In plainest terms, expatriate 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.
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.
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.