A former expat’s ode to Rome

Piazza Navona in Rome. (Photo by Katy Sewall.)
Piazza Navona in Rome. (Photo by Katy Sewall.)

ROME — If you become an expat, or a former expat like me, eventually you will ask yourself this question: Can you go back? If you move home, will it feel right? If you revisit the foreign city where you once lived, will you find it the same?

In September 2013, I moved to Rome, Italy for a year. I had no agenda beyond exploration and self-discovery. As a result, I grew a lot personally. When it was time to move home to Seattle, I was expecting things to feel different. I had changed. Surely the world I left behind would have too.

There were new buildings. The traffic was worse. Rents had increased, evidence of a booming city. But the little things remained the same.

The old man wearing his black beret still passes my apartment window twice a day dragging his unwilling dog. His mustache is the same length. My neighbor has taken to wearing an Amish straw hat, but he still shuffles toward the coffee stand like clockwork accompanied by the same girlfriend.

And my old patterns came back. I no longer took the afternoon Roman nap. I ate meals at American times. I forgot self-exploration in favor of work so I had news to tell at parties. The cultural imperative to be somebody professionally regained its hold almost immediately.

Friends rarely asked about Rome. It could have never happened. But it did happen. I just couldn’t meld my experience abroad with life at home.

The result — depression, wistfulness and longing. I had an overwhelming feeling of leaving things unfinished, like my growth process had begun the dance routine but it was dragged off stage before the grand finale.

I had become a person living in-between. I wanted to hang on to the self I discovered in Rome but “home” was heavy with high expectations. I had “been somebody” here before. Didn’t I want that again? If I answered no, what then?

So I worked hard. I made very little money. I drank too much sometimes. And at night I would lay in bed and try to picture myself sitting on the fountain steps in Piazza de Santa Maria in Trastevere. There, tourists eat pizza by the slice and drink diet soda. The pigeons get too close. The golden church and bell tower stand guard, counting the hours.

These details get fuzzy but they don’t go away completely. They are inside me. But if I got on a plane to Rome, would it feel like coming home? Would I no longer be in-between worlds? I had to know.

So here I am. It’s one year after I left and I’m sitting, writing, on those very same fountain steps.  Tourists sit beside me with pizza watching pigeons fight over a piece of crust. The weather is the same as I left it. Sun. A slight breeze.

And yet, everything feels different. I am aware that in a few weeks time I’ll be back on that plane heading for home. I don’t live here anymore. I used to feel sorry for tourists — that they had such a short time to walk these streets. Now I am one of them. My time is also limited.

I’ve given myself a month in Rome to find out if I will hit my stride and rediscover the parts of myself I left here a year ago. That’s what I am hoping for. But what if I do? Will I leave it all behind again or will I do better this time?

And just as I expected life to be different when I returned to Seattle, I hoped for the opposite here. I hoped all my favorite street performers would still be making the rounds. I wanted the same disgruntled grocery store clerk to angrily offer me a bag.

And here they are — just as I hoped.

I feel relieved — but it also makes me sad. Locals recognize me, but now I am not one of them. I’m a tourist of my expat life. Rather than visiting the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Square, I visit the Conad grocery store and buy my favorite mozzarella. I hike to the Doria-Pamphili park and remember cutting pine bows to make my apartment Christmassy. I spend every afternoon sitting on these fountain steps watching for people I recognize.

It’s a sad kind of comforting. I can mimic my expat year, but I can’t recapture it.

Such is the danger of becoming an expatriate. It can awaken your curiosity, your longings and your self-discovery, but it can also make you homeless for a time. An endless explorer who belongs… where?

Nowhere?

What does it mean if you “can’t go home again?”

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks 4 sharing. Maybe try treating Seattle as u did Rome, by discovering things in Seattle that you didn’t know before u went to Rome. Or discovering new Seattle things? Welcome home.

  2. A timely article. Thank you for sharing. I have similar sentiments about living as an expat in the Philippines for nearly 2 years. Although, I didn’t return to the same US city (Seattle) after working abroad. Instead, I moved back to my home city in the Midwest. Adjusting to culture shock and a neighborhood you hadn’t lived since high school, is a triple shock. Like you, after returning to the US, I felt a strong desire to return and “re-live” Dumaguete City, Philippines. So I applied and received a Fulbright to continue the work and returned a year later. I learned very fast you can’t go back and expect the world as you knew it to be the same. Change is inevitable. I blogged about it here: http://www.teachphilippines.blogspot.com/2015/09/return-to-dumaguete-city-philippines.html

  3. May I get away with saying something very unconventional? I grew up in the Seattle area. It will always be move “first home”, but it will never be the same as when I was seeing it through the eyes of a child, a pre-teen, a teenager, a young adult, a married and eventually pregnant woman, a mother and eventually a single mother (transportation east and west in Seattle was impossible. Too bad my babysitter did not live on the north-south axis!), and eventually as a long-term ex-pat returning to visit once per year from my “second home” in the foreign country I lived and worked in fro 26 years. And, now, I am looking at Seattle as a returned ex-pat, and it is still one of the most beautiful places in the world I that I have seen and experienced first-hand which means there are possibly places I have not seen yet that could bump either down the ranking or share the number one spot. My point is, would we really want everything to stay the same forever? Would we wish to avoid new things so as not to upset the imagination with new standards of comparison, etc? I think/hope not! Please enjoy the broadening of YOUR OWN PRIVATE OUTLOOK on the world and on your life as you travel (both literally and figuratively) through it on this amazing, yet sometimes brain-cell stretching journey. Perhaps you will find, as I feel I may have, that “HOME” is both where YOU are AND where YOU have been, and maybe even where YOU will be in the ensuing chapters of your life…
    Good luck and happy exploring from an “elder” intermittent ex-pat Washingtonian/Seattleite from Lake Sammamish (not the town which did not exist when I looked across the lake from the west side).

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