Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Where I sit

Right now I am sitting in front of a crackling fire in my apartment in Versailles which is not too far from the lovely chateau and gardens for which this city is well known.

The children (my Frenchlings are in bed), my French husband is in Tokyo but my thoughts are turning toward my friends and colleagues all over the world.

A quick glance at my systray shows that it is nearly 11 PM in France (digestif, anyone?), 5 AM in Tokyo (the party is just winding down in Roppongi), 5 PM on the US East Coast (the cocktail hour is just beginning) and nearly 2 PM in Seattle (the time zone in which most of my close family lives).

I never meant to leave my home permanently. Whole generations of my family have lived and died in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America having made tentative (but very temporary) forays into other places. But they always came home. I didn't. Not permanently anyway. And for the life of me sometimes I don't understand why. It just happened. A sequence of events that had its own momentum and has taken me to this place and this time which could be anywhere and nowhere all at once.

There is nothing particularly unique in my experience. France is a nation of immigrants and I meet people (Serb taxi drivers, Algerian system administrators, and so on) who struggle with the same things. Struggling with language and cultural differences, wanting to go home, wanting to stay in our adopted world. Feeling safe, feeling scared. Feeling connected and then feeling so foreign.

But if I had a chance to do it all again, I would. What I lost (loss of place, identity, language) has been more than compensated by the truly remarkable people I have met and the places I have experienced. I have lived in two of the world's great cities: Paris and Tokyo. I went to India and fell in love with Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore. Most recently I have discovered parts of my own country that I never knew before, , Detroit, Boston and Providence. . Everywhere I go, I marvel at the ingenuity, passion, ambition and energy of the people I meet.

I have never seen a culture or language that was not complex or beautiful in its own particular way once I surrendered myself to it. And as I enter the second half of my life I believe that I am so fortunate and so blessed to have had the chance to experience some of this complexity and beauty. This is a chance my grand-parents and great-grand-parents never had. They had roots and continuity; I have something else.

From Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation:

"Multivalence is no more than a condition of contemporary awareness, and no more than the contemporary world demands. The weight of the world used to be vertical: it used to come from the past, or from the hierarchy of heaven and earth and hell; now it's horizontal, made up of the endless multiplicity of events going on at once and pressing at each moment on our minds and our living rooms. Dislocation is the norm rather than the aberration in our time, but even in the unlikely event that we spend an entire lifetime in one place, the fabulous diverseness with which we live reminds us constantly that we are no longer the norm or the center, that there is no one geographic center pulling the world together and glowing with the allure of the real thing; there are instead, scattered nodules competing for our attention. New York, Warsaw, Tehran, Tokyo, Kabul - they all make claims on our imagination, all remind us that in this decentered world, that every competing center makes us marginal."

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