Monday, November 9, 2009

The road less traveled


As expats, do we build or do we skim?

I’ll be visiting the US this week, always an occasion for reflection on the road not taken (Frost).  Friends have homes and families, wrestle with empty nests, careers, retirement plans: the lives of friends and colleagues following the leftward branch.   I have pictures and experiences, wrestling language training, business creation, and residency permits along the rightward path. 

And we’ll all laugh and lift a glass to the contrasts.

I’ve been through a  succession of locations, experiences, leases,  and friends: a wonderful voyage, but what lasting qualities am I building?  Is life becoming simpler for having a bicycle, or degenerating for no longer having a car?  Are my relationships richer for their greater diversity and for having  wider scope of discoveries to share, or fatally weakened by distance?  And where does the journey finally end: there are no old expats.

Peter Callesen - Holdingontomyself I love what I’ve been doing, and can’t imagine trading away the opportunities around me.  But sometimes, and especially when I visit life-as-it-was, it can feel out-of-step, insubstantial.  I start reflecting on it during the plane rides, doubting over morning coffee.  It’s probably a useful check on impulse, but the question still nags: am I building, or just skimming?

Paper cutting by Peter Callesen – Holding onto myself (2006)


Unknown said...

No old expats? Ive been here over 20 yrs, others I know approaching 50 yrs. Perhaps we are quiet so as not to spoil new adventures. But having said that, looking homeward, going home again or indeed knowing where home is becomes the immpossible question, from the perspective of the lesser road I am enjoying your narrative.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks, Tay, I appreciate the thoughts. There's always an element of stepping between lives when going home and seeing friends and families again, even moreso when the two lives are different and diverging. I hadn't thought about the over-50 aspect of it: I think that you may be right that watching my children making their way adds another dimension as a new empty-nester.

Unknown said...

I intended to say that one remains an expat (other) regardless of how many year abroad.Many years word perfect and yet at different levels not understood. With a sense of humor and humility we find ourselves married to and parents of aliens, and I fear the reverse is also valid.
As the single parent of a Dutch daughter(19)we are often at cutural crossroads, but we positively choose to live in the Netherlands

Dave Hampton said...

Great points, thanks. It's a good perspective: I think that I've had so many personal and professional transitions this year that I lost that view. It's easy to wearily see "change" as "loss", and to occasionally wonder if I've sacrificed too much along the way.

Textual Healer said...

Tay's comments are very valid- I think there will always be a sense of dislocation for me (even if I were to retur). I wonder if it is solely / primarily related to language? Does an American who moves from Wyoming to say Texas as much as one who moves to say Australia? Or a German who moves a few miles across the border to the Netherlands? Its one reason why ex-pats do gather together.
One book worth reading that explores the gaps bewteen settlers and travellers is Narciss and Goldman by Herman Hesse. It explores the benefits and downsides of each path (in this case chosen by two school friends) and the tensions and synergies this can give rise to. Worth a read while these thoughts are in your mind?

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Nick: I hadn't considered a relationship to language. Born in the Midwest, I moved to the South for college where the accent is almost foreign: while it hindered understanding, I didn't find the experience alienating. Similarly, I disengage from the Dutch around me when I'm not making the effort to understand it, but don't feel liike I stand outside as a result.

I get these feelings most intensely when encountering people continuing to lead the life I left in places that were most familiar to me. Feelings run the spectrum from "what if this were me" to "what have I done" pretty quickly.

I read some summaries of the Hesse work and it looks really interesting: I'll see if I can find a copy before I leave the US. Thanks for the tip!

Unknown said...

"Im A Stranger here Myself"
by Bill Bryson (notes on returning to America after 20 years away)
English wife and children in tow.
I made the same attempt after 15 years away, small daughter and ancient siamese in tow.
Bills back (UK) and so are we(NL) and willy the siamese is under a tree in the garden.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks for the additional suggestion, it's now on my list. I have seen Bryson in the stores and will be in England in a week or so where I know I'll find it.

I have been to one antiquarian and one university library here, who both had the Hesse text, but both in Dutch only. Holding out for the UK version there as well...

Many thanks, Dave