Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Just off Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks there's a point where the waves are confused. I stood facing them one night for a long time, lighthouse to my back, riveted by the reeling currents driving noisily from left and right. Waves crashed into each other like wild beasts turned suddenly desperate prey from confident predator, a slow meander to shore just a distant memory now to these furious whitecaps.
I thought of this place when the honorable US Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch quoted a compatriot of Truman who said, "Politics should stop at the water's edge."
Exactly. We nomads may carry wounds and memories of rough government to our next posts, but messing with the new country is off limits. Foreign meddling in the course of domestic human affairs? A universal taboo, notwithstanding current Republican amnesia.
More difficult to leave at the water’s edge is that internal baggage, the stuff we covertly check at every flight, lugging it around for a new therapist or maybe a lover waiting for us somewhere on the planet. On the threshold of an unknown future, the noisy battles and righteous voices behind us can echo loudly in our ears, haunting our paths forward, wherever we land.
I've been looking at the literature on culture shock. Four stages are listed: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. Sounds like a bad marriage, or maybe coming to terms with death...but I'll bite:
After ten years in Portugal, Boston in 1964 sent me directly to (2) frustration, with some (4) acceptance coming later when I returned for college and fell in love with Beacon Hill and Newbury Street. Minnesota in between never got me out of the (3) adjustment stage, feeling like a Portuguese foreigner stuck in the snowy fjords, brunette among the blondes. Each time landing back in Lisbon over the years was unquestionably (1) honeymoon. In fact, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego's Coronado Island mimicked Lisbon enough to jolt moments of California acceptance into a bit of honeymoon from time to time.
This final one-way across the Atlantic put me right into honeymoon again, but this time the other three stages were activated as well. I didn't get them sequentially, though, any more than in the US, but rather in nonlinear fashion, jumbled together some days and strung out on others. On a given day I could bite into a honeymoon pastry at my café, find nothing but frustration at Finanças, garner my adjustment grit purchasing a substitute for an old favorite at the farmácia, and settle into the post office waiting line beaming acceptance. Learning to push Prioridade for cane-walkers before the regular queue button got me there quicker.
Nonetheless fiftysome years in the States, however mired I was in the middle two stages, had at least become familiar. Plus I'd never developed adult coping strategies in Portuguese. The high rapid speech and hand-waving of an excited grownup is pretty awful to a ten-year-old. It took many months before an irritated driver taught me, now in my 60s, that slinging back an equal dose of Portuguese annoyance would immediately endear him to my cause. Once I got my own story out about the bad address-numbering, he was happy to chauffeur me anywhere. (The Câmara frequently changes building numbers here, leaving GPS in the dust.)
Note that this behavior is not advisable in Anglo-territory. Grownups in London or New York don't get anywhere if they let it all hang out. Maturity is measured by how well you hide your natural reactions, as if emotions had associated odors that must be sphinctered in at all times. Heading east and south, the resulting forced smiles are not well received. Masking one's true feelings is an insult to your Mediterranean listener, and they will thenceforth look at you with suspicion.
So I arrived two years ago with my share of baggage, visible and not. But the deep internal furies must have been born within me right here after all, nurtured in a sleepy Moorish town up north, right? What is it that I hear in angry speech? Was the voice up in the Leiria attic Portuguese rather than American? Why did I go fight-flight-frozen over the loud gardening argument next door?
Lies and truth, Anglo and Latin, Evangelical and Catholic—I juggled my baby languages and cultures according to my audience. I need you to feel good about yourself. So you’ll leave me alone.
It's not working for me anymore, this clever maneuvering of a child, of a student, of a violinist, even a professor with critical thinking and ethical arguments to spare. Nowadays sleeping with the enemy is no longer an option. One of us will not get up in the morning.
So 'culture shock' doesn't quite fit, after all these years...nor does expat...maybe this is more like being a refugee in time, deported back to the beginning, escaping something less-to-more tolerable? Or at least more comfortable? Because I realized recently, riding along Avenida Marginal as the Tejo bay widened into the Atlantic, that I do not have a comfort zone. I was in an Uber with a visiting Californian and it was clear she saw her travels in relation to her people and her life back home. Her comfort zone. Where was mine?
There have been intense moments of comfort, of belonging, in a dorm, a train cabin, at a party, in a conversation here and there. Over a midnight feast in a Leningrad apartment, an heirloom building along Boylston, in an underground Vienna restaurant, on a rooftop terrace in Luxor, a flowered courtyard in San Francisco, along a beach in Goa, in a long gaze at a Matisse, on a high quilted bed in Nova Scotia, by a fireplace in a Minnesota bar.
Is my comfort zone ephemeral, fleeting, temporally displaced, geographically rootless? Orgasmic, rolling in with a set of waves, not meant to last?
Saudades, the yearning for a place from long ago, perhaps are dim not by virtue of space but of time.
So yes, sometimes, standing very still at the water's edge, the noisy battles and righteous voices behind you keep ringing in your ears. The ocean shelf is too far out, where all is silenced in the freezing depths. Between you and the cold horizon is a roaring, crashing surf, breaking onto the shoreline's salty darkness, carrying both dreams and nightmares out beyond, into journeys yet to come.
23 FEBRUARY 2020