Cultural Suitcase

old suitcaseCrossing cultures is one of my favorite activities. As a child, I was drawn to the Other: the one who spoke another language; the one who looked different; the one who came from a faraway land. Accordingly, I befriended as many foreigners as I could: Ethiopian, Greek, German, etc.

But the one who stands out, to this day, is the freckled, perennially smiling Californian who showed up at my school one fine morning, after being dumped there by her parents, a couple of nut jobs seen waving goodbye to their daughter as they roared off in a sporty convertible. That didn’t seem to faze her in the least. She stood in front of the class and explained, in English, that while her parents explored the rest of Europe, she would be staying with family friends and attending our school. Since I was the only one in class who understood her, the teacher appointed me official interpreter and tour guide. Needless to say, we became inseparable–and that, I think, is when I fell in love with all things American: the language, the people, the smiles, the self-confidence, the walk, the accent, the clothes, the music, the boundless energy and open-mindedness. I was fourteen.

At fifteen, love struck. My boyfriend was half-Egyptian, a year older than me, and dangerously attractive. Fearing that I would end up barefoot and pregnant, my parents whisked me off to an all-girl boarding school in another city. For weeks, I wept and wept, and in between wrote letters to my mother pleading to come home. When I realized that no one was going to rescue me, I dried my tears and started to make friends in earnest. My classmates came from all over the world: Lebanon, Italy, Nicaragua, Algeria, Spain, England, Haiti, Japan, Taiwan, Zambia. I was still on Swiss soil, but now I had at my disposal an array of exotic-looking girls from far-flung places who spoke unfamiliar languages.

Looking back, I view the experience as my first international relocation. There would be thirteen more. What exactly was I looking for? The perfect country? Well, there is no such thing, is there? But in my mind, the US came fairly close.

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