ASense of Place

Torn and Frayed

A man from the South packs up and considers moving to Budapest

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I’m getting ready to leave for America, so I am packing my bag and drinking Austrian beer. I also listen to my favourite album, Exile on Main Street , by The Rolling Stones. This music is a delight. The all-American album of a British blues band is a reminder that I’m an American. That fact makes me proud. Proud! Proud!

It is a strange thing to do, considering that I love Europe and will soon be moving to Hungary to live in a different country. You know what? I will be living in Hungary as a Southern American. Damn straight. It’s so obvious. I will listen to Hank Williams Jr. and the Stones in my apartment that overlooks the Danube. I will also watch LSU Tigers on the internet. I will be proud, happy, and filled with joy for what has been given to me. You will want to attend my party if you’re in Budapest during Mardi Gras.

This is strange. That is what I have to accept. I moved back to the South in 2011, and expected to spend the rest of my life there. Although it’s difficult to share this with tears, I must leave. This is a long story. It was a sad story. This is how I have been dealt and it’s what I will do.

Last Wednesday, I was in Rome and had dinner with an American Southern expat friend. We drove around the city while listening to American music through the windows. When I was last fall, the same man and me drove to a holy place in medieval Rome, where we listened to The Stones. John Prine was then born. God, I’ve never felt more American and Southern and I’ve rarely felt happier.

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What is the point? Why is it that I must be so far from where I am most passionate to experience it and rejoice in it.

It did not have to end this way. However, a lot of things happened that were out of my control. I can’t be anything else than who I am. I love my loved ones. My morning departure for Louisiana is set. I’m going to speak to a woman of color who will serve as my waitress and cashier. I know she will call me “baby” and it is what I want. I’m going to cry knowing this is the way life should be. Her baby is mine, her baby. This is who we are. This is what has been given to us by our community.

I have a friend that moved to Louisiana with his family a while back. They didn’t succeed, but it was not without effort. He is also hurt. Although his journey isn’t mine, we travel in parallel. We couldn’t find our own home. This shouldn’t be the case. It turned out that way. It’s impossible to control everything. In my 11 years living in Louisiana, one of the most important and painful lessons was understanding the importance of limitations. Many of the things we Southerners say about ourselves are bullshit. This is how it works.

But it’s our bullshit, and this is why I get my back up when people put down the South. At my age (55), if I’m going to live in America, it’s going to have to be the South. Don’t ask me why. While I may be going on vacation in Europe, God will allow me to return home. Even though the Stones are British, it is home when I listen to them. It was absorbed by them and they gave it back. It is difficult for me to comprehend what happened, and why a South-loving man feels compelled to move on. This is not the fault the South. It’s my family’s story, divorce and feeling pushed out. It would be possible to find a place in the South and I do believe I can, although not yet. It is too painful. I wrote a big book about Home in the South, and all the hopes I expressed in that book collapsed. You can find the reasons in my book. But, truth be told, everything I claimed about my family and origins is accurate. This is what is tragic here, and it is a terrible tragedy. You don’t know, my dears. If you read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and took inspiration from it, let not anything that happened to me discourage you. We have the power to use grace given by God. We are also broken.

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It is hard to live as an exile. But that’s what I am and was meant to do. When I first read Dante’s Commedia — the ultimate poem of exile — it resonated with me in a way I could not have appreciated until now. We want home, we crave home, and the longing for home — nostalgia, from the Greek “nostos” (homecoming) and alga (pain) — is fundamental to the human experience. It is easy to fall for nostalgia, as I learned the hard way. It’s not that home isn’t possible, nor is it wrong to yearn for it. But, nostalgia can be a blinding way to your true calling in life. This experience pretty much ended my life, but I’m moving forward as a shipwreck survivor.

The Stones are my music. Arvo Part is also my soundtrack. That’s how I am. Tomorrow I fly to Louisiana. There, I’ll spend the month organizing my finances and getting ready for exile. Budapest, my exile. There are people who love me and want me to spend time with them. It’s nothing. It is a blessing from God. This is a great blessing. And when your life gets tough, it’s important to have people who care about you.

In my varied and busy life I’ve met people who have been exiled from their country of origin, but never stopped talking about the things they are leaving behind. That is what I want to avoid. It’s not impossible, I believe. The smell of olive trees and the flavor of figs in the summer, as well as the sounds of Tigerland’s Golden Band, are all things I enjoy. They were not fate. There are worse places than sitting on a balcony with a view of the Danube and drinking Bourbon while thinking about the Mississippi.

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UPDATE: You know what? First thing I’m going to do when I get back to Baton Rouge is go to Sonic and get me a Route 44 diet Coke jam-packed with ice. It’s not your cup of tea. Don’t like it?

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