Maybe we’ve made it sound like one big adventure on Facebook, but that’s hard to avoid doing: expatriation really is an opportunity to be a tourist in your own life. US-based, my family wouldn’t have traveled to seven countries in the span of 12 months, learning how to say “hello,” “thank you” and “excuse me” in six languages. My children would know little about the varied outcomes of Henry VIII’s six wives. They wouldn’t be drawing maps of Europe for homework, and getting spelling assignments for homonyms that are only homonymous when said with an English accent (court and caught, for instance). We wouldn’t have the thrill of knowing that everywhere we explored, from city streets to country castles, thousands have tread in those same footsteps for centuries before us.
But being a tourist in your own life comes with challenges. For instance, this year I turned 40. Rumor has it that turning 40 signals the release of the tendency to give a fuck, an emancipation that lasts many years and culminates in being an incontinent 85-year-old peeing on your kids’ sofa cushions with impunity. In the US, I’d have celebrated turning 40 in the easy companionship of friends cultivated over a lifetime. My kids would be well settled in their American school, surrounded by their own lifelong friends, and I wouldn’t be feeling much, if any, pressure to be a homeroom mom or a chaperone for school trips. For me, that enthusiasm had receded somewhat; each one of my children’s birthdays (and my own) put more distance between me and the need to prove myself as a parent.
But this year? We were in a new community, in a brand new COUNTRY, for God’s sake. I wanted eyes on my kids, and I wanted to be present – and I don’t mean in a mindful way. Literally, I wanted to be in attendance. We had moved to an island, but dammit, we weren’t going to be one. That bitter hag who, in the US, sometimes barely stopped the car to drop off her kids at school because she just couldn’t bear to be caught up in some kind of social interaction? The one who grumbled about going to her second-grader’s field day? The one who hid in the ice cream section at the grocery so she wouldn’t have to make small talk with an acquaintance? There was no place for her here. It was time to bring out the A-Game to move us all up off the D-list.
So I cared. I enthused. I assumed the mantel of my preschool-mom persona. Hell, my own middle school persona. Smiling at everyone, making overtures, checking myself. Extending invitations instead of waiting for them. Helping at bake sales and field trips. Trying not to yell at my kids in public. (I said trying.) Ironing, and even sometimes using bleach.
Giving a fuck: it works. I can confidently say I have friends here. Friends I really love, and not just in that yellow lab of humans, American way. They may have seen the best of me at first, but over time they’ve gotten glimpses of “the real,” and they still invite me for coffee.
In the meantime, I’ve started relying heavily on someone else. Me. With the kids in school and Jeff at work, I spend a lot more time alone than I used to. I’m not a navel gazer, I’ve never been one for self-analysis. I find other people much more fascinating. But I have learned some things about myself: that I talk a lot when I’m nervous (and considering my state of mind the last 12 months, I should have come down with laryngitis by now, and my new friends the victims of some sort of eardrum trauma). That I really hate breaking promises. That everything isn’t personal and everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m still awkwardly feeling my way around this new life, so it’s going to be a while before I feel confident enough to fully accept myself, and love myself with all my flaws, like the Internet says I should, now that I’m 40. But the alternative is the knowledge that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that sometimes it’s a good idea to try a little harder. It’s a worthy tradeoff.
I’m standing on my own two feet literally, too. We still don’t have a car, and we’re better for it, because the best discoveries are made on foot: a tiny clearing in some hedges in Richmond Park with a straight view to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Henry VIII is said to have watched for the smoke signifying Anne Boleyn’s execution; the house that 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys considered his country getaway, five minutes from our rental; a footbridge that leads to Eel Pie Island, a peaceful enclave whose dance hall once hosted performances by The Rolling Stones and The Who. A little spot on the Thames River Path where I can stop and watch jumbo jets en route from Dubai and Hong Kong and Washington, DC, lumbering in on approach to Heathrow.
There are things I don’t miss. I don’t miss the news about constant violence on the streets of Philadelphia. I don’t miss the senseless acrimony in our political system, the frequently paralyzed government. But I do miss living a few miles away from the Liberty Bell, and what it represents: a free and democratic society that still passes legislation, however late, to benefit its people instead of its patrons. The America that fights for change, even when everyone says nothing will work.
Oh, and Target. God, I miss Target.
We’ll land in Philadelphia when we return to the US for a month this summer. It’s going to be hot as hell and the Walt Whitman Bridge will be shimmering in the hazy sunlight. But I’m going to roll down the windows and breathe in the humid, briny smell of the Delaware River. Along the way I’ll ask my mother to pull over so we can all get cheesesteaks. Because I’m a tourist in life right now, and going home will be yet another adventure.