Expat. It stands for someone who was one thing and has become something else. An ex-patriot, one who no longer lives inside the borders of the patria, the homeland. It’s been 2.5 years since my family and I packed up in Indiana and moved to Germany. In that span of time, somewhere and somehow we seemed to have crossed an invisible personal border: a transition from Americans just living abroad to expats.
We still live in the same place, the same apartment. Physically we’re no farther away from America than we ever were. But I have the growing sense that as the days and months tick by over here, the cultural ties to America become weaker in strength and smaller in number. College football seems farthest in the rearview mirror, followed by sweet corn, highway driving and supermarkets. It’s like Hansel and Gretel can’t find all of their bread crumbs anymore. Well, the bread is indeed different over here.
As the ties to one culture fall away, what remains in its place? I’ve often thought that the departure’s tone (sad, determined, heroic, egoistic) determines what happens after that first step. Is the traveler heading toward something better? A new job, a romance perhaps, that pushes him onward, full of hope and energy. Or maybe some less affirmative reason drives him, like war or personal endangerment. These steps are hurried, full of loose ends and loss.
The point is, it is hard for expats to determine their trajectory in relationship to home (or wherever home used to be). Maybe it’s all as it was in those first days, everything still heading away from home toward something greater, more adventurous and fulfilling. Or maybe the true adventure is over and the journey homeward has somehow begun. In this sense, expats often feel like they are constantly in motion, moving toward or away from some relatively fixed point of reference. I suppose that is the nature of adventure. What still boggles my mind is how to turn the adventure into a home. How do you put down roots, create a new home when you constantly have the feeling that you’re heading somewhere else? To peer into the future of one’s own adventure: that would require some powerful bread indeed.
This kind of uncertainty will make your mind wander. And expats regularly dream of reunion or homecoming. It’s easy to sit on my balcony in Germany, in a street café on the Rhine, and dream about what it would be like to be home right now. How happy everyone would be to see us. How we could inhale the fresh and expansive Midwestern air. We’d hop in our car and gaze at the corn and bean fields whizzing by. I would eat spicy chicken wings and watch ESPN. The expat experience is that the littlest things somehow take on the greatest significance.
I don’t have any advice, at least not yet. Most expats have experienced it all anyway and don’t need to hear it. Anyone on the cusp of a great departure is likely too energetic or hurried to listen. Expat: it’s a state of being with an uncertain trajectory minus all the comforts of home. This Hansel needs a brötchen.