The Forever Nomad

For an immigrant, losing a home is a given, but Margarita Gokun Silver wonders if never finding one again is also part of the journey.

Margarita Gokun Silver | Longreads | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,386 words)

 

On an afternoon in August 2017, I walk out of the library and turn right. At the intersection, the pedestrian light comes on and I cross knowing that once I reach the end of Madrid’s Plaza de Colón, I’d wait less than a minute before I could cross again. I’ve done this walk every day for the past several years, my pace synchronized with the rhythm of traffic lights; my mind concentrated on counting the stairs — 14 of them: seven for my right foot to ascend and seven for my left — and my hand clutching a euro to give to the old man selling tissues on the corner. Everything is the same — skateboards banging against the concrete under the quick feet of their teen devotees, dogs running around the middle of the square let loose by their owners, and, up above, a giant red-and-yellow Spanish flag flying in the wind. Everything but one thing.

I’m on my way to a home that’s no longer there.

A week ago the movers came and methodically went through our three-bedroom apartment. They wrapped our glasses, plates, vases, and the ceramic Don Quixote in bubble wrap. They encased our furniture in cardboard, bending the thick corrugated boxes patiently so that when they were done our couch looked like a mummy-copy of its former self. They sealed our artwork — most of it painted by me — in wooden crates that resembled well-insulated tombs. I wanted to ask if the art could breathe through the layers of paper, plastic, and wood, nailed shut so tightly that not a ray of sunlight could get through. But they were busy, and I didn’t bother them. Instead I went into what used to be our bedroom, lay down on the bed that wasn’t coming with us, and concentrated on my own breathing.

By my count, this was the 18th time I moved homes. Some of those moves were miniscule — just several miles away from where I’d lived, my belongings riding in the back seat of a car in milk crates and an old laundry basket. Others were more substantial — intercontinental relocations that involved wrapped furniture, sea freight, and customs bills. What all of them had in common — and what set them apart from this last one — was that they didn’t evoke grief. Sure, many had been tinged with goodbyes and sadness, but none before had stopped my heart, gelled the blood inside of my veins, and perforated my body with holes that seemed to allow life to seep right out of it.

None of those moves had felt like loss.

***

In the first 20 years of my life I switched homes only once when, in the early 1970s, my parents whisked me away from our home in Moscow to Uzbekistan. My father, fresh out of the city’s Oil and Gas Institute, had been sent to Khiva, a city next to the dying Aral Sea, on a mandatory raspredelenie, a work placement bestowed on every Soviet graduate. I was only 3, and my memories of that time are sketchy, but according to my mother and to a couple of black-and-white photographs that somehow survived all my subsequent moves, I’d taken to my new home immediately. Within days of arrival my parents enrolled me in a local kindergarten and within weeks I knew enough Uzbek to recite poetry about uluk baba Lenin, Grandfather Lenin. I spent afternoons playing outside with my neighbors, lounging on a large outdoor bed stacked with pillows, and snacking on the grapes that grew in our yard.

My mother considered our time in Uzbekistan “an exile,” her Moscow-born-and-bred sensibilities shocked by the dusty, unpaved streets, thick summer heat that hung around like Soviet-factory smog, and barefoot children. Her solution for not forgetting her real home was shunning assimilation. She never allowed me to leave the house without a hat, socks, and shoes, and she scoffed at the idea of dressing me like a local. Short dresses that showed underwear seemed to be in style among Moscow toddlers then, and next to my Uzbek classmates whose dresses were long and worn over pants and who, more often than not, wore neither shoes nor socks, I looked the quintessential Moscovite. Two years after we came to Khiva, when my father got the summons back to the capital, she exhaled and booked the train home within a week.

By my count, this was the 18th time I moved homes. Some of those moves were miniscule — just several miles away from where I’d lived. Others were more substantial.

On our return to Moscow we moved into a small, two-room apartment in Belyaevo, a neighborhood on the southwestern outskirts of the city, and my parents set out to make it our forever home. Through the black market of favors and connections they procured Czech-made furniture, hung machine-made rugs on walls, and brought in a piano so they could to teach me to play. I got my own bedroom while they camped in the living room, opening and folding their sofa bed every day. In my room, bookshelves ran the entire length of one wall. The window looked out on the skating rink where I once took third place in a neighborhood competition. Passport-size photos of my closest friends sat beneath the glass covering my desk. Our kitchen, although only six square meters in size, hosted gatherings large and small — always fueled by either tea or vodka, and often both.

For the next 15 years I lived in a microcosm of family and friends — only a 15-minute walk from my grandparents, a 10-minute walk to the kindergarten I attended after Uzbekistan, and a five-minute walk to the school from which I graduated 10 years after I’d enrolled. It was in Belyaevo that I met my best friend, fell in love for the first time, and spent many an hour dancing to Mirazh, the Soviet pop group of the mid-1980s. Aside from trips to the theater and school-mandated excursions to the Kremlin, Lenin’s mausoleum, and the Museum of Revolution, I never needed — or wanted — to leave.

Then Gorbachev came to power in the Politburo. Almost immediately glasnost, or openness, was unleashed onto the previously veiled Soviet society. The decibel levels of our kitchen conversations went up. No longer did we whisper when we talked about Stalin-era repressions, about Andrei Sakharov and his bid to bring democracy to the U.S.S.R., and about the decrepit apparatchiks and their attempts to roll back progress. For the first time in many decades, the intoxication we felt during those long discussions was the direct result of freedom, not vodka.

But openness had come at a price, especially — as we quickly began to understand — for us Jews. The disguised antisemitism that for so long had been as ubiquitous a feature of Soviet society as the hammer and sickle started to shed its covers. In a nod to the booming freedom of speech, newspapers offered their pages to rabid antisemites who blamed Jews for both the Russian Revolution and the ills of the Soviet system, often in the same paragraph. Pamyat, a nationalistic organization fueled by glasnost much in the way that David Duke and his minions have been fueled by Trump, scheduled pogroms and circulated their dates throughout Moscow. As far as we knew none came to pass, but the danger felt real and we spent more than one evening in the dark hoping to ward off potential attackers. The place that for so long exemplified the only home I’d known and loved didn’t appear to want me anymore.

It was at about that time that I met Mike. His real name was Mikhail, but as with his appearance — shoulder-length hair, wide gaucho pants tucked into tall boots, and a cowboy hat — he preferred to go by a Western name. When he learned I was Jewish, he tossed his blond mane to the side, peered at me incredulously, and asked: “Why are you still here?”

Jews were fleeing to the West by the thousands then, fearing that the antisemitic sinkhole created by glasnost would soon swallow them. But until that conversation with Mike I hadn’t considered our own departure. Everything I treasured was located within a several-kilometer radius of our apartment — how could I leave all of it behind? Yet Mike’s question and, later, his insistence on bringing up the subject, amplified the curiosity I’d always had about the world beyond Soviet borders. In the U.S.S.R. only the selected few — diplomats, Politburo members, Bolshoi dancers, and the spies who accompanied them — were allowed to go abroad, and we, the system’s plebeians, hungered after their foreign trips. Wouldn’t it be great, I began to think, if I became a foreigner?

With my home feeling more and more like a dormant fault line, I pictured moving across the Atlantic Ocean and forging a new home. It was always the United States of America where I saw myself — clad in Levi’s, driving a Buick, and living in a house 10 times the size of our apartment. The images I conjured up came mostly from letters we received from a distant cousin who’d moved there in 1979. Regularly accompanied by photos in which his family posed in front of large cars and enormous houses, his missives brought the possibility of a new home into the old one.

Several months after Mike seeded the idea in my head, I was ready to leave. But I couldn’t move alone. In addition to my book-lined room, conversation-full kitchen, and a neighborhood inhabited by friends, home meant family. In the Soviet Union young adults were never allowed the status of fully formed adults, able to strike out on their own. I had to convince my parents — and most importantly, my father. As the paterfamilias, in keeping with the best traditions of Soviet quasi-equality, his was the last word. Yet he refused to engage with me every time I brought up the subject. Neither my grandparents’ pleas nor the dire warnings streaming from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America via our shortwave could sway him. To abandon the only home he knew and to relocate to a country with an unfamiliar language, unknown culture, and an alien way of life was a step he wouldn’t take lightly — or at all.

Much as glasnost slowly chipped away at the monolith of Communism, I worked on my father for a year. For every doubt he expressed I had an answer, armed with information furnished by Mike and the unwavering support offered by my grandparents. There was no challenge he put in front of me I couldn’t respond to. Problems with receiving a vizov, an invitation to join family in Israel (in those days Jews could only immigrate to Israel to reunite with family) because we had no family there to invite us? No worries — fake vizovs abounded. The danger of being found out by the Soviet authorities? No one had had any issues yet — why should we? My grandmother’s frail health after a recent stroke? Even more reason to hurry — the Western medical system offered care greatly superior to what she’d had in Moscow.


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After a year of nagging, he finally agreed. Eleven months after that, all permissions secured and exit visas in hand, we took a taxi to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in the early morning of October 19, 1989. We were leaving forever — under the no-right-of-return rule we were stripped of our Soviet citizenship and banned from ever coming back. But I had no regrets, felt no sadness, and shed no tears. Excitement was the only emotion that infused that taxi ride, the subsequent eight-month immigration process through Austria and Italy, and, finally, the Alitalia flight that brought us to Amerika — the country I’d built up to be my new home.

***

The U.S. welcomed us with stadium-intensity lights, supermarkets the size of Belyaevo, and the omnipresent smile people wore on their faces. The friendly “How are you?” started every encounter, and even though we soon learned people didn’t really want a long answer, it still beat the curt greetings we were accustomed to in the U.S.S.R. In our new home, being a Jew didn’t come wrapped in fear, shame, and limitations, and the freedom Amerika seemed to exude far surpassed the one unleashed by glasnost. I could say anything, be anyone, go anywhere.

Within weeks I had a summer job, an acceptance letter to a local liberal arts college with a generous financial aid package, an American-born boyfriend, and a car. “Only in Amerika,” my grandfather said, shaking his head when together we purchased a functioning, albeit old, Ford Escort for only $300. Nothing was impossible in this new country of ours, and the smorgasbord of possibilities so exalted outside of Amerika’s borders seemed as real as the car I was now driving. “I waited for a landline for 20 years and two days,” a Soviet-émigré joke went, “20 years in Moscow and two days in the United States.”

Jews were fleeing to the West by the thousands then, fearing that the antisemitic sinkhole created by glasnost would soon swallow them. But until that conversation with Mike I hadn’t considered our own departure. Everything I treasured was located within a several-kilometer radius of our apartment;— how could I leave all of it behind?

Three months after we landed in Nashua, New Hampshire, where a local Jewish community volunteered to help us settle, my parents loaded up their used Nissan Maxima and moved to Ohio for my father’s only job offer. A few weeks later my grandfather — exasperated with English — packed his belongings and flew to Los Angeles, where the Russian-speaking community numbered in thousands and where he didn’t need ESL lessons to communicate. Amerika’s opportunities, it seemed, forced separation and broke up families. An unwelcome development for my mother who worried how I’d survive on my own, this unexpected independence intoxicated me. Suddenly what I did with my life was completely my choice.

Experimentation became part of that independence. Much to the chagrin of my parents, who expected me to become a doctor, I changed my major. Being stuck in an office for the rest of my life didn’t appeal to me, but traveling the world did. Unlike the U.S.S.R.’s, Amerika’s borders were open. My new home didn’t bind me — to the contrary, it set me free. A year after graduating with a master’s degree in international public health and only a few months after becoming a U.S. citizen, I was packing my bags for an overseas assignment.

“You are moving where?” my mother asked when I told her I’d gotten a job abroad.

To her, my chosen destination was eerily familiar: less than 25 years before, she’d packed up her own life to move to Uzbekistan. But she went because she had no choice — hadn’t we moved to America to avoid this in the first place? She couldn’t understand. Why would I willingly move to the country I’d convinced them to leave only six years before? Although the U.S.S.R. had ceased to exist and Uzbekistan was now independent, for my parents, it was still the same old Soviet space.

“It’s a good job, Mama,” I said. “I want to go.”

“Can’t you find anything here with your education? Amerika is your home, isn’t it? You wanted to come here, remember? Why are you leaving it?”

How could I explain to a recent immigrant — the immigrant I’d lobbied into immigration — the deeper reasons for wanting to leave? On the surface my motivation was the job, the career that would surely boom after this assignment, the salary and the low cost of living that would allow me to pay off my student loans. But underneath, buried so deep that I myself couldn’t admit to it, was a feeling that made me doubt Amerika was home. Six years of living here — studying, working, and even marrying a local, born and bred — hadn’t led to the integration I sought. Most of the time, I felt like a stranger who didn’t get the jokes; an impostor who wanted to fit in but couldn’t; a droplet of oil in water that floated on the surface, unable to find its place.

It was at that time I began to think that perhaps the idea of having a home, of fitting in somewhere, of putting down roots and spreading them, tree-like, wasn’t for me. Maybe belonging to a place for immigrants of my ilk — those who ventured to build a new home long after they learned to walk and talk — was fraught not only with uncertainty, difficulty, and exasperation but also with futility. In comparison, going to a new place every few years seemed easy: I could explore unfamiliar surroundings and rebuild the puzzle of my life every time I moved. Always being a foreigner was fine with me — this way I wouldn’t have to try (and possibly fail) to create something permanent. While others bemoaned having to leave their homes, for me it felt liberating. I wanted a tent, not a foundation.

Not one to wait out the time like my mother had during her years in Uzbekistan — and with no home to go back to — I decided a proverbial tent would be my home. It would be movable, moldable, and adjustable, and it would include elements of places I’d inhabited. A 19th-century samovar, a Lenin-era rotary phone, and almost a dozen Uzbek carpets made up my shipment as I packed to leave Tashkent three years later. But there was also something else that was coming with me this time; I was pregnant.

***

The saying Home is where the heart is has been attributed to Pliny the Elder, but until my daughter was born I didn’t grasp it. With her arrival, home took on a new meaning. Although still impermanent in its nature, our tent was now also the repository of the thing that mattered most. Home was now where my daughter was.

Our first country as a family of three was Argentina, this time for my husband’s job. It was in Buenos Aires that my daughter learned to walk, talk — we both mastered the porteño accent in Spanish although hers was far superior to mine — and seamlessly make friends. I felt proud: I was raising a citizen of the world, a child who could integrate wherever she landed. So what if our lifestyle didn’t allow for a permanent home with a neighborhood group of friends, a childhood swing set, and a Thanksgiving table full of relatives? The exploration, the learning, and the sheer variety of experiences were surely worth it. And besides, we’d always be each other’s home.

Six years of living in the U.S. — studying, working, and even marrying a local, born and bred — hadn’t led to the integration I sought.

We went to Russia after Argentina. Years had passed, the politics had changed, and the no-right-of-return rule no longer applied. Excited to introduce my daughter to the culture that shaped my childhood, I bought her syroks — chocolate-covered sweet cheese treats — for breakfast, enrolled her in ballet and piano lessons, and invited Grandfather Frost and a Snow Maiden for New Year’s Eve. All four years we lived there, I tested myself: I walked the streets of my birth country and waited to feel a pang of nostalgia, a longing that would tell me that maybe this was still home. But large billboards advertised Western-style hypermarkets, Moscow’s boulevards choked with BMWs, Bentleys, and Rolls-Royces, and Lenin’s mausoleum shared the Red Square with the likes of Gucci and Dior. Oligarchy ruled and gangsterism had replaced Communism almost as effectively as Putin had dialed back the clock and turned himself into a Tsar. Nothing about Russia felt familiar or homey; it was just one more country where I was again a foreigner.

Throughout our travels we always came back to Amerika — to spend time with family during vacations and in between assignments. The one Russian immigrant friend I’d made — and kept in touch with all those years — has been living in the same house and the same neighborhood in Virginia almost since her daughter was born, three months after mine. Every time we visited her typically suburban aluminum-sided house, I knew she’d done what I couldn’t — or wouldn’t. She’d built a home with a zip code that never changed, a swing set for her kids, and a permanent circle of friends to celebrate Passover and host Fourth of July barbecues. What a boring life, I often thought after our visits. How could this ever compare with the excitement of the adventure that was always awaiting me around the corner?

From Russia work brought us to Florida’s Miami-Dade County. My parents had chosen to retire there — in the city of Sunny Isles Beach where Russian dominated the streets, dry cleaners and pharmacies wrote their shingles in Cyrillic, and a major supermarket carried syroks. Their English grew rusty and their refrigerator now housed more items imported from Russia than made in the Sunshine State. Almost 20 years after they’d left Russia for good, they sought it out again — and made their forever home in a place impregnated with the culture they couldn’t let go of.

Our 17th move took us from Miami to Madrid right after we celebrated my daughter becoming a bat mitzvah. This time the transfer was harder. Her adolescence nascent, she rebelled against leaving the friends she’d made, the grandparents she adored, and the flat she’d grown used to. “Miami is my home,” she declared as we packed. “I want to come back here every summer.” After years of moving, she was sure — she found a place she wanted to claim as home. As for me, once again my only regrets were trivial: I’d miss the view of the ocean and having the beach within a five-minute drive. Everything important was coming with me.

***

It took the movers two days to pack our Madrid apartment. In the end there were two sets of boxes: those that would go to Athens, our next destination thanks to my husband’s work, and those that would stay in Madrid so that my daughter could finish her last year of high school. For the first time in her life — and in the life of our family — she wouldn’t be moving with us.

The loss I felt lying on that bed, while counting the moves that traced the trajectory of my life, was directly related to her two sets of boxes. Empty nesting on steroids: it wasn’t only that my daughter was exiting my everyday life, it was also that my home was going with her. More than two decades of moves, of assembling and disassembling beds, of rolling and unrolling the carpets, of taking down and putting up art had been easy because she was the home I carried with me. Now that she wasn’t coming, the home I knew, treasured, and loved wasn’t either — and I had nothing left.

Suddenly my penchant for moving was gone, weakened to the point where I dreaded the thought of having to unpack again. I had no desire to explore, to learn, or to rebuild my life’s puzzle in a new place. Instead, for the first time in years, I ached for stability. I wanted the “boring” that my fellow immigrant friend built in Amerika. I wanted the community my parents had come back to in Sunny Isles Beach. I wanted the sentiment my daughter felt for Miami. I wanted a place where I could walk in and know that it was mine — even if she was no longer living there.

I wanted a permanent home.

***

On my desk I have a notebook filled with pages of essays I hope to write and book themes I plan to explore. Thrust between the scribbles is a commercial-size envelope labeled “My Ideal House.” Almost as thick as the notebook itself, the envelope is full of magazine clippings. Photos of English gardens, Italian kitchens, and French chateaus are intermixed with smaller cut-outs of bathrooms, dining room tables, and home libraries. Some of them I’ve ripped out of orphaned copies of Architectural Digest while waiting at the dentist, others came from New Yorker ads for valuable real estate, and yet others from National Geographic Traveler.

Suddenly my penchant for moving was gone, weakened to the point where I dreaded the thought of having to unpack again. I had no desire to explore, to learn, or to rebuild my life’s puzzle in a new place.

I’ve been collecting these clippings for the past several years — and admiring other people’s places splashed across magazine pages for longer. This is what I want my bedroom to look like, I often thought to myself as I quietly ripped a page in a doctor’s office, hoping the receptionist wouldn’t hear me. Then I brought it home and stuck it along with the others in the envelope, trusting that one day their time would come and I’d get to build the house of my dreams. Somehow I’d always known what I wanted it to look like.

Yet I didn’t — and still don’t — know where I want it to be. Born in one country, an immigrant in another, and a nomad who’s spent the larger part of her life moving from place to place, I never sensed I belonged anywhere — except with my daughter. Now that she’s grown, I feel the pull to find my home — a home that’s tethered to a place and a community — tug at me much the same way the drive to move had called me away before. But I’m also afraid. If I couldn’t fit in either in my birth country or my adoptive country, why would it be different anywhere else? Where can I — an immigrant who relinquished her old home without bothering to build a new one — have a forever home?

I think of all this as I turn around and walk — this time in the direction of the bed and breakfast we are renting before we leave Madrid next week. Perhaps I don’t have to decide today, tomorrow, or even this year the exact location of my future home. Perhaps for now it’s enough to know that I’m ready to take down that tent and to start building a foundation. Then when the time comes and I land in a place that feels right, I’ll unpack the boxes, hang up the art, and buy a long dining room table. To belong I’ll rebuild my life puzzle for the last time, and I’ll glue those puzzle pieces together. I’ll find my people, nurture friendships, grow a community, and, finally, put down roots.

And I’ll set aside an extra bedroom — for my daughter.

* * *

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist based in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, BBC, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, among others.

 

Editor: Sari Botton