112 / 365 – The Expatriate


There was this guy we met, an expatriate. I didn’t really know what that meant. I think I had heard the word before. I had imagined guys who went overseas to fight wars and then stayed behind. I must have gotten this from a book about Viet Nam. Maybe a story I read somewhere along the way. Guys getting time off from the fight and going to a resort somewhere, maybe Bali or an island like that, and just sitting on the beach. And maybe it was the most fun they ever had, so after the war they went back. Just to stay in that easy life, because where else is life going to be like that? Not back home, where once you go back you’ll have to sign up for a shitty job in a factory, something like that, or you have to go study something at college you don’t care about. I imagined an expatriate being a guy who spent all his afternoons sitting in bars. Sitting in a sunny bar with buzz on, drinking just enough to keep it going, and talking to all the pretty women who might wander in there. Who might be interested in the foreigner who’s rich enough to spend his afternoons sitting in the sun, drinking beer and rum.

This guy – his name was Greg – was not like that, not sitting in the sun drinking all afternoon. For one thing, we were in Sweden and it was hardly tropical, although it was a lot more warm and sunny than I would have thought. And the day lasted so long that even when it was evening and he was out of work, it was still sunny out. But he was sort of like that. He told us he liked to sit outside in one of the places down by the water. He had a place he went to regularly — he took us there. It was down right on the water. There was a sort of promenade along the water where people walked along. Boats were tied up there, and a most of the places facing it were restaurants or cafes. He always went to the same place, “the best place,” he said. The tables were crowded with people, people who looked like they worked in the offices down there, or maybe they took the tunnelbana, the metro down there from another place. Came down to the water to sit and watch the sun slowly sink toward the northwest. He liked to get a table near the front, where he could see people walking by and watch the harbor. We had to stand and wait awhile and when some people stood up he pounced on the table, fended off a few other people who swarmed over too. He spoke at them sharply in Swedish. It’s a funny language, but he seemed to be able to speak it well. We sat there for hours, until the late day turned orange pink and into blue twilight that stayed in the sky a long time and we watched the lights on the harbor.

So Greg was not like what I had thought an expatriate was, but he was sort of. He told us he had come over four years before, from a big bank in New York. He was supposed to be there two years, but he liked it so much he kept figuring out ways to stay longer. I said, “So you’re an expatriate.” He said, “Nobody says ‘expatriate.’ It’s ‘expat.’“ He said, “There are a bunch of us here. You end up meeting each other.” I asked him how, in a big city like that, spread out around the water, you would end up meeting the few other people there who weren’t from there. Would you see each other on the street and just know? Just see each other and say, That couldn’t be a Swede, and walk over and talk? Because I’ve seen people who look like this back in North Dakota, people whose great-grandparents or something came from Sweden and Norway a long time ago. I could imagine some of these people back at home, even though I’m sure they would probably hate it there. He said, No, it wasn’t that. You ended up living in a part of town where a lot of the homes were for rent to foreigners. He said if he had had children they would have ended up at the same school, a school for expats. And a lot of neighbors wouldn’t bother spending much time getting to know the expats, “since they figure they’ll be gone in a little while. So you just end up meeting each other.”

But some of his friends said you could tell an American when you saw one on a street. One of Greg’s friends, a Swedish guy who worked at a government office, he said, “You have this way of walking. Loose.” He stood up at the table and tried to mimic it, walking in place and kind of swinging his arms arms around. Kate said, “That’s not a person, that’s a gorilla.” Everyone laughed. Kate was being her charming self. People, even if they’ve just met her, fall in love her. Like this guy Greg. Somebody else said you could tell by the clothes, they were looser. There were six or seven of us crammed around this tiny round metal table, covered with beer glasses, and they were all trying to think of how they could recognize an American, but they all insisted they could.

Even Greg must have been able to do it, because we were standing in a crowded street, a street just for people, no cars, and they all seemed to be leaving work, all headed somewhere. We were trying to find an internet cafe so I could check my email. We had just gotten to town that morning and we had left our stuff at the hostel and were trying to see a little of the city but I was having trouble paying attention to anything. I just wanted to check my email. I didn’t think I’d be able to think until I had. Kate was getting annoyed. Ever since Prague, when I had first heard that Laura was missing, I had gotten kind of obsessed with checking my email. I wanted to know what was going on, some news, and I was halfway across the world from New York, where she had been, or North Dakota. I think Kate was starting to get annoyed that it was getting in the way of our trip. And that it was so important for me to know where Laura was. So we were standing there in this beautiful old street, with people pushing past us, talking in this funny language, Swedish, and Kate and I were trying not to have a fight, at least out there in public, when this guy, Greg, walked up and said, “Hi! Can I help you find something?”

Kate looked relieved to hear good clear English, American English, not the British sounding variety that most Europeans we had met usually spoke. In Stockholm, most people we had met switched into English when they heard us talk but sometimes it was hard to tell it was English they were speaking, with the vowels all mangled up and the accent all sideways. But this guy spoke like he’d grown up in the US, which he had. I told him we were looking for an internet cafe so I could check my email. Did he know where one was? He said he did, he’d be happy to take us there. He was talking to me, but he was smiling at Kate the whole time. He said, “Sure, I can take you there. First, though, can I buy you a drink? I was just going to stop and have a drink. Come, come.” He grabbed Kate’s elbow and turned her around toward the water and motioned for me to follow.

We ended up sitting in that place by the water for hours. Never made it to the internet cafe. He kept buying us more beers and we just sort of floated through the rest of the evening. People he knew came and went, there were always three or four packed around the little table with us. They were all beautiful, the guys and the women. Stunning. Some of it was the clothes. Everyone seemed so stylish, they’re clothes all fit perfectly like people in a magazine. People stopped by on their way home from work. Nobody seemed in a hurry to go home. He said it was a long, dark winter and people wanted to soak it up as much as they could.

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening. We seemed to talk forever, and a lot of that is blurry. I remember feeling like I was floating just above things, just above the noisy chatter where we were sitting, above the city, the harbor, watching the light fade and the colors deepen and the lights of night come on and reflect off the water like stars.

Somehow they got on the subjects of accents. One woman told Greg he had a funny accent. “If you didn’t speak such good Swedish I couldn’t understand you.” Greg didn’t have an accent at all. I have an accent, you can tell I’m from North Dakota or Minnesota. I make those long o’s. Kate’s from outside Chicago and she makes all her vowels through her nose. But Greg sounded like he could have been from anywhere. They insisted all of us had accents, “American accents.” I thought that was funny, that people thought of us as having accents. I asked Greg where he was from. “You sound like American from anywhere. Maybe California,” I said. He said, “Yeah, that’s about right.” He had moved around a lot as a kid, east coast and west coast. He said, “So I’m just generic American,” but you could see he wasn’t really anymore. Not even just American. He wasn’t really from anywhere. Later I asked him, “Do you miss the US? Do you want to go back? Where would you go back?” I haven’t traveled that much around the US, but I’ve never seen anything like that life he had going there. He said, “New York?” But even New York is not like that, with that peaceful view of the water and so many nice people, beautiful people, coming and going. He said, “I know. That’s why when it’s time to go back, I keep figuring out a way to stay longer.”

But it was just a kind of limbo. That’s why I said it was like what I had thought being an expatriate was. He wasn’t starting a family there. We were talking about that and there was a very attractive woman squeezed in next to me at the table and I said, “Why is he still single? Aren’t there women who would love a successful guy like this?” She said, “But he will be gone. He is not staying forever. So you might start to be together and then he would have to leave.” I had always thought of expatriates as solitary guys, but I hadn’t thought of how lonely it might be.

We never did find our internet cafe. I think he just wanted to talk to Kate. We were sitting there in the twilight and I looked at my watch and said holy crap, we had to get back to the hostel before they locked the doors. Some of them seemed a little shocked that we were staying in a hostel. Like we should have been in a hotel or something. Earlier in the evening Greg had given me his card with a telephone number on it, but when we stood up and said goodbye he didn’t mention it so we never called him again. And it was good that we had had a day without me checking my email. Kate seemed more relaxed the next day, even though we went first thing to a place the hostel keeper had told us about. It’s funny how the next day we were thinking totally different things about it. I was thinking about Greg, all dressed up in a sleek-fitting suit, and thinking about how maybe that could be me. Maybe that’s how I would end up if I did well at the job I would soon be starting. But then I wasn’t sure about it. Even though he was having a good time, he seemed so alone. Kate seemed all excited by it. “Just think, getting a job in a place like this and being able to meet all these interesting people you’d never meet in Chicago.” It was like she’d had a completely different evening than I had. Nothing like sitting so close to someone all evening, the woman you had not so long ago asked to marry you, and what you remember from the evening is totally different. Like you weren’t even together. Maybe it was just the beer. And that’s what I remember about Stockholm now, how beautiful it was but at the same time how totally alone I was, even though we held hands as we walked around by the water and the sun was warm on our backs.


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