“There’s no reason to be sad.”
That’s the line I use to reopen this conversation I’ve been having with my parents for fifteen years and counting. On average, it comes up every third day for the duration of the time I’m home for a visit (with variations in the talking points depending on my life situation and level of alcohol consumption.)
I’ll write the most recent version of this conversation. I had it with my dad while we strolled Laken around the Buffalo suburb I grew up in.
Here’s me, revving it up: “There’s no reason to be sad.”
Dad: “Right.” (He says this simply and without emotion, confirming that what I’ve said is fact.)
Me: “I mean…come on. I’ll be home again in four months. That’s nothing. It would actually be sort of ridiculous to feel sad.”
Dad: “No, you’re right.” (He does his little reflexive laugh.) “Four months isn’t long at all, Sar. That’s a matter of weeks.”
Me: “Yeah. I mean, if we lived in Buffalo, do you realize we probably wouldn’t even see you as much as we do now? Think about it. When people live in the same area, they don’t make the same effort to see each other. Right? We’d meet up for holidays or dinners or whatever, but it’s not like we’d spend a whole entire day from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed.
(I pause to gather my thoughts and my dad waits. It occurs to me that I don’t agree with my own argument. There most likely would be entire days we’d spend together. Lots of them.)
“The way I see it, other families meet up for an hour or two here and there. We just do our time together in bulk. We don’t get to see each other on a regular basis, but look at this—we were home for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks now, and we’ll be home again for three weeks in the summer. That’s…seven weeks in an eight-month period! That literally means that for two out of eight months this year we’re living in your house. That’s crazy!”
(I act like it’s the first time I’ve done this math.)
“We live with you for a third of the year-do you realize that? How many people can say they live with their parents for a third of the year? I don’t know how much more time together we could possibly spend, unless we moved in.”
Dad: “Sarah Cake, we see you a ton. The fact of the matter is, we see you more than most parents see their kids. In fact, I‘m sure we do.”
Me: “I bet if we were to add up all the hours we spend together throughout the year, it’d be more than we’d spend if we lived in the same city.”
Dad: “Oh. Without a doubt. Look—if you want to think of it this way–we see you guys more than we see Julie and Macie. (His face is grave whenever he says this.) Imagine that? We see you guys more.”
Me: “And, that’s only because we’re coming from so far away. If we lived in Buffalo or only five hours from here, I highly doubt we’d stay with you for weeks at a time. Right? Why would we?”
Dad: “Correct. My guess is you’d come for a weekend here or there, but that’s about it. Nope, no doubt about it—we see you more than we see your sister. That’s a fact.”
Me: “So, there’s honestly no reason to be sad.”
Me: “Thank God Todd and I are both teachers. Can you imagine if we had some other job and couldn’t come home for long periods of time? I couldn’t do it. I mean, I literally wouldn’t be able to live in Germany.”
(We pause to process how difficult things would be if I were, say, a lawyer or a carpenter. Then there’d be a legit reason to be sad.)
Me: “If we lived in Buffalo, in reality we’d probably see each other—what—once a month? Less? How often do you see grandma, and she lives in the same city? Or, how often do you see your sisters and brother?
Dad: (Shakes his head like it’s the first time he’s given this any thought.) Not too often. Which is a shame, actually.
Me: “And, I mean, tough as it is, I actually like how things are now because even though we live at opposite ends of the world, when we’re together we have such quality time. Laken won’t see you every single week. But–we’ll all go to places like Croatia or Amsterdam, together…That’s pretty awesome if you think about it. Right?
Dad: “Hey. Sar.” (My dad holds out his hands in front of them and touches his fingers together in a square-ish shape—almost like he’s holding out a photograph.) “That sounds good to me.”
Me: “Plus, you have a place to stay in Germany. I mean, really. Be honest. Would you truly want us to move back and not have that, anymore?
Dad: (laughing)” Not necessarily. I’d miss those Christmas markets.”
Me: “Right? Yeah. There’s just a lot of advantages to living there.”
Dad: “Oh. Absolutely. Germany’s awesome. You have the castle. Wow. And that Hauptstrasse. I could walk up and down that thing all day and not get bored. Easily.”
Me: “And I love, love, love, the idea of Laken can go to an international school.
(At this point I start listing all the reasons I love international schools, as if my dad hasn’t heard the roundup of advantages before. Plus, let’s be honest, this conversation is mainly to and for myself. I ramble on about a curriculum that’s more ‘global,’ inquiry based learning, service projects, classmates from around the world, an IB course called Theory of Knowledge, field trips to places like the Black Forest to go paragliding or to Swiss camps to learn how to make cheese. It’s a long list.)
Me: “And let’s face it. If she grew up here, she’d have to do Common Core and I don’t want that.”
(We go off on a little tangent about Common Core that segues to education in general and then to politics, and when I sense the conversation is going to change, completely, I bring up the refrain.)
Me: “So, there’s no reason to be sad.”
Dad: “Sarah Cake, you know what? I’m not sad at all. We’re having a great visit with you guys. After you leave, the weather’s going to be nicer and I’ll be out there, every day, working on getting the houses together. By the time you guys get home in June I’m hoping to have the wall in the kitchen up…”
(And like that, the topic bounces and bobs in the white-capped jetties before officially flowing over the falls.)
When our departure date is within reach of forty-eight hours, the opening line changes but kicks off a similar trajectory.
Me: “Now, no big goodbye’s, okay?”
Mom: “Oh, no. I’m not even going to the airport. I don’t do airports, anymore. (She always says this like it’s something she’s just decided in that moment. But, years ago she realized she just couldn’t handle the airport scene, anymore. Too intense.) I’m not leaving the couch. I’m just going to sit right here and wave and say, ‘bye!’ and that’s it. “
(She says that ‘bye’ in as flippant a tone as possible, like you would to an acquaintance you just spent a minute catching up with in front of all the bags of shredded cheese in the dairy section at Tops.)
Me: “I hate these goodbyes. But, there’s no reason for a big one this time because we’ll be home again in three months. That’s nothing! That’s literally twelve weeks from now.”
Dad: “Twelve weeks. That’s it, really? Wow, Sar.”
Me: “So, no big goodbye’s. There’s no reason for it.”
Mom: “I’m not even leaving the couch.”
Quite often our departing flight is in the afternoon, which leaves the whole morning open to feel tense and nurse one last Timmy Ho’s coffee. My eyes are constantly on the clock. We make small talk and have the ‘no big goodbye’ again and again. Intermittent sweeps of the house are made to see that we have everything. (I’m not sure why we even bother with this. It’s inevitable that something will be left behind—and usually something important, like our phone chargers. I like to think of it as part of the tradition. Or, as planting little roots. Kind of like when you’re in a new relationship and leave a toothbrush and shampoo at the person’s house.)
As the time to leave for the airport gets closer, I feel my insides start to prickle and my hands and armpits sweat. I take lots of pictures.
My mom settles in to the couch with her coffee and a newspaper or a Lifetime Original movie, and I just see it in her face. The anxiety of the dreaded goodbye. But, she tries as hard as she can to go along with the story that comforts here–that this is just any other day.
As time goes on, I start to feel this inward silent but shrill buzzing, like someone is blowing a dog whistle in to my skull. That’s when I reach my point of just needing to get it over with and leave, even if there’s no reason to check in to the airport so soon.
For the most part, everyone keeps to their word—the goodbye is not ‘big’ in that it’s a quick hug from my mom and that casual, dairy section-appropriate ‘bye!’ But, it’s obvious by her facial expression that she’s heartbroken.
My dad tries to keep it light, but he usually slips up by leaning in for just one more hug or arm squeeze and he gives me this intense look, like he’s trying to memorize my face.’
I hug and then punch him and say, “Dad, stop! No big goodbyes!”
And then we leave.
Todd obviously drives us to the airport. But, if he’s not there (like this most recent trip where I flew solo with Laken) my brother takes us, or a friend does.
(My mother, as I said, gave up the airport years ago. I eventually banned my father from going, either. The last time I let him help me check in, he stuck around for a bit and stood alongside the line leading up to security. As I waited, he was in tears and kept holding up ten fingers and then the peace sign to indicate twelve more weeks until we’d see each other again. It broke my heart too much, so he is no longer allowed at the airport on departure day.)
As we drive up my childhood street to Delaware Avenue, I sigh and take one more look at the block I used to play on for twelve hours a day. There’s no street in the world that I know better. There’s Swift’s tree, shaped like a chair. We used to ride our bikes over to it and sit there ‘smoking’ candy cigarettes from Barb’s Deli. I once found five bucks curled into some shredding trunk. I believed the tooth fairy had left it there for me (we had a close relationship—my mom named her Samara and wrote me letters from her after I lost a tooth.) There’s the street island, kept pretty with planters set out by our more ambitious neighbors. Barone’s pool, where we dove for pennies and marched the perimeter until we had a surprisingly high-powered whirlpool going. The doomed lot at the end of the street, always morphing in to a new store. The Dunkin Donuts I carried a list of family requests to.
By the time we get to the light where my childhood best friend used to keep a note pad on hand to write down the license plate numbers of anyone who dared to cross over the stop line (he’s a state trooper now) I’m in tears.
The conversation has no impact, ever. The goodbye’s are always big. There always seem to be plenty of reasons to be sad.
Why is that?
I’m starting to realize that it isn’t just about the fact that my parents and I won’t see each other for a few months. True, we’re extremely close (Todd makes fun of what he calls our ‘east-coast mentality’ and the need to communicate and be in on each other’s business on a near-daily basis. We’re on opposite ends of the spectrum with that. He hasn’t talked to one of his brothers in six years. They aren’t fighting and when they do talk, everything picks up where it left off. They just…haven’t talked. This is so hard for my east-coaster, nipping at the heels of family soul to comprehend.)
I do realize and appreciate that my family does see each other a lot. I’m sure the number of trips home we make each year is considered over the top by many. It may even negate the whole purpose of living abroad, seeing as we don’t use much of our time off (or finances) to explore.
It’s just that for me, on a deeper level, every single time we say our goodbye’s and board that plane to leave Buffalo for Germany—it’s confirmation that our primary life is over here. Four thousand Delta airline miles away.
That first flight from Buffalo to Detroit is the worst. I settle in to the window seat, and as the plane takes off my chest aches and I get this claustrophobic feeling. I look down and try to identify the shrinking buildings until we’re in the clouds and they’re no longer visible. On the international flight, I pull up the flight tracker and watch as the miniature version of our plane inches along the screen—father and farther away from home.
The saddest moment for me is when I’m done unpacking my suitcase and reach the final step of throwing away the boarding passes. It feels like I’m tossing out the key I had made to enter that life, rather than just a piece of paper.
Because, let’s face it. For all my talk about having the best of both worlds and spending a third of the year in Buffalo, the truth of it is that we only get to dip our toes into that life.
It’s reverse toe-dipping, if you read my earlier post. 🙂
A two-week chunk sounds like a lot of time. But, the first and last days are used for travel. It takes three days before I feel over jet lag enough to want to venture out of the house and engage with my surroundings. And, despite our intentions to see everyone we love as many times as possible, we somehow never manage to see anyone (parents aside) more than once or twice each trip. It doesn’t seem to matter if we’re there for ten days or four weeks. We see everyone once—maybe twice. Sometimes there’s people we love dearly who we don’t see at all.
Part of that is because everyone has their own lives, kids, jobs. It’s hard to swoop in to town and pin anyone down for multiple dinners. But, it’s also because there are just so many visits to make while we’re home. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I know there are people we don’t see that we’d probably spend regular time with if we lived there.
I’ll admit, part of it is laziness. The travel aspect is exhausting, enough. We don’t always want to be trying to track people down and rush off to multiple plans every single day from the second the plane’s front wheels touch the ground. We’re old.
And, yes, part of it is clinginess. I like to spend hours with my parents, just lounging on the couch in the family room that used to be a back porch when I was little—the site of Garbage Pail Kid card trading, our very own Babysitter’s Club, and the ledge I jumped off of while flapping my arms as fast as I could in hopes to fly.
What ends up happening during our trips to Buffalo is, because we can’t quite live it the way I plan to during our visits, I’m reduced to imagining this whole alternate life.
I see us owning, rather than renting, a home. Todd would love that. He is such a hyper active individual, always on the prowl something to get done. A house could be such an outlet for him with projects and maintenance. (We actually did buy and own a house in Buffalo for a year. It didn’t work out…this is something I’m in the mood to write about, so that might be the next topic.)
We go out for dinner with our friends and the connection is always strong. “If we lived here, I could totally hang out with those guys every single weekend,” Todd is prone to saying after one of our get-togethers.
In Buffalo, because everyone speaks English, we could be fully part of the community and not feel like we’re on the fringe. Todd could join brewers groups and get involved in a Society for Creative Anachronism. I could rejoin the Buffalo Athletic Club and take Fit Barre Fusion or Cycling Video Party. (Yes, they also have gyms in Germany. But the ones that have the types of classes I’d be interested in are too expensive. And, for some reason the idea of taking a fitness class in German freaks me out. I have absolutely no idea why.)
My parents and siblings could see Laken more regularly and not have to reintroduce themselves all the time. They could give the attention that little ham loves.
This is actually the aspect of an alternative Buffalo life that tugs at me most.
Laken is a people-loving, affectionate child. She’s constantly waving at strangers or trying to use their noses to pull herself in to a standing position. Our friends here are patient and indulge her, but the reality is that they have their own children to tend to. They aren’t her family. There isn’t that deep attachment or ability to give her their undivided attention.
As I’m sure you can tell, once I start temporarily living and imagining our life in Buffalo, I’m convinced we’d be happier there. Todd actually feels the same way.
And yet—we can’t do it. Todd and I go over the reasons during and after every single visit. It’s another conversation that could go on for fifteen years. He’s too vested in his job. In just seven years he could retire. What sense would it make to leave before then? Plus, the benefits we get through his job are incredible. You don’t just give something like that up, lightly. Not at our ages.
And, I enjoy my own teaching job so much. International schools really are a perfect fit for me and hopefully, for all the reasons I listed to my dad, they will be for Laken.
Regardless–if we did decide that it was worth it to leave our teaching jobs, where would we work in Buffalo? They just closed down the middle school I went to and are making major reductions in the district’s teaching staff. The chance of both of us finding employment in our field is slim (to say the least.) Our experience and middle-aged status is actually a detriment in that in the unlikely event two jobs open up, the people who’d get hired are the young bucks. Or, at least people who live in the area.
Todd keeps saying that our best and only realistic bet at this point…is to win the lottery. That one in 293 million chance is about as the good as our odds will get (right now.) And don’t think that stops him! Todd plays the Powerball, the New York State Lotto, Mega-millions and Win for Life with fervor every time we visit. (The serious conversation he most often initiates is what will we do if and when we win? Keep quiet about it for a year? Who would we spoil? Where would we draw the line?)
I do wonder, sometimes, if this is all a case of “the grass is greener?” Now that we’ve come to a point where upending our life over here is as difficult and unlikely as it once was to establish it here in Europe, is that what’s making Buffalo look so attractive?
Or is it that we’re middle aged now and with a child? People told me the baby would change everything and I’d be more drawn to ‘home’ than ever. Is that the case?
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that somehow fate dangled the proverbial carrot. There was the opportunity to move back and not be homeless, jobless, or underpaid for where we’re at in life. Would we actually bite?
What always surprises me is that any time I pose this question to myself—and I do it often—I’m stumped for the answer. In fact, my whole body freezes up at the question.
A couple of times I have moved back to Buffalo due to visa issues in one instance and the inability to find a job after my Master’s degree in the other. Both times I missed Europe to the point that it made me feel physically ill to see people posting pictures of their weekend travels on Facebook.
The whole time I was away from Germany, I was repeatedly brought back to this moment I experienced in high school. Everyone was sitting around, taking a break during rehearsals for the musical The Sound of Music. As I sat there cleaning out the head of my flute with a spit rag, I suddenly had the most overwhelming feeling come over me. I don’t belong here. I couldn’t have named a reason for feeling that way. It was just that, as I looked out my classmates goofing off on the stage or blowing in to their own instruments or gossiping, I felt utterly removed from the situation. Like I was in an aquarium, peering out.
It was only when I studied abroad in Heidelberg at the age of twenty that I had this aha moment and knew I was where I was always meant to be.
Would I still have that ‘out of place’ feeling if we moved back now? I honestly don’t know.
On our day of travel, the abrupt segue from life to life is always astonishing.
We start out driving a measly 55 miles per hour and look out at the City of Good Neighbors from its highways; we pass by Regal Cinemas, a Marriot hotel that I was inexplicably obsessed with as a pre-teen, the plaza where I worked my first job as a mascot for Chuck E. Cheeses, and either melting banks of blackened snow or boaters on the Niagara River (depending on the season.)
Not half a day later we’re doing at least 100 miles per hour on the Autobahn and being passed by Mercedes Benz’s or BMW’s doing twice that. We drive by castles, casually perched on the hills like birds on telephone wire. The language is different. The architecture is a mix of tall, baroque buildings and narrow medieval streets. Instead of Home Depot or McDonalds, we pass Bauhaus and…McDonalds.
Two mornings ago we pulled in to Eppelheim, the suburb we live in, and I saw two men decked out entirely in Jack Wolfskin from their fleece jackets to their Texapore hiking shoes. I bet the collective price of their outfits was five hundred Euros. They were walking vigorously, and each had a pair of walking sticks.
(As a side note, I always find the walking stick thing hilarious. I could maybe understand it in the Bavarian Alps—but in Eppelheim?)
Anyway, the sight just struck me as so quintessentially German. Just one more thing I would not see in Buffalo.
And there’s plenty more where that came from. It takes me a while to readjust. The first few days I’m back in Europe, I have this constant “Where in the hell am I?” feeling.
In grocery stores or on the tram I suddenly forget to respond to people in German. Or, if I do remember to speak German, I butcher the pronunciation or forget basic words. (I have no idea why this happens. It isn’t like I’m in the States for months and months and have enough time to forget the language. Maybe it just takes a few days for my brain to warm back up to second language speaking? Jet lag does its part, too.)
I look around Heidelberg and feel, simply put, utterly out of place. I miss Buffalo and my family and friends and American food and having all my groceries bagged for me at Tops (you bag your own, here.)
That’s the state I’m in right now, actually.
I’m feeling a bit lost.
But, then, I also know what’s coming.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll acclimate to this life again. Jet lag will clear up, and so will my blurry, reluctant-to-be-here mind frame. I’ll meet up for meals with this community of friends, and thoroughly enjoy their company and be so grateful that I can see them on a weekly basis.
We’ll do the things that make our life over here so full and gratifying. We’ll go to festivals entirely devoted to wine or vegetables like radishes and asparagus. We’ll hike in the woods and end up at this monastery perched over the Neckar River. Then we’ll immediately undo the hike with monk brewed Helles beers and schnitzel. (Ugh. Scratch that. I’ve had enough schnitzel to last a lifetime. I’ll just get two beers, instead of one.)
We’ll spend time downtown, window-shopping, and appreciate the quietness of the pedestrian zone in the Altstadt.
In two weeks we’ll get on another airplane and head to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands and feel so utterly lucky that a place like that is affordable from Germany, and so close by.
It’s not that I’ll forget Buffalo—but it will become more distant.
In a schizophrenic way, I’ll start up conversations with Todd about how Europe is most definitely the place we want to raise our baby, what with year-long paid maternity leave, Kindergeld each month, childcare that is just a few hundred bucks a month, international schools, and free university education. Plus, Germany was just rated as the best country to live in. I mean, how can we argue with that?
And just when I feel all calm and settled and home, again, we’ll go back to Buffalo in June.
I swear, being an expat feels to me like there’s this constant blister on my leg and every time it heals to the point where it’s about to morph into a fancy white scar—something tears it open all over again.
The conversation can and will go on and on. But, I think that what it comes down to is that when you have two homes in your heart, there’s always a lot of reasons to feel sad (and torn, and confused, and guilty.) And, the goodbye’s are always going to be big.
My fear is just that—with a baby—the adjective is going to shift from ‘big’ to ‘heart-wrenching’ and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to handle that.