Coming & Going




The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore.  We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents.  Thus, between two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.  – Nathaniel Hawthorne



As is often the case with me I disagree with Hawthorne here. He is referring to himself I suspect and to the relatively brief amount of time he spent living abroad, weaving this melodramatic conclusion from just a few threads. His friend Melville whom he most irritatingly held with benevolent condescension, was made of far more cosmopolitan stuff. I, who only share with them a place of origin, have spent my life living between New England and Spain.


You would think perhaps that as the years pass and one gets older, coming to and leaving places one loves should get easier rather than more difficult. With age, in theory, passions cool and one becomes more jaded about travel. I have seen this phenomenon in friends of mine who travel often and who appear to have a much healthier relationship with arrival and departure than I do.


In my particular case I find that leaving Spain for the USA, and then leaving the USA for Spain, something I have been doing for the past forty years, has become more difficult not less so. I thought I had solved this emotional and identity related conundrum about ten years ago when I found a way to move to Spain definitively. Moving all of my things from New York to Madrid and getting a ‘real job’ in Spain thanks to the fact that I also hold a passport from Ireland felt very good at the time. I was ready to leave New York (where I was born and raised and which became my moveable feast) and happy to be on the verge of incorporating myself into a society I had come to love starting in 1969. I would no longer live in Spain as a perpetual tourist but rather as a tax-paying member of the European Union. And it did feel wonderful for a while. Empadronándome, getting onto the seguridad social, having my monthly bonobus pass, the bills my bank paid: Telefónica, Union Fenosa, Gas Natural – all of it re-enforced my sense of belonging. I was no longer someone who came for vacations or the odd free-lance job. When I went to Barajas it was to fly to other cities in Spain or other capitals of Europe, not New York.


But when I returned to the United States to live here again five months ago, bringing all of my things back again plus a much beloved dog, it was with great relief as well. The obsessive predictability of Spanish life, its essential homogeneity, that I at first had found so cozy and that I had derived pleasure from mastering, ended up feeling claustrophobic and narrow. The USA felt once again more open and enterprising, tougher but less false. I am now so entirely at home in both places that I see the vast majority of both countries as being equally crazy and neurotic and I find myself with age as well becoming more and more of a misanthrope. But this is nothing more than a somewhat intellectual point of view. What grabs me, what affects me most, is emotional. The difficulty I have leaving each place relates to the heart, to time, to an almost overwhelming love I feel for all that I have lived thus far in either place so that each departure now feels like a rehearsal for what will one day be a final one. And of course one never knows when that might be. And it is always the little things I notice and fix upon – the little trees lining the highways to the airports, the napkins in the bars, the different soaps in the rest rooms, the light coming in through the window each morning – clear, dry and cutting in Madrid, thicker, more moist and sweeter here in New England. I have no right to complain. It is a surfeit of riches I am moaning over and I do recognize that. But still …