Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Returning

I'm usually pretty good about this: marking anniversaries of milestones in my life. August 12: I moved to Germany. Late October: I moved to France. October 23: I moved back to Texas. So why didn't I jump on this first anniversary of that last event to put up a blog post?

Several reasons. Mostly, I've been way too busy to do it. That's the good news. But in small part, because I'm ambivalent about having done it. Let's see if I can explain.

The daily vista
Shortly after I moved into this place, I set up a work area that hasn't changed noticeably since then. I bought and built a desk, which had a defective drawer, so I can't use that helpful aspect of it. And I set it up by a window, which is what I've pretty much always done, everywhere I've lived. The outdoors isn't a distraction so much as it's something to look at while I'm gathering my thoughts. More than once I've been absorbed in writing something, then gotten up to get a drink or just to stretch my legs and suddenly notice that it's rained. Didn't even notice.

But I'm under no illusion about how lucky I am. I arrived in the US minus a credit rating, due to the fact that for twenty years I'd lived in places where that information was between you and your bank (and the police, who have access to most, but not all, of your data), and that's all. "He's a ghost," one prospective landlord told my realtor during my search for a house. "It's like he doesn't exist." By a miracle, a friend of a friend (who was my realtor's husband) with whom I'd almost gone into business (said business proposed by the same realtor's husband) had outgrown his house and was renting it out. He was plenty sceptical, because of the no credit rating, but he took a chance.

Which made me scared. I'd been trying to sell a book that, it seemed to me, was a natural. I was sure my agent could do it, but I was hoping he could do it soon. It was the reason I'd moved back here, or one of them: I wanted access to UT's arts library, which I'd used before. There were other reasons, too. I tried, but couldn't seem to master Catalan, which I needed if I were going to move to Barcelona, which was Plan A. The hard disc was full. Oh, I might have been able to do it if I'd just moved there and taken a class, and I'd seen classes that encompassed both Catalan and Spanish. I might, just might, have been able to do it. I didn't actually know anyone there, but I could probably have made a few friends. And I did like the place. But...with no language, not a good idea.

The days passed, and the book didn't sell. Soon, I was in debt to my landlord. That was not a good thing. I was going to have to live like I could become homeless at any moment, because that's the reality in America, particularly in Texas. I still had no credit rating, and if I lost this place, I would have to live in my car. I wasn't much looking forward to that, and eked out day to day. Fortunately, my "broke, not poor" habits made it possible to feed myself fairly well, but they put a damper on having a social life. But I was living from day to day, and that's not what I'd hoped would happen.

My stuff arrived from France, and I started slapping it onto shelves. Unfortunately, there weren't enough shelves. There still aren't.

90º shot from the previous. More (but not much) in the garage.
It's the same way with the CDs: I desperately need to get them shelved and sorted. So far, though, I haven't gotten the shelves or advertised for help:

And there are many more on the facing wall. 
But, a year after I moved in here (Nov. 8, as it turns out, so this post is actually only a couple of weeks late), I have probably got enough money to make it through the coming year. The feeling of being able to pay my bills, to pay my rent, on time, is entirely new to me. And I like it.

Yes, I sold the book, finally, as I've mentioned here. And now I'm writing it. Another reason not to blog: when I sit down and start working, I eat up all my writing energy, although the results, I have to say, have been pretty nice for a first draft. But that was in August, and the money didn't reach me immediately. When it did, I took off on a vacation, sorely needed: after returning, I couldn't wait to tear into the book.

But really, what that means is that my new life didn't actually start until early October. when I got back from the vacation. Just this week, I replaced the transmission in my car, the last major expense of the change. Now, it's just write and write, picking up some extra money on the side from radio work and teaching the informal class at UT, and hoping nothing else goes wrong.

So now that I've been back a year, how does it feel? People keep asking me that. Well, I'm ambivalent, like I said. Turns out I didn't actually need the UT library -- or not yet, not for a couple of years if everything goes right -- but somehow, my psyche gave a sigh of relief at not being illegal any more. France and Germany (and possibly Spain) are no more eager to have undocumented immigrants than the U.S. is, but it does help to be a middle-aged white guy so the racist immigration authorities don't notice you. But Obama's executive order doesn't affect me personally in the least.

Austin, as anyone will tell you, isn't Austin any more. It's a generic American city made unusual by its weather (we had a very mild summer, for which thanks), its live music scene (to which I am profoundly indifferent), and its youth (I was told that the median age here is 28). It is perhaps a tiny bit more cognizant of the issues facing America, but mostly the people who haven't been squeezed out (and who did the squeezing, along with the real estate developers) are as solipsistic and entitled as they are in other hip capitals. The other night I went out to dinner with friends, one of whom has a leg in some kind of cast and crutches, and while we waited to be seated, two men sprawled across a seat made for four, oblivious of the fact that there was a guy on crutches standing right next to them who could have used the seat. (Later, inside the restaurant, they were at the next table and I overheard enough of their talk to realize that they were in the tech sector: no huge surprise). Although Austin voted pretty liberally in the midterms, it's still in a state with a Neanderthal for governor, another on the way, and represented in Washington largely by the kind of people who make people in other countries fear the United States. And I live in a nation that is preparing to sell off its national parks to extractive industries, further our endless war in the Mideast, make sure children aren't educated or taught critical thinking, and all but ban science. And I can't do anything about that because too many of my fellow citizens are too engaged with entertaining themselves to look up from their devices and see what's happening.

All things considered, I guess I'd rather not be here, "here" being both the U.S. and Austin. But I do have work to do, and this is where I am, doing it. I don't want to move again any time soon, either next door or across a continent, so for today, here I am. As for where I'd rather be, I can't answer that. There are days when I miss France fiercely, even knowing I'm not welcome to live there. There are days (admittedly rare) when I even miss Berlin. I miss being able to get on a train and (if I've planned right) for very little money going to somewhere quite different from where I started. I miss efficient public transportation, something Austin will never have, in part to the Koch Brothers "investing" in defeating proposals to build it. I miss the outdoor market at the Arceaux in Montpellier, and the seasonal changes in the produce -- and the fact that, unlike at Austin's "farmers markets," that produce is priced within reach of the average person. (This summer, tomatoes cost literally twice what they did in France). I miss affordable wine that actually tastes good, and I miss a good variety in things like juice and yogurt at breakfast. I miss being in a place with a deep sense of history.

Is there anything that's gotten better? Yes: besides the physical plant of my house with its gleaming and useful kitchen, which has enabled me to cook better than ever, there's Central Market, the enlightened grocery store where I buy the majority of what I do cook there. I don't have to wonder about meats and vegetables and what would be a good replacement: what you see is what you get, and last night, it being stormy, I cooked up my very first pot roast and it was amazing. I also have access to books in English when I need to buy them, in a browsable bricks-and-mortar bookstore with another browsable books-and-mortar record store right across the street. The Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants aren't "Asia" restaurants, and so I patronize them when I can and recognize what I get. There's the inestimable joy of getting bills and notices in a language I understand thoroughly, not just pretty well, so that, for instance, I can easily make out that the $20 hike in my monthly Internet bill is due to a decision to adopt a new deal from my provider that I supposedly made on Nov. 11, even though it was a holiday. And I can protest it in my own language, too, for all the good it'll do me. (Although I have to say the English help line at France Telecom Orange has some brilliant folks working for it). I'm a lot closer to a lot of my friends, even if I do have to fly (which I abhorred even before they shrunk the plane interiors so that I fear an embolism every time I get in one) to see them; it's too bad I'll probably not live long enough to see decent train service in this country. Of course, your grandkids may not, either.

I'm choosing to keep my hopes small and my energy high, and work hard at what's before me without the need to seek out anything more (while still being open to other things, just not with the aching sense of need I once had). Like the alcoholics, I'm taking it a day at a time in my new old place (and, unlike them, enjoying a craft beer after dinner), looking to make it newer with a modest screen to show movies on and maybe a couple more chairs for the dining table (I still only have two), and confident that change will come when it's supposed to. Meanwhile, I do give thanks that I've got work and a decent place to live. Tune in tomorrow, but with luck, it'll be the same, if not better.
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