The pundits, who about as often as you’d expect are expats themselves, have concluded that relocation to a foreign country means not only travel from here to there, known and unknown, and familiar and strange. It also requires emotional travel — through a series of distinct stages that actually aren’t all that different, once you really start thinking about it, from Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief.
Except that grief’s first stage — Denial — is replaced with the expat’s Honeymoon. (Which one could argue might just be a more positive sort of denial itself.)
During your Honeymoon, a thrill runs down your spine whenever you spot a local strolling down a busy city street with a baguette under their arm (extra points if they’re tearing hunks from it as they go). Indecipherable packaging for unknown products in the grocery store can entertain you for hours. The old men bellied up to the bar on the corner who drink beer at 8 in the morning are exotic, not to mention picturesque. Even the sound of sirens, so evocative of the foreign films you saw at 20, makes you happy.
Time passes, about six months, according to the experts. If this were grief you were coming to terms with, you’d be moving into Anger and Depression. The expat version: Frustration. Baguettes serve as the jaunty scaffolding for every canvas shopping bag simply because people here have to go shopping —and buy bread — every single day. Otherwise, your baguette will be stale, and besides, your kitchen can’t hold more than a day’s worth of groceries. In this stage, you’ve stopped noticing the way everybody gathers at the sidewalk cafes, only that everybody who does so is smoking, no matter the tobacco pouches sitting on the wrought iron tables in front of them are printed with photos of cancerous mouths and the words Fumar Mata (Smoking Kills).
Next stage. Grief requires Bargaining, but the expat has already rocketed ahead and reached — Acceptance. You’re no longer disappointed when you wake up to yesterday’s rock-hard bread. It doesn’t bother you that you can’t eat dinner in a restaurant until after 8:30, or that the shop where you buy your baguette is closed whenever you have time to go there.
It is what it is is grief’s final stage, but the expat gets a bonus, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Assimilation. Now, you don’t even get hungry until ten o’clock at night anymore. You too nibble the end of your baguette as you stride down the street to stave off hunger. You’ve taken up smoking!
It’s a neat exercise, a pretty enough picture (though I’d argue that very few expats ever reach assimilation). But five months in, five months gone from home, I’d divvy things up otherwise, from a first stage of You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know to Words Fail and then to — what?
It’s too early to say. I haven’t gotten there yet. Words, in fact, fail me. At the beginning, in my honeymoon phase, I not only figured a year of Spanish taken over 30 years ago would get me farther than it realistically could, I also thought if I applied myself diligently, I could crack the code.
I’m of two minds about the whole endeavor. Which endeavor? This, these bytes and bits and blogs. These words. Because instead of bloodshed these days, we seem to have come to a sort of wordshed, a gout, a spill, a fountain, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the granulated to the broadest brush.
You should keep a blog, people would say while I was busy packing up there in preparation for here. I’ve spent four months thinking why? A blog and five bucks will buy you a latte. What is there left to say about being a stranger in a strange land that hasn’t been said 5 billion times before, from Baedeker to Hemingway to Rick Steves?
Nevertheless, the impulse remains — to describe. The jamón sits in the shop window at full extension, vegetarian nightmare, a Rockette’s kick. The cypresses are spears in the park, narrowly European. The old man with his cane comes into the frutería heaped high — in summer you eat tomatoes and now you eat what God put into the ground to be eaten. They’ve come! he says joyfully, waving his cane toward the bins of chestnuts in benediction.
I’m from a much younger country, our chestnuts disappeared in the 1920s. I don’t even know how you eat them! I’ll never know enough about this country to tell any story beyond that of the typical expat — but then again, maybe, if I’m lucky, I can snap a few good photos along the way, and try my best, to describe things.