Monday, December 24, 2012

A Life, Divided

The thing is, I'm never actually living where my head is. I can't say for sure if this is me, or if this is the Foreign Service, but I suspect it's a combination of the two.

This morning, I went to the gym - in my French workout gear, purchased in China and shipped to Jordan in my UAB - and then ran around town trying to get my holiday errands done. Yes, tomorrow is Christmas, but I haven't yet purchased stocking stuffers, or wrapped presents, or even bought tape and paper! As I type, I'm still not quite sure what manner of meal I'll be preparing tonight for Christmas Eve dinner.

So I ran around to various stores, still in my gym clothes, still with my iPod in my one good ear. Errands done, I decided to stop in at Starbucks for a much-needed coffee. I stood in line behind a kid in an Abercrombie sweatshirt and a big, disheveled man in a dirty suit coat. Nelly Furtado blaring in my ear (don't tell my deaf doctor - I'm not supposed to do that), I tried to figure out whether they were Jordanian, American or some third nationality without being able to hear them.

I decided on American, but I might have been influenced by the Americana all around me: the "holiday blend" coffee, the Starbucks-branded lollipops, the green mermaid on the wall, the Starbucks coffee mugs on the display rack...

The disheveled man pulled out a stack of coupons or something similar. I watched as Nelly sang in my ear, and I tried to figure out what the man was saying to Khalil the barista. Khalil looked puzzled too. He was looking first at the coupons and then at the man, head cocked to one side like a puppy. Khalil's long black eyelashes, combined with his confused but polite expression, made him look about 15 years old. He kept blinking those eyelashes at the disheveled guy, who was by now looking quite passionate about his small slips of paper.

Intrigued, I pulled the headphones out and tried to eavesdrop, but to no avail. They were speaking Arabic. Most of the coupons were printed in Arabic. For the first time, I became aware that they were playing Arabic music in the cafe, and the Starbucks coffee mugs on display were splashed with the word "Jordan."

Just like that, I slipped out of America and back into Jordan.

Disheveled man gave a stack of his coupons to Khalil and left, looking pleased with himself. Khalil carefully stacked the papers next to the cash register, out of sight, before looking up from under his eyelashes to take my order.

I ordered, partly in Arabic but mostly in English, then turned to find disheveled guy standing directly behind me, frowning. He looked at me, then reached behind the cash register to retrieve one of his coupons. He handed it to me before scolding Khalil - presumably for not giving me the coupon himself.

It wasn't a coupon. It was, I suppose, a Christmas message:

I left the Starbucks, happy with my coffee but utterly confused, somehow, by the whole experience. I drove home through dense workday traffic, weaving relatively easily through the tangled mess of Jordanian cement mixers, Land Rovers with Kuwaiti and Iraqi license plates and cars with diplomatic plates. I cut off a woman in a hijab who was crawling along too slowly in her Mercedes, and I didn't roll down my window for the beggar boy at the stop light even as he pleaded and refused to leave me alone.

I was struck with a sense that I belong here now. I know that beggar kid; I see him every day. I know when to cut off a cement mixer and when to let him go ahead. I know if I have time enough to make it through the green light, or if I'm going to be stuck there until the next change. This is where I live.

But then, you know, I got home and realized I was out of butter. Butter: why do I always forget the one thing I need the most? Story of my life.

I wasn't in the mood to drive all the way back to the store just for butter, so I walked instead to the tiny corner market next to the mosque. Not a word of English is spoken in there, and they were doing some sort of construction that blocked their one tiny aisle. I couldn't remember the word for butter, so instead of asking the construction guys to hand me a few packs of butter, I pantomimed squeezing past their work site until they moved their boards and saws and electrical cords to let me by. Butter in hand, I dodged taxis and cars as I made my way easily through the traffic circle and back home.

Behind me, the call to prayer sounded from the mosque. It's a haunting sound, I think: beautiful and mysterious and unintelligible. I could see my apartment building just ahead, with its familiar bushes and gate, and I walked that way confidently even as men in thobes walked the other way, headed to the mosque.

There is a beautiful purple flowering vine growing up the building next to mine, and today it was framed perfectly against the bluest of blue skies and the off-white stone of the building. I stopped to watch as the clouds moved behind the vine, above the building, eastward across the sky. The call to prayer still sounded. I could hear my dog barking inside my house. And I could see those clouds moving across that huge expanse of sky - the same sky that floats above my parents in Seattle, above my friends vacationing in Barcelona, above my own small house in Virginia, the one I've never lived in. I stood there, in front of my house, the one I've lived in for almost two-and-a-half years now, and the homesickness hit me hard. The sky, the clouds, the strange purple vines: all of it mixed together with the prayer coupon in my pocket and the long, long eyelashes of Khalil the barista, and I felt that odd sense of not-belonging, of needing to be somewhere else right now, even as I knew that I was home, really home, in the truest sense of the word.

There is nowhere else I am supposed to be. And yet, this is not me. This is not where I belong. Everything and everyone important to me is scattered across the globe, somewhere under that blue sky, unreachable.

Home, and homesick, all at once. Tell me: is this just me? Or is this all part of the Foreign Service experience?


Digger said... [Reply]

I think it is the FS. I am sitting in SC, feeling that this is where I belong. And yet, it isn't my home. Our house is in Virginia, and our home, for now, is Tallinn. I too feel divided...oddly comfortable at all that is familiar around me, oddly uncomfortable at not waking up in my own bed with my dog sleeping peacefully at my feet.

Kate said... [Reply]

Never truer words than on the holidays.

Shannon said... [Reply]

Totally the FS, we are "home" for the holidays but it is not really home, I miss my big yard full of spiders, swimming during the holidays, and lazy afternoons playing boardgames with friends.

Here everything feels so frantic, and the only games people seem to be playing is "words with friends" on their smart phones while sitting side by side not talking. Weird.

Mommy said... [Reply]

Beautiful posting! I understand it all perfectly...especially the ending...and wrote something similar during my time living in Egypt as I felt every word of this constantly. I think I am going to re-read this :)

Sadie said... [Reply]

Again, wow. How true this is. The hardest question anyone can ask me is "where are you from?"

Naomi Hattaway said... [Reply]

This was so well written, shared and explained! But it's not just FS ... :) It's living anywhere that can't be defined as home - whether that's Jordan, or Singapore, or Delhi or for some ... even simply the opposite coast as you grew up.

Merry Christmas ...

Lynne said... [Reply]

Absolutely part of the FS. The question I always ask myself, though, is the age-old chicken and egg - does the FS draw people who fit in everywhere but feel at home nowhere? Or is it something that happens to us?

Daniela Swider said... [Reply]

Beautiful post indeed. For part of it is the FS, the other part is that I am American but not American born, so I belong lots of places and nowhere at the same time. And yes, the hardest question is: Where are you from? Lots of places...

Connie said... [Reply]

I really do not know where home is anymore. Sometimes the world feels too big and scattered and I feel a little lost, but sometimes it's that very same big and scattered feeling that makes me feel right at home. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Donna said... [Reply]

So true Naomi. Sometimes I feel most homesick in Virginia, but I'm never expecting to feel that way when I'm in the States. It's strange.

Donna said... [Reply]

Thanks Connie! We miss you here in Amman...

Donna said... [Reply]

You do not miss the spiders, Shannon. Please say it ain't so! Next you'll be missing the poisonous eye shrinking flowers.

Popster said... [Reply]

Well said, and there’s no getting around it. Christmas time is probably the most melancholic time of the year for many of us. I guess Bing Crosby summed it up in the song “There is no place like home for the holidays”. Home, the roots type, is probably the number one draw. Home, the where you hang your hat type, is a close second. Have a joyous Christmas

sclawgrl said... [Reply]

So true! I'm comfortable at post, and it is my current home. Yet it is clear that I don't belong here. I have no house or family at my home leave address, and my family has developed new patterns over the years that I don't easily fit into - after all, I'm often not there. They live in a home that I left long ago.

Please. Write your own stuff.