In this personal essay, thirty-something Canadian writer Judy Batalion, who has traveled and lived in foreign countries since she was 18, reflects upon the meaning of her ten years spent in the UK as she heads for her next stop: New York.
For as long as I could remember, I’d suffered from a fear of normalcy. Being weird, deranged, the square half-in-the-hole, that was comfortable for me. Whenever things in my life seemed be veering toward the acceptable standard—I found myself in a mutually respecting relationship, woke up in the morning feeling almost OK, had enough money to buy coffee and a Diet Coke for lunch, moved out of a heroin-strewn ghetto into a neighborhood that actually had a tree—I freaked out. I got nervous: would I lose my edge, my perspective, my story to tell at dinner parties, my raison d’kvetch? Who would I be? I’ve often had to comfort my trembling psyche with the thought that anyone who’s worried about being too normal, probably isn’t. It’ll be OK, crazy-inner-life, I would say, cradling her in my abnormally hairy arms, you’ll always be fucked up.
This was the comforting I was doing as I boarded the plane for the journey I’d been both anticipating and dreading for almost a decade. I’d originally left my hoarded family home and small-townish suburb where I’d always felt suffocated and like a stranger, hoping that if I launched myself into actual exile, I could learn to control the feeling. After spending ten years as a foreigner—a North American, hyper-educated, comfortable-in-my-skin-ish, ambitious, short, Jewess in England—sewing my wild youthful oats in the land of ye olde’ inconsequence, I had packed my bags and was flying to New York. At 32, I was going home.
I sat down in my middle-of-the-row (like middle-of-the-road? too normal already) seat, checked whether the headrests were adjustable, which they were (they were also about a foot above my head), and looked around to see who was accompanying me on this monumental voyage of self. There was the turban-clad man frantically stuffing family-sized-Toblerones into the overhead, the middle-aged couple reading his and hers best-sellers and turning their pages at the same time, the Goth-ish undergrad whose eye make-up was more substantial than her skirt fastidiously highlighting Intro to Freud, and, of course, seated to my left, a train of toddlers making sculptures with yogurt, ensuring that the general smell of stale scrambled eggs was infused with a touch of rancid milk. Then there was the portly man to my right who was endlessly moaning about his wife endlessly moaning about her back pains. Here’s to my journey, I thought.
Preparations began for take off. My inner-preparations began for seven hours of taking-stock of my life, and the babies began to cry. All of them, at once, like a chorus-line; but no parent arrived. I peered and scowled. They didn’t stop. I grumbled. Nothing. I let out a ‘shh’ under my breath. Nada. Finally, I looked around hoping to share some empathic expressions-of-annoyance with my neighbors, when I noticed that the synchronized readers, the Freudian and the Toblerone mule were all glaring at me. ‘What?’ I asked with my eyes. And then I realized. They thought these children were mine! Not only was my youth slipping through my dry-from-the-air fingers, I looked like I should be in the midst of carrying out a staunch ferberizing regiment. What did this say about the looks of my skin? The man to my right began to snore like a wildebeest with bronchitis, which at least balanced out the shrieking for a while.
Finally, we were in the air, and I felt relieved. I liked flying—after all, that’s what I’d been doing for the past ten years. Hopping in and out of relationships, projects, and jobs. Flying promises somewhere new, something exciting, a host of on-demand TV shows and movies starring Adam Sandler that you’d never pay to see but always kind of wanted to. Where you don’t have to answer emails or calls or questions except for ‘chicken or beef?’ The ability to just sit and read with good light and someone bringing you coffee and even liquor to your seat—without you even having to ask. Flying, I said to myself emphasizing the ‘lying’, meant you are suspended between realities, free of a defined time or currency, off-the-radar, disoriented yet moving forward, and entirely unaccountable. No fear of flying here. Landing, on the other hand, is what scared the shit out of me. Landing, you have to be somebody—declare who you are, what you do, and where you are coming from (not to mention, when you were born).
I thought about the things I was leaving behind: youthful experimentation, the stories I would tell about fighting anti-semitism in the British comedy world, dabbling in the realms of Australian physical theatre, upper-class art collecting and awkward English men who would break into sprints down the street in the middle of dates, suffering from never knowing how to act and be, having pangs of loneliness and what-the-hell-am-doing-here worse than Peter Griffin at a vegan pot-luck. I was, frankly, leaving behind a dose of depravity, yet I felt nostalgic. The pungent misery of my English pseudo-life had had its purpose: it had defined me. My non-belonging, my constant difference, had given me an identity. At work, I was the ‘American one’ (even if I was Canadian) and could get away with requesting extra post-it notes. In my dating life, I had the odd (hopefully cute) accent and so could ask direct questions about where our relationship stood. As a creative, I had a USP. I was noticeable and noticed.
Finally, the mother of the screaming babies appeared, with a chatty friend.
‘I’m totally freezing my eggs,’ said friend. ‘15 000 bucks in L.A.’
‘You should totally do it—motherhood is totally amazing.’
I cringed. Not because of their topic. (Among my friends frozen eggs were more popular than frozen yogurt.) I cringed because their accents and gesticulations were just like mine.
“Do you have children?” the mother asked me. “You don’t look like you do, but you look like you want them,” she continued, unabashed, wiping her child’s vomit. “Can I borrow your napkin? I love your glasses.”
After a decade of British socialization, her attempted interaction threw me off-guard. My reserve kicked in. Why was she, a stranger, telling me about what I looked like? Plus, her request reminded me of one of my earliest faux pas in England. I had approached my neighbor, introduced myself, asked to borrow a broom, and told him I loved his pants. He gave me his broom, which he never took back, bafflingly ignoring me for the next two years. I eventually found out from British friends that in making that request I had gone against the four cardinal rules of ‘British behaviour’: don’t introduce yourself by name—why would anyone care who you are; don’t talk to neighbors thereby setting up a system of expectations that they will say hello every time they see you; don’t compliment anyone (flattery equals brazen manipulation); and don’t talk so loudly and call attention to yourself (how did you know I was loud? I asked; educated guess, my friends said). I had sucked at fitting in. And I hadn’t even told my British friends that I had also written my neighbor a note analyzing our weird sexual dynamic.
“Are you traveling on break?” she went on, continuing to offend my gone-native sensibilities. “Still in college? You look so young.” … Still in college? Wait. Did she just say that? I sat straight up. That was the nicest thing I’d heard in years. And looking at mommy, at her inviting, honest, complimenting face, I realized: she wasn’t so bad. In America, I too could go back to that old me—the person who was reasonably friendly, sometimes shared personal details and made eye-contact. All of a sudden layers of self-consciousness began shedding off me like Ally-Sheedy-dandruff. I was answering: “Have my napkin, I don’t need it back. As for children. I’m not sure. I’d think I’d rather just have grandchildren.”
“Quiet down,” the snorer on my right said.
But no, I wouldn’t! I spent the next two hours loudly talking about uteri, sounding exactly like these two women, even though I was—and here it was—still different. It dawned on me then that I could be comfortable, and not lose my identity or perspective. I could be the same, and still me. If anything, it was nice to talk to someone from a similar non-English background, ie. who wasn’t afraid of indoor heating.
The truth was, I had stayed in England for years for the sense of ‘abnormal’ identity, but also because I could make social mistakes. My not fitting-in was excusable. I had been soothed by the lack-of-sharing in British culture, which meant I could develop privately, without being overtly analysed by old friends or family. There was room for me to do some growing on my own, to figure out who I was beyond stories and labels.
Then, my heart started to race. We were landing. ‘Could I be me among my normal surrounds?’ I asked myself rhetorically as I felt the thuds on the soil. The reading couple clapped—in unison. The chubby guy on my right grabbed my bag and told me to hurry up so we’d be first in line at customs. He was right. He was also my husband. My dashingly, caring, slightly rotund husband. It was time to admit it: I was returning home with a relationship and some perspective, perhaps, in place of youthful endless potential.
We exited the plane and as always I thought of the old SNL sketch. ‘Buh-buh’ to old life, hello to adulthood. Home I come, America, the land of the free refills, where I could be normalish once again. Scary as it still might be.