Being an expat is a life-changing experience borne of privilege and humility in equal measure. Cognitive dissonance is a constant companion, as is a unique brand of loneliness.
It’s not only because you’ve forged a new life in a new place alone. It’s not even the language barrier. It’s because you don’t realize how much the bonds you form with other people largely depend on a shared cultural past.
My first few years in Europe I lived in Rome, and I remember learning that in Italy Peter Gabriel is known not for the quintessential love song “In Your Eyes,” but the inscrutable “Shock the Monkey.” Gen X Italians didn’t have the experience of John Cusack hoisting aloft a boom box outside Ione Skye’s bedroom window, thus defining true yet problematic love.
Peter Gabriel’s discography is hardly cause for an existential crisis. But it’s an example of a million small moments that form the intricate shorthand of lifelong relationships. It’s “AH’LL BE BAHCK.” It’s agreeing that Han shot first. It’s Seinfeld and Sally Ride and Snuffleupagus. It’s a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square versus Mussolini hanging from his feet in Piazza Loreto.
In the expat world, the chasm of cultural differences is profound and ever widening. Going back home for a visit, the reverse culture shock forms another chasm with people you’ve known your whole life. I had resigned myself to this dynamic as the price I paid for living my dream.
And then in 2004 I met a guy from New Jersey who was living his own dream in the South of France. Despite the enormous difference between us – I was exit 25, he was exit 109 – what I found in Bart was someone who understood all of me, from my Jersey Shore childhood to my then-current reality of being undocumented in Europe. Our bond was immediate, and intense, and together we believed we were invincible.
It will not come as a surprise to anyone who knew Bart to hear that our relationship was complicated. My God, he could be infuriating. He broke my spirit more than once. But as I write this final account, only the simplest times shine brightest for me.
Scarfing down loaded nachos at the Hard Rock in Barcelona without irony or apology. Seeing his favorite Bosch painting at the Prado in Madrid. So many concerts: Chuck D in Paris, Metallica in Padova, and The Cure in Montpellier, the Stones in Nice. Going to a midnight Harry Potter book launch in New York. Replacing July 4th picnics with Bastille Day fireworks. Dodging tear gas at protests. Hosting a “waifs and strays” open house every Christmas Day. Long summer days at Mediterranean beaches. Long autumn afternoons at a pub reading the latest thriller. Long winter nights bingeing West Wing and Buffy and Alias. Heading out at sunrise for Champagne and croissants after election results came in from back home. Always, always picking me up at the train station when I’d return from months away in Rome, no matter the time.
Without Bart’s influence, his worldview, and his unshakeable love for me, I would not have these and so many more incredible memories, and I would not be living the life I am now. Thank you, Bart. To paraphrase James Ellroy: I loved you fierce in danger. And I hope you are at peace.
November 16, 2022