Stranger in My Own Land

Flying Solo, courtesy of Unsplash

It’s been nearly a decade since I set foot on American soil. I was born here, raised here, never left it for the entirety of my childhood. But I was an outsider then — even before my first trip abroad. In all my years of traveling, I’d never found a place where I felt I belonged, and at the beginning of my decade as an ex-pat, I already believed any home I might find would be an adopted one on another continent. But returning here, Europe having also proven not to be my place to call home, the land of my birth feels even stranger and more alien than before.

At this point, I doubt I will find one place where I truly belong. In each place I go, I get the impression that I’m more apart from than a part of it. But returning to the US in my forties, having not so much as visited since my early thirties, is more surreal than anything.

The massiveness of everything overwhelms me:

  • my gigantic American car, which could have swallowed any of my German ones whole;
  • the wide lanes in which I drive it, with room to spare for the hulking SUVs that dominate the roads;
  • the houses so enormous that I need directions to the bathroom;
  • the colossal shopping centers as plentiful as the tiny markets and shopfronts of Europe;
  • and the oversized ambitions of individuals and communities.

Not to mention the incredible scale of the landscape itself — from boundless oceans to towering mountain ranges, with miles upon miles of waterways, forests, and plains in between.

Humbling, to say the least.

Then there’s the friendliness — that uniquely American compulsion to greet strangers with the warmth and ebullience of old friends, a habit that Europeans may find disingenuous but is, as often as not, meant sincerely to hasten the process of building intimacy in a society too fast-paced to waste time with reticence and boundaries. The genuine enthusiasm with which baristas wish me luck in my day’s endeavors, the guileless pleasure neighbors take in hearing my children ramble on about their latest obsessions, the heartfelt sympathy of service providers and shopkeepers for my struggles, and the offers of help with tasks great and small — the extraordinary compassion and kindness of strangers here unhinges me a bit.

So if I seem a bit lost, a bit uncertain and awkward in my interactions, it may be because I’m trying to wrap my brain around the culture into which I was born — but to which I’ve never felt I fully belonged. Belonging isn’t as much a priority for me as it once was, though, and lately, I’m more concerned with doing as certain great minds have suggested:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
― William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

and . . .

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
― Theodore Roosevelt

I may never find a place to belong, but I’m learning to be true to myself, and to do everything I can to leave each person, place, and thing I touch somehow better than I found them. I think it’s the best I can do.

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