My adolescence was spent dreaming of faraway lands, and traveling to them whenever possible. I took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to me. I needed to go, I needed to see. If I just traveled far enough, if I searched long enough, then maybe, just maybe I would find the place I belonged. As a very good friend once said, "Writers, such as ourselves, have a dangerous imagination. We imagine that the perfect place is just around the next corner, and we think if we travel far enough we just might find it." That sums up perfectly how I feel. Inside me, I have this internal thrust forward. I've needed to launch myself forward, out into the world. I've needed to attack it. In some ways I still have those needs, and I wonder if they will ever be quieted. I wonder if I can ever be content living in one place.
I had, and still have, this deep seeded longing, yearning, to see the world. But not the world as a whole, rather to search out the small corners. To meet good friends in Neuchatel for crepes. To read with a book club in Amsterdam. To share chocolate y churros in Madrid or vodka in Moscow. In those small moments, there is the magic of connection, there is wholeness and love. Two people can begin to learn something about themselves, each other, and the world. I have learned more in those moments than I ever did in a classroom, than I ever did in my hometown. But then again, when seated around a table with my family those moments are there, too (no matter if we are in New York or some other table out in the world).
Just over four years ago I left the US to live abroad. My track record so far has been living in one place for three years before feeling that calling and need to move on again. In the year and a half I have been in Amsterdam, I've learned that this is not the final place I plan to live. This is not the city I will settle in. But the question then becomes, 'Where next?'
There is a part of me that is shouting very strongly to go home. But that seems just as daunting as moving somewhere new. Can I really go home? Do I know how? Do I know the road back?
It honestly feels like going home would be like admitting defeat and failure. I went out four years ago to conquer the world. And in some ways, I did do that. I obtained a Master's degree, and now work as an Operations Manager in Amsterdam. I am good at my job and recognized for it.
However, when I set out, I pictured my future. This is what I saw: I would study in Switzerland, find a job there, find a man there, have children, and we would travel the world together. I would raise a cosmopolitan family that was in touch with the world, that spoke so many languages, that was cultured and sophisticated. That is not how things worked out. Which is alright. New chapters unfolded. New lessons were learned. My experiences shaped who I am today, and I like who I am today. But going home would be like letting go of that dream once and for all. To admit that European sophisticated, traveling family and lifestyle will not happen the way I thought it would.
There is another aspect in all of this that I would struggle to let go of: being an expat. There is a great deal of pride and triumph in being an expat. Everyday is a battle. Navigating a foreign country and culture. Trying to understand the local way of doing things. Constantly having to adapt mentally and practically. Simple things like buying groceries become an adventure. I remember very vividly trying to buy milk on my first trip to the grocery store in Switzerland. The labels on the packages were in German, French, and Italian, none of which I spoke at the time. I was lost and confused and did not know how to buy the type of milk I needed. More than four years later, there are times I still use Google translate in the grocery store. That's just for groceries. Imagine navigating a foreign healthcare system. Those are the struggles and triumphs that I enjoy.
There is a respect accorded to expats from other expats. We know what its like living abroad, facing these daily challenges, navigating foreign bureaucracies, and being far from home. We know the success and triumph of adapting to a new way of life. I enjoy this challenge and the respect and pride that comes with it. It would be difficult to let that go. To be just a regular person living in her own country. For some reason I don't like to make things easy on myself. I like the uphill battle. The challenge. You don't get admiration for surviving in your own country, unless you live in an authoritarian dictatorship.
More than that, being an expat, being a traveler, has become part of my identity. Who will I be if I am not a foreigner traveling the world? I love the complexity of my multicultural identity. One expat I met, when asked where she was from, replied, "Well, do you have fifteen minutes?" I knew exactly what she meant and how she felt. It is not a simple question, "Where are you from?"
This is not to say that the United States is a bad place to live. Not at all. I was born and raised there. My family is there. It will always be home to me. When my younger cousins tell me, "I miss you, Sarah." I feel like an evil villain for living abroad.
It would be quite special to settle near my family and raise children of my own near them. Particularly I would love to raise my family alongside my brother and his new wife, for our children to be friends, and for our children to have the positive influence of one another as aunts and uncles. That being said, the idea of raising a family in the US is an alien idea to me. Something I had never considered.
This is the first time in my life I don't have a clear direction of where I would like to go. Is home the correct direction? Is there another country I haven't considered? I am not sure there is a right answer here. For once in my life I am taking the time to consider the next step very carefully. I am in no hurry. Yet having this huge, open looming question hanging over me is quite daunting.