Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.

3 Responses to “Not Quite at Home”

  • Andy Parker Says:

    Thank you for providing the link to your piece from 2010, both for the contrasting perspective, and the great comment from your friend “j” about the idea of being a Third Culture Kid/Adult (TCK/TCA).

    “In Between”–your earlier post–comes from the perspective of having lived for more than a decade in your “new” home. If you left the States directly for Paris, then Paris was home for almost twice that length. Regardless, after a decade, one becomes not only accustomed to a culture, but the rhythms of that culture. After eleven years in Pittsburgh, with a break in the middle, and the fog my strokes gifted me with, I’m only now over-learning those rhythms, the way you did in Paris where you didn’t have to look at the map to see what metro stop to go to. It’s also why you knew to stop looking for the French version of Glide floss.

    Barcelona is still new. Is it a year, now, yes? I forget how long it’s been. “Home Away From Home” (11/2013), is another post of yours that speaks to the transition you’re still in. So. The length of time in both places is different, that suggests your lens is different, too.

    What else? The girls are in very different places. Four years ago you were appreciative that their French would always be accent free. Now, Short-pants is a teenager! So much has happened in these four years. Your shopping for bras with her, for chrissakes! You’re helping her figure out how to navigate things with “Eduardo” (He Likes You). She’s participating at CREA (“Time and Again” from April). She’s willing to parent you (“Where were you?”), and Buddy-roo has even given up “That Big Doll.” A lot is happening in your relationship with them, right now. There’s more to come, too. You know that. You’ve already written about leaving home (I think). That’s around the corner for her, too.

    You will over-learn the rhythms of Barcelona, in time. It will happen, and you’ll realize after the fact that it has. As far as where home is? You lived into that once when you realized that De-facto was the guy you should “marry” (remember the union is made by the people, witnessed by a judge/priest/minister/or their friends and colleagues). Home isn’t the US, Paris, Barcelona, or any where. It’s where you find yourself with De-facto, Buddy-roo, and Short-pants. They’re your home.

    The best thing about this transition of places and ages? You’re “Still Carefree.”

  • Izzy Mamnoon Says:

    What you describe about your experience when you return to the US of A – is so similar to my own experience when I return to Dubai – the city I left when I was 16 which many a times I still refer to as “home”. I have now lived in Buffalo for longer than I have lived in any one place in my life – and perhaps that makes it “home”…but even as I ponder that – I think I agree Short-Pants’ take on it – The way I have come to think of it is that any place that is associated with lasting memories and is in a sense HOME.

  • catriona Says:

    One of our kids has gone to boarding school in Dublin. Now where’s home?
    Where you feel good? where your parents are? where you live? Where do I live Mum???

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