Sometimes, well, a lot of times people ask me what I miss about America. And to mess with them I say something like the ‘death penalty’ or ‘Congress.’ But the truth is there are a lot of things I miss about living in the US. Actually, there are a lot of things I think I miss about living in America. When reality meets memory, the longing rapidly evaporates.
One thing to know about people who come from the central parts of the US, like Oklahoma, is that our memories are wrapped in the scents, tastes and packaging from fast-food chains, big box stores, and other accouterments of consumerism. So, when we long for home, we long for the sensory data from these places. I mean in the Spring I wrote a whole blog post about a burrito and a dream.
Earlier this summer when the American students were visiting a group of them really, really wanted to know what I missed about America. And so I told them, Harby’s. And they look at each other, then at me, wondering if they’d heard me right. Harby’s? Yes, Harby’s. Harby’s (not its real name, but close enough) is a Wild Western-ish themed fast-food chain that serves things that are just like hamburgers, only they’re not hamburgers because they have roast beef in them instead of hamburger. And they also have a unique array of sauces.
Seriously, Harby’s is nothing to write home about. I mean if a Croatian traveling to the US asked where should they eat, Harby’s wouldn’t even be on the list. So, when I said I miss Harby’s to the American students I was equally confused with my confession. Yet, I miss Harby’s. Or at least I think I do. And here’s where we come to the problem of living abroad. You only really think you miss some things.
If the old saying ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is true, then I’d say ‘distance makes the stomach grow stupid and nostalgic.’ I know that if I could be whisked away right now to a Harby’s and have my longing satisfied, I would sit in the booth, beneath the midnight neon, smell the acrid scent of seasoned curly fries and American condiments, and be utterly disappointed. Reconciling the Harby’s in my mind with the reality of Harby’s is impossible.
Reality meet memory
And this is the curse of living abroad, the expat and diaspora’s dilemma. Now matter how long we live in a new place, even after we’ve made it our true home, that place with the former honor of the title stays and lingers with us. It clings to our being (some might say like the scent of Harby’s signature sauce). And yet, outside of our longing, the reality of returning to that place is disappointing. Rarely does reality live up to a memory.
Maybe this happens less to Croatians because a) Croatians abroad might miss people and places with more substance and emotional gravity than a fast food chain. Maybe someone abroad misses walking through Zrinjevac, which is beautiful and hasn’t changed all that much in like a hundred years; b) I assume most Croatians miss the Adriatic Sea, and the sea is hard to disappoint. Or maybe it happens less because you just don’t have Harby’s.