This is an important excerpt from my upcoming memoir because it reveals my deepest fears regarding travel and its effect on marriage. As I am open in this piece, I want to leave it open to you. How can I improve? (even after countless edits). What did I leave out? Please leave a comment and let me know.
“Leave your phone on today,” Sankar’s boss emailed him that December morning. As if he ever turned it off. We had gone to the mall to buy some stocking stuffers when the call came.
While Sankar talked, I wandered through boutiques full of gifts and ornaments, and then to the ladies room at the other end of the complex. Returning, I saw him thirty feet away, sitting on a bench. His shoulders were uncharacteristically slumped.
He looked up when he saw me. Then he swallowed and said, half- apologetically, “They want us to go to Turkey.”
His tone was different from when he’d announced our Costa Rica transfer sixteen years before. Then his voice had held nothing but excitement and pride. In fact, his voice almost always held excitement and pride. Now we were both older and wiser. We both knew the challenge this would pose to our marriage.
Sankar had traveled internationally for years, but today he had expected a job change, not an overseas assignment. I had expected to congratulate him from the comfort of my accustomed perch. Now my surprise was turning into dismay—at the company’s proposal and at Sankar’s certain response.
I knew what was coming. The separation from family and friends. The isolation. The cultural adjustments a move like this would entail. The change in roles we would soon undergo: he busier than ever, me struggling to find something useful, something satisfying to do.
If my marriage was in robust shape, going somewhere new with my husband wouldn’t be so upsetting. We had been doing fine—well, pretty well—as a couple, but this was not good news for us. I knew that sometimes, terrible things—like the death of a child—could kill a marriage. Could a seemingly benign occurrence, moving overseas, threaten a marriage like our own, for years on autopilot?
We rode home in the dusk, stunned. It felt like everything inside of me—my blood, my heartbeat, even my breathing–had slowed down. Like my body was acting in sympathy with the rest of my life, which seemed to be coming to a halt.
A week later, my friend Laurie and I sat at Cupcake, a café near the University of Minnesota. I faced her at an enamel table, a line of pink, yellow and chartreuse pastries behind her.
Laurie had moved several times with her husband, although not overseas. She had moved from Indiana to Minnesota in 2001, handling it with such good cheer that upon meeting her I had immediately wanted her to be my friend. I wasn’t at all like Laurie. As I told her about my proposed move, my voice broke. I struggled to stop my chin from wobbling and it was all I could do to keep from putting my head down and weeping.
Ever Consider That Your Comfort Zone Might Be Hurting You?
I had become quite content. Empty nest-hood agreed with me. I was thoroughly enjoying my children, in and out of town, no longer in need of vigilance. I’d begun teaching writing at a nearby college. My spare time was taken up with social and professional activities: writing, knitting hats and scarves, caring for a perennial garden, singing in a church choir. A voracious reader, I had also begun to watch more television now that I no longer had to set an example.
Husband time? For years, we’d paid little conscious attention to our marriage.
“You don’t have to go with me,” Sankar told me as he drove into the garage. “I can come home every couple months.”
Hmm. Since the kids were living on their own, my remaining behind wouldn’t shatter any family togetherness. And staying in Minnesota—avoiding a part of the world that some people saw as threatening—wouldn’t be viewed askance. The wife, comfortable in her suburban abode, holds down the fort while hubby has one last adventure.
But then. . . But then. . . wouldn’t spending three years apart make things worse for us? Already we were going our own separate ways, he traveling and, back home, paying more attention to his BlackBerry than to me. I as immersed in my friendships as I’d been immersed in childrearing.
And: might I miss out on something if I didn’t go? I had loved travel and adventure when I was young.
In the next few days I broached leaving with daughter, Angela, thinking she’d be upset. She had just moved back to Minnesota for graduate study, first asking, “You guys aren’t going anywhere, are you?” After confiding my reluctance to move, she made a comment that caught me off guard. “Mom, all you do is sit on the couch reading and watching Project Runway reruns.”
I was surprised to hear such a disparaging summary (I loved Project Runway!) Was I becoming a stick-in-the-mud, a homebody who sniffed at her husband’s adventures? How unappealing—and how ironic, given my earlier love of travel. Had I begun to abuse the concept of comfort zone?
When my grandmother was fifty, she stopped driving and put on support stockings and clunky black shoes. My mother retired from a clerical job in her fifties without a shred of interest in community activities. She filled her days with television and transporting gossip from one family member to another.
I vowed never to become a pot-stirrer, and I was proud that I hadn’t. But had I inadvertently chosen the lazy path? By disappearing into my books, I was continuing to learn—about history, psychology, international affairs—but was I actually experiencing anything, actually growing as a person?
My 25-year-old Self Makes an Appearance
I dreamed I was young again and hungry for adventure. I was sitting on the balcony of a café in a hilly, whitewashed South American town. The sun was going down after a busy day, and I relaxed, gazing out on a wide plain that stretched away from the town toward a mass of snow-topped mountains.
I’d had that dream before, and it always seemed to symbolize my ability to propel myself to faraway places. When I woke up this time, however, I wondered where that eager, curious person had gone.
Where was the schoolgirl who dreamed of walled cities and castles with moats? Where was the college girl so eager to travel that her first criterion upon graduation was getting overseas—to Latin America, as it turned out—as fast as possible? Where was the researcher who, despite warnings of danger, insisted on spending a week of her Caribbean summer visiting Haiti? (It wasn’t dangerous; military dictatorships are generally quite safe if you stay on the right side of the Big Guy.) Or the young relief worker who hoped to move to Peru, but instead accepted the first job offered to her, an assignment in Yemen? Where was the twenty-five-year-old who traipsed all over southern Arabia, peering into Communist South Yemen from the mountains on the border?
Looking Back Doesn’t Work
It wasn’t that I had anything against Turkey. But I was all too aware of the personal changes I would have to make to carve out a happy life there.
We had spent three years in Costa Rica in the nineties. It was a lovely destination: scenic and politically stable. A Spanish speaker, I expected the country to be much easier than Yemen, but my first few weeks there, involving a dog bite and a bicycle accident, were anything but. I was unable to work due to local labor laws, and the focus of my energies, our two children, were busy in school. Gradually, I began to take comfort in blame and resentment—all directed at my husband—and I never quite decided to like the place.
If I moved overseas again, I’d have to be more flexible. I’d have to will myself to be more outgoing, more enthusiastic. I’d have to avoid outsized expectations.
I’d have to get used to a change in power in my marriage. (I generally bring friends into our relationship, but in Costa Rica, Sankar was the friend-producer.) I’d have to accept that some things I loved in my current environment would not—would never—be present in my new one. I’d have to have faith that there would be other things, brand new things, that I would come to love.
You can’t take yourself too seriously overseas. You have to accept that each day you might have an amazing experience, but you also might fail miserably. Perhaps both will happen in the same day, one redeeming the other, or one spoiling the other.
I was wiser now, and I wouldn’t have to help two children adjust to a new country. But did being older mean I was less flexible? Was I up to taking on another overseas assignment? And could I—could we?—succeed this time?
Originally from India, Sankar had become a U.S. citizen thirty years before. Starting in his company’s laboratory, he’d gradually moved into international operations, relishing the chance to work with foreign subsidiaries. Slight and lively, with his dark hair and skin he seemed to fit in anywhere. When guessing where he was from, people offered up Sicily, Morocco, Columbia, Egypt.
I was quite accustomed to Sankar’s travels, to spending time alone, even on weekends and holidays. But in Minnesota I had friends and family. In Turkey, eight time zones from home, he would also be expected to travel, and I would have nobody.
My experience in Costa Rica hadn’t been positive. This new opportunity could go either way, depending upon my attitude.
The cupcakes lined up behind Laurie seemed to mock me, but talking to her brought some comfort. “Can you take some time before you move? she asked. “Is there anything interesting to see or do in Turkey?” “Can Angela and Greg come to visit?” Answering Laurie’s questions forced me to think rather than emote, and the lump in my throat began to dissolve. And she had one last piece of advice, borne of her own experience, that helped me realize I wasn’t powerless. “Find out what you need to be successful there, and ask for it.”
Time to Turn Over a New (Tea) Leaf
Actually, I didn’t know anything about Turkish tea yet. But I felt the inevitability of the move. In fact, I was already beginning to resent its pull. At the same time, it seemed like a challenge had been issued. A do-over. A chance to pivot in my marriage, to correct some of the self-absorbed mistakes I’d made in Costa Rica. I decided I owed it to myself—and to my marriage—to at least consider moving to Turkey.