Sunday, 10th April, 2016
(This post is part 2 of the Brooklyn Chronicles: reflections of my ex-pat life, based on John Crowley’s 2015 movie Brooklyn.)
This is not a critical analysis of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s 2015 movie. Nor is it a love letter to Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay) and Colm Tóibín, although that could be its unintended destination. This is a journey, a reflection of how Brooklyn touched me, and the associations it pulled and triggered from the depths of my ex-patriot personal experience.
I am not an Irish woman leaving home in 1951 for the foreign shores of America, drifting alone into the streets of Brooklyn. But if there were ever a more apt description of what the past few years of my life has felt like, I guess I might have written it myself. In lieu of that, I prescribe this movie to anyone who has ever experienced, witnessed, or survived the crippling plague of displacement, homesickness, doubt, and wonder.
There should be very few spoilers, insomuch as I assume you might figure out that Brooklyn is a movie about a girl who emigrates to America from Ireland. If that’s a spoiler, sorry!)
I wrote four poems when we lived in Amsterdam. Only one of them was about life there.
I Want to Be Carried
Today, my third floor flat
has become an Everest:
an unrepentant ascent.
So much of living
in a foreign country
is about swimming upstream.
The gulls are tethered
to the winds, buoyed
in the air like puppets.
and lonely houseboats
strain against their moorings,
sink back steadily into the drift.
Not everything is difficult;
moments of ease wash
over like headlights.
I sit backwards on buses
because I want to be carried.
Out on the sleeping streets,
breezes lift the leaves,
help them fall.
When we lived in Amsterdam, everything was in a foreign language. The Dutch speak perfect English (often better than we do!), but we shopped at markets for the first few months to avoid the inevitable linguistic breakdown of trying to decode Dutch labels in the grocery store. At least we could recognise vegetables in real life without having to know what they were called.
At the market, we had a Cheese Guy. He was awesome, but didn’t speak very much English. Since cheese was, and is, very important to me, I was determined not to let a mere difference in language deter my mission.
“Are you still trying to teach me Dutch?” I ask him.
“Yes – trying.”
And then it hits me:
There are so many things I want to say to him that I’ll never be able to.
— from ‘Vier – Negentig‘ (December, 2011)
Learning takes a lot of energy. Learning places, faces, routines, gestures, customs, language, rituals, politenesses. Learning how and when to admit: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What does that mean?” Learning to translate internally, learning to observe, and watch, and assimilate, and participate.
This is especially true living somewhere with a new language. But even when we speak in English, a common language doesn’t solve my sense of displacement.
I still love Surry Hills when I walk through it. It feels like my first Sydney home. We lived in temporary business accommodation on Crown Street for two weeks when we arrived (read: short-term apartment rentals). Surry Hills library was the first Sydney library I met. There’s a 5-block stretch of Crown Street embedded in my memory of places – it was the first part of Sydney I met. It’s true: first impressions absolutely dig deep into the long-term memory and lodge there.
I don’t know what I’m trying to recognise. I’m just glad when part of the new city jumps out as a place I’ve been before.
When I went to the doctor’s for the first time in Randwick, I met Dr. Brittain. Ironically, his name instilled a sense of comfort in me. Then, I discovered he had actually practiced in the UK, and new quite a bit about the US medical system. At one of our appointments, he tried to explain to me where I might fill my prescription, then said: “I forget. You don’t even know where to buy newspapers right now.”
It wasn’t condescension. It was a clear explanation. I was grateful that I happened to find the perfect doctor who could explain everything to me in terms of how it related – or differed – from the UK and US medical systems. Co-pays. Insurance. Prescriptions. Appointments. Referrals. He knew how to translate for me, and it helped me figure out more questions to ask.
When Andrew turned 30 this year, I wanted to record a video of 30 friends and family members sending him love and birthday wishes. But it just happened to be a few months after we had moved to Sydney. And I got many more volunteers than I expected; all of it accumulated into a 45-minute video.
When I showed it to him, Andrew got through the first 5 minutes and then left the room crying (I’m really glad I wasn’t recording a reaction video). I thought it would be a salve to help the transition of being far, far away from almost everyone we love. It didn’t help. It was too soon.
This year for my birthday Andrew took me for a drink at Baxters, a Sydney whisky bar. I teared up for a few minutes. I miss Scotland. Almost every day. I hadn’t expected to be sharing my birthday with Scotland. The longing was temporarily overwhelming, and then we went back to celebrating.
I’ve been an ex-pat for how many years? That’s a difficult question for me to answer, because being an ex-pat (“ex-patriot”) relies on a central place to call home. Which country is the one I’ve departed from? I introduce myself as Scottish-American, when in Sydney I don’t really sound like either of those. Recently, people have told me that my British accent is sounding very Australian. But there’s still so many Aussie references that fly straight over my head.
The act of living in different countries affords great chances to adapt, to learn new places, becoming fluent in new contexts. I may only speak English with a smattering of Dutch and Italian — but I’m multi-lingual in cultures and how to set up foundations.
In Scotland, our landlord wanted to put the flat on the market to sell it. Knowing that we would be moving to Australia in 6 months, we packed up and moved to another area of Edinburgh. We were packing up to move apartments, but it was like a trial version of the packing up we did 6 months later to move countries. It’s not something we did on purpose, but it became a good exercise in letting go, paring down, distilling to essentials (even though we still moved to Australia with too much stuff. I would blame my books, but literature can never do wrong in my eyes).
All of this came with the inherent echo of: I’ve done this before. It both instills confidence, and feels discouraging. Another new city to get lost in. Another culture to decode. Another community to build, brick by brick, person by person. Another time zone to keep track of.
When I get exhausted by the constant learning, the constant adapting, I look for small ways to let myself be carried. I sit backwards on the bus. I spend whole days in bookstores. I have tea and lunch with other ex-pat friends and I ask them to temporarily help me carry the international burden of separation. The hardship of missing what we left, as it weighs against the gift of being where we are.