(With gratitude and apologies to the inimitable Anne Tyler.)
I was in Palo Alto this past week for work. Now that I live in Europe, my once- or twice-yearly visits to the California office are a jet-lagged flurry of hugging people I thought had been fired long ago.
(To be fair, they obviously think the same of me, if the question “So… what are you working on these days?” is anything to go by. Translation: “I used to regularly catch sight of you grinding your teeth in the corner of one high-stress, high-value event or another and now you just pop up and like a Slack message every couple of weeks or so. How did you get that gig and is your team hiring?”)
This time, everyone was asking me how I find London, and because I am pathologically candid I kept repeating that I was homesick (instead of the correct answer to a polite conversational question, i.e., “fine”).
Most of my California coworkers have known me since I started my job in that office nearly eight years ago — yeah, I sprouted a gray hair just saying that — which means that they’ve known me for most of my peripatetic adulthood. So more than one of them asked me: “Homesick for where?”
I didn’t have a proper answer. It’s not that I miss Las Vegas, where I grew up; it’s not that I’m jonesing to dodge rats and hot garbage on the sidewalks of New York, where I most recently lived. It’s that if I catch either city, or any city, from the right angle, I feel a twinge of nostalgia.
Case in point: I had watched “The Goldfinch” on the flight to SFO, even though the critics had, to a man, called it awful (it was). I liked the book in no small part because now, when I tell people I grew up in Vegas, they ask me if I’ve read it instead of asking me if my parents were blackjack dealers. Then I tell them I had a friend who’d snapped up a foreclosed house on the city’s raw edge and that it was as weird as it sounded for a cookie-cutter stucco neighborhood to bump up against alien desert. (Then they ask me if the friend was a blackjack dealer.)
The Vegas section of “The Goldfinch” opens with a drone shot panning a neighborhood of foreclosed-on cookie-cutter stucco houses bumping up against desert, all of them painted that kind of sad-sack neutered shade of terra cotta that doesn’t exist outside of the American Southwest, and I felt such a surge of homesickness that I thought about parachuting out over Nevada.
I’m not homesick for a place. I’m homesick for the ugly beigey-pink of every house in Las Vegas built after 1996. I’m homesick for the blast of cold air when your train finally arrives at the platform during a New York summer. (I’m homesick for air conditioning.) I’m homesick for American accents and American “aw, shucks”-ness. And American benzos. I’m homesick for waiting for my friends to show up at the bar even though I know better than to arrive earlier than ten minutes late.
I’m homesick for the familiar, I guess. I’ve started to latch onto the oddest things as symbols of what makes me feel at home; note the aforementioned rats and hot garbage and also that I get a little kick out of how CNN is always playing at the hotel gym.
I can blame it on a decade of hopping from one city to another, but like everyone else in the world who’s been deluged by other people’s lives since the invention of social media I’m just casting about for what I know. When I catch sight of something I recognize in the endless scroll of novelty, I want to grab it. I kid myself that it would be less exhausting to be somewhere I know like the back of my hand, as if I didn’t spend my final six months in Las Vegas sleepless underneath the “Moulin Rouge” poster I hung above my bed when I was thirteen (nothing captured the spirit of my teenage angst like a French prostitute dying of tuberculosis), wallowing in my inability to do something with my life. I am less homesick, perhaps, and more basking in a delusion of returning to New York, where all the pieces will fall into place or be ferried there by rats that emerge from the hot garbage to do my bidding. I’m peripatetic because I’ve had the means to search widely for meaning and now I wonder if I’m looking for an excuse to retrace my steps, as if I left my calling in the elevator of the building where I lived in 2013.
All of this is a very long answer to the question of how I’m finding London. I should also have mentioned that I like the pies and how frequently the Tube runs.
P.S. The critics were right. “The Goldfinch” is a very bad movie. I just can’t take Ansel Elgort seriously as an adult, for one, due to his apparently having stopped aging at sixteen, and I was personally offended by the part where all of Theo’s classmates in Las Vegas were brainless capitalists. Also, in Las Vegas in the two-thousands, we took “Government,” not “Civics,” and thus the plot didn’t hold any water. (It would have, if not for that detail.)