The gray mist rises. San Francisco’s colors pop out again in the spotlight of a winter solstice sun. I slip into a crimson batik blouse and my white baggy pants from India to venture out of my Russian Hill cave for a bite to eat. Strolling across Washington Park, I watch the dog lovers chucking balls to their 4-legged friends, and the Chinese moving as if through honey doing their Tai Chi. Across the street at Moose’s Restaurant, a waiter is placing another folded napkin on a linen covered table in preparation for the lunch crowd. And towering over us all are the majestic twin spires of St. Peters St. Paul’s church, brilliant in the morning sun.
San Francisco looks much as it did when I left almost a year ago – -The Transamerica pyramid is still an exclamation point in a city that is always celebrating something, the jumble of Mediterranean style buildings cover North Beach and climb up Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower rises from its pubic nest of eucalyptus trees, the crinkled waters of the bay are dotted with white handkerchief sails, and a large ship, full to the brim with containers is gliding under the Bay Bridge.
What was I thinking? I love it here.
When I left Bali two months ago, I thought I ‘d found my home on the bucolic, spiritual, achingly beautiful island where for the price of one year’s mortgage in San Francisco, I could live in lovely home, on a fraction of what it took to sustain a lesser lifestyle in San Francisco. My plan was to return to the U.S. just long enough to check in with friends and family, pay my taxes, sell my condo and car, pack up my remaining things, and get myself back to Bali. I’d keep a toehold in San Francisco, but it would be in Bali where I would complete my book and teach creative writing workshops.
Two days after my return, a bomb blew a hole in Bali taking tourists with it, and most of the air out of my plans to live and work there. Had I been naive to think that I, an American, could make my home in the midst of the world’s largest Islamic nation?
Expatriate friends in Bali answered my emails with assurances that in spite of their shock and dismay, they weren’t leaving. They banded together with the Balinese to assist the injured and grieving, and when that task was complete, their focus remained united on bringing normality back to the island and making it safe for tourists to return. Like a pilot light, Bali stayed on in my heart. Maybe, I could go back.
Meanwhile paying the dues required to live in the U.S began to take over the moments of my life. Income tax deadlines, legal threats from an ex-spouse, calls and appointments with lawyers, car repairs, Department of Motor Vehicles appointments, dishwasher repairmen, sorting out bills, the search for affordable health insurance (which is impossible to get in the U.S. if you’re self-employed and have ever been sick), learning that I could not walk out of my apartment without spending more in one day than I spent in an entire week in Asia, and exploring ways to pay for my increased cost of living without selling my soul. Bali began to fade into an abstract dream that got dimmer as the days passed.
While I’d been gone, my friends in the United States, it seemed, had all become couples. My business colleagues were publishing books, teaching workshops, and becoming “known”, while I’d been reduced to a vague blip on their memory screens. In the tight- knit, quickly changing world of publishing, I’d become one of the disappeared.
It was clear I was going to have to log in some serious time in San Francisco if I hoped to build the career base in the U.S. that would make it possible for me to live in another country. – at least part of the year. Unless one is financially independent, the How to Earn a Living factor looms large in the Where to Live and How to Keep Living There. (Are most expatriates financially independent or pensioners?)
In addition, my status as a single woman was beginning to lose its allure. As much as I’d enjoyed the freedom of being on my own for the past six years, I longed to be part of a family again. My now non-single girlfriends pointed out that I was unlikely to find a mate as long as I continued my nomadic lifestyle. Would I really have to choose between security and adventure? If I kept bopping from one expat haven to another, would I be relegated to singlehood forever? Would finding an intelligent, fun, romantic, gorgeous, adventurous man, with his financial life in order (the list goes on, but I’ll stop there) require that I stay in one place long enough to build relationships? A friend of mine, who recently landed herself a Sugar Daddy, looked frightened when I told her I was thinking of cashing in everything that I owned to move to Bali. “What will happen when you run out of money?” she asked. “You might find yourself stuck there growing old and dying alone,” She’s right, I thought. But then I remembered that I was going to have to grow old and die anyway, and there were worse places than Bali in which to do it.
One day when I was cleaning a closet in my San Francisco apartment, the Balinese batiked drawstring bag that I’d carried everywhere on the island surfaced. I held the soft, incense perfumed cotton bag to my cheek, closed my eyes, and was back on the island again: Clanging gamelons, croaking frogs, yakking geckos, melodious birds, kites ornamenting the skies, Made knee deep in a rice paddy seeing me in my upstairs window and waving, “Hi honey! You hungry? I make Nasi Goreng!” men lounging in the open air platforms smoothing the feathers of their pet cocks, Balinese women sauntering gracefully under offerings atop their heads, taxi drivers calling out, “Transport?” followed by, “Are you married?” the smell of jasmine,frangipani, cloves, and incense, festive parades blocking traffic, ruffled umbrellas tilted over religious icons, temples poking up in the most unlikely places, jogging in the Hash House Harrier Runs through out-back Indonesia, the sun low in the sky reflecting off the water between the tiny rice sprigs, huts with rounded thatched roofs, men bathing together in streams, fresh off-the-boat grilled tuna every Thursday night at Nuri’s, stepping over tiny palm leaf offerings, wearing only sarongs, sleeveless cotton tops, flip-flops, and forgetting why I ever wore makeup, leaving the windows open and never being cold, weaving my motorcycle around ducks and school children and gridlocked cars, swimming around and around hypnotically in warm, clear pools, surrounded always by lush gardens with striking batiked leaves, gold fish ponds, the sound of running water everywhere, and the tranquility radiated by the locals and the foreigners on the island.
Bali and San Francisco.
I love them both.
But I can no longer afford to live in San Francisco year-round, and I can not afford to leave it for long periods, for it is in San Francisco where the work to support the life I want to live, is.
After a 3 month media sabbatical, I’ve been disconcerted by the cries of “War! War!” coming from every television network and by our president who spouts various renditions of “Retribution against the evildoers!” America, it seems has gone public with its self-assigned role of sergeant at arms at large. But most shocking to me is the unquestioning manner in which Americans are following in lockstep, uncomprehending of any view other than their own, and unconcerned as the rest of the world looks on in horror. I am less proud than ever to call myself an American. And less free to say so.
But about the time I begin to think, “That’s it, I am out of here,” I’d find myself adoring San Francisco all over again. One day, for instance, I was motoring my Alfa Romeo, up steep California Street, top down on a crisp, bright winter day, tuned into KFog, swerving around cable cars, limousines, and bicyclists with ease, and slowing down for a peace march. I pulled into Whole Foods Market where I browsed though miles of aisles of wine, gourmet cheeses, fresh sushi, daily baked bread, and organic fruits and vegetables. At the deli counter, I ordered a burrito, where a lengthy inquisition ensued. Rotisserie chicken, beef brisket, or vegetarian? Refried or black beans? White rice or cilantro? Monterey jack or cheddar? Guacamole, sour cream or both? Onions? Jalapenos? Spinach or lettuce? Mild or spicy salsa? Whole wheat or flour tortilla? After collecting the log-sized burrito (at $5.49, one of San Francisco’s few remaining bargains and ladled fresh made saffron yam bisque into a plastic pint container to take home. I then got into the checkout queue just in time to hear a tall female cashier announce to another employee, “You know that new girl Andrea? I tongued her when I kissed her goodbye at the company party.”
I live in San Francisco, which is not really America, but an island of individualism and noncomformity – traits once regarded as distinctly and positively American.
When I left last year, San Francisco was staggering under blows to its major industries, technology and tourism. But San Francisco, is a city of rushes and busts and she’ll rise again.
Bali too will bounce back. Tourists will be drawn back into her magical fold, as they realize that terrorism is random, and the likelihood that it will occur twice in the same place is slight. The Balinese will continue their lives of spiritual rituals and celebrations, not that they ever stopped.
So how does one decide where and when to be an expatriate? Does it take a calamity or a momentous shift (perhaps an earthquake in my case?) to shake loose and just go? Is it as simple as, “Just step out the back Jack, make a new plan Sam, no need to be coy Roy, just set yourself free…”?
Or one can take a multigrain tortilla, spread on some San Francisco, toss in a handful of Bali, and sprinkle on some Brazil, roll it up, and eat the whole enchilada?