Friday, April 3, 2009

Partitioning life into compartments


During a recent visit to the US, a friend asked what it felt like to come back after having lived abroad for so long.  It’s a difficult question: my closest answer is that it feels most like the feeling that I used to have when I went back to visit my parents.

I always have a sense of deep familiarity for people and settings when I go back: this is where I worked on projects, raised a family, sailed boats.  At the same time, my memories are now frozen in the past, so I notice all of the little things that have changed; a tree that fell over the winter, a new store in town, the way that the kids next door have grown. It’s odd to wave to neighbors once a quarter, catching up with their gradual changes in single, occasional jumps.

Similarly, people ask how I cope with the travel, do I get disoriented by the time changes, do I miss having a big house, how do I stay on the correct side of the road in England.

I think that I adapt by doing a lot of partitioning. 

When I am in the Netherlands, my life here is the most real to me.  I have work, an apartment, Dutch shopping habits that are unique to this location.  Dropping into the US, I have a different house, car, and friends.  In the UK, things change again: I drive on the left and drink Guinness in the college bar and make familiar plans to attend Evensong.

For me, at these times, each of these settings is a simple, immediate reality. Just as I change my wallet to have local currency and credit cards, or pack clothes appropriate for local weather and customs, I also connect directly to the local place and people, disconnecting from distant alternatives.

MaatrichtIt’s hard to describe; I tried to sort it through last night. I was sitting by the river last night watching the familiar flow of traffic and boats against the accustomed shops and restaurants of Maastricht.  Six months ago it was sp foreign; now it’s just ‘everyday’.  I’ve made a holistic mental transition that makes this city familiar and comfortable to me, assimilating places and peoples, rituals and routines.  Maybe frequent travel speeds up that process; I don’t hold onto familiar places as tightly, or assimilate new environments more quickly.

On the down side,  there’s certainly a disconnection from calling any single place “home”.  I don’t ‘nest’ after selecting housing, and I’ve grown used scattering my 14 boxes of possessions across furniture that isn’t mine. There are pictures on my walls of people that I don’t know, smiling together in places I’ve never been.

I just compartmentalize them out.

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