Duncan street

Staying Put Away From Home

As many travel to their families for Thanksgiving, Rosie J. Spinks tells what it’s like when travelling becomes a kind of home.

Mark Twain once wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” That may be true, but it’s usually fatal to a few other things too: boredom, ambivalence, and routine.

You’d be hard pressed to find a short-term visitor to Paris who remembers more clearly the dog shit ubiquitous on the city’s sidewalks than the beautiful architecture that towers above her. Or a vacationer in Bali who said the the slow Internet connection impinged on his enjoyment of the stunning azure water. As Twain hinted, travel extends our horizons while simultaneously removing us from many of life’s banal realities, thereby creating altered—some might even say better—versions of ourselves.

But for the massive group of people actually living in countries outside their own—be they expats, journalists, English teachers, students, or Internet-abled technomads—the physical state of being in another country is something different from travel entirely. Whether they’re working in a country for a short two months or settling in for two years, these permanent travellers may get to enjoy the architecture, but they also step in a fair bit of dog shit as well.

For them, travel isn’t so much about movement, but rather about adaptation, developing a routine, and perhaps letting some ambivalence seep in. When this happens, one finds that the minutiae and small inconveniences of everyday life not only still exist—they’re magnified. Different cultural norms, metric systems, street etiquette, linguistic quirks and matters of decorum can make the interloper feel like daily life is governed by a set of unspoken but unwavering rules that everyone but her is clued in on. While short-term travelers may also sense this, they have the benefit of moving on; a long-term nomad has no choice but to stumble on until getting things right.

In this slow and often painful transition, life feels like an endless series of adjustments or apologies. Whether you’ve just broken the London Underground’s collectively enforced code of silence by asking someone, rather pointedly, to “please move down the aisle,” or you’ve completely messed up grocery store protocol by getting to the front of the line having forgotten to print labels for your produce, simply completing daily chores without inciting the wrath of your new compatriots can be an achievement.

It is true that, with time and commitment, these more quotidian annoyances can fade, and maybe even disappear completely for some. But on a more fundamental level, the status of “outsider” almost never does. The ever-present question “where are you from” begs you to define yourself in a way you’re never asked to at home. In a globalizing world, people have ever-more complicated answers, but the implication remains the same: justify why you’re here. This can be good if you’re seeking to re-define yourself, as many who leave home permanently are, but more difficult if you haven’t figured it out yet.

All manner of people take on the challenge of living, working, and adjusting to life in a new country (or multiple countries for some), but all cultivate or possess a willingness to be a little different. Even if they complain about aspects of their adopted home’s way of doing things—“why can’t people stay out of bike lanes,” “why do people insist on public urination,” “why don’t taxi drivers ever know where they’re going”—they very likely wouldn’t have it any other way.

Many long-term expats not only can’t fathom going home, but also fear what might happen if they do. There, the need for self justification goes away—they’re just like everyone else.

Rosie J. Spinks is a freelance writer living a #onebaglife. She’s currently based in Paris. Follow her on Twitter @rojospinks.

Rosie is a regular contributor to The Magazine, a fortnightly ad-free electronic periodical supported by subscribers, which publishes five medium-length features in every issue. Her most recent article was “Hacked Off,” which appeared in issue 24 (August 29, 2013). Learn more about subscribing.

Photo by Duncan Street.