I returned to Cork in the west of Ireland seven years after I moved away. I hadn’t lived there long the first time around: six months, the longest I could stay on a paltry visa given to a 19-year-old girl with no skills, no money, and no connections in the country. And it was not like I had a particularly wonderful time during those six months. There had been a severing from both my family and my sort-of boyfriend. I rarely left the very tiny room in my apartment, sneaking out only when I heard the last of my three roommates leave for the day.
- Homesickness: An American History by Susan J. Matt. 360 pages. Oxford University Press. $29.95.
I was there simply to test the limits of my leash. I wanted to see if it would prove to be made of elastic and snap me back to my confining Kansas home. And it worked. I was a world traveler, fearless and untethered…when I was sober. After a few drinks, I would find myself in the unheated hallway, making international collect calls on the payphone, trying at least to keep my voice steady even if my hands were not.
And here I was in Cork, my grand return. It was post-Celtic Tiger, post-build-up along the river, post-shiny new shopping centers whose windows reflected my figure back endlessly, until I was unsure which one was me. None of this had been there before, not the fancy little cafe with the gourmet 6-euro cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, not the entire street where my pension was located. I had been here an entire currency ago. Now there was no friendly, dirty James Joyce on my money. Now it was bridges and windows.
The experience was disorienting. It was destructive. But instead of distancing me from the city, it inspired the opposite impulse. I wanted to dig my body into the Earth, be swallowed up by the city I once…“loved” is pushing it. The city I remembered, block by block, burned there by endless repetition, that intense engagement that comes when you’re striving to turn the foreign familiar. In those seven years, I had changed, too. I wanted the city to catch me, hold me while I tried to figure things out like it had, so long before. Instead I found a stranger, and I longed intensely for a time and space that only really ever existed in my mind.
Even had the city stayed the same, I would have felt lost. It wasn’t Cork I missed. Not exactly. And it wasn’t the 19-year-old version of myself, all elbows and knees, all bad self-cut hair and my father’s cardigans. It was the space between those entities, the energy that they created in the crashing and bashing against each other. I tried to recreate that same balance of excitement and terror, but it felt like a recreation of a re-enactment. I went by the old place, I had a drink at the same bars, I went to the bookstore that gifted me my first encounters with Elizabeth Bowen, Nuala Ni Chonchuir, and George Bernard Shaw. But it was like trying to feel young again by pulling out the high school wardrobe. Back then those jeans made you feel wonderfully invisible and normal — part of the standard. But today, they make you feel old and dated, and they signal to the world just how obviously desperate and uncomfortable you are.
I am in Philadelphia. I am homesick for Berlin. I am trying to read Susan J. Matt’s Homesickness: An American History, but it is taking forever because I keep stopping to look around for my pencil to underline yet another passage.
“By pathologizing any tenacious attachment to the local, this philosophy, blossoming in the eighteenth century, began the process of naturalizing wandering and placelessness as essential and celebrated human behaviors and traits, and marginalizing the homesick as unpolished provincials,” Matt writes.
I have left a lot of cities in my day. And with each move comes an element of despair. Part of it is unpacking and remembering that, oh, I really did give away that black dress, what was I thinking, that was the best black dress I have ever owned. And part of it is a resentment of my new city for not being exactly like the last city. I forget there are reasons I left that city. When I first moved to Berlin, I traced the Chicago streets in my mind, remembering each building I passed on my regular routes. And I would chastise myself for such indulgences, for not simply adjusting to the new city immediately. Surely a young(ish) urban sophisticate can just pack up everything she owns and leave behind her friends, her apartment, her regular grocery store, and move on with her life with grace and dignity. Surely there should be less crying in the produce aisle.
Matt believes that we’ve forgotten that moving from one city to the next, one country to the next, something we think we are meant to accomplish with ease, is actually a trauma. Human beings are essentially tribal, and it’s unnatural to remove yourself from your social groups and suddenly plant yourself on the other side of the world. It’s only this American myth of self-sufficiency and individualism, a myth that favors an all-mighty willpower over any instinctual urges for comfort and familiarity, that tries to convince us we can overcome our emotions and longings by sheer force.
In the not-so-distant past, it was believed you could die from homesickness. That your spirit would drain and your will to live would slip away as you longed for a mother’s warm smile or the familiar countryside outside your window. I don’t think my homesickness is fatal, but once or twice I have wished it could be. I am at least in sympathy with 17th-century Swiss scholar Johannes Hofer, who wanted to figure out why homesickness manifests itself so physically, and not only emotionally. As Matt writes:
[Hofer] claimed [nostalgia] was caused by what he termed the “living spirits” that flowed throughout the body. In the nostalgic individual, the mind was focused on the powerful idea of home, and because the living spirits were “occupied much for a long time around the arousing of one idea in the mind, it scarcely could be otherwise than that these same ones [were] either wearied or exhausted,” and could not attend to other bodily needs, functions, or ideas.
I know our bodies do not actually contain humours, that I do not have an excess of black bile that needs to be forcibly removed from my body with emetics, but sometimes I think it’s safer to believe in humour-based science than modern psychology. If I believed that my living spirits were drained of energy, I could sink into the feeling of homesickness and not constantly struggle and fight. I wouldn’t have to read about the cognitive behavioral therapy that I could use to retrain my mind and moods, or the psychology of happiness that tells me I should be able to will myself cheerful and optimistic, or the long list of SSRIs I could take that would make me stop caring, without any effort on my part. It could be obvious that this is a natural reaction, and not something I need to snap out of.
Matt quotes a sentimental novelist who worried about what might happen to girls if they left the safety of their homes: “My motherly heart yearns over homesick girls, waifs in a crowd of alien people, none of whom care for them.” While industry wanted men to believe that homesickness was a weakness to be overcome, and that doing so was “a sign of fitness,” moralists were warning girls not to stray too far or they will never recover from the despair. It turns out grand things happen when a girl leaves home: travel, love, adventure, sex, work. But also, occasionally, you do turn into one of those homesick girls, waifish, pulling your coat collar tight around your throat, feeling like the Little Match Girl. With no one to love you or bring you soup when you’ve got a cold.
The New York Times ran a brief little news item, published a few weeks back, that I have not been able to get out of my mind:
A new study has found that among immigrants, younger age at the time of migration predicts a higher incidence of psychotic disorders… In four groups — people from Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, Turkey and Morocco — the risk of psychosis was highest among those who immigrated before age 4. There was no association of psychosis with age among Western immigrants.
No one knows why this might be. Could it be that those who have a genetic predisposition to psychosis, handed down through generations, are of a personality type more likely to migrate long distances? Is there something about the act of migration that causes enough damage in the mind to leave it fragile? Not mentioned is the possibility that Western doctors are more likely to see psychosis in the troubled behavior of a foreign foreigner — much more of an Other than someone from just one country over.
The story reflects the fear of the migrant that has existed through time. The migrant becomes the disease-carrier — not the plague, or TB, it’s psychosis the modern-day migrant brings to our shores. The coping mechanisms of the migratory only serve to prove there is something wrong with them, something sinister. They cluster together, sometimes creating their own little neighborhoods. They want to bring their own food. They are relieved to find others with whom they can converse in their native language. It is difficult to fit into another people’s structure. Every default decision you try to make is going to clash with the accepted standards of any given place. You will dress wrong, order the wrong food, say the wrong thing, greet a friend with a double-cheek kiss in a nation that only kisses once. In that moment, you are marked as improper. People see you stumble, and they recognize you for who you are: the outsider.
Homesickness is not just about missing your people and a more familiar home. It can be a desperate need to stop thinking about every tiny little goddamn thing. It’s a complex algebra, substituting for every variable. I remember doing quite well with my move to Berlin for the first two weeks. And then I had to buy fabric softener. I was faced with an aisle filled with completely unfamiliar fabric softeners, and I had no default brand to fall back on. Two weeks of making decisions like this, decisions that had been unconscious for so long but now had to be reconsidered and reweighed because you’re establishing the unconscious patterns that will last for years to come and what if you get it wrong, had left me exhausted and fragile. I left without fabric softener and went back to my apartment and cried.
So I wonder about the immigrant child who moves to a new country before the age of 4, and how different the experiences in his homelife are. To him, he’s just now waking up to the world. He will pick up the language quickly, losing his accent in the process. He will not have strong memories of his native country, nor will he have years and years of established routines and strong ideas about the way things are done that now have to be broken down and built back up. He’s seen by the outside world as foreign, but will not have a memorable identity of belonging to somewhere else. At least compared to his mother, who is maybe coming home from Rossman’s without the fabric softener again, and locking herself in the bedroom in the middle of the day again. Four years old is not a good age to suddenly have a chaotic, destabilized mother. He will have a lot of realities, those of his own self, his mother, and the way the people in his adopted country will treat him, that he will need to balance and try to relate to each other.
The reason accents exist, why you can pick up a new language but rarely drop your American accent, is because of our facial muscles. What was pliable in childhood is now set into its shape. After 33 years of saying “o” in an American way, your facial muscles instantly know everything that needs to happen to facilitate that “o.” They do not care to deviate. And after 33 years, trying to pick up entirely new sounds is a bit like going into the gym and trying, as an 80-year-old, to bench press 300 pounds. Your muscles just no longer have the capacity.
I am in New York City today. I am kind of missing my Philadelphia apartment, and when I get back there tomorrow, I will maybe miss New York. Or Berlin again. Or someone will say the words “breakfast taco” and I’ll start missing Texas.
I fear I am growing less pliable. I worry that after years of resettling, I will forever be looking backward and missing the place I am not. That I will forever be in past tense. My idea of home, the home I am sick for, is a mysterious, shifting place. The real reason I am worried about this, though, is that there are still so many cities where I want to live. There are cultural tics I want to pick up as my own, and I want to reshape myself in small ways through my encounters with the cities. I want to crash and bash against Moscow, against Scandinavia, against Edinburgh. Against cities I barely know exist, and won’t really until I find myself for some reason packing my bags and heading there. There are wonderful advantages that come out of such behavior. But also repercussions. • 8 February 2012