A STRANGER IN A FAMILIAR LAND
Arlene and I have just returned from a visit to the U.S. over a year and a half after our departure to become Expatriate residents of Italy. Emerging extended family health issues played a role in motivating the timing to make the trip back to America. And of course, we were missing our grandchildren, the rest of the family and many friends. But now, after a year and a half absence, going to America felt somehow different to me.
I want to be sure Arlene has the widest latitude to give her own impressions of the American visit experience. So I will simply say at the outset, I am primarily expressing my own personal reflections.
I have reached the stage of acclimation to Ascoli Piceno that in leaving for the U.S. I felt I was now leaving ‘home’ to go visit a distant but very familiar place. In setting out on this trip, I think neither one of us was entirely sure how we would react going back to the familiar, the easy and the comfortable. We knew we would be thrilled to see family and friends but would that make the leaving once again all the more difficult? And now having started to become more familiar with Italy, how would our new Expatriate experience in Ascoli look after getting a refreshed look at the homeland we are now ‘from?’
As I expected, arriving back in the U.S. was not the same as when I had previously returned from travel. When I showed my U.S. Passport to Immigration at Tampa, Florida and hearing, “Welcome Home,” I wasn’t feeling as though I was really coming ‘home.’ Yes, I was coming back to the sights and sounds I was accustomed to and where I could now look forward to being physically close to people who are very important in our lives. But in another sense, I wasn’t ‘coming back’ because I actually felt more like a visitor in the country where I was born and used to live.
I have talked before about the transition to the Expatriate life where as I am acclimating, I gradually am becoming less and less of an outsider ‘observer’ to becoming more of a ‘participant.’ As time went on during the trip to America, while comfortable in the familiar, I also began to feel as if I was now travelling more like an outside observer of a place I used to call ‘home.’ That perception evoked a different emotional reaction. I found I was seeing the familiar through the prism of a changed perspective. As I found myself stepping back to observe more of America, I began to feel myself ‘a stranger in a familiar land.’
In many respects, the more immediate challenge was the readjustment to the pace of life, the sensations of how American society was currently working and how all of this seemed different from the new life we are engaging in Ascoli. To be sure, the contrasts could not have been greater. The historic center of Ascoli is something of an oasis in an increasingly frenetic world. Italian topography, dominated by the Apennine Mountains, ensures the L’ Marche Region still remains a bit ‘off the beaten path.’ Had we chosen to live in a major Italian commercial center such as Milan or Rome, the contrasts with the U.S. would not have seemed as extreme. But there is something palpable living in the center of Ascoli involving immersion in the long thread of time. For us, the pace and ambiance of Ascoli is exactly what we were looking for. I have decided to let my more specific impressions germinate for a while on the contrasts I was sensing between life in Ascoli and the American culture I observed. For now, I will simply say, although accomplishing tasks seemed easy and familiar, I have to confess I did not leave the U.S. once again with an overwhelming sense that I would miss the culture all that much.
On the other hand, the interpersonal motivation for making this trip to America was more than amply rewarded. We were delighted in coming together with our families and some old friends we had not seen for awhile. We reconnected immediately and felt very comfortable and upbeat in being together again. It seems an element in being in direct conversation with close family and very good friends is that communication is so easy. We have a sense for each other so that lengthy exchanges aren’t necessary for clear understanding. We come into the dialogue already comfortable that we are in the presence of people who have a special place in our lives. In catching up, it almost seemed we hadn’t really been separated all that long.
I also found, while family and friends warmly expressed they had missed us, I sensed they were also doing their own observing trying to fathom how we were affected by the Expatriate life. Because we are still enthusiastic about our experience and seem to look forward to having some expanding and positive growing room to go, it became apparent the people who care so much about us reflected a relief in seeing we were happy. And their sharing in our happiness went a long way for me in my concern for how they were feeling about the physical distance that now exists in our daily lives.
I suspect a factor in what helped in this quality of communication was having been invited to stay in the homes of some of the family and special friends during our month long, coast-to-coast odyssey. You know you are in a special relationship with people when you have the opportunity to sit in a bathrobe in their kitchen sharing morning coffee and having very relaxed but easily flowing conversation. Several of the people who graciously invited us into their homes had already visited us here in Ascoli. And we are looking forward to at least one other friend coming to visit with us here this May. We are also very excited that our youngest daughter, her husband and two of our grandchildren are coming to visit in June.
It was also very satisfying for me to spend quality time with my older brother. With the passage of time, he and I have become much closer. In our youth, the seven and a half year age difference between us was a very wide chasm. That difference was exasperated because we shared a small bedroom well into my adolescence. It seems the years have evaporated the significance of the age gap and we have grown increasing fond of each other. We are finding it easier sharing reflections of our earlier life that we were somehow not able to adequately express earlier. There is something about close, shared relationships between people who care for each other that brings a quality perspective to life.
On a trip such as the one just completed, delightful surprises can happen. In my case, I had a very reinforcing experience when a group of people, who had directly reported to me prior to retirement some fifteen years ago, organized a lunch with me. It was an unexpected opportunity to again be among people who I used to supervise but still, after all these years, we consider ourselves to be friends and recall with pride that we still identify with each other. When working together we had a sense of being a mutually supporting team. It is very reaffirming the years have not changed that perception. For me, as a retiree, it doesn’t get much better than that.
I’m making an effort to avoid ‘grandparents syndrome’ in gushing with the pride for how the grandchildren are developing. I will simply say we couldn’t be more proud of them. Each of the grandchildren is finding their own special talents, is well adjusted and enthusiastic about life. I also have to add the sense of joy in how our children have become so effective as parents themselves. As of this writing, the two older granddaughters are in process of sorting through the various acceptances they are receiving from the college applications they have submitted. This is an exciting time for them and their immediate families but not without anxieties for the inevitable changes that are now imminent in their lives. Going off to start a university education is a significant rite of passage.
We also had a chance to visit with our multi-talented middle daughter and her husband as she is starting on a new career path. As a father, it is very satisfying to see each of the children having matured into caring and very capable people. To whatever extent I played any role in that process, I will, happily, count that as a success. Something I cherish deeply is having experienced the transition with my children from being a parent to becoming close and affectionate friends.
But now I am in the process of shaking off jet lag from the San Francisco to London non-stop and then the plane connection to Rome and then on to Ascoli by car. I seem to have survived reasonably well but the stresses of modern, long distance air travel have reinforced one of the rationales for choosing the Expatriate life in Italy. We had decided we wanted to experience more of Europe and in particular Italy while we still have the capacity to be active. There is no question that experiencing Europe is easier to do actually being here rather than arduously traveling to get here.
So what of the current reaction to returning from being temporarily re-immersed in a land where so much of my life was experienced and choosing to come back to a new place I have decided to call ‘home?’ I sense I am in another extended transition phase in my life. I can’t claim any longer to live in the place I used to live because it is now a place I go to visit. But I am still drawn there primarily for the interpersonal component of being in the physical presence of people who add so much depth to my life. Then I also want, for some sense of stability, to call Ascoli Piceno home. But a little over a year and a half is a blink of the eye compared to the amount of life I have experienced somewhere else. And I also have some distance to go before I can have a truly in depth and intimate conversation in Italian.
But I am encouraged. In packing for the ten and one half hour San Francisco flight to London and having said the final goodbyes, I felt ready to ‘go home’ to Ascoli. In making our way by car from Rome down the Via Salaria, as we approached Ascoli I had a sense I used to have when driving closer to the place our former residence had stood in America. Familiar sights gave me a comfortable feeling that very soon we could open the door and walk into our ‘home.’ I am taking that as a very good sign.
In no time at all after walking into our apartment, our warm Italian neighbor upstairs was welcoming us back. Our delightful Canadian fellow Expatriate friends then dropped by to bring us a warm, home made Italian dinner. And to our delight, our good friend, Serafino, stopped by to also welcome us back. Yes, we have a way to go yet in integrating ourselves more fully into this very interesting new place. But it also seems we also have found ourselves in another mutually supportive human community. In one sense we will probably be in transition for sometime ahead of us between having left a previous ‘home’ and more completely establishing ourselves in a new one. It seems in accepting a longer-term condition of ‘tentativeness’ we are actually opening ourselves up to more personal growth. Perhaps, circumstances that could have superficially provided more of an appearance of security in the look of permanence and the familiar in the U.S. may also be something I instinctively feared to be a form of stagnation. Maybe staying alert and constantly paying attention to being on track is one way to know I am still very much alive. Only time will tell.