Neon sign for donut shop. Photographer unknown.
Memory

That Goes Without Saying

If you’ve lived any significant part of your life abroad you will have been asked it, sometimes by people you may have known for only a quarter-hour and on the most casual of occasions, a long taxi ride, say, or at a cocktail party. Like the stranger who’s wandered into a village festival or family reunion, you’re a curiosity that begs to be explained.

The question isn’t always phrased the same: “Why did you come?” “Why did you stay?” “How did you wind up here?” In the end, though, they are all variations of the same query, the change in phrasing reflecting the stance my interlocutor has already taken to why I am living in a country not my own. They have half-decided before I even answer.

For some it is a case of elective affinities. How could I not be seduced by the beauty of this country, the spontaneity and exuberance of its people, the glorious weather, a life lived out of doors in community far removed from the regimentation and obsessive clock-watching one finds in more northern climes?

For others it is a matter of flight or displacement. Why I would want to move from a country where things work well to one where they don’t, a place where laws are made but arbitrarily enforced, a place where who you know often matters more than what you know. Granted, the weather is glorious (on that they both agree), but something must have made you leave, they think.

But regardless whether one’s second homeland is seen as a topos of exile or self-fulfillment, it is one of those questions you’re expected to have an answer to, and a short one at that. It’s a party after all; conversations shouldn’t last longer than a drink. You’re assumed to have made a decision, like the ones you make when applying to university or proposing to your lover. You choose a school and a spouse. Why not a country?

It’s odd, really, how easily people ask the question considering how complicated the answer often is. (Think of what you would say if someone came up to you and your partner at a party and asked, “So why did the two of you get married?”). Oh, I think people are genuinely interested in learning why I’m here, with the same curiosity they would have if I worked in a crime lab or cultivated snails. But they’re not really interested in hearing a story of random events and decision trees. Most expect the much more dramatic and satisfying certainty of resolve and choice.

The truth is, there really wasn’t one decision in my case, or not one that clearly demarcates a trajectory, the expatriate’s equivalent of a marriage proposal or the signing of a deed. Instead, it was a series of smaller choices—or occasions when I failed to make a decision—that edged me to where I am today, a course akin to tacking across a broad lake without no destination other than eventually reaching shore.

Perhaps it’d just be easier to say it’s because of the weather. But, asthmatics and retirees aside, who really leaves one’s country for the weather? And if had, I would’ve chosen a greyer, wetter, colder climate. I inherited my maternal grandparents’ Mediterranean cast of features but my paternal grandmother’s Alpine skin and sensitivity to heat. My body would perhaps be more at ease with the low-hanging cadet-grey skies of Flanders or Brandenburg. But I have no desire to move. I am happy here.

Over time I crafted an appropriately succinct and comprehensible answer, my elevator pitch explaining why I am (still) here. As I said, it’s something people expect me to know. I say I fell in love, which is true, though it doesn’t explain why I’m still here. And even when I was with Matthew there had been sufficient occasions on which I considered and then rejected the possibility of returning to the States. I am here not because of one cause but rather by virtue of a score of decisions. I regret none of them. They seemed to be and most probably were right at the time.

My reply is a satisfying one. Love is something everyone can relate to. Others have sacrificed family, reputation or wealth for love. A homeland is a much lesser sacrifice.

But I haven’t figured out yet what to say when they ask me “What do you miss from the States?” I don’t even like the question. The sense of incompleteness it suggests, the image it evokes of an empty plate at dinner, a missing tooth, the unaccustomed space beside you in bed. It is a misleading question, too, in the way it reduces Heimweh to a mere collection of absent objects. In a world of Amazon, online catalogues and ebay, there’s no thing I can miss. I can have maple syrup and Maine lobsters shipped to my apartment. My wine store stocks a decent rye whisky and Creole bitters. I can catch episodes of The Wire and South Park on satellite TV. Gant and Brooks Brothers have stores downtown. I could probably stock or procure (if at significantly greater expense) most of the things my counterpart in Boston might have in his kitchen and closets.

I don’t miss things. I miss the mise en scène of things in the associatively rich context in which I experienced them. I don’t long for objects, but for object-scapes.

A donut is not a loukoumas or a beignet. It’s never even just a donut. It’s Twin Peaks and all-nighters and a stop on a bike trip down to Provincetown. It’s large cups of watery coffee and strip malls. It’s all the recurring cultural tropes in which these glazed rounds of fried dough figure. An object-scape. It’s the same with banjos and Fenway Park and the Sunday New York Times. That’s what I miss, I think, the associative context. But not only that. It’s also everyone else sharing a roughly similar set of associations. It’s getting the subtext to The Simpsons and the humor on The Daily Show without a gloss. Or knowing what a motel is. Neon to most Europeans is just a noble gas or an object in an art exhibition. My friends here never really “get” South Park. It’s as if they started watching Lost in the middle of the sixth season.

Shorn of the context such objects (or sounds or tastes) carry with them—whether a donut or Bessie Smith or brunch with the Sunday Times—are a mere facsimile, a flat projection on a dimly lit screen. The texture of memory is missing, the resonance of connotations.

Dunkin’ Donuts opened up a shop for a very short time in Athens. I stopped by a couple of times and picked up some to share at work. Not as good as loukoumades, my colleagues said. Not the real thing, I said. But they probably were. Some things just don’t travel well.

I don’t miss clams or the Brattle Theater or Saturday Night Live. But I miss going to the movies in the early afternoon with Liz or stopping with Mark for fried clams in Ipswich on our way back to the city after a swim in Gloucester. I miss the invitation to reverie that such objects provoke.

Of course, living a long time in a foreign country you acquire a new set of object-scapes. But although they are similarly intertwined with stories and faces, infused with history and experiences, the layers of associations are not as richly textured as the ones you have of your native land. How could they be?

Paradoxically, the more acclimated I have become to my second homeland, the more clearly I perceive my foreignness. Although the differences between me and my native counterparts are much less pronounced then when I was first here, I nonetheless experience these differences much more acutely. It’s as if I unknowingly acquired some kind of cultural amplifier. I have begun to see myself as a native would. And hear myself as he or she would.

There are times, rare now but they still occur, mostly when I’m tired or excited or distracted, when I lose my gamma, a consonant in Greek for which English (or most other languages for that matter) has no equivalent. Technically it is a voiced velar fricative (γ) that is formed at the far back of the tongue against the soft palate; since it is voiced, the vocal cords vibrate, too. It is somewhat akin to gargling. (Here’s a sound bit with the consonant). Yes, we can all gargle. But not at will in a fraction of a second. It is a difficult sound, I assure you.

The gamma is one of those quick litmus tests of foreigners (though Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese do have the consonant). It took me a long time to master it. Matthew had me walking around the house chanting γala, γonis, γamoto (to wit: milk, parents, fuck it). His tutorials paid off; I can do a mean gamma now, but as I said, there are times I’ll slide back into the comfort of an English “g”. And when I do, I hear it like the sound of nails on a chalkboard.

Context works both ways. A foreigner’s voice, however much we have mastered the language, always sounds somewhat reedier and less resonant than that of native speakers. It is not only a matter of accent or idiom. Our speech is less textural than that of our native counterparts, devoid of the quotes from old movies or phrases from songs that run through the speech of native speakers. We may add the occasional colloquialism, but never the self-ironic archaism. Or the native speaker’s equivalent of “See Spot Run”. Our language is like the donuts I picked up from the short-lived Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Athens. There’s something missing, you can just tell.

/
Notes

My American readers may recognize that the title of the post quotes Dale Cooper’s response to Sheriff Truman’s offer of jelly donuts in an episode of Twin Peaks. (Series 2, Episode 8).  I’ve been unable to track down the photographer for the image.

 

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