On being a rolling stone: the angst of relocation


By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series) http://meritbbs.unimaas.nl/narula/essays.html


It is often said that if you feel life is weighing you down, laughter is an excellent cure, and many of us seek such solace in cinematic offerings. Few films are less well suited for this endeavour than the sado-masochistic epic, The Passion of the Christ, with one momentary exception. As Christ is about to be nailed down, it becomes apparent that the cross has been pre-fabricated: holes have already been drilled at the appropriate place, which, unfortunately, were drilled with a much lankier man in mind, thus requiring Jesus’ shoulder to be dislocated to make the fit. There is little doubt in my mind that IKEA is part of a proud tradition stretching back some two millennia, producing disposable furniture (in as far as a cross might be considered furniture) that rarely fits together as per the enclosed instructions.


I draw succour from this memory as I struggle to assemble yet another IKEA desk, cursing my tendency to be cheap in household furnishings. I draw succour too, from the fact that if those brutish and illiterate Roman soldiers could do it, so can I. Engineering degrees and PhDs, it seems, are more of a hindrance than help in such matters.


For those of you out of the loop, delightful readers, I have just relocated from sunny Copenhagen to tropical London, residing in a flat the size of two shoeboxes, but located in a neighbourhood better suited to Professor Higgins. But I digress.  It is not my remit here to lament my increasingly shameless bourgeois habits. It is instead to delve into the rather powerful feeling of angst that relocating creates in me. Several of you have expressed surprise that I am not more comfortable with changing countries, seeing as I have done so rather regularly for much of my life. Others are bewildered that I am not more excited about the prospect of being in the most exciting city in Europe (albeit also the most expensive).


To be sure, some aspects of changing countries have become second nature. IKEA shopping is indeed one of the rituals that I think not a minute about. I know also to have enough money to survive for three months, and enough cash to pay for 2 months rent, since tax authorities and employers are invariably reluctant to process documentation in a hurry. I hit the ground running, as it were, arranging permits, banks, registrations, insurance, doctors, and so on.  I identify the nearest suppliers of coriander and East Asian ingredients; I track down the closer purveyor of African goods, identify bus routes and so forth.


All these have been learnt through experience, some of which make excellent dinnertime entertainment, but this is not the place to regale you with these.  I look forward to the adventure, the new experiences and challenges that await me, these are not the things that create unease in my chest, that make me simultaneously afraid, lonely and intensely angst-ridden. It is not the uncertainty and unfamiliarity per se that make me act as a surly 16 year old, demanding, ungenerous, moody (those of you who are closer to me will recognise what I mean: I apologise).


Both of the causes of this moodiness are associated with a self-perception. Perception, as I have discovered recently, is not always associated with reality. The first is largely associated with the existential: packing up my life into boxes and to see the sum total of my existence as a collection of cardboard containers makes me perceive that I am neither fish nor foul; that I do not have an identity, that the place that I deemed home is (once again) not a refuge, but a room. Some of you may empathise if you remember the feeling of returning to your family home only to discover that you no longer belong there: your childhood memories have been packed away into boxes. Perhaps the room has been converted into a guest room; or your parents moved to another home. Suddenly you realise: I don’t live here anymore; this is no longer my home. Even if, like me, you were delighted to be off to college, to be independent, it is a melancholic experience; it marks the end of an era. You then proceed to designate another location as your official cave, your refuge which is you, with your assets, your memories.  It is where you run to find yourself, because it is an extension of you, a surrogate womb, in some primordial sense, just as was your parents house was (or still is in some cases). Its like a beacon in hard times, calling you, a neon sign in your head which pops up saying, in case of emergency, hide here.  In moving, my entire life is taken apart, every paper, every book, every memento will have to be examined, packed, or thrown away. Everything that defines my life will once more be in boxes, and these will be transported to a new location where everything will remain in boxes or in chaos until I have the courage to reorganise my existence.  There will even be a few days where everything will be in transit, neither here nor there but on a boat, a ship or a plane, and all you have are the clothes on your back, your passport and a toothbrush. It is at these moments that I am lowest, because something says in my head, you are as nothing, you have nothing; you are a rolling stone that has gathered no moss. No one will meet you at the airport, if the plane goes down nobody will ever know, I will sleep in an empty flat alone, unloved, unnoticed.  There is a sense of having had a pointless existence, of floating through space with no direction, like a Kafkaesque nightmare.


To be sure I feel less like this on occasion, because this sense of indirection is overcome by people, by your friends, your family, your significant others. They provide a safety net, a tether to reality because they are grounded, while you are not, at least for the duration of your move.  I reach out instinctively to these people (somewhat greedily at times) for reassurance, without the decency to say can you please, please stand by me? They provide a portable locus, a yardstick to judge my own self-pity, a sense of what is real and of what is important, a voice or a hand to remind me that I exist in this material world and I do have an existence that matters to someone.


And this is the second source of angst in relocation. Because one must by necessity lose the old network and create a new one in the new location. Although one does not lose the old network instantly, over time people evolve away from each other: one has increasingly less to talk about with friends of yore. They may love you just the same, but over time it is a friendship based largely on nostalgia. You cannot expect them always to understand your present predicament, because their experiences are with you in another location, and over time, people drift apart because there are insufficient shared experiences. You also cannot expect all of them to understand this unreasonable angst of relocation, because they may be grounded, they may never have lost their sense of home and belonging.


Making new friends and creating a new network is a complex task, not assisted by time and age.  When I was an undergraduate making friends was easier than falling of a bicycle. Everyone at university is initially lost, trying to find themselves, to find friends and personalities, and in this network-free world making friends is easy. As people grow older – by the time they become postgraduates- networks become more concrete as personalities form, and existing networks are maintained as much as possible.  New arrivals must work harder to join established networks, and this becomes more difficult as years go by, as people enter long-term relationships, have children, inherit each other’s social obligations.  Friendships, too, are sometimes more superficial as one gets older because people can be more cynical and practical about friendships, because you are professionally important to them or may help their social standing somehow. You are part of a strategic choice rather than simply a person they can relate to.  One often ends up joining networks of expatriates who are dislocated too, but most often speak of ‘home’ because expatriates see themselves as returning somewhere one day.  And they often do, or move on to greener pastures, which means that I as a professional lone wolf must continuously seek to refresh this circle of transitory friends. And it does not get easier to do this, especially when you know this is what you have to do, and you know how long it will take you, because you have done it all before, again and again and again.


It is not just the friends that provide this anchor, but smaller things. I remember feeling this most when I left Nigeria for the US. I got off the plane with exactly one phone number, which turned out to not work at all. I had grown up in a small town where I knew everyone: if I were short of money the corner shop owner would say, you can pay me later. If I needed anything at all, I would know where to get it. Suddenly I was in a country where I had no social fallbacks.  As luck would have it, I did fall. I did run out of money and resources, I couldn’t afford to pay the rent; I had no one to rely on but myself. I was a foreigner afloat in a sea of a few million unsympathetic strangers.  Each time since that I have landed in a new city – of which there have now been many - I am immediately cognisant that I am alone and I am struck by a strong sense of homesickness, but there is no home to go to, because as per my first point, I have no cave left to retreat to, I am my own last refuge once again.  It feels sometimes like running on a treadmill; no matter how fast you go, how long you run, you know you will eventually have to stop and be exactly where you started. Except that on a treadmill, this is what you wanted to achieve in the first place. But I also know, just as surely, that I have the strength to make it work, that I will find my equilibrium once again. But I also know, just as surely, that I have the strength to make it work, that I will find my equilibrium once again, that the pleasures of discovery will outweigh the truama of identity.