It’s the time of day when it could go either way, café con leche or caña of beer. Walking past the café, I choose neither.
At the first table, a dog sits at the feet of an elderly man like slippers waiting under a bed. Today’s El País— The Country —lies next to a glass marked with a high-tide line of foam. At the next, a woman in her 50s stares off into space over her espresso, hand curved around a doll-sized porcelain cup. Beyond her, three laborers in dusty safety vests sprawl together, drinking maybe Coca-Cola, maybe vermouth, popping green olives into their mouths.
A couple of days ago, when someone and I passed a similar café, she burst out: I love this country.
I agreed — how can you not? There’s so much to love. The way Madrid empties out on the first of August, in what the newspapers call Operación Salida. The propped-open door of a shop that blows the smell of fruit balanced on the knife-edge between ripeness and rot toward the pavement. The porteros who every morning at nine diligently sweep the sidewalk in front of their buildings. The medication I walk to the pharmacy for, which costs 7.00 for a month’s supply, when in the U.S. a single pill could cost the same amount.
And there it is.
When you live in a country that isn’t your own, folded inside your love for the place where you find yourself might always be a comparison — with where you used to be, where you aren’t.
The old man drinking beer at ten a.m. is picturesque because here it’s usually just one glass, drunk to escape an airless apartment. The green plums the fruit vendor calls Claudias (swearing they’re better than any other) are nonexistent in the U.S.. My building’s portera is currently taking her annual month’s vacation back to her pueblo. The month’s vacation, the pueblo — both inconceivable back home.
Years ago — another life, another country — at an artists’ colony in the Georgia mountains, I met a painter, a Texas native who was living in Phoenix, who’d made a career out of painting mist. Wallowing in the furrows of mountains; cast out, a net, over freshly mown fields. Phoenix being anathema to even the ideaof moisture, she needed residencies for more than painting. When she went to them, she stockpiled subject matter, heading out every morning to take photographs and videos of fog before it burned off.
Later, once she was back in the desert, she’d paint, glancing from photograph to canvas and back again, paying no mind to what lay outside her window.
P doesn’t know how to drive yet. Here, not many people her age — 17 — do. Spanish drivers’ licenses aren’t awarded until at least 18, the same age at which you can legally drink. In tandem with this not-driving-ness, she has, during these past three years, developed a hobby. Late at night, she opens her laptop and pores over Google Maps. The whole world could be her oyster! But she trafficks in desolate, Hopper-esque Americana, taking screenshots of vacancy and blight.
It’s beautiful, she says.
It’s also other, containing an isolation and expansiveness our current life in Europe doesn’t.
Another friend is driving from Texas to Maine. Her itinerary arcing from Chickasaw Nation to L.L. Bean heartland, from homemade whoopie pies to lobster rolls, makes me homesick for the world she’s driving through, even though I also understand it won’t be exactly as described.
For one thing, because of Covid, there will be less eating in restaurants.
It isn’t that I haven’t been back to the U.S. — been home — in the past three years. Before each of those trips, I imagined they’d be like going back to my parents’ house for the first time after I started college. Oasis and sticky trap, annoyingly too-small but also a comfortable landing.
But each trip was weighed down with the world’s current requirements, with plane cancellations and PCR tests and mask requirements and rented cars. At some point — and it’s hard to know if this is due to Covid or because I’ve gotten older, or because I now live in someplace where I seldom drive — the highway stopped seeming like an opportunity and more like a chore.
Road-magic, that same friend and I used to call the serendipity a certain kind of car travel lends itself to. Now that I live outside the United States, I understand that the road — or The Road — is most romantic when you have a home to travel away from and back, security to bookend your journey. When you have to travel from uncertainty to unknown the trip in between becomes less about leisure.
I wrote this down, thinking maybe it could be the beginning of something, by which I mean something made up, not true. But the more I think about it, the more I realize — this is life, right now, for all of us.
Because Covid has made it clear that the past is a place, one we can’t travel back to.
And what does place-love actually mean, if it’s untouched by comparison to some other previous place? That you’ve left that former place behind? That it no longer matters?
How do you hold two homes in your hands and love them equally? When the usual concept of home by its very definition means that everywhere else has to be — not-home?
In the end, we compare places because if we didn’t, it might mean we’d left our former place behind. That we’ve moved on. No one wants to forget where they came from, not really.
We compare what we had with where we are, remaining loyal to the old country, trying to make sense of the new world.