Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

Lessons from Repatriation

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The snow can't cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead - Stop-Caution-Go - which will it be?

The snow can’t cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead – Stop-Caution-Go – which will it be?

I seem to be experiencing a long period of living in between.

We have left Milan. The departure, with all its associated stresses and sorrows, joys and juggling is completed. We are no longer residents of Italy, and although saying goodbye to my beloved city and many dear friends was a wrenching pain, I am glad that the phase of anticipated loss is behind me. Living through an extended goodbye is a kind of exquisite torture – trying to relish all the last moments that I knew I would miss; trying to offer a meaningful arrivederci to all the friends who would never again be part of my weekly life in the same easy way. By the end of the month of leave-taking I was ready to be done: to move out and move on; to establish myself back in New Jersey (despite past experiences of poor welcome); to pick up the threads of daily life and weave for myself and my family a new daily routine that could wrap us in the comforts of home and predictability. There would be an interval of continued flurry, of course. The three-week Christmas holiday with its successive family gatherings and unpacking and repacking of bags, but then we would fly back to New Jersey and we could start to settled down again.

I should have known it would not really be that simple when New Jersey “warmly” greeted us with a very physical flurry less than 48 hours after we arrived. The first snow storm of the new year was not quite the storm of the century to which news outlets in Milan apparently compared it (judging from concerned messages I received from Italian friends and acquaintances), but it disrupted deliveries, closed schools and roads, and reminded me effectively just how much I dislike having cold feet.

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Today we are just on the other side of the second big snow storm, and my hatred of the cold is chilling my mood and making my temper as brittle and jagged as the icicles I kicked off my car’s bumper this afternoon. In fairness to frozen precipitation, however, the snow is not the real problem. I would be a bit emotionally fragile even if, by some miracle, New Jersey had put to doubt all questions about global warming and drawn the Southern California sun across the continent to warm my icy toes. The deeper source of my discontent is the unavoidable fact that in some very important ways, we have not yet arrived. True, we are back in residence in our sending state, but we are still waiting in a holding pattern of “not yet.” Our household goods are stuck in customs (thanks to the holiday, the foul weather backlog, and a random 1% chance screening that will take an undefined amount of time to complete). This means that we are stuck in a temporary furnished rental until crucial items like beds and cooking pots are confirmed to be just that by the hard-working men and women who protect our borders. (I don’t mean that to sound snarky, but – like I said – my temper is not on the most even keel these days). This stasis also means that my future planning is on hold, since my first responsibility is getting our household settled, before I begin the daunting task of seeking gainful employment after three years out of the workforce.

As I type these words I am conscious of just how whining and pretentious they would justifiably sound to the vast majority of the world’s population. Poor Little Rich Girl – you can’t move into the house you own yet, so you have to stay in a perfectly good furnished apartment. You have a whole 40-foot container of household goods that may take customs officials a while to clear. You have to take a few months to settle your home and your family before you start looking for a job that apparently is not required to pay for groceries this weekend. What a rough life!

Fair enough. Once I type it all down like that, I feel a bit petulant and I would really like to just erase the last two paragraphs, but that wouldn’t be very honest. So, I will let them stand and move on to the other way in which I am living in between.

I feel a bit suspended between cultures. I almost wrote stuck, rather than suspended, but that wouldn’t be right. I don’t feel squeezed into a space too small to accommodate me. Rather, I feel tugged in two directions, levitated off of solid footing by the magnetic pull of two places and two ways of being.

It’s not exactly that I am longing to return to Italy and reestablish my life there, but more than as I repatriate to America I am aware of how Italy has changed me.

Oddly, some of the things that I missed the most about the US upon first landing in Italy are now the very things that feel uncomfortable as I try to resettle into my home country. This includes as prosaic an item as food. OK – that’s not such a shock. The food is better in Italy, and I miss it. That much I expected. What I did not expect was my dislike for foods I used to crave. For example:

  • I used to miss Chinese food. There was no palatable Chinese take-out on our side of Milan, and I taught myself to cook wok-seared goodness because my cravings were unbearable. But now the noodles from our favorite take-out place in Hillsborough seem so much greasier than I remember.
  • I used to miss donuts. The Italian corollary (ciambelle) are dense and doughy, with a funky after taste not worth the calories. I literally dreamed about sugary, air-puffed donuts while I was exiled in Italy. But after sampling just one of my old favorite variety (boston cream) I’m disinterested. It felt like a thin veneer of fat covered my tongue and the roof of my mouth after only one bite.
  • I missed my flavored, American coffee. When October brought Facebook posts from American friends celebrating the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, I would weep into my iPhone. I wouldn’t order coffee after 10:00 in the morning, since past mid-morning only tourists order cappuccinos and I just couldn’t imbibe the stronger macciato or caffè (what Americans call espresso). But now, I’m foregoing both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in favor of my inexpertly prepared cappuccinos on the machine my lovely husband bought me for Christmas.
This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn't appetizing enough to finish.

This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn’t appetizing enough to finish.

In point of fact, I have converted to the general European snobbery about American food. So much of it tastes greasy, or over-salted, or just plain fake! The food that it supposed to be my comfort food is no longer comfortable.

Perhaps even more surprising to me has been the shock of reentry to an English-dominant environment. During our 34 expatriate months I felt consistently that the language barrier was one of the hardest things about our Italian residency. I felt awkward and uncertain in social situations; I game-planned conversations that required unfamiliar vocabulary; I had mild anxiety attacks before picking up the phone to make a call in Italian. I expected my final return home to feel like the relaxing exhalation of a breath I had been holding for 3 years, but it has not been quite so simple. For one thing, speaking English is not always a guarantee of effective communication. In various contexts (from discussions with contractors, to requests to have phone numbers updated) communications I didn’t think to worry about have somehow gotten scrambled. I am reluctantly realizing that I still need to pay careful attention and to double-check accurate understanding. Of course, I have those skills after years of painful awareness about my tendency toward confusion, but I had so hoped to let them lie fallow.

On the opposite extreme, some English communication is striking me as far too effective. The Gigglemonster, and to some extent Princess Imagination, have become little recording devices, faithfully playing back a wide range of advertising claims and jingles. There are the toys, of course (I have come to despise the little advertising inserts that come in every set from Playmobil, especially those that line up with the “free” DVD in the package). The Gigglemonster is already making shopping lists for his fifth birthday, which comes at the end of October. The mental invasion, however, it goes beyond items specifically targeted to grab my children’s attention. After a loud and enthusiastic serenade from my youngest, I had to very sternly prohibit any vocalization of the appalling jingle Verizon has taught my four-year-old son (“I want it. I want it. I want it right now!”). He has even absorbed advertising messages meant for me. On a quick trip to the grocery store the other day he grabbed a totally superfluous kitchen implement and waved it excitedly at me saying “Mommy – you need this! The TV said so!” I have often moaned about my children’s reluctance to acquire Italian fluency during our sojourn but I am starting to recognize what a gift that was. For nearly three years we were able to watch English-language television with the kids with virtually no advertising effect. When the far-spaced Italian commercials came on the kids tuned out. It was too much work to try to figure out what the fast-talking announcers were saying, even if the picture on the screen was of a pretty pink princess castle or an exciting loop-de-loop hot wheels track.

(Sigh) You don’t know what you have until it’s gone…

For all the discomfort that my homecoming is bringing me, however, the pull is not all one-sided. This place is calling me in some ways more strongly than it ever did before we left. When I thought of New Jersey during our Italian adventure it was not with great warmth (except for the few friends I had left behind). Along with the climate, the culture is cold as well – rushed, and intense, and sometimes socially hostile. And yet… on our first morning back at our Flemington church, I almost cried at the enthusiastic welcome. I have never felt more loved and cherished by a church family than by the small congregation at Living Waters Lutheran Church. I sat in my pastor’s office just over a week later, seeking guidance on an unexpected request, and I really did cry as we prayed together – tears of joy and awareness of God’s presence with us as we worked together to seek the path that would best honor the God we both love. If for no other reason than our church, it is so, so good to be home.

But it is not just the church. As I look with eyes that have been opened by all the difference I encountered abroad, I am finding much more to love in this state I always resisted. New friends are eager to know us. New schools fill my children with delight. A new appreciation for the natural beauty of this place, in all its cold starkness, pulses at the periphery of my city-dulled vision. Although a long-term return to California is still a dream (I promise Nanna & Gra’ma – it really is!), I am finding myself wanting to settle here for this present moment. In fact, that is a real part of the difficulty I am enduring during our time of unsettledness. I am eager to dig in to our new life here and make it mine.

And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson I have learned from my experience of repatriating. I am beginning to recognize that all the things I miss about Italy, all the ways that my life there was different, all the ways that my European adventure changed me, all these factors have actually made me MORE able to embrace the adventure waiting for me here. I spent ten years in New Jersey prior to our expatriate assignment and I never really set down roots. It wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever, so it wasn’t where I wanted to stay for now either, at least not fully. The ways in which it wasn’t California dominated my thinking about my temporary home and so I pulled back and complained and cast aspersions on the impenetrable high school cliques of native New Jerseyans, and the horrible weather that is relieved for only a few weeks in spring and autumn, and the frantic pace of work and life that races up and down the northeastern seaboard. I didn’t seek to develop friendships with those whom I wouldn’t have befriended “back home.” I didn’t embrace the rhythmic shifts brought about by clearly demarcated seasons. I didn’t look to relish all the differences in East Coast life that could help me see a new perspective.

It took Milan to teach me how wonderful strange friendships and uncomfortable culture shock and previously unimagined challenges can be. And believe me, they can be truly, blessedly, transformatively wonderful.

I miss Milan, and I will continue to miss it, possibly for the rest of my life.

I still long for California, and unless and until God guides our family back to the Golden State it’s magnet pull will forever disorient the compass of my heart.

But for now, I am in New Jersey. And I am determined that my life here will not be lived as a stop-over, a reluctant in between that must just be gotten through. I have things to do here. I have memories to make here. I have challenges to grow through here. I have people to love here. Thank you, God, for bringing me back a changed woman.

Author: Serena Gideon Rice

In early 2011 my family moved our home, temporarily, from New Jersey to Milan, Italy. In the process I quit what had been my dream job conducting policy-directed social science research, to focus on my other dream job, raising our two young children. The three-year adventure was exciting, exhausting, disorienting, fulfilling, and countless other contradictions. It also birthed in me a desire to share my reflections on life's joys and challenges with anyone who cares to reflect with me. Now that we have returned to the US I'm finding that the new perspective I gained in Europe has come with me, and gives me a whole new way of interacting with my home. There's still so much to learn and share! I hope you'll share the journey, and add your own lessons to my daily education.

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