“Perhaps,” wrote James Baldwin, “home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” When I came across that, in an excellent piece by Ayelet Tsabari, it struck a chord.
I left England for good in 1972 and next week I go back for the first time in a decade. Whenever I visit there, I never know how I’ll react to it. My first trip, in 1979, confirmed for me that I belonged in Canada, where I was raising a family. I’ve rarely returned for more than just a few days ever since. I have no idea how the upheaval about Brexit will affect my reactions this time. But while the actual England of today might not attract me – as a place, it certainly isn’t my home – the England in which I grew up obviously shaped me for life. My own ‘irrevocable condition’ always somehow relates to that lost place and time.
Mexico is a more extreme choice to live in than Canada ever was. When I settled in Toronto forty-seven years ago, I needed to adjust my accent and vocabulary slightly, but had no difficulty understanding the structure of the government, or basic cultural norms. There was a more conservative social attitude in general than I’d known from southern England in the 1960s and ’70s, which often made me recoil, but the Toronto that was emerging at that time was increasingly confident and cosmopolitan. I needed some years to settle in, but by the late 1970s, settled I was … as much as I’ve ever settled anywhere.
Choosing Mexico as a retirement destination was financially strategic (meaning: I didn’t have a fat pension), but since I ended up in a rural village, far from the resort towns of the coasts, something else was at work as well. That sense so many boomers have felt in the 21st Century, that the irrevocable condition of home is no longer attainable, almost demands an extreme counter-reaction. What we look for varies, when we come to somewhere off the beaten track, but the expat community here is more unusual than many probably are.
Tepoztlan has had a reputation as a centre for mysticism for a long time, partly because of its proximity to Amatlan, the reputed birthplace of Quetzalcoatl. There are people still around here who in 1982 came to found Huehuecoyotl, a yoga-based community (scroll down for the English version), and there’s never a shortage of esoteric opinions to be had in local conversations, on everything from the world economy to occasional eruptions of the volcano. On weekends, a dozen places in and around town offer temazcal (sweat lodge sessions), others will read your aura with Kirlian photography, or offer you alternative therapies, and you can always buy many kinds of incense and crystal jewellery. If Spanish is the second language for most of us (the majority of local expats, though far from the entirety, are Americans), around here Esoteric is the third.
Mountainous cliffs and the trees that grow on them.
The physical beauty of this place, with its mountainous cliffs at least partly clad in green year-round, along with more distant vistas, draws many people. And what I can only call the general vibe of the area attracts and anchors others. It’s definitely a special place; it’s officially one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, and would still be one without that official designation. There isn’t a huge number of expats here (let’s say under three hundred out of 41,000 people in the municipality) so we have our own community – communities, really – without forming an obtrusive minority.
‘Defining’ the expats here would be impossible. Diversity of national origins is obviously one factor, but another lies in there being forever something a little edgy about many (not all) of us who voluntarily live far from their starting points. Baldwin’s irrevocable condition is an ideal, an aspiration to something better, that even the loveliest geography and most benign climate cannot always salve. Many of us are after perfection, and faintly aware at the same time that it hasn’t arrived yet.
We sometimes display guilt about choosing each other’s company, as if we’re rejecting the native people around us, even as we struggle to master their version of Spanish, and create connections with our Mexican neighbours. There’s also – there are many personal versions of this – a sense that being away from where we began sharpens our sense of who we truly are.
The popular idea is that ‘finding oneself’ is an activity for the young, and should be well finished by our forties. This false perspective overlooks, and is sometimes wielded to crudely override, the fact that as we become older the life-answers we found for ourselves when we were active parents, or building careers, remain incomplete. I’ve long believed part of what is sometimes termed senility (as opposed to actual dementia) is in fact a realisation that we can’t any longer make old answers work, and the more tenuous ones that present themselves become harder to articulate, even to ourselves. Conventional religions can offer some people what they need, but they don’t serve everyone.
There is a space that we cannot fill ourselves, but which opens to us anyway, and both fascinates and perplexes us.
Expat life, then, is a continuing exploration of personal potential, even dwindling potential, in a different environment, where we always see contrasts with our long-held opinions and perspectives. It does keep many of us more mentally alert than would be the case if we stayed where we started out, and it sharpens our sense of curiosity. And, almost incidentally, it blunts latent racist attitudes. At one and the same time, we are more than ever dependent on our innate knowledge of how to be and live, and dependent equally on local dentists, barbers, mechanics and plumbers. Cultural distinctions abound for us, but the conventional prejudices around race genuinely seem shallow things to be overcome and discarded.
Are we self-indulgent, living far from people who might care about us, and having no legal right of intervention in political issues where we now are? Perhaps. We’re here for selfish reasons as well as noble ones. We sometimes fear what’s happening back in our home countries, and like the fact that Mexico has a constitutional ban against sending its troops overseas. And we do like the fact that the cost of living here is low, there are endless new places to explore, hundreds of historic ruins to visit, and a national history that’s tragic yet inspiring.
And that despite sometimes horrible poverty, meanness and casual violence, there’s also a graciousness and patience here that is so often absent in the lands we’ve come from. If we can’t realise our irrevocable condition in its fullness, then there’s almost always a good imitation of it here that we can find, or create, or share.