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.
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.