--Gustave Flaubert, DICTIONARY OF RECEIVED IDEAS
Buenos Aires, November 1
Last evening, I received an e-mail from my friend Sarah Hazlegrove, who took the photos in my page Burning My Bridges. She is a photographer who spends about half her time in the U. S. and half her time in France. She spoke of the disconnect one feels when one visits a new culture, or returns to a familiar one after having been away.
She wrote that at first: ”I always have at least two weeks of the major ex-pat blues: Why am I here? Where do I belong?” It was strange timing. The e-mail came just as I was having the same thoughts.
This reminded me of a note I wrote last week about the serious traveler:
–The traveler ventured out to find a new home, feeling out of sync with his old one. Now he was a stranger twice. Estranged from his home and a stranger in his destination.
This is the ex-pat’s paradox, never feeling completely at home in either culture, at least at first.
Sarah wrote: “There are people who feel very comfortable living their lives in one place, I can’t imagine that…Welcome to the ever widening circle of part-time ex-pats.”
Indeed, it seems larger all the time. When you are attending a for-profit language school, you meet students, gap-year travelers, dilettantes, retirees, and mission volunteers. For example, Bill is a tall, gregarious 49-year old from California. He stopped practicing law, was a commercial mortgage broker for five years, and then last year “got off the ship before it went over the edge.” Since then he has traveled through Eastern Europe and is now taking a sabattical South America. He plans to return to law practice.
One reason I embarked on this journey is to inquire as to how difficult it is to learn new things at 50. Bill says he finds it no harder to learn Spanish than it was for him in high school, but that “now it’s more enjoyable.”
There are also those who wish to be ex-pats for reasons romantic or financial. The administrator at our school, Milagros, and I had a long conversation the other day about the difficulties of learning language and adapting to a new culture. She spoke about her good friend John, a New Yorker who spent a year in Buenos Aires learning Spanish. He is very confident and articulate at home, but here he complained that for a long time he felt stupid. Milagros (her name means “miracles” in Spanish) speaks flawless English and she is going to visit New York at the end of the year.
It will be her first time. She is practicing Romanian because she wants to speak the language with her boyfriend. He is a Romanian and is currently living in New York. One day, she would like to move there to be with him, but it is complicated because she has a three-year old daughter.
See also: Colonia, Uruguay