored, his facial features a striking blend of African and European, as are his thoughts and his musical tastes and even his name.

When asked what home means to him, he answers with a list of the places he’s lived and what he likes most about each: Holland for its cultural openness, Uganda for family values and unspoiled nature, England for the pubs, Italy for its dramatic flair, and most recently the United States for the sense of freedom it gives him. “And of course it’s the people in each place,” he concludes, “the family and key friends which make a point on the map feel like home.”

The ancient Greeks told the story of Persephone, radiant and high-spirited daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, who while picking wildflowers one sunny day was abducted by a love-struck Hades, god of the underworld, and brought down to his palace deep in the earth. There she sat on her dark throne, refusing to speak (and thus, perhaps, circumventing the language barrier). She was eventually freed, but, predictably, she’d been undone by food: While Down Under she’d eaten a pomegranate seed, which meant that she had to return there for part of each year, when here distraught mother ignores the crops and winter reigns on earth.

The Greeks who told this myth were sun-and-surf-loving people, for whom exile was a fate almost as bitter as death. They made dismal expatriates, and paint Persephone’s plight in correspondingly dark, tragic colors. But who’s to say that Persephone herself didn’t feel at home in the hall of shadows, with her cool and doting husband, or out of sorts when she returned (repatriated?) to the noise and confusion of the surface? That, as she sweltered in the oppressive heat of a Greek summer, she didn’t secretly look forward to her upcoming time far away, amid the whispers and bright gemstones of another world?

We all have a home in our head – part memory, part fantasy, part projection of self – where we feel “grounded,”  where we can let down our guard and be more fully ourselves. But expats have a unique recipe for rootedness, regardless of their location: a highly personal blend of people, language, religion, music, and old stone structures real and imagined. The result is home, which, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Tom Mueller is a contributing editor for Hemispheres and author of the forthcoming novel Subterranea. He lives in the Liguria region of northern Italy.

2 Comments on “Nowhere Man”

  1. 1 alex castro said at 15:30 on December 3rd, 2009:

    sensacional. eh isso msm. por isso q sempre falo q sou expatriado, nao imigrante, mas nunca tinha visto tao bem definido assim

  2. 2 Manuel Carreiro said at 03:56 on December 4th, 2009:

    O mais engraçado é me sentir um expatriado de volta à minha própria terra natal… tenho muitos lares dentro de mim.

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