all-day dining at the homesick restaurant

(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.)

michigan seems like a dream to me now

Not the kind of view you grow up on in America

Two years ago today I boarded a plane with three suitcases and a one-way ticket to a city I’d never visited to share a home I’d never seen with a man I’d never lived with. (That sentence would have a lot more verve if it ended with “a man I’d never met,” wouldn’t it? Sorry to disappoint.)

There was a lot of well-intentioned hand-wringing over my up-and-leaving, and many quiet offers of assistance should it go sideways, should I arrive in Denmark and realize that I can’t stomach rye bread. (At least I assume that was my loved ones’ only concern.) I was abstractly grateful for the kindness, but I’d entered something of a fugue state when I decided to move to Copenhagen with my now-fiancé, and was strangely unconcerned by the whole thing. I’d decided to let it happen, so it was happening, and that was that.

I wasn’t leaving to make a post-2016 political statement; rather, an opportunity arose and I took it. I was excited, though, to leave the omnipresent CNN news ticker behind, and to view America through a different lens. In 2015, I spent two weeks in New Zealand for work, and one of my Kiwi colleagues described Americans as “precocious.” I didn’t get it then, but I think about it constantly now. It was a generous interpretation of a stereotype that’s as true now as it was in 1945 or 1963, the American popping up like a gopher to state opinion as fact, loudly, swinging their shirtsleeve-clad arm, boundlessly confident in their goodness and originality.

When a Londoner ends a conversation with “cheers” and I respond, instinctively, “Have a good one,” I feel like I might as well have a piece of hay sticking out the side of my mouth. It’s the consummate American phrase. The world is on fire, literally and figuratively, following centuries of colonialist intervention and industrialization and the profligate prescribing of antibiotics, but hey, the sun is shining, or at least it will be when the acid rain cloud clears, which surely it will if we yell loudly enough to drown out the thoughts and prayers that impede meaningful action, and in the meantime — you go out and enjoy yourself, because I’m going to too!

The funny thing is that I love America. I get that that’s kind of an anachronism, and I probably have to return my woke millennial card now, but if anything, living abroad has only reinforced my love for America. I miss it every day. Not just my friends or the ubiquity of air conditioning, but the pervasive gumption, willful obliviousness to futility, the collective delusion that tomorrow will be better than today (despite the ubiquity of air conditioning).

I could write a solemn thesis about how my travels are shaping my view of my homeland, but my worst nightmare is accidentally becoming a sanctimonious travel blogger, so instead let me leave you with a brief list of probably-awful American things that I miss in spite of knowing better.

In no particular order:

  1. TV commercials for personal injury lawyers: I grew up on “Enough said, call Ed.” (I haven’t lived in Las Vegas since 2011 and I can still recite his commercial!) Europe’s strict regulations governing marketing are meant to combat the indignity of America’s uniquely litigious culture… but IMO it’s pretty clear that the way Europeans engage with their regulators is just a different avenue for expressing the same instinctive yen for retribution. We sue; you complain!
  2. Costco and other large things: To be fair, big-box stores exist in Europe, but nothing feels more American than being able to buy a pallet of Mountain Dew for your very own home.
  3. Benzodiazepines: You can’t get a European GP to prescribe you Xanax for love or money. I’ve been portioning out the last of my Xanax from my American doctor like it’s gold. Once it’s gone, I won’t be able to fly on dinky 60-seat planes again until I return to America, where the pharmaceutical-industrial complex encourages a virtuous circle among patients, doctors, and Big Pharma (everyone either gets paid or gets tranquillized — it’s a win-win-win!).
  4. Target: There is no single store you can visit in Europe that will sell you a lint roller, contact lens solution, cough syrup, tinfoil, and hangers, let alone dollar tchotchkes and a sundress that you’ll feel compelled to buy yet never wear.
  5. Obsequious customer service: I disagree with everyone who makes fun of waitstaff who ask “Are you still working on that?” or compliments your menu choice, etc. I never feel better than after a conversation in which both parties are simpering. It’s like when you tell the woman next to you in the elevator how much you love her lipstick and she tells you how much she loves your boots and neither of you could care less if the other walked into traffic tomorrow, but until the fourteenth floor you’re besties. This is how you achieve collective delusion.

When I return to the States eventually I’ll write up a list of what I miss from Europe: living confidently with the knowledge that if I contract a terminal illness, I won’t have to open a GoFundMe to not die; very old buildings; not wondering if I’m going to get E. coli from grocery store chicken thighs; government investment in transit infrastructure. Regulation, mostly, I guess. And being an easyJet flight away from Neapolitan pizza. Anyway, the past two years have been a trip and a half and though I’m always half-desperate to return home, I look forward to seeing what the next two have in store.

P.S. Speaking of the UK, and of America: I really enjoyed Thursday’s episode of The Daily on Megxit. It was a cogent synthesis of several issues that have more interplay than they seem to on the surface. (I’m firmly on Team Sussex, probably because I have that American sensibility whereby instead of keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of bullshit you take matters into your own hands. And I love the mental image of Megan strolling down a Canadian sidewalk in her Ugg boots like a walking middle finger to the House of Windsor’s dress code. As a UK taxpayer, I feel entitled to this hot take!)

hej hej to all that

The Italian girls in my Danish class are beside themselves that I’ve left New York. “Jeg kommer fra New York,” I say, hacking up the “fra” like it’s 2003 and I’m in the front row of French I with Madame H________. Better to sound French than to sound American.

“Then why are you here?” asks the girl from Bologna, who twenty minutes into the first class accused me of being a ringer for having shown up already knowing the secret Danish vowels. I suspect we wouldn’t have been friends as children, and that we won’t be friends now, since I’m still the kind of Hermione Granger whose hand shoots up first to show off what I studied before class. (I cringe, because old habits die hard, but it’s not my fault that nobody else thought to look up “how to speak Danish” on YouTube before they showed up today.)

Why am I here? I laugh at this. My New York friends think it’s impossibly exotic that I’ve moved to Europe. I imagine for the Schengen Europeans in my class it’s as humdrum as moving from Los Angeles to New Orleans or Philadelphia to Seattle, enough to trigger some tax mistakes that will be expensive in a decade but not enough to trigger culture shock. Meanwhile, I still don’t know how to pronounce the name of the street I live on. Or schedule a dentist appointment. Or a haircut. Or find travel-size bottles of contact lens solution. Or pants hangers. Or tempeh. Or peanut butter that doesn’t get that weird slick of oil at the top. Or a top sheet. I guess it’s exotic, if your idea of “exotic” is “buying six bottles of travel-size contact lens solution every time you set foot in an American airport.”

During our coffee break, the Italian girls rhapsodize about the machinelike Danish healthcare apparatus. In Italy, they tell me, if you want to see the doctor, you show up at seven A.M. and wait with all the nonnas until the doctor deigns to see you. I shudder. I suppose beyond the miracle of appointment scheduling they find the city drab.

I studied Italian in college, and I imagine Danish must horrify the Italian girls. What I love about Italian is its languor – every consonant gets its due, even when there are two in a row, and syllables are tacked onto words for seemingly no reason other than to make them longer. It’s a full-bodied language with hand gestures to match, so musical that opera seems its natural extension.

Danish, on the other hand, sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball. “Reduction,” the practice of eliding words used in combination, means that several common phrases actually just sound like when you’re trying to talk to the dentist. (“Jeg er amerikaner” – I am American – comes out “Jaaahh amerikaaaaaaahhh.” It’s an apt description of being American in 2018, but undignified nonetheless.)

This doesn’t matter, of course, since every Dane speaks English and probably a few other languages on top of that. In fact, the second lesson in my Danish coursebook teaches languages, nationalities, and numbers through an exercise where you describe the number of languages the book’s characters speak. Marco and Barbara and Helle and King Jones (a real character, who is allegedly from England, and who now works at Novo Nordisk, which feels like subtle Danish commentary on monarchy in the modern era) all of course speak English, but they also speak fransk and spansk and japansk and some of then even speak tysk. I am grateful to have practiced my Danish vowels before I showed up for day one, even if it means that the Italian girls all hate me, because otherwise I might have to slink out in shame on behalf of my people.

In fact, I frequently feel shame on behalf of my people. Every night when I wake up sweating because there are no air conditioners in Northern Europe, I feel shame, and then I roll over and Google “why are there no air conditioners in europe” (answer: because we are one industrializing-nation-gets-access-to-air-conditioning away from The Day After Tomorrow, get a fan, you whiny American piece of shit). Every holiday when I go out to find a coffee shop that will let me pay an exorbitant amount of money for a spoonful of yogurt with two bites of granola and they’re all closed because Europeans like to give everyone a day off, not just people whose parents paid for them to get a useless degree that they parlayed into a 9-5 job only because they know someone who’s four degrees removed from the deep state, I feel shame. Every time I finish my spoonful of yogurt and two bites of granola and start looking around for the bacon, I feel shame. We are fat hedonists who speak no spansk or fransk or dansk, and we are destroying the world with our chlorofluorocarbons. I know that now.

When the Italian girls ask me why I left New York, I want to tell them about the Holland Tunnel, or how walking into my boyfriend’s apartment building meant elbowing through the crowd of tourists lined up for pizza on Bleecker Street. I want to tell them that it’s no longer listening to men complain in little bars near Grand Central, it’s listening to men complain in little cafes in Brooklyn, and it’s not their wives who are unable to cope but their roommates or bandmates or, God forbid, their DJ partners. I want to tell them about how the weekend before I left New York it was below zero and I walked down to the L train platform after midnight, when you might expect to wait twenty minutes for a train, but definitely not THIRTY-FIVE, which is a time I’ve never seen displayed on a transit platform before or since.

It was at that moment that I knew I’d stayed too long at the Fair, or more specifically, at the Alligator Lounge, since maybe if I’d left before midnight I’d have seen an L train again before I perished.

Copenhagen is an exquisite and fantastically functional city. What the Southern Europeans find dismal – the assiduous following of bike lane etiquette, the unforgiving metro doors that are uninterested in letting you hold them open so your slowpoke friends can dive onto the train after you – I find comforting. No, let me be honest; I find it thrilling. I have been telling everyone who will listen that I can get home from the airport in fifteen minutes on a train that runs every six minutes, 24 hours a day. I don’t know how I’ll live with the Holland Tunnel again knowing this exists. Every restaurant takes reservations. The buildings are candy-colored with cupolas the color of the Statue of Liberty on top. I have never elbowed my way into my own home or stepped in someone else’s gum (or, God help me, their vomit). The city sends me email, and you can drink a beer in the park. It’s what I hoped for when we moved: a calmer, more beautiful world, where I can try to enjoy my life instead of ducking my head and battling my way through it.

But.

I feel the loss of America. I miss air conditioning and giant portions, and I also feel like a traitor for leaving America in its time of crisis. We didn’t leave because of the election, though we started talking about leaving because of the election. I would rather have left knowing my country was in the hands of someone capable. (I prefer to leave writing about politics to people with more than an elementary knowledge of politics, but if you really want to hear my feelings, let’s grab a beer someday.) I feel torn between brushing my past as an American off my shoulders and defending my country for its faults. And to be sure, there are many, including but not limited to the election of white nationalists to public office, the Bloomin’ Onion, and Natty Light.

In my six months in Denmark I’ve observed several opportunities for Europeans to take a page out of America’s book. For example, pillows here are terrible. I feel grateful that in addition to most of the condiments from our kitchens, all of my shoes, and an ice cube tray that was probably supposed to stay in his apartment’s freezer, my boyfriend shipped over our American pillows. And don’t get me started on the flies. I’m sure it has something to do with the structure of all these charming double-glazed windows that keep our apartments hyggeligt in the winter, but it seems that the continent has yet to discover that disruptive technology known as the window screen. I woke up last week on a trip to Prague with bug bites on – wait for it – my face. Also, why doesn’t anyone sell travel-size contact lens solution? When I get sick of taking meetings with my California colleagues every night until ten P.M., I’m going to quit and open a store that sells pillows that aren’t terrible and contact lens solution and then I will be a millionaire.

Every week in Danish class, with my classmates who all speak English on top of their native languages and grew up traveling Europe the way I grew up traveling to Kennewick, Washington, I feel like a pasty, precious fish out of water. Why am I leaking sweat onto my plastic chair while everyone else looks like they could sit in this sweatbox of a classroom for another four hours and barely glisten? Why doesn’t anyone else have bug bites on their face? Why are all of our exercises about how everyone in Europe learned to speak German before I even knew how to tie my shoes? Marco speaks five languages. (Marco tale fem sprog.) Well, fuck you, Marco! I have screens on my windows!

I flew home to New York the other week for a wedding. Fifteen minutes out from Newark, just when I’d be stepping off the metro onto the cobbled streets (brosten) for a short walk to my apartment, our Uber inched its way toward the Holland Tunnel. On Canal Street, the honking trucks drowned out the radio and the air conditioner. I looked out at buildings that are grimy with the soot of all these trucks and the cars that we take when the wait for the subway is 35 minutes on a subzero evening in January.

Later, I took the F train into Manhattan to pick up a dress at Rent the Runway and hit CVS for some – you guessed it – travel-size contact lens solution. The platform was dank on a cool, humid summer afternoon, and the train car was too cold. The people around me were too loud, and I glared at them before I turned up the volume on my headphones. Outside, on an avenue that smelled like trash, I walked by the Home Depot and the Lowe’s and the Container Store where you can buy anything you need in any size you can imagine and they’ll bring it to your house for you, walk it up five flights of stairs, take it out of the box so you can put the cardboard in your back alley and wait for it to disappear.

We took an overnight flight back to Copenhagen, and on the way home from the airport the next day I could see buildings that are freshly painted every year and smelled – well, I don’t really know what, but it wasn’t trash. I thought briefly that there was no longer any point in keeping the storage unit I still keep in New York, but three days later I woke up with bug bites on my face. I think it may be some time yet before I stop calling Europe “the Continent.”