The first trip back to your home country after living abroad is both a dive back into the familiar and a jarring sense of waking from a very long dream. Everyone has been going about their business and I have been in some bizarre alternate universe. Having time to reconnect with my family – and eat all the delicious food I could handle – was a blast. My niece and nephew are growing up so fast. People are graduating, getting new jobs, retiring, planning for trips, you name it. The stream of life flows along without me, but at least for a few weeks I was able to feel like I belong again. The States, the best and worst of all possible worlds. Fast, furious, fascinating, infuriating, full of possibility and an unforgiving rat race. The freedom to win, lose or draw. Insecurity but also the chance for constant reinvention. Optimism, hope and heartbreak. Deep divisions and yet feeling an undeniable commonality. To be an American is to hold all of it at once. We know the beautiful and the ugly only exist as entwined. It will always be my home country.
But Phoenix? It’s where my family lives now, but they won’t be there forever. They already know they’ll be leaving in the near or far future. I did live briefly in Scottsdale as a kid and then again in Tucson while working on my master’s, but Arizona is not what I consider home, only where my family currently lives. But I miss the desert in some ways. We drove out to Los Angeles and although the desert was tedious to travel, it felt wonderful to finally have open space and that wide sky above.
On my journey to and from Phoenix, I had layovers in Portland. I didn’t plan this arrangement; it was the deal my airline miles popped up with. Flying in and seeing Mount Hood and then the trees and then the familiar downtown buildings, my heart twisted into knots. Home. The one place I’ve lived longer than any other. Thirteen whole years and though I still can’t name most streets in my current residence, I remember not only the streets of Portland, but the bus and train routes, too. My first layover was so short my bags didn’t make it to Phoenix, but the second was longer. I could’ve gone outside to breathe the air and walk around. But I knew if I went outside the airport, I wouldn’t want to get on that plane back to Frankfurt. So I resisted.
Pulling away and watching my former workplace, PDX, recede into trees and rivers and then, finally, the mountains piercing the clouds, I felt the loss of my old life. I have lost who I was. In English, I’m never at a loss for the perfect word. Words are my currency and my armor, if need be. Hell, I’m even pretty funny. In the States, I know how to hustle and get that paycheck. I had friends and volunteered for my community. There was always a cool show, a lazy day for second-run movies and beer. In Germany, I don’t have any of these aspects that make me “me.” That flight over the Atlantic was long and uncomfortable. There I was, literally suspended between two worlds, one that I consider “home” and one I consider a hard journey I must take.
If nothing else, like so many things I’ve tried in life that ultimately didn’t work out, I can say I went for it and gave it my all. Later, I won’t be dreamily wishing I could escape to Europe. You can’t escape from yourself, in any case. Stripped of my formerly bursting happy hour schedule, mystified by the upper echelons of the language, I am often frustrated and lonely. Not to mention feeling caged in a minute village in a cramped apartment. I realize this shit may be what I’m intended to go through, so I’m still accepting it with open arms. Or trying to.
“Home” is base camp, wherever that may be and however long I may stay. Life is no longer about fixed map dots and physical heirlooms. Even Portland, the brick-and-mortar city, is only the place where people I love still live. It’s them, and all the gloriously weird Portlanders, that I truly miss. I realize that in moving I have learned to carry everything within me. Home is the memories, knowledge and determination I carry in myself. It is about being truly self-reliant and embracing discomfort. Home is my husband. On the worst days, when everyone and everything is annoying the hell out of me in my new domicile, I’m still glad I’m on this crazy adventure and it’s not over yet.