WHEN LIFE IS ELSEWHERE: NOTES OF AN EX-EXPAT
About a year ago, a pungent article appeared in The Wall Street Journal with the title, “What Makes the Expat Lifestyle So Addictive?” Having myself lived, beginning in the late 1980s, through almost a decade in various European countries, I knew what the author, Rashmi Dalai, was talking about. The 65,000 readers who shared the article on Facebook obviously knew as well. I imagine that many of them had experienced life as an expat, while perhaps others, for whom it was a “yet”, yearned for it.
As a fairly small child in Los Angeles in the 1960s, I yearned for it already. Books, and later, movies lured me with images of faces and landscapes I had never seen in the flesh, but considered better, more beautiful and certainly more intelligent than those around me. Perhaps I missed the point of Los Angeles and Hollywood--that they constitute a place where elsewhere can be imported and reconstructed, as in the numerous Tudor houses from the 1930s--among many other foreign styles-- one sees on certain streets. Or perhaps I understood the point too well, sensing that such houses were not the real thing: I wanted the real thing, and that, for me, meant England.
My favorite movies as an eight- to eleven-year-old (1965 to 1968) were British: the incomparable, mostly black and white cinema verite of directors such as John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey. My matinee idols were not Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but Julie Christie and Terence Stamp, Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Harvey. This precocious, peculiarly specific taste informed the books I read, the dollhouses I constructed, the book reports I wrote, and the fantasies I shaped.
At 29, living in New York, I had the means and the will to make these dreams come true, and to Anglophilia, I had added a new obsession with German language and culture, especially the anarchic movies, in the ‘eighties, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. With facility in both French and German I was ready to relaunch myself in Europe. This spree was to last seven years, and took me to London, Glasgow and Cologne, with first study, then freelance writing work in all three cities.
Looking back, I see that what was going on in my psyche was not so much the quest for European bohemia--bohemia was plentiful in the East Village of the ‘80s--but the desire for a new national identity more appropriate to my misfit personality. I tried on English, then Scottish, finally German. All were exciting, like fantastically gorgeous and expensive clothes that not only fit perfectly, but seemed to transform me. I had never felt American--I still don’t-- but I ignored the fact that hailing from Los Angeles, from the conjured country of Hollywood-- had created the perfect tabula rasa soul with which to take on new identities, new histories. People from L.A. think everything can be bought, including a new lease on life, which many of us purchase over and over again, like Hollywood actors taking on a fresh persona with each new movie. Living abroad is like a face-lift that slowly, glacially, starts to sag as the years away from home wear on.
Dalai quotes Ernest Hemingway’s diagnosis of expats:
“You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
There weren’t many cafes in either the U.K. or Germany, not of the kind we associate with Paris, but about drinking and sex, I agree with Hemingway. Unmoored from the strictures of Home, where we have family and reputation to preserve, the expat becomes profligate and uninhibited, sometimes losing all.
A friend once said to me, “You don’t travel, you just move places.” Binding oneself and one’s furniture to a foreign country is an experience entirely different from, and, I would say, more exciting than travel. No matter how bad things got during my tenure in Europe, with a long writer’s visa stamped on my passport, I felt free, having sprung the trap of my own ambivalent identity. Living abroad was indeed a drug, a dream, above all, an escape. If the countries I moved to did not match those I saw in movies, no matter, for I felt the adrenaline rush Dalai describes just speaking a foreign language (or pretentiously accented English).
Dalai comments on the diversity, nowadays, of expats: no longer all artists and writers, some are even corporate carpetbaggers:
“It is impossible to make a sweeping statement about the thousands of expats around the world. Some go abroad to escape poor economies, while others want international experience on their resumes. Some are backpacker-like explorers of culture, and there are the opportunists after the corporate package and domestic staff.”
I suppose I should fall into the “explorer of culture” tribe, yet I was not truly an explorer. I lazily left many precious stones of culture unturned, so absorbed was I in the private drama I imported to new lands and lovers. We take ourselves with us wherever we go; our encounter with the Other entails the discovery of familiarity within strangeness, old demons in new national costumes.
Dalai also writes, “[A]cross all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”
When, at 36, I finally went home, I knew at last that New York City, of all the places I’d lived, is the most accepting of eccentrics: every oddball enfranchised, a democracy of difference. I marched its streets as a citizen: rent-stabilized, sovereign, and free-- here--to reinvent myself: for real.
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