There is a sandwich shop on the first floor of the building where I live, and I am obsessed with it. My own sandwiches tend to be horrible, and these are exemplary, and I eat them at least five times a week, sometimes also for dinner. The last time I made a sandwich, I used that weird Finnish bread, but it was old, and crumbly, and fell apart, and then I decided I had made not a sandwich but a sort of “hash,” with Finnish bread and avocado and salmon, and it was disgusting.
I could talk for a very, very long time about the man who makes the sandwiches because every day, I try, in my kindergartner’s French (and I know I am kindergarten level because of my enjoyment of a series of books called “La Cabane Magique” that are specifically marked as appropriate for “7 ans”; currently we are dealing with a monstre under les mers) to charm him. Either I am too old for this, or he is uncharmable, even when I got my shirt caught on the door going out of the building, like a fish on a hook, and he stood there for a minute while considering whether or not to help free me, until he did. He did not smile. He shook his head. I am writing this as someone who typically has such friendly relations with her neighborhood retailers that (a) I have a standing invitation to Pakistan and (b) I had to stop going to a particular magazine store because every time I went in the dude in charge wanted to hug.
This, however, is not about that man. Yesterday, when I was going to get my sandwich, there was a baby carriage just chilling outside the door. I was going to push it out of the way when I realized there was an actual living baby inside. My initial reaction was to take a picture of it for Twitter, like I’d just seen a dog behind the wheel of a car, because seeing a baby alone in a baby carriage on the sidewalk is not something I have ever seen in New York. I laughed loudly enough that the mother, waiting for her own sandwich inside the shop, came out, and gently pushed the baby out of my way, further along the sidewalk, so I could get in.
I find this behavior fascinating and strange. A couple weeks ago, my friend S. and I were having a drink outside, and a young mother sat beside us. She was with her two kids, and after a certain point, she shooed them away. They went off to play, in the street. Literally, in the street. A small street, yeah, but a street nonetheless. S., who has lived in France much longer than I have, took in the scene alongside me, and we talked about how much easier it seemed to be, having a kid in France, than it seemed to be at home, in 2014.
I grew up playing in the street, and in sewage drains. My chief occupation as a fifth-grader was privately digging up a particular rock with a series of sticks, believing that with time and fortitude, I could at least reach lava. The last time I went home, the story about the woman arrested for leaving her kid in a (not-hot) car while she ran an errand was circulating, and my sister and I both asked our parents what they thought. They were equivocal. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” my dad said. But as my sister correctly recalled, we grew up waiting for them in the backseat of the car, while they were in the grocery store or the pharmacy or the bank. We lived in a neighborhood of kids, with a pool up the hill and swings down the road. Growing up in the suburbs reminded me of Lyra’s Oxford in The Golden Compass: We were not rabid, but we may have been feral. The story about the mom being arrested made me depressed, and anxious, and angry, not least because of the evident gap between what I remembered of childhood and what it had become. The fact that these two things were separated by time but not geography was unsettling.
It is easier when massive cultural shifts are really just about the geography. I’m not sure I expect to age into a different culture in the same, physical place where I grew up, but I understand that in coming to a different country, I’m assuming an entirely different set of mores. For example, one in which it is not a felony to leave a baby in a carriage on the sidewalk.
In many ways, it is much easier being in a country other than your own. I mean, I miss my dentist, terribly. Friends and family, obviously. But so much of what happens here is either a strange, new delight—fireworks on July 14! five weeks of vacation! babies just hanging out on street corners, doing their own thing!—or not my problem. When the public square five minutes’ walk is tear-gassed during an demonstration: not my country, not my politics, not my problem, except for how the tear gas is between me and the Habitat store, and I desperately need to replace my subletter’s duvet cover.
As S. watched and I marveled over the physical fact of two young children playing in the street—the way I surely would have, if it were my mom and my sister and my childhood—we talked about the difference between being an expat and an immigrant. This is her distinction, her idea: She lives here, speaks the language, raised her children here, carries the passport; she’s an immigrant, she says. Immigrants are staying; expats look homeward, in all things. I wouldn’t even call myself an expat, though I’ve lived here for over a year now: I go home too often, for one thing, and for another, there’s something dashing about expats I just don’t have. Expats don’t eat pistachios off the floor, which is not something I do often, but is something I just did. I’m in transit.
I’m not sure in transit is a tenable situation. Really what it is is a quasi-mindful decision to not make a choice, to have the cake while eating it. I know people complain about that expression, but to me it is the underlying principle, and problem, with a life spent in transit: that these days spent cherry-picking the best of two hugely different, often contradictory cultures feel like they’re being spent on credit. But they’re not: They are paid out of an ever-dwindling account. On a bad day, I ask myself what my best friend’s mom asks every time I see her: When am I going to settle down? On a good day—and I think, paradoxically, because the answer to the previous question is “Not today,” there are more good days than bad—being in transit—when I’m not sure what tomorrow, or next week, or next month will bring—requires you to put a tremendous amount of stock into today, and to say: “Am I doing what I want to be doing today?” The answer so far is yes, or near enough. I remember not being in transit, and looking so forward to tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I think “settling down” gets too much credit. A life in transit—a life of more or less continuous change—can in some weird, magical way, make us incredibly invested in the present. It is an easy life to screw up—I’ve done that already—because it can be about “no day” as easily as it is about “today”—which is to say, it’s the sort of lifestyle that makes forgetting to pay your student loans very, very easy. I hope I won’t do it too long; I hope I won’t do it after the weird, unexpected magic has dissipated. It hasn’t yet. When am I settling down? Not today. Maybe tomorrow. But not today.