I’M SICK OF THIS SMUDGED GLASS DOOR. It’s been dirty since we moved in four months ago, slick with the oily residue of Play-Doh and buttered toast. My two-year-old son has pressed his palms against it, willing it to open even when it’s too cold to play on the balcony. Our dog has nosed it, grumbling low in his throat at some cat beyond the glass. I’ve shoved it shut with one hand still wet from washing dishes as I cradle the baby in the crook of my arm.
Every day, once both kids are asleep and I stand alone in the sudden quiet, I look at the glass, at the small fingerprints and scratches and wet blots. I think about cleaning it, I really do. I have Windex and paper towels in the kitchen. But I’m still trying to figure out if it’s worth it. We’ve lived in this apartment in Germany for less than half a year and we might be moving out in less time than it took for me to grow a baby in my womb, and I just don’t know if I want to bother wiping grime away from windows our babies won’t even remember once we’ve left.
My husband and I are serial movers. We’ve moved eight times in seven and a half years of marriage, teaching in schools on four different continents, and even though we chose each move, we find their cumulative effect jarring, not quite what we’d planned.
“Well, there were reasons every time,” my husband begins, fumbling, whenever we start talking about it. “We were both pink-slipped in Michigan, so it was a good time for an adventure, right? China made sense.”
I still remember my husband’s phone call to the international school administrator he’d met at our university’s job fair for teachers.
Sitting on my bed, biting my nails, I listened to his end of the conversation.
“So, one position for sure? And you think you could find something for her too? For this fall?” He was smiling as he talked, shaking his head at me with disbelief.
I can make this work, I had thought to myself. I knew that my husband, despite his interest in other languages and cultures, had spent very little time outside of the United States. As a child he had dreamed of working as a National Geographic photographer; I could tell how glad he was, really, for a reason to leave. I enjoyed traveling and expected to keep doing it in some capacity forever; I had also lived overseas before.
Still, I had imagined that my teaching degree would launch some kind of “real” life. I felt like settling into a community where I’d raise kids and grow old; I wanted a home base to tether my travels.
Yet I also knew how easy it was to lose sight of opportunity because it didn’t look the way you thought it would. Maybe I’m supposed to live abroad again, I thought. There’s a lot left to see. And so we went.
“I know,” I always reply. “I don’t regret China. But even after we got there, we moved to a different apartment the second year.”
“Yeah, I still don’t really think that was a big deal,” my husband will counter. “It was just one move.”
“But they add up. Then we moved to Bolivia…”
And actually, Bolivia was my idea. We’d fulfilled our two-year contracts in China and had to decide what came next. Let’s just go to one more place, we said. I found the school in Bolivia and within a month we’d signed contracts.
“It seemed right at the time. But we didn’t know Leo was going to get sick…”
“…and of course it was good to move back for him. He deserved that.”
Leo. Dying of cancer at home in Michigan. I want to go home now, my husband had said. And I did too. The buzzing change of the past three years had filled us up, but it had also tired us out. We rented a cabin in the woods back home, then moved again to buy a house we thought we’d keep. Live here, travel there. It seemed simple.
But what we didn’t know, not right away, was how we had split inside during our time overseas, each separate self cracking slowly in half. We weren’t quite like our international school teaching friends who solidly committed to the expat lifestyle, moving every few years. My husband loved hunting and fishing as the seasons changed; I liked tilling gardens and hiking with my friends and driving down to my parents’ house for the weekend. We wanted permanence in a place we both loved. But we weren’t really like people at home either. Many of them could barely imagine taking a vacation overseas, let alone finding an apartment, learning a subway system, eating strange food every day until it became familiar and loved.
When we explained where we’d been and what we’d done, people would say Wow, the tone impressed or wary or both. Then the inevitable, So, uh, what was that like? It was usually easier not to talk about it.
After the economy crashed in 2009 and job insecurity threatened a second time, my husband suggested teaching internationally again. This isn’t everybody’s response to financial difficulty, but to us, it was a known entity, ironically more predictable than anything we could expect from our careers at home. And we already knew the drill. We knew how to clear a house out fast, throw or give away almost everything we had, pack a storage unit to the ceiling, throw a goodbye party, stuff suitcases so they tottered just under the weight limit, cash in currencies, study phrasebooks, fight jetlag, sleep hard in a bare apartment, set up classrooms and bedrooms on the same day, find a restaurant, find a bank, find groceries, cook with one pan, buy couches tables chairs beds pillows bathmats plants towels spices silverware dressers shelves closets…over and over again. We’d done it all before.
I know we didn’t plan it, my husband would say. But maybe it could be really good. We had a child by then and didn’t want to wonder whether or not we could pay our bills. I told myself that moving away from our family and friends wouldn’t be that big a deal. We’ll be back in the summertime, I told myself. My split self warred privately. One side justified the move: a country I’d lived in twice before, a second language for my son. The other side fretted. I’m not sure I want to be an expat again. Why am I doing this?
“Going overseas again really made sense,” my husband says. “You know how it is for teachers.” But I’ve also heard him sigh when he talks about his motorcycle, his ice fishing hut, his canoe, all packed off to friends’ garages, basements, storage units.
We look at each other, stopping just short of vowing that the next move will be the last. Who knows? I lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life, but I’ve been moving ever since and I’m tired.
Sometimes I want to tell my son to stand against his bedroom wall, back straight, chin up, and make a dark line with my pencil marking his height, without worrying about wiping it off later. Other times, I want to just move on, whittle everything down to a suitcase, leave all the smudges behind for walls that are cleaner, better than the last ones.
It’s not that I don’t love traveling. I do. When I hit an airport, hefting suitcase handles in my palms, confident I can read any sign, understand at least two of the languages on the loudspeaker, bypass the safety instructions because I memorized them long ago, I feel an excitement burning under my skin that seems older than I am, like it grew with me before I was born, every splitting cell crying for something bigger than the borders of my body and my country.
And I have flashes, moments when the idea of “home” seems too narrow, when I see that really, I could live anywhere else, be someone else:
- 10 years old, swatting flies in our second-cousin’s farmhouse kitchen in Switzerland, trying to find my grandfather’s eyes in the faces at the table, listening to a language that could have been mine.
13, pressing my nose to the flank of a chestnut horse in a white box stall laid with straw, speaking German with the stablehand, running my hands over saddle leather, stirrup iron, quivering mane.
21, paper bag of bakery bread and glass honey jar tossed in a sack, carried up into my favorite path in the Black Forest over Freiburg, where an abandoned beehive collapses into the hillside and a clearing pushes through the trees.
27, returning again and again to the restaurant across the street from our apartment in Shanghai where cooks throw dumpling dough in spirals behind the counter and we finally know, after a year, exactly what to order and what to say.
28, twisting reins through my fingers, nudging my roan horse’s flanks, cantering in figure eights while Julio stands at the center of a dusty ring, shouting directions in Spanish.
32, watching my son run with the German kids in gym class, buying him little felt Hausschuhe like the ones the other kids at preschool wear, hearing him say, after his first day, “‘Jacke.’ That means ‘coat.’”
I don’t have to be who I am, I have thought. Or, I am not who I thought I was. Or, I am becoming something I don’t understand. And I want more of it.
But I am also tired. What my husband and I have been doing since we got married cannot really be called traveling. Not exactly. Traveling is what happens when you leave home and go somewhere else for a little while — point being, of course, that you have a home to leave in the first place. You tell the post office to hold your mail. A neighbor drives by to check on the cat.
We don’t have an address where we feel home is. We gave our cat away. We’ve been living overseas for years, telling ourselves we’re not homesick, we can’t be, because this is home, right here, wherever we are.
I want it to be. Sometimes it is. I deal in words, and as soon as I move somewhere new, I take language classes. When we first arrived in China, I couldn’t believe the pollution, the butter-colored smog hanging over the city, leaking into my lungs as I gasped through my morning runs. I used to duck down and desperately inhale, turning a particular corner near our apartment complex because some combination of the bushes and flowers planted there, sheltered by brick, smelled so green I wanted to kneel there and breathe all day. Finally I started running on treadmills and moving quickly from building to building. “Being outdoors” had lost its appeal; I hated slogging through that grease-thick air, watching men on motorcycles with butchered pig carcasses hanging off the back speed off to restaurants under perennial gray drizzle.
But I loved Chinese, the way the tones rang sometimes soft like water over stones, sometimes bright, like popcorn smacking an iron kettle. I loved how the words began to gather shape and meaning. I didn’t understand everything, or even most of it. But I was trying. Once at the store, I asked for soup. I opened my throat and formed the tone: tāng. Nobody understood. “Tang.” I repeated. “Tang!” But it sounded too much like teng, the word for pain. I was asking for pain.
Two years later, I struggled to understand the wealthy Bolivian students at our school. They walked to school with maids who carried their backpacks. They made fun of the Quechua women walking the streets in bright skirts and bowler hats; anything uncool they deemed indigena (Bolivia has the most indigenous residents of any country in South America). One student said that for fun, he and his friends used to cruise the dark city streets looking for Indians.
“Then we’d lean out the window and whip them with our belts,” he said. “Once I got caught, but my dad gave the police a box of champagne.”
Many days I felt I couldn’t teach them anything. But I loved their language. Once a week, after school, I headed down to my friend’s classroom for a Spanish lesson. The words sounded so soft, smooth as water, nothing to fight against. During the week I wrote compositions for class and let my students giggle over my grammar. It was the closest I ever felt to them.
When we got to Germany, I relaxed into the rhythm of a language I learned as a child. I was hardly a native speaker, but at least I didn’t have to think very hard before speaking or writing. I could read anything, laugh at enough jokes, ponder the poems on the buses. I could say whatever I really needed to say. Over time, I began to grasp the stranger music of the local Schwäbisch dialect too, its nasal intonations and clipped verbs, the homey lilt that seemed to grow right out of the hills rising over Stuttgart. The dialect superimposed itself on what I already knew of German like a photographic negative laid over a print. The picture changed and I let it, absorbing the new sounds as I went.
Words give me some kind of right to be where I am, but it’s more than that. They make me pretend, or believe, or both, that I am not out of place after all. When I move somewhere new, I am angry at first, tired, trying to remember why I came, disoriented. I resist the new pace, the stares, the strange signs. Knowing I can’t just pass through, that I have to stay no matter what, I’m often more stymied than enthralled by a new country’s beauty or thrill. To distract myself, I learn words. Even homesick, I can love those.
Whenever I leave, it is the language I miss.
This summer, when I was still pregnant, I took my son down to the apple orchards by our apartment every morning and we threw an orange ball for our dog until he got tired enough to lie down, panting in the dewy grass. We found wild blackberry bushes and I taught my son how to find the ripe berries. It took a long time, because he wanted so badly to eat that he grabbed whitish berries, green berries, pale red ones. By August it seemed he finally understood to pick the deep purple fruits that hung just a little loosely on the edge of the bramble, that fell off when touched, ready to give in. He would stand there, purple juice oozing from his lips, yelping when his hands brushed thorns but reaching in anyway, again and again.
When we moved to Germany, our first overseas move with a child, I bought a book about “third culture kids” (TCKs), children who grow up in a country not native to either of their parents. These children, in most cases accustomed to a “high mobility” lifestyle, can struggle with lack of stability but also benefit from the openmindedness and global perspective that come with exposure to multiple cultures.
One of the book’s coauthors, Ruth Van Reken, wrote about her experience as a TCK growing up in Nigeria. Her father, she said, made sure that his children realized the importance of investment in a particular place.
“Wherever you go in life, unpack your bags…and plant your trees,” he told her. “Too many people never live in the now because they assume the time is too short to settle in…. But if you keep thinking about the next move, you’ll never live fully where you are.”
The father illustrated his point by planting orange trees all around their home in Nigeria. Van Reken describes returning to her childhood home twelve years after her family had moved back to the USA, marveling at the orchard of mature trees dripping with fruit.
That summer I planted a garden on the balcony, all in pots. I’d left my trowel at our old apartment. “Oh well,” I remember thinking. “We’re moving in the middle of the growing season anyway. I won’t need it.” I ended up wanting it, of course, but scooped dirt with my bare hands instead, nestling half-grown plants into spaces. Tomatoes, lavender, and roses cupped in clay. Basil, parsley, and chili peppers crowding a terracotta basin. A little strawberry plant, the pale beads of berries budding under leaves the size of my thumbnail.
I was determined to show my son that we could plant things and stay long enough to watch them grow, even eat them. First the tomatoes were green; my son stared at the little globes. He reached out to stroke their silky skins. Sometimes he picked them. I always tried to explain that they weren’t ripe yet, that he should remember the blackberries, that he had to wait for red.
When the red came, I took his hand and led him out to the balcony. I pointed under the leaves and he laughed, then pulled at the fruit until it popped off. He ate. It was a small crop; there was only enough for the afternoon. There would be no canning or freezing, no preparing for a future we couldn’t plan. In that moment, the sun shone and the tomatoes exploded in our mouths, and then they were gone.
I wanted my son, and my daughter when she came, to feel rooted in a place no matter how long they lived there. I wanted to have the courage to invest in where I was even if I knew I would leave it. There was no point in telling my son that in a month, the blackberries would dry on their vines and the cold would come. Sometimes we spent whole mornings by the bushes, eating with stained fingers.
I know my children are TCKs, but they are so young it doesn’t seem to matter yet. The baby hears two languages on a regular basis and the toddler knows that those two languages are English and German, but that’s about it. Neither seems to grapple yet with what David Pollock, coauthor of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, coined “the normal transition cycle” of moving. At least not visibly, not yet.
Sometimes I feel like the TCK. Although I’m certainly not — TCKs spend a significant amount of time during their formative years outside of their passport country — I often wonder if it’s possible to live a TCK childhood as an adult. What happens when you do develop a strong sense of home during those “formative years,” only to spend adulthood ricocheting from one place to the next, never regaining your original sense of belonging?
Pollock explains the five stages of transition as coping mechanisms for relocation, from “loosening emotional ties” before leaving to experiencing utter chaos during transition to living the ambivalence of entering. “We start to learn the job or the rules at school, feel successful on a given day, and think, ‘I’m glad I’m here. This is going to be all right,’” he writes. “The next day, someone asks us a question we can’t answer and we wish we were back where at least we knew most of the answers.”
I often wonder if, as an adult, I have ever really reached the crucial reinvolvement stage, characterized by a sense of belonging and intimacy. I’m well accustomed, however, to the yo-yo rhythm of entering. One night I’ll take my son to his gym class, sing German songs with parents who smile at me and coo over the baby, and leave feeling like we should try to stay a long, long time. The next day somebody will yell at me for letting my dog pee in what is apparently the wrong spot and I’ll stomp home fuming. I want to get out of here. I don’t belong.
“Sarah!” a friend emails. “You are doing the stuff that I fantasize about. I think about traveling the world like you guys.”
I’m not sure how to reply. My life is interesting, rich, always changing, but am I allowed to say there’s something missing? What happens when the actual traveling ends and all the stuff of ordinary life — bills, work, commutes, grocery lists — accumulates in its place? I believe that despite humans’ drive to explore, we also crave home, a sense of belonging built from Pollock and Van Reken’s “cultural balance.”
When every commonplace decision, trivial or not, becomes a question — Am I allowed to wait here, or should I go over there? Why can’t I find a decent jar of salsa? Was my tone of voice wrong? — those questions eventually take shape and weight and bear down hard.
Pollock writes that TCKs who move every two years or less “chronically move from entry to leaving stages without knowing the physical or emotional comfort and stability of involvement, let alone reinvolvement. The reality is that with every transition, there is loss even when there is ultimate gain. No matter how much we anticipate the future as good, we almost always leave something of value behind as well. In loss, there is grief.”
I read a personal essay by an expatriate in Hungary who noted, “You can’t beat the life of an expat. As a foreigner, you live outside of society. You get to make your own rules.” Since she was about to return to live in her home country, her words held a wistful tone, but for me, sadness borne of disconnect, and even a trace of ignorance, lurk beneath. Floating across the surface of a community, never completely engaging in its complexity because you can’t, won’t, or simply don’t have to, what is lost?
I want to know the rules, but I’m always breaking them without meaning to. I’m free to do as I please, only because I give up the sense of belonging that comes with being shackled to custom.
We go to church with my son’s little friend from up the street. Once a month the children too young for Sunday School have a Mini-Gottesdienst, a laid-back service, blessedly relaxed enough for my toddler, who cannot sit on a hard pew in a cold stone church for more than a hymn or two.
We sit in a circle on tiny pillows. Mareike, my friend and the service leader, leads us in singing while her assistant Julia strums the guitar to the tune: “Guten Morgen Aaron; Schön, dass du da bist!” Good morning, Aaron; how nice that you’re here. Child to child, round the circle. Mareike pulls out a book and reads the story of creation. She has been very kind to me since we met, inviting me for coffee and crumbly Kuchen, sending her daughter Elinor over with Valentines and bakery Brezeln and new picture books and toys for the baby.
The children, done with their story, make little wheels out of a paper plate and pushpin. We see how a world grew from darkness, light, and water. My son rubs block crayons over the paper; under his hand, everything becomes orange.
Mareike and her husband and daughter are leaving soon for a six-month sabbatical in England.
“We’ll miss you so much,” she says. I say I will miss them too. It’s true. “I don’t know if the Mini-Gottesdienst will still take place,” she says. “Julia doesn’t want to do it herself.” She pauses.
It takes a moment for me to realize that this is an invitation. The old resistance flares — I’m not staying here. This isn’t my place. It doesn’t matter. But I push past it.
“Maybe I could help,” I say. “Let me think about it.” Even as I waffle, I know what I should do. I push the kids home in the stroller, humming. Schön, dass du da bist.
The next time we see each other, on the bus heading to the kids’ Saturday morning music class, I tell Mareike I will help Julia with the Mini-Gottesdienst.
“No problem,” I say, meaning it.
“I’m so glad,” she says.
One of the first things I bought when we moved were potted tree plants — yucca, ficus, umbrella.
“Take them, please,” said the woman who had just sold us her couches. “I’ll give you all three for $50. I need to get rid of them.” She and her husband, members of the military, were emptying their apartment, preparing to move back to the United States. The woman was six months pregnant.
“It’s a terrible time to move,” she said. “We asked if we could stay longer, just one more year. But they said we had to leave now.” I knew members of the military often had to relocate every three years, a classic high-mobility cycle.
The woman’s husband stood on a stepladder, detaching light fixtures. “Aren’t those cool?” the woman asked sadly. “We spent a long time picking them out.” Bulbs and wires sprung away from the ceiling. “Do you want them?”
I don’t feel like the kind of person who cares about light fixtures, but as I watched her husband work his screwdriver in and out of the plaster, I felt suddenly depressed. It wasn’t the things that mattered, I realized, but what the having of them represented — permanence, certainty. As much as we can have of either one, that is, in a life that resists both. I didn’t buy the light fixtures; settling into a new place, we always had to weigh the importance of a thing against its cost and the likelihood that we would want to take it wherever we went next. Light fixtures didn’t fare well on either point. Bare bulbs bathed our rooms in harsh light all year long and I didn’t really care.
But I took the plants. They went through phases. I almost killed the umbrella tree when I wedged it into a darker corner of our bedroom; it spent weeks on the balcony, recovering. “Don’t die!” I thought, pleaded. It didn’t. The tips of the yucca browned with fungus; I trimmed it carefully and adjusted the water. It dried as a desert plant should and greened in the sun.
Halfway through winter, though, most of the ficus leaves went brown and started falling off.
“That tree’s dead,” I told a friend on a bad day. “I need to just toss it in the compost. I keep putting it off. Don’t feel like dealing with the mess, I guess.”
He stepped toward the tree and thumbed the branches. “It’s not dead,” he said. “Look — there’s green at the tips.” I moved closer. He was right — tiny leaf buds curled out, reaching for light.
Ashamed, I shook the ficus gently to let the rest of the dead leaves fall away. I swept them into a dustpan and tossed them over the balcony, then went back to the tree. It looked spare and skinny, very green and very brave. Freed from rot, it began to grow in earnest. Soon the leaves surged and flattened, curved like a horse’s ears.
One bright fall day, the kids and I head into the city. We’re meeting a friend of one of my old college friends today — I don’t know her yet, but her kids are the same age as mine and I want to give the whole thing a chance. I might not clean doors, but I still want friends. I’ve made them everywhere we’ve lived. They’re scattered all over the world now and when I think about not knowing any of them, not moving all the times that led me to them, I feel a cold emptiness start to grow.
When, in my mind, I erase each move one by one, trading them all for stability in some imagined house in a town I’ve never seen, I realize that each new place I’ve lived has actually offered the most important kind of permanence: people. As transitory as I’ve been, in every bare apartment in every new country, friendships have taken shape. Just when I start to think, I could leave tomorrow and nobody would care, they remind me how much there is to miss.
The friend of a friend and I recognize each other right away. She touches my shoulder and kisses my cheek. We order chai and Apfelschorle, a standard mix of apple juice and sparkling mineral water, and my son eats a Brezel with one hand while holding her six-month-old baby’s fingers with the other. He is really into babies now that he has a little sister.
“How long did you live in the United States?” I ask her. She is German and has just moved back here with her husband.
“Just two years,” she says, and pauses. “But I miss it so much.”
I am surprised to see her eyes fill with tears. “The people were so friendly,” she says. “So open.” We debate which is the better place to raise children — Americans, she says, are nicer to kids, but I like how easy it is to access nature, even from a city, in Germany. Clothes are cheaper in the US, but fresh fruits and vegetables are cheaper here. We reach no conclusions but promise to meet again next week, maybe at a playground so our sons can swing together if the weather is nice. I leave feeling half homesick, half grateful.
Back at our apartment, I’m looking at pictures from home. “You sad, Mama?” my son asks. He has learned to ask questions — his voice rises at the end of the sentence. His eyebrows dovetail together in worry. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t seen me cry before and I wish I could stop.
“I’m sad, honey,” I say, wiping my eyes. “I miss Michigan.” Michigan is a myth to my son. It’s where Oma and Opa live. It’s across the ocean. You fly there with an airplane. He was born there. He thinks it’s funny.
“Do you remember when Papa was away in Sweden?” I ask. “You missed Papa, right?”
“Ja,” says my son. He still won’t say this word in English.
“Sometimes people miss other people,” I say. “And sometimes they miss places. When they miss a place, it’s called ‘homesick.’ I’m homesick for Michigan.” But even as I say it, I realize it’s much more than that. I’m homesick for China, for Bolivia. For everything. I’m homesick for Germany too, and I haven’t even left yet.
“Plant your trees,” I think to myself. For a moment, the weight of all the places I have loved and missed bears down.
Outside, the clouds slide away. Sun pushes against the glass, breaking through the smudges, turning them almost silver. “Today,” I tell myself as I rock the baby, born here, home here, in my arms. “Today I will wipe them clean.”
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]