words & images anna weber
I don't have the papers to prove it, but in 2009 the country of Belgium adopted me as one of its own.
The Anna who landed alone at the airport that August spoke six words of French, had never met the host family who greeted her in Arrivals, had never tasted Belgian beer, and didn't know the name of the king or the difference between France and le plat pays. Ten months later, my biological mother and sister arrived to take me back to the country whose name still paraded across the cover of my passport.
Something in me swelled as we boarded the plane to Washington, bulging at the back of my eyes, clenching my throat, pulsing in my fingertips. I took the window seat and pressed my face to the scratched Plexiglas, ignoring my mother's complaints that it was probably covered with germs; fugitive tears glued between my skin and the surface. Leaving my native country had been difficult, but it hadn't felt like this.
I was born in the United States. Pure chance had decided I would be American and that parts of me, no matter how hard I tried to deny or hide them, would always stay American. Belgium, however, was a country I'd chosen not only to inhabit, but also to immerse myself in, a country where I found, created, and defined home for myself.
The plane taxied to the runway, made a sharp turn, paused, gathered energy, then heaved forward, tipping itself up into the smog hanging over the city of Brussels and its suburbs, neatly cleaving my life into two parts that would never stitch themselves together, separated by languages, histories, politics, cultures, and...the Atlantic Ocean.
My American life was sitting right where I left it; I picked it up, tested its weight, and searched for signs of wear or change, and didn’t find any. Nothing had matched my own rate of evolution. Every action, place, person seemed bland, quotidian, robbed of technicolor. Every day, I struggled to fire up the same curiosity, the same drive that I’d had in Belgium; nothing possessed the intoxicating, addictive quality that permeated every day living outside of my original comfort zone, every day exploring a different world view, every day finding some kind of adventure to pursue.
Not knowing any better, I blamed the US and everyone around me—I'd decided I was a better person while in Belgium. In my eyes, it had heightened my senses and increased my perceptiveness, while the US dulled them. I set myself to autopilot, dragged my feet through the calendar, wondering when I'd be able to go back.
The answer: as often as I could.
The transatlantic voyage in either direction is only the final stage in a leaving that takes weeks. That moment of separation, of peeling yourself away from a life to which you've grown accustomed, became my new normal. Since those first ten months in Belgium, I have changed cities, states, and countries four more times. There are bank accounts to open and close, addresses to switch, unsmiling photographs to take, visa and customs paperwork to triple-check, appointments at the embassy and at offices of immigration, presents and postcards to buy, 3.4-ounce bottles to fill and label, strategic packing until my suitcases resemble high-scoring Tetris screens, constant low-grade anxiety about their weights, days spent dragging my bags between train stations and friends' apartments, and hours spent in limbo wandering the halls of crowded airports trying to flush the harsh, grainy sound of howling jet engines out of my head.
It is unglamorous. It is exhausting.
Still, the lists, tasks, and errands aren't the worst part. The stillness between the flurries of frantic activity—time there ignores ordered sequence, congeals as cold molasses or hardening sap. Something cleans and refocuses the lens, and details come into acute clarity: the musty taste of a two-dollar beer, the feeling of lumps of long grass and uneven soil rubbing knots into my back, the grains of pollen stuck to a drunken honeybee's hairy legs, snatches of conversation in three languages from the terrace of a bar. Most painfully: the bristles of hair along his chin, the brisk gesture she uses to ruffle her bangs, the way he rolls his eyes when I make a bad joke, the tone she uses to call my name from the other room, the hours we spend around the kitchen table.
In those moments of detached time, I can see the things I will miss, and how much I will miss them, and how quickly they will lose their high definition. I try to seize these slivers of everyday actions, sights, words, sounds, the foundation and the proof of a life lived; I try to keep them from melting through my fingers.
I try in vain. The part of all this coming and going that cuts straight to the marrow looks like a mathematical equation: the people and things that are most important to you change with their proximity to you. Having entire lives whose backgrounds are radically different means priority placed on certain relationships and values will slip. Straight through your fingers.
It's like peeling a poster taped to old wallpaper off the wall—the poster will tear. The wallpaper will shred. There is no clean rip.
The first question that some friends ask on Whatsapp or Viber, right after "How are you?" is, "Where are you right now?"
Anna, where are you right now?
So many of my minutes, hours, and days are spent thinking, dreaming, and talking about the next trip or transition; not enough are spent staying, being, breathing. Adrenaline and possibility don't rush my nervous system like they used to.
I landed at JFK last Sunday night after my most recent stint in Europe. I'd been teaching English in France. I needed to prove to myself that my affinity for Belgium wasn't purely associated with travel in general, needed concrete evidence of my unofficial Belgian citizenship. The experiment concluded after seven months, with positive results.
Only half a day after finishing my last class, I was already back in Brussels spending long hours in parks and cafés, basking in the certainty that I was home, and dreading the familiar images of packed bags, tearful goodbyes, my boarding passes, the Zaventem airport, the city disappearing underneath the belly of the plane. A job and a degree program were waiting for me on the other side—a guarantee I'd be stationary and stable for at least several years.
Unnaturally calm and upsettingly anticlimactic—this is the most accurate way to describe my last week in Belgium. Was I simply convinced, as were my friends and Belgian family, that I'd be back? Or was it a guilty, shameful eagerness to settle? To recuperate, to rest, to plant roots? To stop tumbling alone through the desert, find some water, scatter seeds, and bloom?
There was a final possibility I couldn't look in the eye, couldn't answer, could barely entertain—was Belgium no longer the same home I'd made for myself six years earlier? How valid was my claim to my assumed nationality?
Relieved—this is how I felt as the Boeing traveled the length of the island where I was born, tilted southwest and descended into Brooklyn. Manhattan's skyscrapers came into view, jutting through the haze of a steamy May evening, dark cutouts against the thick amber light of the setting sun. I stared at it until the skyline was emblazoned on my retinas when I turned away.