I have been back to the United States three times in the two years I have lived abroad. Each visit has held different surprises, moods and feelings. During my first trip back after more than a year in Bangkok, I felt a strong kinship with and longing for the places I had called home. My second trip in January and my first since moving to Sweden was spent in snowy Philadelphia with family, and was simple in its comfort and warmth. But my latest trip back to Philadelphia, NYC and my most favorite place, Maine, was both unsettling and profound.
I have noticed my feelings change toward the U.S. since I left in July 2008. I initially felt a deep longing that has morphed over the last two years into a sadness at what it has become. The most difference, of course, is the effect the financial crisis has had on American homes, businesses and people. And it has left me with one resounding conclusion; America is broken.
I called NYC home for three years. I became an adult there, worked there, laughed there and suffered there. It holds a special place in my heart and during each visit, I felt a strong connection to the streets, the people and the energy. It felt like the center of the world and its unique character made it all the more enigmatic and thrilling. But this visit was different. During my five days there, I noticed the bitterness and anger, the faulty subways, the grime, the shuttered stores, the political wrangling, the distrust, the wariness, the suffering. I felt nickled and dimed at every turn; tips here, taxes there and a surcharge thrown in. It felt like climbing a mountain against unyielding winds. It was a struggle and not one that I remember from early 20s, trying to make it in the city as a journalist.
Perhaps being a few years older and living in Europe has changed my perception. In the land of five-week vacations, free health care and more than a year of paternal leave, people here aren’t hardened. Their extra vacation pay, work-paid cell phones and subsidized massages make it easy to smile and laugh. The all-inclusive price tags and the efficient subways mean that very few are inconvenienced or stressed. Life here is just easy.
One thing about home that has not lost its ease and comfort, however, is time with family. The longer I am away, the more I realize the profound love and friendship we share and just how much I cherish our short time together. Their presence, laughs and stories recharge my heart for the long absences and makes me long for the America I love and genuinely want to live in. But for now, America is not a place I want to be – a statement that hurts as much as it relieves in its assuredness.
For now, I count myself lucky for the visits home every few months and the comfort of the life I have made in Sweden. I feel fortunate to have left the struggles of my early 20s in NYC and enjoy the comfort of home-ownership, low taxes and love. I desperately hope the America I grew up in and loved for all those years recovers and returns. And not just for me, but for everyone that calls it home.