Saturday, June 23, 2012

ON BECOMING AN EXPAT: The Beginning

From infancy through young adulthood, I lived just west of the center line of the Great Northeast Corridor of the United States, that stretch of a few hundred miles along the Atlantic coast that starts in Boston, cuts through New York and Philadelphia, and terminates in northern Virginia just past Washington, DC. I LIVED there. It wasn't just my home. I never strayed. I knew nothing of the rest of the civilized world except for what I heard and read, saw on the television or in the movies.

In the first place, our family never traveled much when I was a kid. Dad's lunch counter required his attention seven days a week. When we did vacation, we went down the shore, the Jersey shore if you didn't get the idiom. I don't remember a single night in a strange bed that wasn't in a relative's house or down the shore.

And the personal histories of my family discouraged any incentive to travel in order to return to the lands of my genealogical roots. My paternal grandmother Dora and her brother Sam told stories of waves of antisemitism culminating in pogroms in their native Ukraine, of risking lives to rescue the Torah from burning synagogues, of walking with all of their belongings in pillowcases to Milan in order to take steerage to the New World. We never knew any of Dora's five husbands, the last a cousin so we can assume that his story matches hers.

Mom's Russian progenitors apparently lived more comfortable lives. Bankers led the family. Still, they were Jewish bankers. Some chose to remain, the 'home' base for a family network that facilitated its members' desires to emigrate, not unlike today's new Americans. Gino, our favorite pizza guy when I was a kid, told of how his family in Italy put together the money to send him to New York. A cousin took Gino in, taught him the business, and put up the money for Gino to open a shop in Flemington, in what was then rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Gino brought over other cousins to help in the shop. Business boomed. Gino opened a second shop, staffed by the cousins he had trained, allowing for additional cousins to be brought over. That's how Grandma Rose's family operated.

Nothing in these stories created a desire in me to retrace the steps of ancestors who left their native lands so willingly.


Then one day in 1970, I climbed into my VW Beetle and embarked on a road trip sufficiently epic to merit a Ken Keyseyish novel if only I had the talent.  My intention was to travel to Atlanta to visit a friend, then on to Dallas to visit a cousin. I had no plans beyond that. But in Dallas I met Cathey, who was born in New Orleans, raised in three different Texas cities, and who attended college in Mexico and did the backpacking-in-Europe scene years before. I was to spend the next forty years (and counting) with. Cathey. . On that one trip, I left Dallas for Indianapolis, returned to Dallas with one of Cathey's sisters, drove to New York with Cathey, to Boston and back to New York with another friend, with Cathey and friends to Chicago and San Fransisco, to Los Angeles and back to Dallas. After a side trip to New Orleans, Cathey and I found our way home, to my home, then our own first home together in northern New Jersey.

I'd been bitten by the wanderlust bug and Cathey was a carrier. With such a start, how could I not consider the unthinkable, the idea that living out my life within a few miles of my birth would not satisfy my soul?

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