“You will never be completely at home again,” said author Miriam Adeney, “because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
This is true of nearly everyone I know, especially my fellow Americans; we move an average of eleven times during our lives, leaving family and friends scattered in our wakes from coast to coast — and for the eight million of us living overseas, nation to nation.
In interviews I’m often asked, “What is the hardest part of being an expat?” And I always explain that it’s saying goodbye to so many people I hold dear. Going back and forth between the US and Spain involves the sweet sorrow of many partings. And by definition, expats from every nation are inclined to seek geographic solutions to problems with life and jobs. Now there are digital nomads who work over the Internet and move on whenever their 90-day tourist visas expire, exploring the world as they build online careers. All too often, when I’ve met someone congenial and begin to wonder if this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, my new pal announces she’s moving next week to Switzerland, Vietnam, or New Zealand. When I first arrived in Seville, an American who’d lived there for decades asked how long I was staying, adding honestly, “Because if you’re just here for the short term, I don’t want to get attached!”
Back in those early days as an expat, I felt deep confusion over the word “home.” Did it apply to Seville, where I spent most of my time? To California, where I was born and did much of my growing up? To Cleveland, where Rich and I lived for 20 years? I had always thought of home as a physical center point: the base camp from which I explored the world, the kitchen where I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, the cave to which I retreated to lick my wounds when disaster struck in jobs or relationships or world events. Six years ago in Seville, we were hosting Thanksgiving dinner for 20 friends from half a dozen countries, and after dessert, one little girl left the table and ran up and down my hallway shouting, “It’s great to be alive! It’s great to be alive!” And I thought A) she’s right, and B) this truly is home.
But Rich and I also spend a good chunk of each year, about four months, in San Anselmo, California. We don’t want to become disconnected from our family and friends — or our culture; America is something you have to stay in practice for, and we don’t want to lose our touch. But dividing each year between two places can get confusing. In the early days, I used to feel a faint, nagging disloyalty to my Seville life whenever I referred to San Anselmo as “home.” But the longer I live and travel abroad, the more I realize that going out into the world isn’t about abandoning home, it’s about expanding our definition of it.
I have friends who live in gated communities and exist in a state of constant, low-grade fear of everyone outside the walls. It’s as if they had chosen to retreat to a medieval fortress and worried, every time the drawbridge went down, that the guy delivering flowers or the woman coming in to fix the phone lines was a terrorist laying the groundwork for an attack. These friends live in constant, barbarians-at-the-gate vigilance, trusting, it seems, fewer people every year, narrowing their definition of “us” to a very small circle indeed. Getting out and meeting strangers is the best way I know to stop viewing the world through the distorting lens of “us” versus “them.” As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness.”
So I count myself lucky to live in two countries and visit so many others in my wanderings. Now, when someone announces an imminent move, I still feel sad that we won’t be hobnobbing in Seville (or San Anselmo) anymore, but I rejoice in the fact that I now have someone to visit in Switzerland, Vietnam, or New Zealand. In dark times, I take comfort from having friends all over the world, thinking of each one as a candle placed in a window, guiding me home.
THINKING ABOUT MOVING ABROAD? YOU MIGHT ENJOY
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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