Notes On Feeling “Elsewhere”

Summer has begun to fade, the beach hotels and clubs have had their closing nights, and I feel that old anxiety creep in as friends and family go back to school and work.  I want to write about all the things I experienced the last month (sorry for the quick hiatus). I want to write about nights listening to the melancholic sounds of bouzouki on the beach, volunteering on a rural farm, and staying up until sunrise with childhood friends and my visiting brother.  Yet my head is full of other thoughts, and before I can start to recollect, reflect, and reconnect, I want to share something that has been on my mind.

In my last handful of posts I wrote about how lucky I am to have encountered people who truly understand the importance of adventure and travel and the search for one’s identity. I am lucky to have met others like me on the road, people who value the journey and understand the value of not having a 5-year-plan – or even a 5-week-plan. However I have also met those along the journey who can’t seem to see beyond the confines of their daily routine, or choose not to. They look at me in disbelief.  “So you’re trying to stay in Europe? Don’t you know there’s an economic crisis here? You think you’re going to get a job? What exactly is it you think you are going to do here? You don’t have a plan? Why don’t  you want to stay in America?”  They do not say these things with honest concern, they say them with judgement.

Let me clarify a few things.  I know the difference between passivity and patience, apathy and flexibility. I didn’t put myself in this position because I don’t know what I want in life, I put myself in this position because I do know what I want in life – or at least I’m on the road to discovering it. Here’s a hint: it’s not a nine to five  job that I hate, in an office with no windows, because someone told me that is what success looks like. I want to define my own success. I want to take things in, to learn from the world around me before I start building my ego and telling others that I am an authority on something. I realize that in order to do that I have to let go of  a certain amount of security and embrace the insecurity and discomfort that comes with stepping outside of a structured environment. I recognize how privileged it is to decide to take risks, based on the fact that I am not really taking risks at all. In all reality, I could fly back home tomorrow, to an incredibly supportive family, and find a job to minimally sustain myself.  In fact, I’ve done that before and it was a wonderful learning experience.  I lived in a five-person apartment on the Lower East Side, worked two cafe jobs at once, there were a few weeks I ate $1 dumplings for more than one meal, and I loved it most of the time.  Yet still after a few months I wanted a new challenge,  and having identified that urge, the next step was to quit my jobs, move out of my beloved LES apartment and pursue something else.  Even if I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what I was going after.  I did not do this blindly and naively, I did it intentionally. I know that I am blessed to be given this opportunity, and that is why I took it.  I do not understand people (who are in the same privileged position) who talk about how much they hate their jobs or how they are doing things they hate now, so they can enjoy life later. They say things like “I would like to travel but I have too many responsibilities” or “I’m doing a job I really hate now so I can travel and enjoy life later.”  I respect that decision, I really do. But please do not jump at the chance to criticize my choices then, because that is what they are: choices. You made a choice to prioritize security, or maybe you truly and honestly enjoy this structure. I have made a different choice, and let me tell you it is all at once exhilarating and terrifying. It is lonely and whatever the hell the opposite of lonely is – I have yet to find a word that really encapsulates how someone feels when they are in the company of strangers that suddenly begin to feel like family, bonded by shared experience. I think it is very close to love.

I am putting all my strength and effort into figuring out my place in this world like everyone else, and I refuse to accept that I must do that within the borders of my own country and according to the guidelines set for me by the old ‘school-work-die’ narrative.  I have a vivid memory of driving down the road between my Grandmother’s house and my Uncle’s ranch in Oklahoma, discussing this idea with my Father.  We cruised down a paved road so flat and empty of cars it seemed as if we could drive straight into the big dramatic storm clouds that gathered before us, straight into oblivion.  Beams of sunlight, the golden kind that pierce through the clouds right before a hot summer rain, hit the dashboard and I told my father about my time in Tanzania and South Africa and how I longed to go back. “For the first time in a long time I felt like I was in the right place, doing the right things at the right time.” I told him. “I felt whole, like I was where I was supposed to be.”  It was the first time I could properly articulate that this was not a common feeling for me.  That most of the time I feel “elsewhere”.  That even then, there as we spoke in Grandma’s red Cadillac against a Oklahoma landscape, I was somewhere else – a splintered piece of wood, scattered glass, a split photograph.  It is not always a tragic thing to feel scattered, to feel between.  People always want to make it that, like you will grow up to be some ill-adjusted adult if you don’t go to bed every night knowing exactly who and where and what you will pledge allegiance to when you wake up in morning.  Feeling scattered often gave me the sensation that I was bigger than the physical space I occupied, that I belonged to some grander life scheme and this always prevented me from taking things for granted.   Feeling “elsewhere” feels natural to me and I have learned to honor that feeling, because it is often what challenges and urges me to travel and experience new things.  It is also the same feeling that pulls me back home, to revisit old friends and seek out things that make me feel whole, things that make me want to stay a while.

It is this simultaneous feeling of wanderlust and urge to anchor that has landed me in a Greek immigration office three times this week, each time increasingly discouraging.  I have attempted to extend my visa here so that I might be able to learn the language better, learn more about my heritage, and even eventually apply for my Greek citizenship.  I often tell people Greece feels more like home than anywhere else, it is a default comment of mine, but in more recent years it has become increasingly hard for the words to tumble out of my mouth.  As years continue to separate me from my last memories of living in Greece, I feel strange calling Greece home.  I feel like a fraud.
“So you are a Greek citizen?”
“Well no…im actually fourth generation Greek..”
“So you were born there?”
“Well no…but I lived there for 6 years…but that was because of my dads job at the American Embassy…”
Rapid blinking and blank stares ensue. I’d like to just once be able to express the way I feel about my heritage and identity abstractly and have it be considered legitimate.  You know that tether ball game everyone used to play on the playground? You’d beat an old  weathered ball round and round its metal-pole-anchor and watch it travel the circumference of a circle, the center rod keeping it in perfect circular orbit as it bounced off of eager hands.  One day in Elementary school a kid cut the rope that attached the ball  to its center pole and I cried as I watched it roll off into the dust, all dead like. I am that ball, Greece is its anchor. Unfortunately such an explanation does nothing for me in the immigration office.

“I get it, she came here, she liked it, she doesn’t want to leave. That is too bad, I can’t help you.”  The Greek immigration lady officer cuts me off mid-sentence to address my friends Petros and Eleana who have so mercifully accompanied me on my third trip to this smoke-filled, dank, depressing, office.  She is annoyed with my broken Greek, annoyed that I am interrupting her coffee time.  I can’t handle it anymore. I want to jump across the table and push all of her incomplete, half-assed, visa applications to the ground. I want to throw her phone – the one her eyes have been glued to for most of our conversation – out the window. I open my mouth to talk and my voice betrays me, coming out wobbly and high-pitched – Jesus Christ on a bicycle please don’t let me cry in this here Visa office.  I say something stupid (and irrelevant to the real reasons I have actually begun to cry in the visa office) like “I have tried for weeks and no one can give me any information.” I am not even that bothered by the fact I have wasted time chasing a mythical visa extension process, to a certain extent its to be expected.  What bothers me the most is the tone in which she says this.  What she is really saying is “you are a fraud, this is not yours, you cannot stay here, go home”  and this is what cuts my right to the core.  Imagine standing in your own living room and someone puffing smoke in your face, telling you to go home.  This is how I feel, justified or not.
“You do not know how to do your job” I whimper and even as I am saying it I realize I am not angry at this woman, I do not care about her enough to be angry, but I am hurt.   Hurt that what she is saying is maybe true, and maybe I don’t belong here, and maybe everyone was right, this whole “scattered identity” business is a lot more tragic than I ever thought it to be. Am I ill-adjusted? Am I lost? Why am I here?

We leave the immigration office and spend the rest of the afternoon in Thessaloniki with Petros and Eleanas friends for a lengthy coffee, then lengthy drinks, then a lengthy meal that lasts well into the evening.  I will save the visa battle for tomorrow.  “Do not worry, we will figure it out,” Petros says as he smiles at me and I am immediately comforted.  Eleana asks me what I want to drink and proceeds to introduce me to new friends. The coffee and the beer and the wine and the good company sinks in and I think to myself “oh yeah,” this is why it’s not so bad to feel ‘scattered to the winds’.  I sit amongst new friends and old – I met Eleana and Petros when I was three years old –  and it starts to feel very silly to feel anxious about anything at all.  Here I am, that tethered ball swinging round and round in orbit, going and coming yet traveling the same circumference, full circle.  I receive a text from a family member back in The States:
“Where are you?”  I can picture them rolling their eyes upon receiving my response but I go ahead and send it anyways.
It reads: “Exactly where I’m suppose to be. : )”