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The geography of home

For those who have lived abroad, the sense of belonging to one place is elusive.

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Whenever I am living abroad, people always say the same thing, insisting that I am très Américain. Sometimes it's the words I use, or the way I talk. Sometimes it's my insistence on "things working," my annoyance that, after 5 p.m. on Sunday, the grocery stores are closed.

But back in America, a strange thing happens. People say I have a British accent; they insist I have a European quality. When my hair was blond, men would stop me in the streets and speak Russian to me. I am not Russian.

It's hard to pinpoint when I lost my "belongingness," my ability to be seen as a reflection of one particular culture or place. Perhaps it was during that first solo trip abroad, when, at 18, I traveled to Italy to learn Italian for my soon-to-be-abandoned opera career. Four months later, my parents came to pick me up. Standing at the tiny airport on the outskirts of Florence, I welcomed them, my American jeans traded for snakeskin cigarette capri pants, high-heeled sandals, and red lipstick.

Or maybe my transformation took place in Brazil. Rather than seek the safety of my American peers, I dated a Brazilian man, inserting myself into the mess of race and class relations in the northeast. Together, we traveled to the faraway beach of Jericoacoara, arriving in the inky dark at a gas station where a ragtag group of men insisted we climb into their jeep for a ride across the dunes to the seaside town.

The truth is, I don't mind being American in Europe, or European in America. It quite suits me, tinting my life with the glow of a remembered past, a history to relive.


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