A year and a day ago, Husband and I knelt in front of the departure counter at JFK, enroute to our new home in Abu Dhabi, and played “rearrange the suitcases” because two of our suitcases were over the weight allotment for international travel. Liam slunk behind a pillar so he could pretend he didn’t know us, while Caleb laughed at the sight of stuffed animals, Trader Joe’s multi-grain pancake mix, and pairs of shoes being tossed from one suitcase to another. Husband and I tried to pretend that we had everything under control as we shuffled around our belongings, but as our whispered cursing revealed, we were nervous wrecks trembling on the brink of disintegration.
Instead of shipping things to Abu Dhabi, we’d decided to max out our luggage allowance and bring everything with us in suitcases. Twelve suitcases, to be exact, each stuffed beyond capacity. Oh, and five or six carry-ons, plus entire satchels of anxiety. If the Joads from Grapes of Wrath had traveled by plane, we were what they would’ve looked like. At least we weren’t carrying livestock.
A year and a day later, I’m writing this post in the screen porch of a house we rented in Long Beach Island, “down the shore” in New Jersey (a completely Snooki-free zone, thank god), and right now that sweaty anxious moment in the airport seems like a dream. In fact, our entire life in Abu Dhabi seems like a dream. It’s easy to imagine that we’ll pack up from here, drive back into Manhattan to our cramped apartment and resume life as we knew it.
But no. For one thing, we don’t have an apartment in the city anymore; for another, I seem to have lost my New York callouses. When we were in the city last week, it seemed extraordinarily loud, crowded, dirty, and expensive–the things that out-of-towners always say about Manhattan. There were some perfect moments–a gathering of old friends for an evening picnic, a night at the Delacorte in Central Park with Husband, watching “Into the Woods,” lingering in the Met with my dear friend S. from San Francisco and then wending our way to a ladies lunch, complete with quartinos of crisp summer wine. Bliss.
But also? Sirens, and slow-moving tourists, and traffic jams along 14th street that seemed to last for days. I found myself thinking “at least in Abu Dhabi there’s a dedicated left turn lane, for god’s sake.” Yes. It’s true. I miss Abu Dhabi traffic patterns, despite the death-defying drivers slinging themselves into those turn lanes.
Trying to cram all my visiting into a week (and yes, I know, I missed many of you, apologies apologies apologies) meant moving fast: coffee downtown, lunch uptown, drinks in Queens. I felt winded all week; I don’t move that fast any more. My friends in New York move at a pace that I recognize but no longer practice. Some part of me feels like I’ve lost my macho mojo–I mean, I regularly used to win the “who is busiest of them all” competitions–but part of me is happy to have slowed down.
I spent this past year feeling as if I were floating, as if I were playing pretend in someone else’s life. It reminded me of those early days of parenthood, when I would wait for the “real mommy” to show up and take over, because I sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing. Remember those days? When you’d just drift through the day, sleepless and bemused, and just getting the laundry folded (okay, just getting the laundry washed) felt like an epic accomplishment? Yeah. Much of the first year of expat life felt like that.
Now, however, to continue my metaphor, it’s as if that damn baby has finally started kindergarten and I can get some of my life back. My brain is waking up: there’s a non-fiction book percolating, and a novel or two. I am discovering what expat writers have been discovering for generations: sometimes being on the outside is the best way to get at what’s inside.
So. A year. I’m looking forward to going back and–because ambivalence is my true homeland–I am also bereft at the thought of once again saying good-bye to my family and friends. This whole expat thing would be great if you could just bring all the people you love along with you, don’t you think? That’s what we were trying to do last year with our over-packed suitcases: cram “home” into our luggage so we wouldn’t be lonely.
But maybe loneliness is a fact of expat life, maybe it’s something you adjust to, like breathing in the Abu Dhabi heat or hearing the call to prayer and knowing what time it is.
I don’t know what will happen in this next year of expat life and I don’t know if these ideas stretching around in my head will amount to much. I know only one thing for sure: I am bloody well weighing all my damn suitcases before I get to the airport.
See how much I’ve learned in a year?
sunset from my apartment window in Abu Dhabi