Should I stay or should I go? Is it even a question?
Why can’t I be happy in one place?
Why can’t I fully appreciate where I am, wherever I am? Why am I always thinking about the places I’m not—places that are undoubtedly more fascinating, more beautiful, more stimulating, more relaxing, more friendly, more private, more sophisticated, more natural—you get the picture.
“[T]he plots that are still in my head are fretting with jealous irritation over the ones I have already put down in writing. It annoys me to think that all the stuff that is nonsense is already written up while the good material is still sitting around in the warehouse like unsold inventory….Everything I am writing at present bores me and leaves me indifferent, but everything that is still only in my head interests me, moves me, and excites me….[T]hese are the kinds of issues that would drive the devil himself crazy.”
The dilemma applies to both where to live, and where to travel.
Where to live?
Are you, as an ATCK, as afflicted as I am? Right now I’m grappling with whether I should stay in the Bay Area, where I moved five years ago from Atlanta, or whether I should move on. If I leave, where should I go? And why settle for one place—why not split my time? With Airbnb and home exchanges, there are ever more options. Are these questions I should have to ask myself at my age (60-something—there, I said it), when most of my friends have long since been happily settled? Of course not. But there it is.
My parents faced the same dilemma when my father retired. Mom was from New Hampshire, Dad from Pennsylvania. After more than 30 years overseas, Mom wanted to return to the States; Dad preferred San Miguel de Allende. Mom, a force to be reckoned with, announced that she had sacrificed for Dad’s career all these years, and that by God, they were going to end their days in the States. So they did. First in Nashua, New Hampshire because her side of the family lived in New England. Two winters later, Dad put his foot down. There had to be someplace better.
So they got in their car and drove across the country scouting new retirement destinations. Twice. Having heard that Pinehurst, North Carolina was like a transplanted New England village in the middle of the south, they checked it out and bought a house on the spot. Ten years later, Mom decided she wanted to be near my brother, and anyway the Bay Area was better in every way, so she masterminded a move to the Left Coast. She was 75 and Dad was 76. That was their last move.
My parents weren’t ATCKs, but as 30-plus-year expats and the parents of two TCKs, they were a variation on the theme. And of course I am my parents’ daughter.
I’ll be writing about my decision to move, or not, as things progress. In the meantime I should add that mobility, for me, is easier by far than for most my age. I’m divorced, unattached, and have no children. My dearest friends, the ones who are family to me, are scattered around the world. When I talk about wondering where to live next, and the excitement and hope and anguish of the choices I have, I’m painfully aware that I have these choices only because of what I’m missing. I wish I had more reason to stay in one place. More on that later.
Where to travel?
Obviously, you don’t have to be an ATCK to experience chronic restlessness. After all, who hasn’t wished they could be somewhere else when they’ve been stuck at home? And who hasn’t craved home when they’re on the road?
It’s a matter of degree. And my degree is, I think, at least a bit neurotic. I wait until the last minute to make flight reservations, because actually buying a ticket would be to commit to going somewhere in particular. As opposed to someplace, anywhere, other than that particular place. At a given time. Which often limits the available options—reservations can’t be had, or they’re too expensive, or other logistics needed attention and now they’re not working out. If my heart is set on a particular trip, I usually end up going anyway and spending more money than a human being should to stay too little time, and obsess not only about what I should have done differently but where else I could have spent more money than I should to stay too little time.
“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” – Judith Thurman
Is the ATCK’s relentless wanderlust actually ingratitude for what is? My answer is—sometimes, maybe, of course. But maybe it’s just the opposite—a hungry gratitude and soulful longing for all that is. Whatever it is, it’s borne of a childhood of regular change and stimulation, of curiosity and anticipation of the next adventure in the next city, in the next home. In the next home. Ah, I think we’re getting closer to what’s really going on.
A friend recently posted on Facebook a photo of the Eiffel Tower. My first thought was, Oh, that makes me homesick! Yet I’ve never lived in Paris, and it’s been six years since I’ve been there. I realize that what tugs at my heart is the gestalt of Europe.
And of South America, and New England, and the Caribbean, and the Appalachians, and…and…and…It’s exhausting!
The pull of place can be prodigious. Have you felt this? Perhaps it is a place where you grew up, enticing you to cut through the fog of memory. You were just a child. Because your family moved on, or you left home, you haven’t been back. A particular city or forest or airport or beach in a part of the world you haven’t gotten back to may contain whole universes of your life, memories you’d love to revisit and tease apart for a glimpse of the Truth About Your Childhood.
My own memories float, wisp-like, through the railings of a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus and perch like weights in the arms of an American soldier in Istanbul; nestle in the glassy sand and tides of the Venezuelan coast and gaze back at me from sweet water inside a freshly cut coconut in Ocho Rios; wrap themselves around each other for warmth in a lonely dorm room during a long Geneva winter; and race the trans-Atlantic waves, searching for the grand ocean liner SS Leonardo da Vinci, long since retired, salty and forgotten.
Here’s something older ATCKs may identify with: It’s Complicated
Having said all of the above: The older I get, the less adventurous I feel. My longings are there, but please. I’m not old, but I’m definitely too old to be held at gunpoint on the Masai Mara or have to go through the series of rabies shots on three continents. Or to be asked by a plastered German on a flight over Iran how I, as a stupid American, would like to be thrown out of the plane at 32,000 feet. Great adventures all—in retrospect.
Granted, these are not the usual experiences of the casual traveler. But they all happened to me; I seem to attract the weird and the wacky, and I have to factor that in, right?
And the older I get, the less I—like countless others—feel like coping even with the stresses of getting from one place to another—a whole other subject altogether.
And for all my restlessness, I now embrace the appeal of staying in one place for longer periods of time. I often use a village in France as my temporary home base, and when I get antsy—again—I go for short trips out, energized and engaged even as I long to be back at temporary home base, with the routine I’ve developed in that place (as opposed to my routine in other places) and my local friends.
I’m already thinking about the day I have to admit that I’m no longer up to it, and that I need to stay put. Hopefully it will be a while, but sometimes I feel it barreling toward me. As much of a sense of loss as it will bring, there will also be some relief. No more choices. A forced rooting will take place, and it will be the most natural possible thing. Imagine!
Here’s the thing
Whether we are Chekhov’s Complaint, whether we still enjoy travel and discovery and adventure—we are comfortable in foreign surroundings. We move about with ease, quick to adapt, perceptive, adept. Of course ATCKs are not the only ones who do this. Thoughtful travelers all over the globe do every day.
But our experience of wherever we are, and the process of getting there, is resonant with memory. We experience travel through the prism of our formative years and the formation of our most fundamental values outside our parents’ cultures. It is this that makes ATCKs, when we are on the road, travelers not just through space but through time. It is this that makes our way of moving through the world unique.
I don’t know about you, but when I feel restless, it usually has something to do with my longing to belong. No matter where I am—the States or abroad—I’m an outsider. This is such a TCK cliché it actually hurts me to write it. And yet there it is.
The irony! No matter where I live, I don’t feel I belong, so I travel or even move homes in an effort to find a place I can call home, thereby pretty much ensuring I won’t stay in one place long enough to ever belong.
Maybe our very restlessness is, in truth, our search for home.
We all need to be seen. We all need home.
It goes without saying that ATCKs are not all the same. This post is about my experience. Does it resonate with you? If so, how do you deal with it? What are the repercussions in your life? And if not, what is your experience?