The Lie of Living Abroad and the Truth of Going Home
There’s a cartoon panel my dad had framed when we were kids, and it comes up often whenever one of his children does something impressive. In it, a dad cow and a baby cow are looking up at the night sky, watching a third cow jump over the moon. The big cow says to the calf, “Son, your mother is a remarkable woman.”
She is. They both are.
Growing up, they packed our summers with road tips and house swaps. Our Thanksgiving table was fifty percent international, strangers my mom picked up at the train station or in hair salons. Then, of course there was the year I followed her to bellydance classes and Arabic lessons. (Though to this day I still can only say one complete sentence.)
By the time I was old enough to plan for the future, the only picture I could conjure up involved travel. When I grow up, I thought, I will only drink coffee in smokey Parisian cafes. And yes, “smokey Parisian cafes” was absolutely in my nine-year-old lexicon.
Problem was, I’d always been shy, preferring to curl up with a book instead of joining my family on ski trips and backyard basketball games.
But the first time I traveled alone—a summer in Spain at 16—I met Adventure Marian.
I fell in love with this woman I became. She was charming as hell, flirting with glistening Spaniards on the beach. She got lost in Switzerland at midnight in the pouring rain with nothing but a backpack. She looked strangers in the eye and asked for directions.
By 19—after a messy breakup with my middle school sweetheart—travel was the familiar escape that propelled me forward.
After years of feeling boring and unworthy, I was someone else on the road.
My junior semester abroad turned into a full year in London, which turned into almost three years visiting the Kiwi boyfriend I met on the floor of a hostel in Oslo.
England was followed by New Zealand and a short stint in Australia. I found a grown-up job, rented a house, became a yoga teacher and invested in a community of friends. I worked on a farm surrounded by a mountain range. A range called—wait for it—The Remarkables.
After two years in New Zealand, I was offered a job at—shocker—a travel company. A big one. So I moved to San Francisco and started again.
San Francisco was the turning point, though of course I didn’t see it until now. I did all my usual things to make friends. I joined MeetUp groups and connected with Couchsurfers. I said yes to every invitation, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
I was tired and disoriented. Instead of daydreaming about cobblestone paths and smokey cafes I caught myself thinking about a town where people knew me by name. I imagined a huge backyard where I’d grow vegetables. I’d live near a dozen hiking trails and take my imaginary dog there every morning. I pined for a bay window that looked over my garden or my neighborhood or my children.
For the first time, I daydreamed of spaces that were mine instead of exploring the world of someone else’s.
I am ashamed writing this. Like I’ve just admitted to being really into clown porn.
San Francisco was a confusing disappointment and I was torn between shame and desire. The shame that I was giving in to the American Dream and the desire to run away.
It took longer than usual, but I eventually opened up, spending time becoming an adult instead of adventuring. I bought a car. Got a raise. A credit card. A puppy. A husband. And, eventually, a small house in the woods outside the city where I could finally breathe. San Francisco wasn’t my perfect place, but at one point I looked up and two and a half years had passed. I had friends. Good friends. The kind of friends who help DIY your wedding and come over for tea and tears when you call.
And then. Six months ago. My husband and I moved to Germany.
The reason why is uncomfortable.
The truth is that I didn’t know what to do with a home and a routine. I thought that by settling down I was giving in to a life of being Average Marian and I had spent so many years running away from her.
The story I told myself was that normal life wasn’t for me. My identity as an expat and a wanderer set me apart, making me more interesting. More remarkable.
My parents are over the moon (get it? over the moon?) about my adventures. They visit me in every country and brag to their friends. My own friends email to express jealousy and awe. Strangers ask how I do it.
Which is probably why it took me five countries and twenty-eight years to admit: I am exhausted.
As I write this, I’m holed up in my Düsseldorf apartment for the sixth day in a row. I’m looking out across the square of concrete buildings and winter-dead trees, so homesick my heart hurts. But homesick for where? For what? My adulthood has pinged across the globe and I’m nostalgic for a life I’ve never lived.
The truth is that I am grateful to be shaped by my collection of adventures, but that being remarkable is more than just how many cities you visit and people you impress. To be remarkable is to lead a life that is yours.
Because the lie is that I am effortlessly free-spirited. A forever wanderer.
The truth is that I’m ready to come home.
Marian Schembari is an award-winning writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner currently setting down temporary roots in Germany. She first got involved with Stratejoy in 2010 as a season 3 blogger.
She believes in the internet’s power to invite a real, deep look into our own unique stories and our feelings about them.