Let’s break it down. H-O-M-E.
H could stand for happy or hideous, heartwarming or heartbreaking, heavenly or hellish. It could also stand for hopeless. Or hungry. Hungry for home.
O stands for ocean—that big salty stretch of water we cross so often. We glide over and back, shedding tears of sadness, anticipation, loneliness, or elation. Across the water we go—we can always head home again. But we don’t. Not really. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of expatriate tears.
M might stand for marriage, or motherhood, or menopause. If you’re like me—an American expat in Germany—you’ve lived through all three phases while uttering words like Unbefristigteaufenhaltserlaubnis, Kaiserschnitt or Wechseljahren (Green Card, C-section, menopause). Or maybe M stands for magic, which sometimes seems to be the only thing keeping us here—a happy-go-lucky chain-smoking Beamter at the Ausländeramt waves a magic wand over our heads, stamps our passports and gives us permission to stay. If only he would grant us permission to feel at home.
E could stand for enchanted—the feeling we get when we stand on the Dom Platz in Cologne and gaze at the cathedral’s silhouette against a clear blue autumn sky. It might also stand for Error, that sinking sensation we get when we realize our children have never eaten a popsicle, a Pop-tart, or a piece of candy corn. They have never met a proper American Santa Claus. Are they missing anything? No. But we are.
Home. It’s a four-letter word jam-packed with enough emotional gunpowder to send even the most hardened expatriate running for safety. Quick! Duck and cover! Hide in the bushes (but watch out for the Brennessel). The subject of home pops up and the expert cynics among us—expat “lifers” with no hope of ever again feeling at home anywhere at all—dodge the topic with a joke, an anecdote, a shrug of our proud American shoulders. “We are foreigners no matter where we go go,” we say with a casual smile. “Even when we go home.”
What do we care? We’re sophisticated European residents now—citizens of the world! We’re following in the footsteps of expat giants like Bobby Fisher, Julia Child, and Ernest Hemingway. Like them, we’re a little drunk on our worldliness, a little melancholy about what we might be missing back at home. Pass the wine, please.
Expat Americans who have been here longer than five years don’t return to America and automatically feel at home. We’re concerned with the obvious—violence, politics, the religious right, lack of health insurance. Little things sometimes get to us even more: No sidewalks, bad grammar, tank-sized SUVs, tank-sized young people drinking tank-sized soft-drinks. On a holiday trip we find ourselves in rural Pennsylvania at a restaurant that proudly calls itself “Home of the Deep Fried Pickle.” Not as bad as deep fried butter on a stick—another local specialty—but still.
We listen to a CNN report featuring Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks. “Guns are not part of the Starbucks experience,” he says, trying to convince the American public he is not on the side of the National Rifle Association, even though, probably out of fear of being shot, he will continue to serve NRA members five-dollar cups of half-caf extra-froth low-fat no-fat crusty-caramel Christmas-cookie Venti latte-lite to go. We’re not sure what the American Starbucks experience is, exactly, but we’re glad guns are not part of it.
And we’re glad that we’re not part of it. And we’re grateful that we’re not sipping our cappuccinos next to a posse of rifle-toting rednecks. Or sending our children to schools that require metal detectors at the front door. With all that’s going on, how can America ever feel like home again?
We gripe about the USA. We find fault, we convince ourselves we’re the lucky ones—we got out just in time, we say.
But then it creeps up on us—the National Anthem Moment. We watch the summer Olympics on television with our children. Michael Phelps wins his eighty-fifth gold medal and ascends to the podium. The Star Spangled Banner blares and an official raises the American flag. Tears squirt from our eyes. Projectile crying. We feel patriotic about a place that’s no longer home. We are ashamed to feel so patriotic. And then we are ashamed to feel ashamed. We still love where we came from. And that makes us cry more.
We are here for a variety of reasons. We have been welcomed by assorted neighbors and work colleagues. We belong and yet we don’t. We struggle with language and cultural differences, but we muster our courage, gather our baskets, and collect experiences of a lifetime—photos and boarding passes and postcards we will glue to the fragile and transparent pages of our personal scrapbooks. We adjust. Constantly, we adjust. We take in the new, always the new—new words, new customs, new, new, new everything—until we realize we’ve crowded out the old. There is nothing to do, except add more pages.
My daughter, at the age of twelve, wrote an essay for the Clements Youth Expatriate Scholarship competition:
If home were a color, it would be blue like the ocean that stretches between where I live now and where I come from, a wide sparkling sea with patches of shallow and deep water, filled with mysteries and secrets. Or maybe home would look like the blue sky on my birthday in June. Every year in Germany I blow out the candles on my cake and imagine the same sky over my grandparents and cousins, many thousands of miles away from here. If home were really a color, it would be blue like my grandmother’s eyes, the same silvery blue she passed on to me. I sometimes close my own eyes and dream of when I’ll see her again.
If home were a song it would be a soft and warm melody, a familiar tune that always pops into my head. If the song played on the radio, I’d recognize it right away, and I’d sing along, knowing every word and note.
If home were an animal, it would be a bird, maybe an eagle soaring from one hilltop to the other, reminding me that home is a place where I’m free to be myself. Or maybe home is more like a dove, a symbol of peace. But sometimes, when I’m feeling lonely, home seems more to me like a bird without wings—maybe even a lonely penguin. Like the eagle and dove, I want to fly back and forth between places I love, but all I can do is waddle along, knowing that I can only visit everyone I love by using my imagination.
If home were something I could touch, it would be a scrap of velvet fabric with hidden thorns that I can never remove, no matter how often I try. Home sometimes seems like sandpaper. When I run my fingers over it, it feels scratchy, in a nice way. But when I do it too often, it starts to hurt.
If home were a nuisance (which it isn’t, at least not all the time), it would be the hiccoughs. No matter what I do, the idea of home keeps popping up and reminding me that there’s something different, in a good way, about the way I’m growing up.
To me, home is more than a place—it’s a feeling.
She won the contest.
I recently asked Julia—now seventeen—if she feels differently about the concept of home—now that she’s almost an adult.
“What makes you feel at home?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” she said. “Home is any place at all where you feel loved. And understood.”
That is this place for me. Here in this castle, when I play this piano, surrounded by friends and family, I feel understood, and occasionally loved.
Mister Rogers, in all his wisdom, used to say this: “Take a moment and think about the people who understand you—the people who have loved you into being the person you are right now.”
Some of them are here with me right now, some are far away, some might bump into me only in my dreams. All of them understand me, on one level or another. For better or worse, they have made me who I am.
We sing holiday songs, we paint pictures, we travel far, we journey wide, hoping to be understood, but trying just as hard to understand the new culture swirling around us. When we forget to listen—we’re lonely. But when we get it right—when we open our ears and eyes and hearts to the magic of our expatriate lifestyles—we’re content. Peaceful, even. We might be starving for home during the holidays, but we sit at a banquet table laden with thousands of delicacies. When we stop trying to go back to an emotional place that’s no longer there, when we embrace the place that nourishes our souls, when we give ourselves permission to be loved and understood by those around us, a miracle happens. Call it, if you like, a Christmas miracle. We notice that we’ve arrived. We realize, wir merken, that we are zu Hause. Home. At last.