Familiarity of Foreignness

I was sitting on my couch this evening, wasting time on the internet, when I received a text message from a new friend of mine who I have had the absolute joy and pleasure to meet through my new job here in Bangalore. Her message was only one quote, and it said:

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: The foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

A quick google search revealed that it is a quote from “Invisible Cities”, a novel written by Italian author Italo Calvino that depicts a journey through numerous cities, depicted by the explorer Marco Polo.

I loved the quote. More than I loved the quote though, I loved the fact that after knowing me for mere few weeks, this friend of mine knew I would love it. I have always been a social person, and meeting people has been something that comes naturally to me – but there is a difference between meeting people and knowing people. Meeting people happens in passing moments, instances, brief encounters that linger for a few days, maybe weeks, and then disappear somewhere in the back of our minds and memories. Meeting people is fickle. Knowing people changes us. It anchors us.

I can relate to this quote, because to me it is true – there is a foreignness in me that arises when I move to new places, brought on by probably both the things I left behind, and the things I find in front of me when I arrive. It is almost like getting to know yourself again and again – looking in the mirror, as if asking: “Who are you? I don’t think I have met you before.” While it can be intimidating and scary, getting to know the new me is also always exciting. There are qualities, both good and bad, that will surface in a new place that I never knew existed before – and yet, there they have been, somewhere in me all along – just waiting for the right environment, the right time, the right place to reveal themselves. The change never stops, and it’s a good thing it doesn’t. I don’t think static state is a good place to be.

However – what I have grown to understand as I have moved from one country to another is not only about foreignness and change, but also about stability and familiarity. While the world is vast, the corners of it countless and   the number of strangers endless, in the end there’s a home in every place I have been to. The important things in life, the anchors we need to be able to find some level of stability, have always existed everywhere. Certain characters find their way into my life no matter where I am – the jokers who make me laugh, the intellects and geeks who stimulate me, the activists and change-makers who keep me believing in alternate and better realities, the poets who make me cry, the culturels who can open the doors to music, dance, theater and performance to me – and then there are those people who just know me, really know me, without a long shared past, years of friendship, life stories exchanged over glasses of wine. These are people who know my thoughts, my sense of humor, my past, my hopes for the future, and my fears of those hopes never coming true – even though we’ve barely exchanged names. Somehow, they have been in every place I have been to, and I believe we all have these people in our lives – our counterparts that somehow, in the midst of the chaos and craziness that is this world and universe of ours, balance the insecurity and unfamiliarity that we all deal with day in and day out. They are the anchors in foreign harbors that, in the end, make any place into a home.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.”

I believe the world might be smaller than we think, and what first seems as foreign can unexpectedly turn into something familiar, something we know, something we need. The strangers might not be strangers after all, and foreign lands can become homes and safe harbors, filled with familiar faces. Suddenly, what seemed unknown and unfamiliar becomes the most comforting and familiar thing in the world, like falling asleep with your head on the same pillow you slept with throughout your childhood, squeezing the teddy bear you had for as long as you can remember. And in those moments it is suddenly clear how similar we are, how close to each other we are, and how much we all need each other to build homes, to find harbors, to lower anchors – to find familiarity in foreignness.

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