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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Not Goodbye

I didn't realize it was possible to fall in love with a country. A person yes, but a country? But then I listened to Carrie Underwood's See You Again and I knew my heart had been captured. And I wondered why it took me so long to return when 17 years ago I'd already known. . .

They say the people make the country. I believe it. When I first lived here, I fell in love with a boy. He was dark as a night without stars but his smile lit up my teenage world where I struggled with the typical father-daughter rebellion. He was my first love, the one you always remember. When I left the first time, it was with a broken heart that begged to return.

There were other good memories, of course. Turning 16 and then 18, those milestone birthdays, and the stuffed dog two of my friends who were dating gave me. They didn't last but the dog returned with me when I did and celebrated his 18th birthday where I celebrated mine so long ago. Saturday night games and climbing trees and colouring little Happy Sabbath notes in church. The trees are still there and one dear church lady kept nearly all her notes in her Bible all those years.

It was only a little over 5 months after arriving when I packed my bags to return to the States for a brief visit. I'd dreamed of this day on my most difficult days when the homesickness seemed just a little too difficult to push away. But strangely, I wasn't feeling as excited as I'd expected. It was as if I'd been transported 17 years back and I was once again having to say goodbye without promise of hello. I didn't like the feeling at all.

I reassured myself that this was just temporary. I had a return ticket, my papers were all in order, I had a job to return to, and I was leaving all my belongings behind. I took a 35+ hour trek via the North Pole and after a week of the flu began to slowly busy myself with life again. Yet I couldn't shake the anxiety. I didn't want to stay here. All the well-meaning acquaintances who stopped me to say hello and ask if I was back for good didn't understand this was no longer home for me. Well, it had never been to begin with.

Then Carrie Underwood's song crept into my mind and I hunted for it on YouTube. Soon the familiar country strains filled the kitchen and soothed my restless heart. I echoed the lyrics but not to a person. To a country. My country.

I will forever be grateful to the US for country music, freedom, flipflops in January, wide open freeways, and Chipotle. I will be grateful that here I graduated from high school, college and graduate school without debt, learned to drive without having to wear a full veil, and opened my own bank account without a husband or father as co-signatory. I will be grateful for cheap gas, BOGO sales, Dr. Phil's sage advice, and an affordable Tracfone cellphone. But try as hard as I have, my heart always wandered and refused to pledge allegiance when it had to be true elsewhere.

My heart belongs to a land of idiosyncratic clashes of values and emblems. Crumbling buildings stand beside towering skyscrapers suspended entirely out of glass. Valentino and Michael Kors vie for space in a city that hides thousands of struggling refugees. Cars honk on streets where order has vanished unless a police officer directs traffic. Gunshots mingle with fireworks, confusion as to which is celebrating and which is a warning from the street side pharmacists in the valley. Alongside ostentatious mosques stand equally ostentatiously built Orthodox cathedrals, many of them boasting preservation through the multitude of wars.

I dodge barrelling cars to reach my destination safely. I learn to laugh at taxi drivers who offer me $7 to marry them for American papers. Papers which, I inform them, I sadly cannot provide as I am not an American citizen though my Cali-girl accent seems to say otherwise. I listen to a friend and the next time I'm able to order fruit cocktails (think fresh fruit) for everyone in the local language. I am used to hiking up a hill carrying my month's groceries in two hands and a backpack. I now accept the humidity and its accompany sweat as status quo.

17 years ago, I said goodbye and the country, the boy, were gone. I grieved for a few days but then I had to put the tears aside to focus on living in the New Country. Life wasn't easy and there was no money to return or even to phone. Eventually I thought I'd forgotten. My heart hadn't. In two weeks I return. This time I will see it again. This time I'm going home.

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