When You’re a Stranger Everywhere
There’s no place like home, or so the saying goes.
To me this isn’t a saying but a reality. There isn’t a single place in this world I can call home, there has never been.
Despite having a fixed address in the Pacific Northwest, the concept of home continues to confuse me.
And for the last three months, I’ve been living between the West Coast of the US, France, and Portugal. I picked up my American life at the end of December and condensed it into two suitcases and a backpack so I could be present for my family in Europe as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer.
This was my first extended stay and it took less than a week to understand I’d need to be in Europe rather than the US for the rest of 2019. At 71, my father is my stepmom’s sole carer and my parents’ daily reality is so brutal they need all the support they can get.
Technically speaking, I was home for three months but it didn’t feel like it.
Sure, I’m a fluent French speaker, I maintain a keen and informed interest in French politics but I left when I was 17 — how France feels, and thinks, and works is often impenetrable to me.
Identity is a journey, and mine is more continental than national.
I’m a born and bred European, and many people my age have always enjoyed the transnational mobility afforded to us by the European Union. In practice, this means we can study, live, and work in any of the 28 member states.
As a result, there are many countries and locations that have felt like home over the years but only a couple with which I feel a deep, abiding kinship. Britain is one because it is where I went to university and spent most of my adult life, and Portugal is another as it gifted me the language now bringing me back to life.
As is my family, if you go back a generation or two. I’m descended from immigrants to France and I am a serial immigrant myself, only we no longer don’t call it that here, not since the advent of the EU. For years, I moved around, even throwing Switzerland into the mix because the country’s linguistic profile closely matched my own.
Paris, Zurich, Brussels, London, Hamburg, and Amsterdam will always feel like a little home to me, and that’s not even the whole list. And then there’s North America as a whole and some of its most remote locations, as well as the United States, with which my relationship is akin to that of an organ transplant that didn’t take.
I am a mortified American: The word that best sums up how I feel about the US is alienation. I cannot for the life of me reconcile our current political predicament and who I spent a lifetime believing America was, namely a place where the whole world was welcome to call home.
Major depressive disorder felled me at around the same time as I immigrated to the US.
My life shrank immediately. I went from a multilingual and multicultural environment to becoming a monolingual hermit. And that’s on the rare occasions I was even able to use language with any coherence, which soon became so impossible my writing voice left me and so did my livelihood.
Because I lived in a country where health isn’t a basic human right and I was no longer earning, I was too cash-strapped to get help.
Through occasional phone calls with my family whom I couldn’t afford to go visit for years, I kept up my French but everything else fell by the wayside and disappeared, much to my chagrin.
Portugal and Portuguese vanished into thin air, leaving me to wonder whether they may have been a figment of my imagination. At one point, I was deeply integrated into local society on a tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic. I had professional ties reaching back to the continent, and even kept a working relationship going with Portugal for some time while in North America.
Depression will do that to you, and America isn’t the ideal place to get sick.
Last fall, everything shifted through happenstance.
Getting better had been a tentative pursuit which picked up pace when I found myself knuckling down so I could earn my airfare to Paris through writing.
There was also an unexpected return. Through intellectual symbiosis and random acts of algorithm, Portuguese came back. I discovered that cultural and linguistic assets never leave you, certainly not when they’re the product of passion and hard work.
Granted, lack of practice and a multi-year silence mean a lot of catching up until I get back to the level I was at, publishing regularly in the press. But my brain is still curiously wired for Portuguese and my linguistic reflexes have remained intact, against all odds.
I started patching up the hole in my heart and feeling all the more alive for it. Lisbon turned out to be the safe haven I never knew existed, and the decision to establish an EU base there for the rest of 2019 presented itself as the most practical, cost-effective, and family friendly alternative to transatlantic back and forth.
Not only can I be responsive as it is so close to Paris, but it’s also the perfect place for my parents to escape to when they get some medical respite. And they’ll have no excuse not to as I’ll be there to help them navigate local life if need be.
At the same time, the passion that submerged me when I fell into Portuguese all those years ago has mellowed into a steady source of energy capable of holding me together.
And I finally understood that home, to those of us with ever-changing geographical coordinates, is portable: You carry it in your heart.
“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” wrote Fernando Pessoa and I couldn’t help but experience a sense of recognition when I read his words.
Linguistic homelands bind us together.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.
When You’re a Stranger Everywhere
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