In the last six months, I’ve been intermittently listening to a podcast my wife’s cousin recommended. It’s called Expat Sandwich, in which a woman called Marty Walker interviews one American living abroad in one country or another. And two things recur as a theme, no matter whether it’s France, Japan, Berlin or Antarctica: one, everyone misses Mexican food and can’t get any where they are. And two, after a while as an expat, you still don’t feel entirely at home in your foreign country, but now you feel out of place in America too.
When I arrived on campus at Vanderbilt, it felt like home on day one. I managed to screw that up. Northern Virginia was nice, but it took some time for me to feel like I fit in (in fairness, part of that could have been down to my disappearance and regeneration after my dad died). Northern California felt incredibly different when I first moved here, and once the chaos settled down, I got comfortable – 2006 might still be the best stem-to-stern calendar year of my life – but the recurring bouts with the black cloud have made it incredibly difficult not to feel out of place, made worse by the deterioration of Silly Con Valley over the last five years.
And then I heard this podcast, and something clicked. I’ve lived in my current address for longer than I’ve lived in any one place in my life since graduating high school. But from birth to age 22? I didn’t feel any less out of place than I do now. In fact, in some ways, it was worse. At least in California, I’ve had the experience for a couple of years of sort of feeling like I fit in before Silly Con Valley turned into 1986 Wall Street. I never fit in when I lived in Alabama, aside from a roughly two year stretch in high school (and only at high school).
So if I’ve always felt out of place…why?
“To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged.”
There is a whole world of the alternate South right now. A world limned by the Bitter Southerner and by Scalawag magazine. A world where college football is defined by the almost surreal stylings of Every Day Should Be Saturday rather than the illiterate howling of the Paul Finebaum Show. A world where “Southerner” isn’t always defined as “white” and where Atlanta is the city of Outkast and Migos instead of Gone With The Wind. One where Nashville is the It City and Birmingham a culinary Mecca on the way up.
And in theory and on paper, I should be ideally fitted for it. I grew up in Birmingham. I attended Vanderbilt. I was out there trying to be part of the alt-South before it was fashionable, before Billy Reid and Good People and hot chicken. And the thing is…it was never enough to pull me back. Still isn’t. When I look around Birmingham, I see a place that I wouldn’t have been sorry to be when I was twenty, if it were still the early 90s and we had a downtown ballpark and this huge public space and bike share and…the thing about this new South is that in a lot of ways, it’s getting stuff I already had in the DMV or have now in California. Yes, I could get all the same stuff down South now that I could get in Silicon Valley, bar light rail and decent tacos. But I can get all that stuff in Silicon Valley too, and not have to wade through Vols or Tide fans or the kind of people who would literally rather vote for a statutory rapist than a Democrat. No amount of gentrification seems like enough for me to work through the humidity, the institutionalized ignorance or the past. Time is supposed to bring growth and modernity, but down South, it just brought the necks more to hate.
I think it’s pretty easy to tell why I felt out of place in Alabama – because I was. From the time I was old enough to read above my age level, I was officially different, and that’s the worst thing you can be in Alabama. Recent events have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt just how messed up a place that state can be if you aren’t on the correct side, and despite having all the necessary markers – white, male, Southern Baptist (notionally), heterosexual and reasonably middle-class and thoroughly Crimson Tide – I was still different, and never mind how; different is all that mattered. I basically never had friends in the neighborhood, school was always ten miles away in another town, and huge chunks of my social life all the way through tenth grade were carried out mostly over the phone with the same two or three people. Most of the high school friends I made were all a year ahead of me, and when they graduated, I was adrift, but I figured college would take care of that. One biggest mistake of my life later, nope, and then you get to grad school for the wrong reasons, and this story is so old I’m sick of it myself.
So I guess there’s a question of when ever have I felt comfortable within myself – when have I been happy to be who I am and what I am? 1988-89. Maybe in 1994. Probably 2000-2006 inclusive. I was this close to coming to terms with who I am in 2016…and then the wheels came off the world. Now I just keep asking myself if this kind of despair, this kind of rage, this kind of uncertainly and fear of the future is normal. And the thing that kept bugging me over and over is that…I used to be interesting. I mean, when you go from a top-15 university to National Geographic to Apple, and Nashville to DC to NorCal, and you’ve driven cross-country twice and been to NYC and London and proposed to your wife in a TV star’s apartment and lived through blizzards and droughts and terrorism and have friends all over the country – after all that, it’s tough to go through a stretch where you don’t leave the US for years and you never even take your car out of state and you have the same mind-numbing job for six or seven years and all you get is more stress and more angst.
We rented a Skoda Octavia in Ireland, with right-hand drive. If you get in the car like you would in America, you’re sitting on the passenger side instead of the driver’s. And there’s no pedals and no wheel, and when you look up at the mirror, you’re looking somewhere completely other and have no view of what’s behind you. You’re left with a completely different perspective and have to change the way you look at things.
And I look at 45. And I look in the mirror at the paunch beneath the fisherman’s sweater and the jowls below the tweed flat cap, and I look back at twenty years in Macintosh IT and its ancillary professions, and I look at things like my hybrid Chevrolet and my iPhone that are straight out of some futuristic fiction or maybe Popular Science in 1988 or so. And I think how comfortable I am at home in the recliner with a pint of something dark and a good book, or taking a leisurely drive up PCH, or being able to cuddle the same girl since 2001. And I reflect on being able to say that I remember when this happened 10, or 20, or 25 or 30 years ago.
Through no fault of my own – or creditable effort, if I’m honest – I’ve aged into being where I kind of wanted to be all along. The birth certificate is catching up with the soul. I don’t need to be 45 pretending I’m 25. I have the advantage now of distance and perspective, and the ability to appreciate what I outlasted. And not coincidentally, enough income to actually do the things we want to do, whether that’s London or Ireland or seeing long-lost friends. I still have problems with the geography of belonging – the constant exodus of friends and the bad energy around the Peninsula – but I’m remarkably close to being OK with me, myself, who I am, in a way I haven’t been for a long time. And that’s progress not to be dismissed or diminished. Now it’s just a question of holding the world in macro at a distance and acknowledging and fighting the horror without letting it diminish me in micro. Which is not a small undertaking, but it’s one worth trying for.