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Torn And Frayed

A Southern man packs his bags and thinks of exile in Budapest
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So, I'm packing up my bags to go home to America tonight, and I'm drinking Austrian beer and listening to my favorite album, Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones. What a joy this music is. This all-American album by a British blues rock band makes me know in my bones that I am an American, and not just an American, but an American from the South. I am proud of that fact. Proud! I couldn't be anything else, and I don't want to be anything else.

It's a weird thing, given that I love Europe so much, and that I'm about to expatriate for a while to Hungary, another country that I have come to love. But you know, I'm going to be a Southern American in Hungary. Damn straight. I'm going to listen to the Stones, and to Hank Williams Jr., and to "Sweet Home Alabama" in my apartment overlooking the Danube, and I am going to watch the LSU Tigers online, I am going to be happy and proud and full of joy in what I have been given. If you are in Budapest at Mardi Gras time, you are going to want to come to the party at my house.

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This is weird. I accept that. I moved back to the South in 2011, and expected to spend the rest of my life there. It's hard to write this through tears, but I have to leave, through no choice of my own. Long story. Sad story. But this is the hand I've been dealt, and I'm going to play it.

Last week I was in Rome, and after dinner with a friend -- an American Southern expat -- we drove through the eternal city listening to American music with the windows down. Last fall when I was hanging out with the same guy, we motored to a medieval holy landmark with the windows down, listening to the Stones. And then, John Prine. God, I have never felt more American, and more Southern, and rarely have I felt happier.

Why is that? Why do I have to be away from the place I love to feel so full of it, and to rejoice in it?

It didn't have to be this way, I guess, but a lot happened that was out of my hands. Nevertheless, I cannot be other than I am. My loves are my loves. I leave in the morning for Louisiana, and I know good and well that I am going to go this weekend to a store or a restaurant, and I am going to talk to a black woman who will be my waitress or my cashier, and she is going to call me baby, and I am going to fight tears knowing that this is how life ought to be. She is my baby, and I am hers. That's who we are. That's what our place has made us.

I have a friend who moved back to Louisiana a few years ago, with his family. It did not work out for them, and not for a lack of effort on their part. His heart is broken too. His journey is not mine, but we are traveling in parallel. Why couldn't we find a home in our home? It shouldn't have been this way. But that's how it worked out. We can't control everything. One of the most painful but important lessons I learned in my eleven years in Louisiana was the meaning of limits. A lot of what we Southerners tell ourselves about ourselves is bullshit. It just is.

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But it's our bullshit, and this is why I get my back up when people put down the South. At my age (55), if I'm going to live in America, it's going to have to be the South. Don't ask me why. I'm going to be in Europe for a spell, but God willing, I will find my way back home. When I listen to the Stones, even though they are British, I hear home. They absorbed it, and gave it back to us. I am struggling to understand what has happened to me, how it was that a man who loves the South feels that he has no choice but to leave it now. It's not the fault of the South, understand; it's about my family's saga, and divorce, and being put out. I could find somewhere to live in the South, and I suspect I will eventually, but not yet. It hurts too much. I wrote a big book about Home in the South, and all the hopes I expressed in that book collapsed. The reasons why are in the book. And yet, if I'm honest, I have to testify that every good thing I said about my family, and where I'm from, is true. That is the tragedy here -- and a tragedy it damn sure is. My dears, you have no idea. If you read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and took inspiration from it, let not anything that happened to me discourage you. God gives us grace, but what we do with it is up to us. And we are broken people.

How hard it is to be an exile, but that is what I am, and am meant to be. When I first read Dante's Commedia -- the ultimate poem of exile -- it resonated with me in a way I could not have appreciated until now. We want home, we crave home, and the longing for home -- nostalgia, from the Greek "nostos" (homecoming) and alga (pain) -- is fundamental to the human experience. I have been taught the hard way that nostalgia is a trap. This is not to say that home doesn't exist, or that it is wrong to long for it, but rather that nostalgia as a way of life can blind one to one's calling in life. It pretty much destroyed me, and I am going forward in my life as a survivor of shipwreck.

The Stones are my soundtrack. So is Arvo Pärt. I'm a weird guy that way. I leave tomorrow for Louisiana, where I will spend the next month sorting my affairs, and preparing to go into exile, again. Exile in Budapest. I know people there who care about me, friends who want me to be with them. That's not nothing. I thank God for it. It is a blessing, and believe me, when you are down and out, you need to be with those who love you.

In my busy and varied life, I have known people who are exiles from their home country, who never stop talking about what they left behind. I hope I don't become that kind of man. I think it's inevitable, though. I love the smell of sweet olive trees, the taste of figs in June, and the sound of the Golden Band from Tigerland. It was not my fate to have them. Still, there are worse places to end up than sitting on a balcony overlooking the Danube, drinking bourbon, and thinking of the Mississippi.

UPDATE: You know what? First thing I'm going to do when I get back to Baton Rouge is go to Sonic and get me a Route 44 diet Coke jam-packed with ice. Don't like it? Kiss my a*s.

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