Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Question of Settling

I suppose the logical question is what did we do for the Fourth of July yesterday.


I worked, trying to finish a rambling, disjointed post (see above) before moving on to my German lessons. Himself was at the office, playing mediator between his European team and the expectations of their American counterparts who, of course, were all out of the office. We roasted potatoes and a sea trout for dinner and afterwards took a walk in the fading light, walking first under the trees along the pale green-blue River Saalach as it tumbled northward toward its convergence with the River Salzach, then turning back along the Salzach to home.

There were no fireworks. There will be a splendid display during Salzburg’s Rupertikirtag festival in September. We’ll wait for those. Nor I did not pull out the U.S. Marine Corps Band CD. No Stars and Stripes Forever for me, not this year. It was day like many others, a day on which we were grateful for dry weather, a comfortable place to live and loving companionship.

All this seems to answer another question, one that was put to me all the time while we lived in Ireland: ‘Are you settled yet?’

An unsettling question, that. A question that’s nearly impossible for me to answer. I suppose I’m a kind of unsettled individual, at best. I’m a drifting sort of person, unsure and aimless at the best of times, a girl who is still waiting to grow up, fighting all the same growing old.

An American acquaintance in Ireland, someone I knew causally over the two and a half years we were there, told me as we were preparing to leave that it was just as well. ‘You’ve never settled here,’ she said.

When I told him, Himself was indignant on my behalf. After all, we had our house, which we had designed and furnished with care. We lived among a network of a large extended family. We attended weddings, christenings, First Communions and, particularly, funerals. We voted. We had gym memberships and were greeted on the streets and when we went into shops. Who was to say I had not settled?

Yet, in a way, she was right. Such intimacy as we developed with others remained within the family. In some ways, we were waiting for life to begin. And then, almost suddenly, we uprooted and moved to Salzburg.

Have I settled in Salzburg, then? Can I even define what that would be?

Skirting the question yet again, I think back to when we moved to our house, our first house, in Thousand Oaks. Himself envied me, he said, because I seemed to take to our new neighbourhood at once, in a way he never did. It was the archetypal California ranch-style neighbourhood of irregular blocks punctuated by cul-de-sacs, neat sidewalks bordered by grassy ‘parking strips’, a neighbourhood very much like the Sunnyvale, California, neighbourhood I grew up in. It was so like our childhood home that my sister said on seeing it for the first time, wonder in her voice, ‘You live in Beverly Cleary’s house.’

That suburban community with it tidy, mid-century stucco houses surrounded by rectangular lawns and patios was far from the dwellings in the small Irish towns where Himself spent much of his youth. It was further still the rolling farmland where he spent the rest of it, the same countryside where I, apparently, failed to settle during our time there.

And now we live in a flat at the edge of a central European city, in a neighbourhood that cannot be termed urban, rural or suburban, having elements of all three. When we arrived, we had few reference points, architectural, social, cultural or familial. My circle of acquaintances is small; it is through good luck or magnanimous fortune that we have wonderful neighbours who speak fluent English, else I would have been cut off nearly completely.

And, yet, oddly, I have settled, if by ‘settling’ one means a sense of feeling grounded in my surroundings. More and more, when I look out the window of the flat or of the bus, or take in the landscape as I cycle to the market, I feel at peace with the scene around me.

I struggle, naturally, with learning German. Even though I make my way around the city comfortably, being unable to speak fluently affects me at odd times. When the phone rings – which it does rarely – I answer wondering whether I will be able to understand the purpose of the call. If it is Himself on the other end, my tension immediately relaxes. I put off making appointments, wanting to avoid those awkward exchanges in stumbling German with the receptionists who answer the phone. (Once one woman, frustrated with my incomprehension, hung up on me. I took a deep breath and called back to begin again.) I worry about what could happen if I found myself in a real emergency.

Sunday I participated in a 5K Frauenlauf – a fun-run – as part of a team from The English Center, an English bookshop and language school. Standing in line before the start of the race, I asked the woman in front of me, in German, the time. Disconcertingly, she answered in German, and I was too ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what she said. I am used to hearing German over loudspeakers, but I long for the day when rather than sounding merely interesting, it will be also comprehensible.

But still, simply participating in the race, albeit as part of a team of English speakers, created another tie between me and the community. All along the route, Salzburgers stood and cheered as we passed.

‘Bravo, bravo’, an old man shouted as I turned the corner on which he stood. That I certainly understood.

I’m not suggesting that by doing the Frauenlauf I am now settled. It was a single morning; afterwards I came home and slept, nursing the hip I’d thrown out along the way. I rose the next morning – the morning of the Fourth of July – and went about my business. Alone, as usual, for most of the day, I limped, my hip still sore, and wondered how I will manage the medical system here to have it adjusted. In America, in Ireland, I would know how to find a chiropractor and how to make an appointment. It’s not so simple here. It’s an example, however small, of how I have not ‘settled’.

All the same, that the Fourth of July, a date that should have resonated and made me homesick, passed without much more than a ripple in my awareness suggests an important, if subtle, shift in my consciousness. Being settled, like being happy, is a fluid state. I can’t define or describe it; I’m not sure I even know it.

All I can do is refer to the lightness in my being when I see the sun brighten behind the green wood outside the window. Feel the rightness in the sight of the corner of a familiar door reflected in the wardrobe mirror. Or know comfort in hanging heavy clean towels on the line. Sometimes, this simple peace is enough. 

1 comment:

  1. Are you settled?

    Any expat has heard the question. I definitely have and it has always brought about the same uneasy feeling: should I be settled? Do I want to settle?

    The question reminds me of two pieces by Bertolt Brecht. One of them is a story: a guy (probably Herr Keuner) meets an acquaintance who greets him with a "You haven't changed at all." Brecht's guy turns pale and says "Oh."

    The other piece is a poem, Changing the Wheel. I sit by the roadside / The driver changes the wheel. / I do not like the place I have come from. / I do not like the place I am going to. / Why with impatience do I / Watch him changing the wheel?

    (I don't know whose English translation this is. Found it on the web, and there was no reference. Michael Hamburger's translation would have to be the standard.)