On Expats and Writing

By Kirsten Menger-Anderson

I’ve been a fan of the expat writer since my sophomore year of high school, when I read Nancy Milford’s Zelda and fell in love with the Fitzgeralds. Gertrude Stein’s salon intrigued me, as did the friendship Fitzgerald and Hemingway formed while abroad-two such talented writers in the same place and time (though it was during that time that Fitzgerald informed his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about a relatively unknown young writer he’d befriended, a fact that may have played a role in Hemingway’s future success). For many years, when confronted with the question “If you could go back in time…” I simply answered, “1920s, Paris.”

Around the time I graduated from college, rumor held that Prague was the “Paris” of a thriving literary scene. I considered moving there in search of the place I’d idealized for so long. Instead I moved to New York City and scraped by on a retail salary while I pursued a career in film and television.

Ten years of video and, later, internet-related jobs passed before I began to question the value of the long work hours and seriously considered moving abroad again. Another three years slipped by before I finished my Masters’ in English and creative writing at San Francisco State, and the plans my husband and I discussed at last unfolded. Finding a literary scene played no part in the decision to move to Barcelona-a city we’d fallen in love with on an earlier visit-though I had, at last, identified myself as a writer.

I brought my writing contracts with me to Spain and for the past eight months I’ve finished my workday just as my colleagues in San Francisco began theirs. I brought my fiction as well: a collection of short stories set between colonial times and the present in New York City, each dealing with a medical advancement (curative radium tonics or phrenology, for example) specific to the period. I also had ideas for a novel concerning a small group of Americans sharing an apartment building, which I planned to set in Barcelona. I imagined that my characters would form a community, and that experiencing the place would change them in unexpected ways.

According to our plan, my husband and I chose to live abroad simply to learn about another culture and to master another language. Our idea has always been to return to the States, and though I would love to remain in Barcelona longer, I know we will be leaving Spain for San Francisco later this year. Because of this deadline, this defined end, I do not feel like a true expat writer. I am more of an interloper, and I’ve failed in my original goals.

I take full responsibility for my failure to learn Spanish, though I tend to blame my writing. I spend my days and, often, evenings spinning English sentences. Before bed, I curl up with a book-one I must read for “research” -always in English. Phone calls and emails to friends and family, English as well. Catalan, the official language here is also-when I’m feeling accusatory-partially responsible. “Exit” is “sortida” not “salida;” “closed” is “tancat” not “cerrado.” Ambient words, those on billboards and in store windows, might be Spanish or, more likely, Catalan. I confuse the two now. I can’t speak either, and without the language of the place, I am not only an interloper, but a silent one.

I sometimes have trouble communicating with the post office clerks (by the way, mailing one story to the States costs over four Euros-a little more that five dollars); I spend nearly five minutes wandering the lingerie department before I can recall the word for socks (“calcetines”), which are on another floor. When I walk into a restaurant, I’m handed an English menu-sometimes before I even open my mouth. The experience of “living” abroad, really living, like a local, not a tourist, has proved as elusive as Spanish fluency. Even among native English speakers, I am foreign. “It will be nice to have another American in the group,” I was told when I joined a writing group that meets Thursday nights. I didn’t understand until I showed up at a meeting and could offer nothing to the discussion of whether or not a few lines of dialog were true to a particular region of Northern England. The feeling returned when Thanksgiving arrived, and the few Americans present simultaneously explained five-finger turkey drawings with outstretched hands.

Perhaps the most unexpected of my failures, however, belongs to my novel. After twenty-five thousand words, I realized that I didn’t want to set the piece in Barcelona. I realized that Barcelona wasn’t mine, despite the fact that I’ve lived here for some months. I am too foreign, too much of an outsider. Every time I looked over my work, the flimsiness of my city knowledge taunted me. I moved the story to San Francisco. I started again.

I feel like I’ve spent too much time addressing failures here and worry that I’ve drawn a false picture. I should have started by explaining how much I love the narrow streets, stone buildings, and open squares, or how I enjoy eating dinner at ten (or twelve)-tapas and red wine-or how the fresh tomatoes smell, or how I buy olives in plastic sacks from a market stand. I wish I could take Barcelona home with me and set it up on a nice stretch of coast near San Francisco. But then I’d have to steal the Mediterranean as well-if for nothing more than its color.

In my novel, the current version, San Francisco has a new building in the middle of the Tenderloin. It’s built from the remnant of Roman walls and limned in cast iron railings with curved, modernist lines. The inside is covered in tile mosaic, the ceiling is a stained glass dome. A canary sings from a window balcony. I’ve reformed the city with swatches of Spain and her past, and perhaps when I’m done writing, I will understand a little more about both places. At least, that is my hope.


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