“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
I was in Massachusetts and Maine last week, New York this week. The US is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was familiar long before I first came here more than two decades ago to start college. I grew up on American TV shows and movies (my seven-year-old American niece informed me it’s always called “movies” here, not “films”). I felt as if I knew these streets and landmarks and the kind of people who inhabited them long before I actually did.
The openness and friendliness of American people continue to take me by surprise. There is little of the embarrassed politeness of British culture. Nothing warms my heart as much as walking into my favourite New York bookstore, The Strand, and seeing it crowded with people buying armloads of books. Many bookshops in Dhaka have closed or become stationery outlets. In liberal Boston and certainly in New York, I love the complete colour spectrum of humanity moving together. It is a rare place where anything goes.
But it still feels like a strange land viewed through a slightly fogged window, something I can’t quite touch or hold. Even when I was walking around my old haunts of my college dorm or the building that housed the darkroom where I spent my undergraduate days. It lacks the instant recognition and ease of an old friend.
Up in the air
Despite travelling regularly from the age of four, I am still unsettled by it. Long before I get on a plane, I pre-stress about the stress of checking in and going through immigration and baggage checks and the tedium of waiting to board. Even though I was upgraded to first class on one leg of my long flight (thank you, Etihad), I feel fragile, like what I imagine a baby feels at birth – I want to wail and retreat.
Despite the tiredness of travel, I used to love arriving. I was happy to go anywhere as long as it wasn’t a country where women had to live by dramatically different social rules. I would feel baffled hearing of the “immigrant experience”, of people feeling they didn’t fit in anywhere. I thought I fit in everywhere. I learnt to say “thank you” in the local language, used it all the time, wasn’t afraid to look like an idiot, and just dived in.
But something has shifted. My standards are higher and/or I’m less tolerant. As with men. In my 20s, I would meet men all the time. Really, everywhere. I would sneeze and there would be a man standing there saying “bless you”. Sure, he could end up being too pompous or too tedious, but the experience of that moment was still fun. And there were so many of them around.
By the time I came out of my divorce, blinking in the bright sunlight, the men had kind of disappeared. A common complaint from other single women friends was that all the men were now gay or married. (In Bangladesh, they are often gay and married, such is the taboo attached to coming out, alas.)
Roaming around in my 20s, I thought the same of countries. If this one didn’t feel quite right, it was fine, because there was the whole world left to explore. Now it feels much like these countries are the equivalent of gay or married (or gay and married). The way the US’s non-negotiable love affair with guns feels like a deal-breaker to me.
Get back to where you once belonged
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her moving memoir, Eat Pray Love, that as much as she loved Rome, she felt that there was something about it that didn’t quite belong to her. Her friend Giulio told her that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. And perhaps her own word didn’t match Rome’s word (which he insisted was “sex”).
It’s a fun idea that there’s a place that matches us by “our word”, where we feel instantly at home. There’s only one problem: the paradox of choice, as explained by professor Barry Schwartz. In his popular 2005 TED talk, he used the example of going to buy a pair of jeans. He remembered previously having only one option of not-great jeans, and now being overwhelmed by the myriad options:“…one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied, and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. …When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available, and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better.”
That’s kind of how I feel in my (if not quite foreground) hunt for a home. It’s my fault I haven’t found The One yet.
I am grateful that I can go anywhere. My upbringing and passport allow me opportunities I feel I must take advantage of. I don’t have a default home like my mother, who spent decades living on different continents but always knew that she belonged in Bangladesh. Or my sister, who established her home in the US 34 years ago. I’ve learnt to fit in everywhere, but I don’t know if I’ve found a place where I truly belong.
Sometimes being in a place, whether old or new, feels as awkward and tiresome as travelling on a plane. I want to wail and retreat, but I don’t know how or to where.
But it also feels like a good problem to have. Maybe the process of looking for a home is the journey. My life’s work even, if I want to be grand about it. Something to be examined and understood. Maybe my concept of belonging is what I need to re-define.
I could narrow down my choices beyond not wanting to live in a country that would force me to wear a veil. I could rule out any city that wasn’t sandal-weather year-round. Or where fish is not in every item on the menu. Or where it’s a mix of city bustle with lots of accessible nature.
Perhaps it’s like a man, where a carefully measured list sounds sensible in the abstract, until we meet someone who makes us laugh and feel comfortable, and challenges us in all the right ways. Then the checklist feels largely irrelevant.
The trick, I think, is not to get disheartened by the search. Because, unlike men, there are still plenty of countries to meet.
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
A Seattle woman so devoted to her home, she refused to sell it to developers who built a giant mall right around her. Hear this week’s episode of the ever-fascinating radio show, 99% Invisible.
“I’m like a bird/I’ll only fly away/I don’t know where my soul is/I don’t know where my home is.” Listen to Nelly Furtado sing what she calls her “freedom song”, I’m Like a Bird.
First seen at the impressionable age of 13 and forever enamoured of being a free spirit living life out of one small case. Watch Desperately Seeking Susan and Madonna in her 1980s heydey.