Tag Archives: US expats

Going Back (to Your Furniture)

The other day I went to a secondhand shop in Cambridge and saw a piece of furniture I used to own. It was a stingingly cold day and I was looking for a small bookcase to sit in the kitchen and solve my cookbook problem. The MIT Furniture Exchange is a volunteer-run warehouse-y space a decent walk from Central Square, and in the summer we struck gold there when we bought our massive, quirky antique bookcase (at a very reasonable price).

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The bookcase of champions

Like any secondhand shop, the FX is hit or miss. Occasionally you win, and most times you do a quick ten-minute loop and realize it’s not your lucky day. This time, I had done the ten-minute loop and was heading for the door when a little table caught my eye.

It was small and painted forest-green, though this was certainly not its original hue. Spindly wooden legs belied what I already knew—this is an antique sewing table, and it weighs a ton. They’d put a decorative cloth on the top, but if I lifted it up, the top would fold out to one side, revealing the heavy (and nonfunctional) machine. The front of the table is a door, and I popped it open to reveal the little caddy holding the original manual and bobbin box—currently kept in a Ziplock bag that I believe I provided. It was all still inside.

At first it seemed too radical to believe that this was the piece that once sat in my bedroom(s), back in my early Boston roommate days. But there was no doubt about it; this wasn’t some IKEA generic. The FX woman saw me poking around, and wandered over. “A unique piece, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I used to own this,” I said. “Years ago.” Surprised, she tried to recall the provenance by which it had come into the shop, but couldn’t. I tried to summon the provenance by which I had acquired it, and my memory was hazy, too. I said I’d owned it five or so years back, but I later realized that this was way off. I’d sold this table (on Craigslist) more than seven years ago, when I moved in with Tim and we had too much furniture. I’d owned it three or four years prior to that, having—I think—bought it at a yard sale on my own street in Somerville. It was a fun piece, but moving it around got old, and I moved a lot back in those days.

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In the top left, bearing the hideous television, you can see the table in question, in my shared apartment in 2005. (All the nicer furniture belonged to my roommate.)

Sighted: at the FX, January 2015

Sighted: at the FX, January 2015

It was somehow comforting to see that the thing is still in the neighborhood, almost like it stayed in the family. I didn’t feel any urge to reacquire the sewing table, but it was one of those experiences that leaves you going “huh.”

Moving back to Boston has been a little like running into your old sewing table. I moved to Boston for grad school in 2003, and was here until Tim and I moved to Europe in 2010. We met here, got married here, got degrees here, and I had my first jobs here. Tim finished his PhD and we moved away. After our four years as expats, his job search could have taken us anywhere in the world (or in the US, really, since that’s where he was looking). And a work opportunity that seemed (still seems) like the perfect next step brought us… right back where we’d been.

Boston—and when I address Boston, I mean the entire area here—some of the shine has worn off. I loved Cambridge in my 20s. All I wanted was a crappy little apartment there (and trust me, I had them). I still like Cambridge, and I half-wish we lived there, with the walkability to cafes and restaurants and bookshops. But I used to think that was (for Massachusetts) my Dream Place. My perfect spot. The one it turned out we couldn’t afford. And now when I’m there, it doesn’t seem as perfect as I remember. It seems dirtier. A little more crowded. People seem a little more rude. And yes–I’m not a twenty-something anymore, and it still feels like a city of twenty-somethings, which then takes a huge jump upward to wealthy middle-aged academics. There’s not a lot of room for thirty-somethings who haven’t made it big.

Watertown has its pluses and minuses for us. The big pluses are our church and Sofra Bakery. The big minuses are the car dependency and the aesthetic starvation of my soul. We talk a lot right now about if we’ll stay here. And we talk in the bigger picture about if Boston is “it” for us, for a long haul. I’m not sure it is.

Sometimes I think there might have been more of a spark to returning to the US if we’d returned to a new city, where we’d be more charged by learning a new place, discovering its little pockets and gems. Here, although the city has changed plenty while we were gone, we don’t feel the same curiosity, the same wonder at making a new find.

But enough about us. One of the questions expats—and non-expats—try at some point to answer is: Can you go back? To your hometown, to your college town, to the place you lived ten years ago? Will you struggle to fit your grown self there, when an earlier iteration is there following you around? And can you return to a place you loved before, without being a little disappointed?

Our experience has said it’s hard. That it’s like trying on an old pair of jeans. You might be able to get them on, and you might even discover that you don’t look bad in them—but you + they together are not the same glory combination you equalled two summers back.

But as fashion experts (and my grandmother) always say, clothing trends–and furniture–are bound to come around.

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Je ne comprends pas

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When I told people that Tim and I signed up for a beginners’ French class, I got some wary responses.

“Why?” was a common one, perhaps alluding to the “who has time” as well as the “do you need it” aspects. My father, with some exasperated gesture, answered all of these other voices by declaring to my mother: “Because she wants to run off to Paris, of course.”

And he was not wrong.

Four years in the Netherlands did not make either of us a fluent Dutch speaker. We never took a formal class; it was easy to get by with English; and Tim didn’t need it at work. He decided pretty early on that he had other ambitions for that time period besides garbling Dutch. I kept at my technique of active assimilation and turned out to know quite a bit in terms of vocabulary, but with basically no concept of grammar or structure. I am a pretty good reader and can pick up on a bit of conversation by listening… and then I’ll answer you in English.

But it made a deep impression on both of us to leave the US and enter the multi-lingual world, where our friends switched easily from Dutch to French to Spanish to Portuguese to many, many other things. Foreign language classes in middle and high school were always a kind of whimsical study, like painting and geometry were for many of us: it was fun to try, but you didn’t really see yourself using it later on. One day a year students would bring in questionable renditions of foods from the country they studied, and generally someone got ill. If you had an especially active teacher and money, your class might have done a summer trip to Rome or Spain, but that never happened to me.

Yet I think I chose something that inadvertently positioned me well for travel: I took Latin. My contributions to Food Day were minimal, and it was weird to be studying a language that at most was getting some use in the Vatican… but those Romantic roots stuck and made me a good guesser of signage and menus in a variety of settings.

I was searching wildly for those guessing skills when our teacher entered the classroom for the first session this Thursday night, and commenced to do that infuriating immersion thing where it became clear that he intended to speak only in French. I could see a lot of frustrated faces when a vocal woman interrupted: “Excuse me, but isn’t this class for people who don’t know French?”

She was correct. The description had specifically indicated that this was a zero-level course, not even for those who took French 101 ten years ago.

Much to my relief, the instructor accommodated the general grumbling and switched to a blend of English and French, and for an hour and a half we learned to introduce ourselves, say our nationalities, and the complete lie “I speak French.” (We also managed to negate many things: “I am not called Jean.” “She is not German.” “He does not speak Russian.”)

It is a strange thing to learn a language as an adult, and somehow I wonder if it will work. Children don’t begin to speak by introducing themselves, running around saying “I am so-and-so” over and over again; nor do they then immediately decline the verb: I am / you are / he-she-it is/ we are /you are/ they are…

They speak in nouns, naming everything, as our niece Rachel did recently when, utterly excited, she pointed up at the sky and said: “A MOON!” This is a bit how I felt learning Dutch: “A fiets! Een zitbank!” Expression is an exciting thing.

The day I went to pick up my textbook for the French class, I found myself in a foreign-language bookstore in Harvard Square, where there were not only textbooks for learning languages, but books in those languages. I was floored. I had so latched on to the image of myself visiting France and speaking French, that I had completely forgotten the other door this knowledge would open: reading new books, and reading books in their original language. (I have already looked online and wondered: “Is it too soon?”)

If Dutch is a language with a lot of hard consonants, grinding together in your mouth, French seems to be bewilderingly fluid. Four forms of one verb sound the same, but are each spelled differently. “Say that at your normal pace,” a woman asked the instructor after he had coached us through a sentence of three distinct words. When he complied, we were appalled. Was that anything more than a vowel?

By guessing the meaning of the instruction “to spell,” I found myself put on the spot to spell my name in French. Scanning the pronunciation notes I’d just made, I drew a total blank. All I could think was: I forget how to spell my name. I considered shortening it. It felt like I took five minutes for six letters, and I’m sure that at least eleven out of thirteen people in the room had no idea what I said.

Perhaps to my ignorant surprise, there was quite a mix of people in the small class. One girl who looked like a high-schooler introduced herself as Mexican; two retired gentlemen sat at a distance and sometimes declined to answer the exercise questions. The majority were women in their twenties and thirties, and not all had English as a first language. Some of their accents seemed to lend their first-week French a natural loveliness, in comparison to my halting “juh… swee…”.

“Always,” our instructor lamented (to us all). “Always you are struggling with the negative form.” This is true, I thought: philosophically as well as linguistically. And the delight of calling things by someone else’s names is part of how we spark against that struggle.

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