Many years ago, my ex-husband and I were trying to decide where to move. The backstory is long and complicated; the essential bits are that we were in possession of money but not jobs and we were trying to recreate our lives after a decade-long series of family health crises and upheavals. I stumbled onto a very helpful website called Find Your Spot (www.findyourspot.com – currently undergoing “long term maintenance” or perhaps sadly no longer in existence). The gist was that you answered a bunch of questions and the site matched you with places in the United States that might be a suitable new home – sort of a match.com but for physical relocation.
The site’s algorithm suggested that Portland, Oregon (among several other places) might be a good spot for us, and indeed we ended up moving there. It proved to be a pleasant but relatively temporary perch for my ex, but I on the other hand ended up staying over a decade in that faire city, igniting a successful new career but not finding enough social and emotional traction to keep me tethered for the long run. As a result, a few years back, I made a new set of plans, heading first to Portland, Maine and thence to various parts of Europe.
So at the moment, as you know if you follow this blog, I am splitting my time between Berlin, Germany, a small village in the rural Italian region of Abruzzo, and (in summers) another small village in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. If I stay out of the US until the end of January 2018, I will officially be designated an expat, which is defined, Wiki tells us, in addition to those who leave their country of origin for a well-paying job, as “a term used for retirees and others who have chosen to live outside their native country. Historically, it has also referred to exiles,” or “strangers in strange lands,” to modify Heinlein’s famous work.
Interestingly though, my expat role and experiences change from country to country. In Japan, my otherness is completely obvious from a physical perspective; I am an old, tall, pale, clumsy and stupid gaijin who is politely tolerated because that’s just what Japanese people do. In Abruzzo I have a defined and protected social role as someone’s wife – but my actual personality (thoughts, feelings) is irrelevant. In Berlin, because I have Northern European features, I am invisible, but totally free and able to conduct my life without constraint. Three countries and three completely different perceptions and experiences of “otherness.”
That being said, I am finding that this expat space of “being-in but not being-of” oddly satisfying.
For almost my entire life I have felt that I didn’t fit in. I was the new student, the weird kid, the tall girl, the clumsy member of the softball team, the bossy sister, the awkward dance partner, the outspoken employee, you get the idea. But *at last as an expat there’s a reason that I am strange* and that is….because I am Not From Here. And, happily in Berlin *there are a lot of other people just like me* and somehow that makes it more than just okay.
Of course, being an expat brings with it many things, good and not so good….language challenges, cultural challenges, huge gaps in understanding, the sense that one sees things others do not see and yet misses the obvious. I was reminded of this the other day when I came upon a perfectly ordinary ATM at the local science museum:
….and what comes to mind almost every time in my puerile my seventh-grade brain..is instant and industrial castration. (Sorry.) I snigger every time I see one of these, not sure others would do this, but it’s the result of the “in-between place” of language and culture in my mind that is the odd privilege of those outside the norm.
Which brings me to the “misfits” issue. Not long ago, dear friend B posted to me on Facebook “I know you love me, but we both know you think I’m weird!” Now, friends, this took me aback. It’s been a long time since I thought anyone else (besides me) was weird, and at the present moment, my definition of weirdness is limited to (short political rant) public servants who have forgotten the meaning of the words “public” and “servant” and who seem to be hell-bent on a kind of national destruction and disintegration that will take decades to repair. Anything else is pure charming eccentricity and barely raises a flicker of notice in my world.
But what this post told me is that B felt weird and that she felt others felt she was weird, and in that moment I had a chance to call her out in a good way. B lives in a small town in red state and she has had more than her share of travail. I thought that I was a good friend; I thought that we were connected in positive ways, but clearly she was feeling…otherwise. So I sent her the best damn TED Talk video I know of that affirms the power of weird, the power of otherness, the power of not doing it like anybody else. I share that with you now below… Lidia Yuknavitch saying “Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful,” she says. “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.”
Now here’s a woman who has embraced her demons and raised them a few farthings. Lidia, I salute you.
Back to me and back to Berlin. Probably the reason I feel so amazingly comfortable here is….it seems to be a home for misfits and expats. It’s a damaged place, a flexible place, a tolerant place, a transformative place. It seems to say to us all, locals and expats alike, “Come, relax, be, find yourself. Just be kind and tolerant to each other. That’s all I ask.” For example, here’s a fellow Berliner finding his spot on a recent warm fall day by a canal:
…and so we are, Berliners, Americans, everyone, all of us, trying to be, trying to live, trying to find our spots. I am so grateful for this weird spot of Berlin, for the (expat himself) talented and generous man who has chosen to link his life to mine, for this time of watching the world writhe in pain but perhaps also in throes of new creation, for finally being able to affirm my weirdness, your weirdness, all of our weirdnesses, wherever they might find you or bring you. Take a deep breath, friends. We can do this; we have to do this. Shalom.