I’m obsessed with the landed aristocracy: The great-great granddaughter of a countess who lives with her husband and four children in her family’s 16th century palazzo. The heiress who grew up on a 17,000-acre ranch in Uruguay. The scion of a shipping family who just renovated the 300-year old family home in Santorini.
I meet these exotic apparitions in the pages of thick, slippery magazines that arrive mysteriously in my house, sometimes tucked between the pages of the more austere New York Times, sometimes delivered, unbid, through the mail. Over pages and pages of saturated color, I am generously offered a privileged glimpse into the daily lives of families whose fantastic wealth stretches back to the time of the Medici. Unworthy, I am nevertheless invited into sitting rooms decorated with portraits of elegant Dukes, bathrooms of double height ceilings that loom over original marble tubs. Cavernous receiving rooms decorated with 18th century tapestries, hand-carved mahogany tables and amusing trinkets collected by generations of inhabitants including this flea-market find, an oil in the style of Tintoretto, scored just last year by the current owner on a visit to Rome.
Sometimes, I learn of the rigors of a two-year renovation (dead owls, rotting wallpaper) that ends by revealing magnificent frescoes, hand-forged bricks and ancient mosaics once trod by silk-slippered ancestors.
I don’t envy these people – not exactly. Neither am I tempted – not really — to ridicule them. My feelings, as I temporarily inhabit these full-color lives, are much more nuanced and complicated. I am gruesomely fascinated by these eternally wealthy bloodlines, and I simply cannot look away. I know the next magazine will arrive, the next family will open their Tuscan Villa to my commoners’ eyes, and I will succumb to the fantasy, as surely as my own peasant ancestors did, gazing from the doors of their wooden huts to the towers of unreachable wealth beyond.
* * *
I come from a long line of emigrants. Which is another way of saying, I come from enduring peasant stock – for sometimes the wealthy meet violent ends, but it is more often the poor who leave.
My great-grandparents on my mother’s side – illiterate tenant farmers from Lebanon’s northern hinterlands – fled their homes in 1908, chased by hunger and persecution. They hopped a ship to Mexico. When it stopped in Cuba, they got off. I imagine them saying, this is good enough. Or far enough.
My mother’s father also fled the poverty of Asturias in the early 20th century. He too found refuge, at least for a time, in Cuba. On my father’s side, they were also running: from Asturias, Canary Islands and, even, Scotland.
Varadero, Güines and Havana suited them all just fine. Until, of course, it was time to pull up roots and move again. As 20th century migrations go, theirs were relatively gentle. Enough so that I can joke now that if our family had a crest, its motto would be, “This is Bullshit, I’m out of Here.”
Otherwise, no, we don’t have a crest. No Counts or Duchesses dot my lineage. There is not a drop of blue blood in my veins. My middle-class parents left their modest possessions behind when they left Cuba in the early 1960s. And then they started over, in the family tradition.
My family, unless you count the green and white plates bought with S&H stamps in the 1970s, does not keep heirlooms. There is no august family homestead for me to return to. No treasure-filled rooms. No silver for my son to inherit.
My family’s legacy is of a different sort: Of humor, myth and constant movement. My writing and my restlessness stands as a kind of resonance to their lives, the hum left over from the explosion of their collective flight.
And yet I count myself luckier than a Duchessa in a Calabrian Palazzo. For a child of the 20th century – that era of mass migration, murder and upheaval – to have never experienced homelessness or statelessness is, after all, a special kind of good fortune. My movements, in contrast to those of my ancestors, have all been undertaken with joy. I’ve lived in places that don’t reach the level of family palaces, and yet still overflow with a comfortable luxury that my great-grandmother, married at 13 and a refugee at 15, would not have even been able to imagine.
Exile, Joseph Brodsky famously noted, is a linguistic event. For those of us living in the aftermath, it is also an inherited condition. We inherit first the stories and creation myths that are always travel-ready: light, easy to unpack, containing multitudes. Even those of us who proudly proclaim that we have unshackled ourselves from the political concerns of an older generation, still carry, deeper still, the DNA of flight and its corresponding refusal to commit to any place. We know – even if not consciously so – that if things get truly bad, we can always take off. We don’t call it cowardice. We call it a sense of adventure.
I am 47 years old now. Since I turned 21, I have moved 16 times and lived on four continents. I am the first voluntary exile in my brave line. And, a Cuban without a home, I pray to Jose Martí, patron saint of displacement: “In exile, men lose their moorings and find their bearings.”
I was three years old when I took my first flight. And I still remember it, albeit shaped in the surrealistic contours of childhood. In memory, my mother and I wave goodbye to my father, working in his yard, and ascend into the marvelous flying machine that, after impressive shaking that spills my Coca-Cola, lands in a different place entirely.
Flight never lost its romance. Throughout childhood, I would gaze at a plane flying over head and grow wistful, imagining the great adventures that awaited those secreted within. Even now, burdened by the memory of security hassles and middle-aged fears, I still feel a surge of wonder watching a 747 take off into the haze.
But it’s never been so much the act of flying itself, as the promise of movement, of renewal. Opening the door to a new house, getting lost in the streets of a new city, the seduction of arrival and the saudade of leaving: all of these wash me onto the shores of a barely expressible land, a place that exists for me alone, my private version – amid so much wandering – of home.
Home. How many emotions – both noble and ignoble – have been heaped onto the slender shoulders of that word? How many clichés have marred its romance? Is it ever really sweet? Is it where the heart is? Can the homeland ever be secure?
What does it mean to be from a place? And can one choose to be from nowhere? I was born in Los Angeles, went to elementary school in Tampa, high school in Miami, worked in Santa Ana, studied in New York City and, finally as an adult, lived in New Delhi, Istanbul, Cairo, Amsterdam and Maastricht.
“Where are you from?” people ask on my travels. And first I have to figure out what they really want to know.
One of the many reasons I love poetry is that it reminds us that we are not so unique. Lots of others have come this way before us.
In Miami, I am Cuban. In California, I was Latina. In India, I was Western. And in Afghanistan I was Woman. So I turn to the Zen poet Wang Wei, who smiles kindly and says, “In mountain forests, I’ve lost myself completely/ identity’s nothing but the role we play in public.”
I am a journalist and novelist. But I am not too proud to admit that truth resides with the poets. I once wrote an entire novel in a half-hearted attempt to say what Matsuo Basho had economically illuminated in a few lines:
“Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander.”
I am being only half facetious when I say that it must nevertheless be a burden to live in the same house your family has occupied for three centuries. The same year-hardened walls. The exhausted thresholds. A problem unique to the one percent, of course. But still enough to blunt our envy.
For travel is not enough. To live the world, you must live in it. Visiting New Delhi is different from setting up house there, waiting out the long seasons through the other worldly heat of summer, the bliss of monsoon and the leveling chill of winter. Visiting Istanbul is different from growing so used to the haunting call to prayer that it no longer wakes you in the night. The Cairo of the tourist is not the Cairo of the expatriate is not the Cairo of the wealthy Cairene, is not the Cairo of the slum.
Only by going to sleep every night and waking every morning for years and years in a foreign place can you come to terms with your own vanity, recognize your accepted truths for the borrowed garments that they are. Only after a life of movement, do you understand where stillness lies.
* * *
After Delhi, I move back to New York City for a time. Then Istanbul, where my first marriage ends. After a three-year stop in Miami, I leave again — this time, and for the first time, on my own. I land in Cairo in August of 2008. Two weeks later, I meet Peter, a fellow wanderer. Born in Czechoslovakia, he went on the road as soon as the wall fell. Just recently he’d lived in Miami. We learn that until we had both picked up and moved half way across the world, we had been neighbors in South Beach.
Early on, I make sure to close off any possibility of marriage. Even the most amicable divorce leaves scars. “Marriage is the tomb of love,” I tell Peter one day. We are floating in a Cairo pool, surrounded by expatriates and I am quoting Edith Templeton.
Two and a half years later, I give birth to our son in Amsterdam. We live for a time in Maastricht. And then in 2014, we move back to Miami. Peter and I both use that construction, “we are moving back”, though neither of us were born here, though we both lived other lives here. My parents and sister still live in Miami, so for me, the city is the closest thing to home. I am glad to return, though the city, the family and I have changed, irrevocably. Landing at MIA, the relentless sprawl of traffic and construction below us, Wang Wei returns to admonish me again: …nothing’s left of ancestral villages now./Out beyond cloud, it’s all empty as origin.
We buy a house, a three-bedroom, two-bath mid-century bungalow on a street named after a philosopher. It has a small yard and a wood deck out back. Less than a 10-minute walk away is the beach, where I run most mornings. My privilege, after half a life time of travel, remains intact.
Most surprising of all: we get married. One Friday afternoon in September, we take our son and my parents down to Miami Beach City Hall and swear to honor one another in good times and in bad. We exchange rings. Then we go for lunch at a favorite old haunt on South Beach. I order the fish. And by the time we return to our house, I can hardly breathe. At first I blame it on my dress – it was a bit tight. But when I take it off, I notice that my chest is covered with a violent red rash. My windpipe is closing. I take a Benadryl. I splash my face with cold water and lie down. After a few moments, I can breathe again. Later, a doctor tells me it was likely a reaction to improperly stored fish. But on our wedding day, my new husband takes my measure. He lifts a wry eyebrow.
“Clearly,” he says, “You are allergic to marriage.”
Maybe we’re both still worried that marriage might really be the tomb of love. I broke off one engagement in my twenties. Divorced my first husband in my thirties. And discouraged a proposal or two before finally returning to the altar at the age of 44. It’s no secret that I only succumbed this time because, unless we married, I would not be eligible to join my husband on his insurance plan.
But this late and gentle marriage suits me. Family finally suits me. I have a good man by my side, someone attracted to my ambition for a change. A man willing to take three years out of his career to care for our son — our funny, exquisite little boy – so I could do work that appealed to me. It’s almost as if I’ve received not a second chance, but a completely new life; a rare and precious do-over in middle-age.
I feel content, though not settled. Because I know this is not our last move. Even after all these years, travel retains its electric joy. Arriving is a kind of transfiguration. To open the front door to a new house, to inhabit a fresh layout and walk unfamiliar streets is to be reborn into a new and wiser self.
Two years later, after the insane, anxiety-laced election of 2016, I make frequent threats to move back to Europe. My suggestion to buy a catamaran and dock in the Mediterranean for the next four years is met with nervous laughter. I remind Peter of the family motto: “This is bullshit, I’m out of here!” One blue fall day my five-year-old son, the heir to our tradition, points at the long, white contrails of a plane passing high over head.
“Look, Mami, how beautiful. I would love to be on that plane!”
And yet: here we are in Surfside. We know the climate is changing. We know the sea is rising. We know we are vulnerable to the winds of politics and fate. And yet: We put in a new roof, install a new air conditioning system. We take down the old windows and iron bars and replace them with expensive glass that promise to keep us safe during a hurricane. We buy new appliances for the kitchen. We redo the landscaping, paint the walls, take out the old attic insulation and replace it with the latest thing. We build new bookcases and fit them with books in six languages. We hang our art on the walls, lay my two Afghan carpets on the marble floor. We fill our home with old objects and new promises of permanence. We do these things even though we know it is all temporary, because everything is temporary, even for the Dukes and Duchesses, even when we imagine it otherwise.
Ana Menéndez is the author of four books of fiction: Adios, Happy Homeland!, The Last War, Loving Che and In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, whose title story won a Pushcart Prize. She has worked as a journalist in the United States and abroad, lastly as a prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. As a reporter, she wrote about Cuba, Haiti, Kashmir, Afghanistan and India, where she was based for three years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Vogue, Bomb Magazine, The New York Times and Tin House and has been included in several anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. She has a B.A. in English from Florida International University and an M.F.A. from New York University. A former Fulbright Scholar in Egypt, she now lives in Surfside, Florida.