When You Feel You are a Stranger Everywhere

Belonging isn’t an identity document

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There’s no place like home, or so the saying goes.

To me this isn’t a saying but a reality. There isn’t a single place in this world I can call home, there has never been.

Although I’m a dual citizen and carry both a French and an American passport, I’m as much of a stranger in Seattle as I am in Paris.

Despite still having an official fixed address in the Pacific Northwest for now, the concept of home continues to confuse me.

And for the last eleven months, I’ve been living between the West Coast of the US, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands. I picked up my American life at the end of December 2018 and condensed it into two suitcases and a backpack so I could be present for my family in Europe as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer.

This was my first extended stay and it took less than a week to understand I’d need to be in Europe rather than the US for the rest of 2019. Aged 71 at the time, my father was my stepmom’s sole carer and my parents’ daily reality was so brutal they needed all the support they could get.

Technically speaking, I was home for three months but it didn’t feel like it.

Sure, I’m a fluent French speaker, I maintain a keen and informed interest in French politics but I left when I was 17 — how France feels, and thinks, and works is often impenetrable to me.

Identity is a journey, and mine is more continental than national.

I’m a born and bred European, and many people my age have always enjoyed the transnational mobility afforded to us by the European Union. In practice, this means we can study, live, and work in any of the 28 member states.

As a result, there are many countries and locations that have felt like home over the years but only a couple with which I feel a deep, abiding kinship. Britain is one because it is where I went to university and spent most of my adult life, and Portugal is another as it gifted me the language now bringing me back to life.

And then there is Germany and the Netherlands, plus Belgium.

More than French or American, I am a European, a human mix of cultures and languages.

As is my family, if you go back a generation or two. I’m descended from immigrants to France and I am a serial immigrant myself, only we no longer don’t call it that here, not since the advent of the EU. For years, I moved around, even throwing Switzerland into the mix because the country’s linguistic profile closely matched my own.

Paris, Zurich, Brussels, London, Hamburg, and Amsterdam will always feel a little like home to me, and that’s not even the whole list. And then there’s North America as a whole and some of its most remote locations, as well as the United States, with which my relationship is akin to that of an organ transplant that didn’t take.

I am a mortified American: The word that best sums up how I feel about the US is alienation. I cannot for the life of me reconcile our current political predicament and who I spent a lifetime believing America was, namely a place where the whole world was welcome to call home.

Major depressive disorder felled me at around the same time as I immigrated to the US.

My life shrank immediately. I went from a multilingual and multicultural environment to becoming a monolingual hermit. And that’s on the rare occasions I was even able to use language with any coherence, which soon became so impossible my writing voice left me and so did my livelihood.

Because I lived in a country where health isn’t a basic human right and I was no longer earning, I was too cash-strapped to get help.

Through occasional phone calls with my family whom I couldn’t afford to go visit for years, I kept up my French but everything else fell by the wayside and disappeared, much to my chagrin.

Portugal and Portuguese vanished into thin air, leaving me to wonder whether they may have been a figment of my imagination. At one point, I was deeply integrated into local society on a tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic. I had professional ties reaching back to the continent, and even kept a working relationship going with Portugal for some time while in North America.

And then it was all gone, replaced by fixed geographical coordinates that felt like being grounded, trapped, and left to die.

Depression will do that to you, and America isn’t the ideal place to get sick.

Last fall, everything shifted through happenstance.

Getting better had been a tentative pursuit which picked up pace when I found myself knuckling down so I could earn my airfare to Paris through writing.

There was also an unexpected return. Through intellectual symbiosis and random acts of algorithm, Portuguese came back. I discovered that cultural and linguistic assets never leave you, certainly not when they’re the product of passion and hard work.

Granted, lack of practice and a multi-year silence mean a lot of catching up until I get back to the level I was at, publishing regularly in the press. But my brain is still curiously wired for Portuguese and my linguistic reflexes have remained intact, against all odds.

I started patching up the hole in my heart and feeling all the more alive for it. Lisbon turned out to be the safe haven I never knew existed, and the decision to establish an EU base there for the rest of 2019 presented itself as the most practical, cost-effective, and family friendly alternative to transatlantic back and forth.

It remained that way for most of the years until I realized Amsterdam made far more sense, at least from a logistics standpoint.

Not only can I be responsive as it is so close to Paris, but it’s also the perfect place for my parents to escape to when they get some medical respite. And they’ll have no excuse not to as I’ll be there to help them navigate local life if need be.

At the same time, Portugal still has my heart and the passion that submerged me when I fell into Portuguese all those years ago has mellowed into a steady source of energy capable of holding me together. I’m that French girl who listens to Portuguese music when riding a Belgian high-speed train going to the Netherlands. True story: As has been the case for many months, I traveled from Paris to Amsterdam yesterday while listening to the new album one my favorite Portuguese artists has just released; the Thalys service is operated by national Belgian railway company SNCB, itself managed by a French, Belgian, and Germany consortium.

Oh, and I spent most of the journey chatting with my seat mate, a Turkish engineer. We discussed politics, family values, and food. Somehow, the conversation wound up in tea plantations and I seized upon the opportunity to introduce him to the only European location where tea is grown in Europe.

Of course, this was just another excuse to urge him to go visit the Azores because the Portuguese archipelago clearly still holds my heart.

And I finally understood that home, to those of us with ever-changing geographical coordinates, is portable: You carry it in your heart.

Home is simply another name for what and whom you love.

“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” wrote Fernando Pessoa and I couldn’t help but experience a sense of recognition when I read his words.

Our linguistic homelands bind us together.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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