Fairytale

Disclaimer: I love living abroad. I love travel. They are my passion. Some of what will come next may sound like I am unappreciative, or complaining; I am neither. I am addressing some of the realities I have experienced from living life as an alien. I have been accused of the above sentiments, but my accusers misunderstand me. I would not give this life up for anything. But it is at times hard.

“An alien” is a harsh moniker, and yet it is true. Ryan and I are now living in our second location abroad. We lived on the island of Curaçao for nearly two and a half years. We enjoyed ourselves for the most part, but we never fit in. We did not speak Dutch, Papiamento, or Spanish. We did not have the slow, plodding Caribbean mindset, we were not Curaçaoan, in our minds or our hearts. No matter how much fun we had, or the friends that we made, we were aliens.

This is true in Germany too. We moved to Germany in December 2012. Our dreams turned to action with that move, for Europe is at our doorstep. We have traveled as much as we can afford to do, and then some. We are united in our love of travel. All our spare money is channeled this way. But we have also fallen in love with Germany itself, in a way we never did with Curaçao. We feel like we are nesting, we have recognized patterns and rhythms of the seasons. We have made friends and been active in a church. We have a real sense of belonging; and yet, it is often illusory: we are aliens. We stumble through Germany trying to speak German phrases here and there. We are on the outside looking in. We may appreciate the culture of being family and community oriented, dependable, efficient, and sophisticated, but we are only actors. Until we can master German (which means we must try), we will always be outsiders.

You may ask, why do we not know German? The most accurate answer is we are absolutely intimidated by the giant task. We have never learned another language. We have never looked at the world from the perspective of two or more languages. Pronunciation is so hard, grammar harder. A deep insecurity makes me shy away and convince myself that I “don’t really need it.” This is technically true; I get by. But I know if I can conquer my fear, my life in Germany, no matter how temporary, would be enriched. I will never “be German,” just like we were never Curaçaoan, but we could get close. The other reasons we do not prioritize language learning are more practical. The constant traveling means we’re never home through a whole semester. We need to set aside the desire to keep exploring other places so we can undertake the ultimate exploration of a whole people’s perspective. Absorbing their language will provide us with an understanding of culture we can never get otherwise.  If we do not do this, we will always be on the other side of the looking glass. I am trying to find the courage to delve into German, but I feel so cowardly. The one language immersion class I took was an utter failure, I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken, others were getting it, but it was like someone was speaking in… German. I ended up fleeing in tears and hiding in a bathroom stall. But that was four and a half years ago.

Languages aside, being an alien is hard. We are isolated from our families, and it takes time to make friends in our new home. And the friends we meet are transitory, they come and go, or we come and go. We have chosen to miss my nephew and nieces taking their first awkward steps, clumsily learning to read, proudly graduating from kindergarten, celebrating birthdays and Christmases, the list goes on. Ryan has missed his cousins growing into young adults, family gatherings at Thanksgiving, his sister settling into her new home; again, the list goes on. Friends and family have moved on. I wouldn’t say they have forgotten us, or don’t care, I am grateful for the talks and time I do get with them, but we are not urgently part of their lives. Milestones are where my heart aches the most. Milestones are what make us who we are, and missing these important steps in a person’s life makes intimacy almost impossible. The loneliness I sometimes feel makes me question our choices.

The mental space between us and those back at home is the most isolating part about living abroad. A lot of people don’t really care about where we have been. We’re just “always on vacation.” Often our way of life is not considered a valid lifestyle. However, when we go on a trip, we learn so much. We see how humanity is made up of people who live and think differently than we do, the value of what different cultures offer, the vitality of people who overcome oppression to recreate for themselves their own nations. We see landscapes that make it seem implausible that there may not be a god. These experiences have enriched our lives. Yet, when I talk to people stateside, they are mildly interested in if the Leaning Tower of Pisa really leans as dramatically as they have heard. I often feel like I am swallowing my soul. My perspective has been broadened, and no one seems to care.

 

Berat_at_night
Berat at night

While these thoughts are painful, we have adjusted to them. It hurts a little bit less now. Our expectations have lessened. We feel more deeply than ever that we want this lifestyle to continue. We have discovered our true selves in the years we have been away. We have relied on each other for our deepest friendship, our bond is thorough and true. Our last trip together was in the beginning of May. We went to Berat, Albania, where we were challenged by a culture still emerging from the Communist malaise. Our assumptions about world religions were turned upside down (again), as we heard the Muslim call to prayer, followed shortly by church bells, and everywhere we looked people were just going about their lives peacefully. As we held hands and walked on the promenade under swaying palm trees, we realized that this was our 21st country we have visited together. A profound warmth emanated from within, spreading from my head to my toes. I felt such peace as I huddled closer to this man who is making our dreams come true. How lucky we are that our hearts meet in each of these countries. That we are united by the mind-altering adventure of experiencing what others have to say, if we’re willing to listen. And we are willing to listen. There is not a greater gift we can give to others, or receive in return. We have found the answers to our doubts about our choices. We have discovered the ultimate joy: this is our spirituality. This is our life.

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9 thoughts on “Fairytale

  1. This is a very beautiful post; every word, every phrase, and every sentence seems to come directly from your heart, and to me, that’s just very beautiful. Thank you very much for sharing.
    As for the alienness you elaborate on, I can relate somewhat. The feeling of being “different” no matter which side of the Pond you are can become overwhelming. Yet, you have always struck me as mastering this feeling quite well. I hope the future has many more eye-opening, thoughtful, and just beautiful moments in stock for you. Looking forward to reading more!

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    1. Thank you! I wrote this piece for my writer workshop and then I thought it would help me reopen my blog. I definitely know you know how it feels. It is comforting to know that. I hope you’re settling in more and more each day!

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  2. You definitely are not alone, my friend. I still feel between worlds after being back in my hometown for two years. My travel friends are out travelling while I am creating some sense of normalcy. I’m now a parent, but only a step-parent parts of the year, so I don’t completely bond with the parents. I’m a student, older than most of my class-mates while divided from my professors who feel more like peers. I’m in the education community, but I’m not a teacher yet, so I don’t feel their struggle. Just like the Unitarian community, I am grateful to have been connected with the alumni base of a high school that is full of people “like me” – except we are spread out and separated by schedules, even if not distance. I love that you and Ryan have each other and share so much. Keep writing…if it helps, your words help remind me that our kindred spirits are out there.

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    1. Thanks Maggi! It is hard when you have this compulsion to see things and to be elsewhere. I feel like I am trying to settle and move at the same time, it is emotionally disorienting. I know you get it. You’ve got exciting things going on too though! You’ve blossomed back home, and you will travel again, with your family no less!

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  3. Caitlin, this article choked me with emotion for a minute, it’s like, ‘How is it that something I feel all the time is written out there in the exact same wordings?? How did that happen??’
    I have traveled all my life. I had stayed in London for 4 years. And I totally, absolutely get what you said here! I love to travel. It is my passion and I am super glad of the experience of living there. But… and there is always this ‘but’, this feeling we unintentionally get from outside, of being alien, it is always there. You are so right about friends being transitory (through no fault of theirs). I immediately understood that you are in no way complaining. This is what I say to people with whom I share these thoughts too, that I am not complaining, I already feel lucky to have traveled and seen such beautiful places. Last year, I visited Germany, Paris, Switzerland. Felt super lucky to see such beauty in the world that makes my otherwise-atheist-attitude rethink about the possibility of A Superior Being who created all of this!
    And you are so right about people back at home not really caring much about our travel experiences because it all sounds the same to them! So true! Like when I visited Vienna and Budapest this year in April, when I came back home, I tried to tell the difference between the two cities (loved both, by the way 🙂 ) I stopped myself from explaining when I got back such blank looks from them. hehe..it’s not their fault, of course. It’s nobody’s fault.

    And yes, German is kinda scary. (Not offending anyone) I mean…learning any language is scary! My husband and I are trying to get a job in Germany, and we know learning the language is absolutely essential, so we are trying, but yes, the grammar part is doing my head in! It is sooo hard!

    Just realized I have rambled on much more than a normal stranger should. Sorry! In short, LOVED your article.

    Take care
    Deepali

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, Thank you so much for your kind words. It is a sensitive subject and I never want to offend anyone. I know that everyone has their own interests, I just never realized how PRIVATE the experience of traveling ends up being. Trying to tell even enthusiastic listeners of a place is very difficult. I am glad that you get to travel too and I hope the job in Germany works out for you! My husband and I love Germany so much.

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  5. What a great article Caitlin which summed up a lot of my feelings too, living as I do with a very similar mindset to yourself and Ryan, I am also struggling to learn a second language which is long drawn out process as I travel. I now meet with a lady once a week (when we are both free) for a language exchange – she wants to learn English and I try to immerse myself in as much Spanish as possible in my day to day life (TV, radio, bars).
    Please do keep on writing and bringing us your insightful insights

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