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