Lens: On Leaving Home(s)

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Last month, Kelly wrote about the implications of “collecting ourselves” to make a move back home. While wrought with complications in its own right, returning to where one grew up, has family, or holds full political and legal rights is a move that Makes Sense. One chapter closes, and however painful or messy, the next begins.

After graduate school, I started losing the ability to picture my life in chapters. My decisions were no longer dictated by a series of steps culminating in clear milestones. I suddenly felt accosted by the need to figure out what I wanted to Do and Be… this time for the long run. And, given my international experiences and dual citizenship, the question of “What” promptly extended to one of “Where”.

So I moved to Berlin.

When I booked my flight to Germany in fall 2011, “two years” was my default timeline. “A couple years,” I responded confidently when someone asked how long I planned to be gone. “I should give the job a good two years,” I thought when I got hired six months in. “We’ll all still be here at least two more years,” I reassured myself about my circle of expat* friends another six months after that.

How foolish I was, to believe that two years would ever be enough. How naïve, to assume there would be a clear demarcation between this chapter and the next.

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Now almost three and a half years in, I feel firmly entrenched in my world of bilingual conversations, narrow streets, weekend jaunts around the continent, ubiquitous public transport, social welfare nets, and crusty bread. But these roots of mine are flighty. They wiggle at something as simple as a chat with a friend back home, when she catches me up on her life and I realize how much I’ve missed. When my sister or father leaves for the airport after a visit, they are pulled halfway out of the earth and end up lodged in the middle of my throat. Every time I get on a plane and head back across the ocean, a part of me fears they will be ripped out entirely. Because no matter how long I stay in Europe and embrace the rights my German passport affords me, I will always also be American. No matter how incredible a life I build for myself on this side of the Atlantic, there will always be a Life Back Home.

I was not aware of how much I had internalized this feeling until last summer, when my mother and I visited relatives in northwestern Germany. Sipping coffee on a sunny terrace, a family friend commented, “I could never do what you’re doing, be so far away from my family… I’m too close to them.” My reaction to her declaration was nothing short of primal. Of course I missed my family! Of course I felt close to them! I was not away because of, but rather, in spite of them – an unpleasant reality I struggle with on a near daily basis.

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Modern advances in travel and technology have enabled more and more people to adopt lifestyles fueled by wanderlust and adventure. But not all of us who leave home are perpetual wanderers with nomadic spirits. Some of us are searching for somewhere to settle. Some of us are even surprised to find ourselves making a life away from where we grew up, away from the ones we love. I know I am.

I consider myself, by nature, to be a sensitive homebody. I crave being close to the people I love and place great importance on maintaining my relationships, both near and far. This explains why any time I am “away”, my pack mentality kicks in and I seek out a local community almost immediately. But I concurrently possess the intrinsic need to push myself and explore. For me, this has meant travel. Whether I credit genetics for this (nope) or my international upbringing, mixed with a little courage and a lot of privilege (that’s more like it), is not the point. The ups and downs of living somewhere other than where I grew up have become an integral part of my identity and understanding of growth and independence. They just don’t make the leaving part any easier.

The thing is, leaving is rarely the easy choice, even with the prospect of Something Great on the other side.

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While I never expected moving to Berlin to be easy, I did anticipate a gradual ease, and more importantly, clarity, with time. Reality proved instead to be emphatically non-linear. Rough patches hit me sporadically and without warning. My homesickness became a swelling wave, pulling in and out of shore, threatening at its peak to wash me out entirely. What if this chapter never ended? What if I never left my new home and went back to my old one? And now that I live in Vienna, my current home because of work, is my “old home” Washington, DC or Berlin? In countless discussions with fellow expat friends on the topics of home and belonging, the resounding theme has been similar: one of overwhelming choice and uncertainty.

A couple months ago, Kelly and I were at a close friend’s 30th birthday dinner in Berlin. Huddled in the kitchen over bottles of Spanish Temperanillo and mismatched plates of pizza and crudités, someone proposed we guess where the birthday boy would be 30 years from now. We had plenty of ideas for the “What”: running his own cooking school, teaching his kids how to do science experiments, maintaining his impressive beard. It was on the “Where” that we got stuck. “Italy?” we posed as the obvious choice (where he’s from). He resolutely shook his head “no”. “Germany?” He shrugged his shoulders, unsure – just like the majority of us in the room about our own futures.

Once you’ve opened yourself up to the world and seen first-hand that you can live, and maybe even thrive, somewhere else, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when or where to stop searching. The list of potential Something Greats becomes never-ending. And with it, the accompanying list of goodbyes.

– By Sophia Burton

*My choice of the term “expat” was deliberate, as it popularly denotes migrants with privilege and mobility. For more on “expat” vs. “immigrant”, check out this Guardian article.

All photos taken by me, in Vienna and Berlin.

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