Returning home to the US means passing through Customs, and trying to avoid saying just how many chocolates I have packed as gifts in my suitcase. Sometimes it’s the longest line that hasn’t moved in 10 minutes and a child barfs all over the floor behind you. Sometimes it’s “just-the-facts” ma’am and we go through at a regular pace.
Every time is different.
Finally it’s your turn to talk to the immigration official who looks at your passport, looks at you, checks his computer to see if you are on the Most Wanted list or whatever list they use at the airport, and asks you a slew of questions.
What were you doing in Spain?
Why were you in France?
How long were you there?
When was the last time you were in the States?
What are you bringing home in your suitcase?
Everything is very simple and straightforward, and the questions change just slightly each time.
But one thing stays the same for a person living abroad.
When you’re an expat coming back to the States, as soon as the official has determined that you’re not a criminal or suspicious in any way, he says,
“Welcome home, Ms. Smith*.”
Every time without fail, my heart surges. This guy is greeting me as one of his own, and telling me that I belong, that we share a home, and it gives me the sense that we Americans are one big happy family.
Far from it, but it’s an incredible feeling nonetheless.
I think this practice comes from the military, and their tendency to say this to people who are returning from a tour abroad. I’m grateful for it, and I smile a huge smile, say thank you and go about finding my way out of the airport.
I feel all warm inside for a long time.
And then my visits begin.
When I come home to the states I want to see my parents, my grandparents, some aunts and uncles, some cousins, and as many friends as I can fit in.
The visit usually feels like this:
. Wow, so good to see this person! Such happiness!
. Sharing smiles and stories and good feelings.
. Time is running out. Try to say all the things you’ve not said to them in 12 months.
. Time to go. It feels abrupt as though the visit shouldn’t be over. I have to go – to drive to another town, to see someone else.
. My goodbye feels like a “forever goodbye,” like I may never ever see them again.
. Gone, sad, and focused on finding my way to the next visit.
One after another, I give these “forever goodbyes.”
It’s as though I treat the act of living in France like I’ve decided to move to Pluto and by the time I get back I’ll have aged 4 years and they’ll all be dead. I’m emotional and sad and only wish I could stay with them longer.
Logically speaking it’s absurd.
I’ll be back in a year, as I have promised myself I will do, and of course I’ll see them again.
Before moving abroad, I saw some of these folks less than once a year, and now I see them once a year and it’s some big (sad) spiritual experience. In retrospect this seems silly.
And yet, for other visits, it’s harder: I used to see them or talk to them once a week or once a month. Going away for a year does feel like I’m going to Pluto and missing out on a lifetime of experiences with them.
So, while the Customs guys remind me that I’m home and I’ve finally returned to my people, I feel like each visit is cut short and not enough to make up for a year away.
I’m stuck in an everlasting goodbye.
*Or whatever your last name happens to be.