The nomadic life of my youth taught me four things: 1) be at home where you are; 2) let go when it’s time; 3) settle in fast; and 4) forget there’s anywhere else to be. This cycle puts you right back at 1) being at home where you are.
It’s a healthy mental state to live in, but perhaps not the mindset you’d expect from a Foreign Service kid. Some 36 years ago, my husband, Ray, and I had spent another early fall Saturday morning pounding the pavement of the Upper East Side of Manhattan trying to sniff out lodgings roomier than our two-room walkup when he suggested we move across the East River to Queens.
“Queens?” I said, dropping my hands flat on the formica of the Arthur Treachers Fish n Chips table. “Queens?” I lengthened the single syllable in disdain. What in the world was wrong with this man? No one lives in Queens.
Well, of course people live in Queens, and that included us a month later. Our new place in the Greek-neighborhood of Astoria was cheaper and roomier and included a little garden which I quickly populated with bulbs as the temperatures fell. I also found us running partners, made friends with the supermarket cashiers, and joined the folk dancers that practiced across the street. Daffodils and tulips announced the spring, cherry tomatoes followed, and our running partners joined us in a half-marathon. Astoria was home for two years.
Until Ray started the cycle back up: “Hey, how about Albany?” After nearly 30 years in upstate New York, my Bostonian sister said: “Hey, have you considered Fort Lauderdale?” We’re five years into full-time retirement in South Florida, and I think we’re here to stay. But that’s what I’ve always thought.
I’m at home where I am put, but I uproot easily, reroot quickly, and live harmoniously in my new environment, completely at home, forgetting that someone or something may force the cycle back around.
Be at home where you live. Let go when it’s time. Settle in fast. Forget there’s anywhere else. Until you’re pulled up again. That is my legacy of the Foreign Service life.
Be at home where you live
Preschool with German immigrants in Caracas. Kindergarden with the children of international businessmen in Milan. First grade under the Italian school system in Bologna. Second, third, and two months of fourth grades in American-based Overseas School of Rome. The remainder of fourth, fifth and sixth grades under the British educational system in Bogota. Seventh through eleventh in what for everyone else was the normal American public school system in Maryland. Twelfth at the American airbase in Madrid. I was fluent in Spanish, then Italian, then Spanish, then American, then Castillian.
I was very good at responding to new expectations: with all those moves, I was a straight-A student. The down side is that, absent the challenge imposed on me by a new situation, I founder: it took me 10 years to get my BA, eventually gaining traction in a life of my own. There’s a whole lot more story, for another time.
Let go when it’s time
Moving was never my idea, but I succumbed to the invitation pretty easily.
“How’d you like a dog?” was how my sister and I were introduced to our move from Rome to Bogota, and, if memory serves, how our move from Maryland to Spain was laid out years later. Once you’ve accepted the gift, you’ve accepted the change of venue.
Our parents presented each move enthusiastically. For Dad, I think it was a genuine embracing of the next Foreign Service assignment: new city, new country, new language, new issues. Mom, on the other hand, felt the loss of each carefully created home, the dread of packing, the stress of adjusting our family to a whole new world. After moving to our second post (from Caracas to Milan), she experienced what she called “the blues,” a six-month period of depression that would accompany every subsequent move. She was disappointed in herself, and did not share her feelings with Dad or show them to my sister and me: instead, she got busy finding us schools; hiring maids; learning to navigate in a new town, new country, new language; doing what Dad and the Embassy expected of her.
Mom’s sacrifice allowed my Dad, my sister and me to move forward as if all of this were normal. When she did reveal her feelings years after Dad retired and they’d moved to Cape Cod, I’m sure I did not express both my gratitude and my sorrow.
Settle in quickly
There was no looking back once we’d moved. In the ’60s and ’70s, letters between countries took forever, making it easy to forget the past.
My roots set down fast, though not deep. My mother tells the story of our being on vacation in Giradot, in Colombia’s Tierra Caliente, when I introduce a girl I’ve just met at the pool: “Mommy, this is my new best friend.” Pause. Look at her. “Como te llamas?” What’s your name?
I learned how to scout out the new environment’s points of connection and to plug in fast. When the Italian school system dumped crazily excessive requirements on me in first grade, I not only aced Indian ink scrolled cursive with a dip-pen but mumbled the rosary to myself after reciting the Presbyterian bedtime prayer with Mom. We’d been at the primary English School in Bogota just a few months before my sister and came home talking about “how we lost the colonies.” I belatedly ditched my ankle socks for knee socks and tights in American seventh grade. I blended in.
The day we moved into our South Florida house I went to a Homeowners Association Board meeting, where I connected with a woman from my old home town of Bogota: Coni became my best friend. OK, those quick connections are still not very deep: it did take another year before I knew her full name is Maria Consuelo. And I even know her last name now.
Be at home where you live
It all comes back around.
As I’ve gotten older, the past is easier to retrieve. The internet has shrunk the time-space continuum. My parents’ letters, essays, journals reveal more than I could know as a child. I speak Spanish at home, teach quasi-dance at work, write about it all. And we’re traveling, revisiting old haunts and exploring new ones, but we keep coming back to our spot in South Florida.