“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”…Teresa May
Clichés and proverbs hover at the surface of our reactions and spring off our tongues because they have withstood the test of time, and tend to be showstoppers. “You can’t go home again.” “Friendship is like money, easier made than kept.” “Fate makes relatives, but choice makes friends.” “The first day a man is a guest, the second a burden, the third a pest.” Or, more popular, the one about the odor of fish and guests after three days.
Imagine my nose-pinched reception after three months of guesthood, then. I do understand the strain of having a winter guest who has nowhere else to go, but when life wallops you, you fall back on wishful bromides like “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” Or even more disappointing, “Blood is thicker than water.”
I left the US 20+ years ago, for health, financial, and personal reasons—worn out by disability, surgery, poverty, and single motherhood—but also because I was tired of superficial American trends in interaction, suffocating consumerism, my position of increasing social, artistic, financial isolation, and the vacant customer service smile trying too hard to mitigate the frustration of dissatisfied consumers. And because the widowed man I thought was my friend because his wife had been my friend gave me an ultimatum: move in with him, marry him and declare my undying love and devotion from the rooftops, or get out of the apartment we owned jointly. I suffered myself to be kicked out of my home rather than indulge in hypocrisy. Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting away from you, babe. Moreover, I can never go home to San Francisco again, not at today’s prices. Pre fences and walls, I was naïve enough to think it was possible to be a citizen of the world, if maintaining sensitive cultural and willing linguistic competencies were the major criteria. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I reinvented my life in a city that seemed to welcome me, St. Petersburg, Russia, where I had wanted to live ever since I had studied there in the early 1970s. I threw open my doors to the artistic crowd, supported my daughter, who is now lost to me, in her dream of a theatrical education, translated until dawn in my caftan, began writing poetry again, strolled through iron railed parks to the opera, lived the Traviata life. Even committed the error of remarriage, for a few years. After a decade, I foolishly relocated to Italy, seeking greener pastures offering better food, less shackled political thought, fewer bureaucratic stringencies (ha!), a warmer climate, great art. These days, alone in my dotage, I must vacate my unsalable Tuscan townhouse with its collapsing roof every 90 days for 90 days, and spend my days wandering in the wilderness, searching for cheap, crummy rooms and visas. My spine has protected itself by curling into the form of a comma. My shoulder has not recovered from last winter’s nasty fall on Nevsky Prospect’s lovely granite sidewalk. My walker is on its last wheels. Soviet Champagne alternates with factory Prosecco to kill the pain. Be careful what you wish for.
Two and a half years ago, having landed on my brother and his partner in a failed attempt to obtain medical care in the land of my birth, and the only country where I hold citizenship, blood ultimately proved so translucently thin that I was forced to go to a distant state for respite with an old friend until my nonrefundable airline ticket became usable. My brother, barely concealing his displeasure from the moment I arrived ill, severely exhausted, and chronically depressed, wasted little time before he snatched an opportunity to screech obscenities into my face, fists clenched at his sides. My offense? I had dared to access BBC Newshour on my computer in their empty house. When he entered his domain unexpectedly, I was faced with the choice of shutting down my computer properly or watching the milk for my coffee boil over onto their pristine stove. Between a rock and a hard place, I chose the milk.
Immediately, he started the familiar sarcastic goading. “Iraqi children being starved and bombed, bla, bla, bla. Fuck, do we have to listen to that? Not exactly uplifting.” Yanking the cord from the socket, I responded, “It’s not meant to be uplifting. It’s the news.” All hell broke loose. I thought he would punch me. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK FUCK! Why can’t you be Normal?” Taking the cue, one of their vicious dogs slipped her leash, bounding toward me, teeth bared in a frenzy of gnashing, barking. I took to tiptoe foraging for bread and cheese in the wee hours, so as not to encounter him.
This last time, now estranged from all family, I returned to my tried and true friend, again in the hope of establishing a base for long overdue medical treatment, an unexpectedly lengthy and unsatisfactory process. At first, we enjoyed each other’s company, as of old. She was still determined to be helpful and generous, for old time’s sake. Even so, a sad fact has been born in upon me. Americans are tribal and xenophobic in a way they cannot see when at home, probably like myself before I adopted an outsider’s perspective.
When my old friend introduced me to her present circle of friends, I did not realize I had to concur with their opinions and tacit assumptions to be accepted at the potluck. Actually, I wished only to be tolerated, not wishing to join any clubs. That is not okay here in the good ol’ US of A anymore; it is not acceptable merely to be unfailingly polite, shut one’s mouth and cast down one’s eyes in non-compliance. The initiation test covers politics, opinions, use of language, mood, and food. Are you one of us? Do you belong? Are you optimistic, normal, according to our definition? Part of the solution? One of us? No highfalutin intellectuals need apply down home.
One evening, my friend enthused about a local theater production of Babette’s Feast. Did I want to splurge my nonexistent disposable income from my disability check? No, thanks, I’ve read the book, seen the excellent film. And seen other local productions of other plays. Smiling too ruefully, I mutter, “Right, put away your artistry and learn to cook a split cod.” Not exactly uplifting.
She looked nonplussed. Only the visual, the film mattered, of course. “Oh my God, remember the poor turtle?” Instantly bereft. The poor turtle indeed. Was that all she had taken away from that wise tale of the predicament of hospitality, older than the sea turtle? The sentimental, currently insurmountable notion that animal rights take precedence over human rights? I politely declined an offer of soy sausage, longing for pork, or better/worse, lamb. One of my carnal sins in rigid, righteous, “progressive” America is non-ideological dining. It doesn’t matter that their cars have destroyed the planet, including many kitties, puppies, and turtles.
Other transgressions include analysis and criticism of the arts. When one of The Group gushed over the HD Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Semiramide with a rhetorical question about my opinion, I answered without hesitation, as is my habit, that I thought the voices were magnificent, but the staging static. She chilled, “Well, I’m not sophisticated enough to criticize The Met.” The best defense is a good offense.
I took refuge in unavoidable, poorly paid work to pay my property taxes and utilities for the house where I was not allowed to live, while awaiting further diagnoses for medical referrals I would not be around to follow up.
Formerly entertaining Diane has become “difficult.” I am “too aloof for us country folk.” I don’t value “community.” I am not a normal American. You’re either with us, or against us. I am not welcome here, inside the wall. Nor sadly, across the pond, where I have been denied residency on economic grounds. Love it or leave it…hard to achieve it.
Diane G. Martin, Russian literature specialist, Willamette University graduate, winner of the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, has published poetry, prose, and photography in numerous literary journals including New London Writers, Vine Leaves Literary Review, Poetry Circle, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Breath and Shadow, the Willamette Review of the Liberal Arts, Portland Review of Art, Pentimento, Twisted Vine Leaves, The Examined Life, Wordgathering, Dodging the Rain, Antiphon, Dark Ink, Gyroscope, Poor Yorick, Rhino, Conclave, Slipstream, Stonecoast Review— including cover photo— Steam Ticket, Third Wednesday, Pigeonholes, Shantih, Zingara, Shooter, The Grief Diaries, Lunch Ticket, Lady Liberty, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Ekphrastic Review, The Bangor Literary Journal, Soliloquies, POUi, Talking Writing, The Helix Magazine, The Esthetic Apostle, Oyster River Pages, Reedsy Blog, and forthcoming in Tulane Review, Third Wednesday,and Curating Alexandria. Long-time resident of Nevada, Oregon, San Francisco, CA, Maine, USA, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Sansepolcro, Italy, Diane has traveled throughout much of the world, often reluctantly. The themes of exile, disability, and displacement pervade her work. She has completed several books of poetry, as well as a recently completed a collection of creative nonfiction pieces. She is at work on a memoir.