Thursday, April 23, 2009

360 degrees

It seems strange to me now that I should be anxious about returning back to America. Two years ago, I thought that by the end of our assignment in Britain, we'd be more than ready to return. Indeed, I was certain (and told myself and others), that our two years away would be like an extended vacation.

How is it that I could ever have thought that something so huge as moving to a foreign country would not alter my life as I know it? Why is it that we assume we are unchangeable? My gosh, think of all the words of wisdom to the contrary:

When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. --Tuli Kupferberg

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.
--Henri Bergson

Life is always at some turning point. --Irwin Edman

The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable. --John F. Kennedy

And yet

We insist on maintaining the status quo. Always. Because who are we if not ourselves? In our mini vans and two story, bricked-front, two-car garage (three if you're lucky), double-paned window, American traditional homes? What would we do without our little league, capris and keds, baseball caps, ballet recitals, church potlucks, charity bingo, bake sales, endless expanses of green lawn, flashy gas mowers, Fourth of July fireworks, summer barbecues, Miller light (and when you're feeling saucy, Whoa! grab a Corona!), and gas fireplaces (our own little American monuments to opulence given that we never light them because it's just too damn expensive)?

All of these things—they define us, don't they? And we want them. I have them. I thought I would never want anything else. I have been, since my first child was born, the quintessential soccer mom. First, there was the sedan, of course. And then came the SUV once we'd moved up a bit in the world—an Expedition, probably the worst offenders of hippies worldwide, but damn, you could fit a small country in those things (Ever try to take a family and a golden retriever camping with a sedan? Ya, good luck, my friend. You might get the dog crate in there, but the tent is staying home. And probably one of your children). And then, TA DA! second child after a number of years (9 to be exact, but we'll save that story for another blog), and along came the (choke) minivan. Sun roof, leather interior, built-in DVD player—what more could a suburban mama want?

Why, a suburban mama wants nothing more than to take her children traveling. Go see the world! And so when the opportunity comes along—job assignment in Britain—you say, “Europe, baby, here we come!” I mean, can you imagine the family photos you will take and tuck away after a trip abroad?

You're envisioning little Tommy making a face in front of Big Ben and little Abby wearing sunglasses, propping her chin onto her fist like the Thinker at the Musée Rodin. And of course, you'll have to get your budding preteen pretending not to notice the camera with her headphones in place, chewing her bubble gum, in front of the Colosseum. And the stories you will have to tell! A breathtaking experience, you think. If you were lucky enough, you will have memories of that high school trip you took to Europe with your French class, and so you say to yourself, “My kids need to see this! Of course, we will move, but only for a bitty bit of time.”

But never, not once, do you envision falling in love with the place. I mean, really falling in love. Because, when it comes down to it, you are who you are, and there is no place on earth you'd rather be then fully entrenched in your life back home—your minivan, your capris, etc. etc. You have your set of close friends who you see on a weekly basis, your can't-do-without neighbors who you always chat up while watering your flowers (and really, the block parties! Too good!), your church family who supports you (and of course, the deviled eggs and the hash brown casseroles at the potlucks—I mean, Yum!), and the grandma who is right around the corner, there to pick up little Tommy and little Abby when you need a break and to make your budding preteen feel like there is at least one adult in the world who understands her, and there's the grumpy guy in the house behind you who always complains about your little poodle, but manages to accidentally leave a ham bone in your garden at least once a week, and the alarm clock of a paper boy who slams your door at 6:30 AM every morning, and even the postman (you know, the one with the red suspenders that do more to outline his bulging gut than to hold up his trousers) who never fails to show up by 10 AM (as a stay at home mom, you know this). This is your life. The time abroad, well, it's just an extended vacation. Right? Right?

I should tell you that I spent the first six months in England wanting desperately to go home. I felt utterly bereft. My daughter's school was too different, and it felt like the head teacher didn't give a damn about us. It seemed like parents were an afterthought. Had I requested to have lunch with my daughter on any given day, I think the shock of it would have stunned the teachers into British comas (“Bloody hell,” and FLOP, there they would fall, crumpling politely into themselves). There was no hope of establishing any sort of friendship with my daughter's teacher...hell, it was hard enough to befriend other mamas who seemed to think I was not just some woman from across the pond, but a runaway from a distant leper colony. And then people would just “drop in” for tea. Yeah, I mean totally uninvited and unexpected, and then fully expect you to not only have a tea kettle, but to have tea for it, along with an assortment of biscuits.

I'm telling you, it was all I could do one unexpected visit our first week in not to die of complete mortification. I was surrounded by crap as our movers had unpacked everything and just set it all on the nearest counter or floor space. The house was in tatters, I had no cleaning supplies, and I think it may have even been over 30 hours since I'd bathed. Yet, I gracefully invited my unexpected visitor in, cooing over her precious little toddler, and then sat down at the breakfast table with what I hoped would be a new friend (allowing her baby to crawl around on the floor below us). It only took about 1 minute & 30 seconds before I was mentally flogging myself as I had to pull what appeared to be a dried up bit of sausage from the toddler on the floor and tried to hide from her mother that her child was playing on what had to be the dirtiest floor in the kingdom.

Nothing was easy when we got here. They said they spoke English, but really, only in the strictest sense. Nothing was the same—not the appliances, not the language, not the shopping, not even the parking. Setting up utilities was a nightmare. Driving was insane. I could spend several different blogs discussing just the cultural differences (sayings, expectations, and queueing, good grief, you could write a thesis just on the British adherence to queueing). It was hard. It was scary. It sucked. We had no idea what we were doing. We wanted out. I didn't know how to exist here.

But then, as all people generally do when forced, we adapted. We slowly let go of our expectations, and therein our resistance, and we learned to live more like the British. And in doing so, we began to adjust and tweak our habits, our expectations, and yes, ourselves. We learned to walk instead of drive; we learned to conserve more, waste less...converse more, talk less; we learned that the best things take a little time and that slow to warm up does not mean cold; we learned that pubs are not just for alcoholics but for families and camaraderie; we learned that the British are good people and make for good friends; and, indeed, we learned to breathe a little slower and to just take it all in.

It is different here. No more , no less. Just different. And so we changed. Well, I can't speak entirely for the hubby and kids, but I have changed, I know. I was away from all my comforts—my capris (yeah, not very popular here), my church, my family and friends, and the comforting presence of my red-suspendered postman—and for the first time, I began to learn who Carol was. I felt abandoned, yet, for the first time, I felt unhindered. American suburban life has rules that can be hard to live by, you know? The expectations? Soccer mom. Room mother. Sunday school teacher. Loving wife. Attentive daughter. I didn't realize until moving here how hard that can be, and how much our identities come to rule us. But more significant, I have learned that I'm not just those things.

I'm scared now. I'm rather frightened to go home. I feel the kind of melancholy that only permanence can cause. And this, this return, is oh so permanent. So final. And we have friends here. We have created a place for ourselves here. In some ways, I am more American here than I ever was in the US. Here, I have felt free. Our only obligations, for the first time ever, have been to ourselves. Selfish? Ignoble? I prefer to think of it rather as a generosity to our own souls. And it feels good. Inside, I am screaming: Finders Keepers!!! Once again, I see change before me, only this time, a return to status quo. I love and miss my family and friends, my church. But I am afraid.

And yet

I have accepted fear as a part of life—especially the fear of change...I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back... --Erica Jong

There is a pounding in my heart.

ba-bump. ba-bump. ba-bump.

I fear for what I will leave behind.

We have come,

as always



  1. Fantastique!!! Tu as un vrai talent!!! Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Carol, I learned more about you by reading this piece. I hope in coming back, you (and we) discover that the best is yet to come. Hugs!


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