• Peter Byrne

At Home and Abroad

There it was, out in daylight without shame and put to use like some long trusted product. I had thought the Irish kept it for themselves. It seemed to belong to the Celtic Tiger years before 2008 when the island seemed swollen beyond its size on the international scene and drew all sorts of strange fish to it. Now here it was in an earnest British broadsheet in an article looking back at East and West Germany that speaks of “rich blow-ins from the west….” It’s a fine word to have handy in a pocket, but how exactly does a blow-in differ from an expat? You might say that a blow-in drops in a parachute on a place, and the place derives no advantage from being landed on. The expat’s motives are many, but he still has occasional backward glances to where he has come from. He’s like a divorcee who remains mindful of a former partner.


All the same it would be a mistake to take either word too seriously. Their meanings are both blurry and short of precision. For expats we ought to set up categories. They could be sorted by years invested, say, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. But that wouldn’t tell us what the person was in fact doing in his pastures new. Here the categories could be working, trifling, eking out a pension or spying for fun or for a foreign power. Blow-in is just as wanting in precise meaning. Is the incoming individual one step ahead of his native police force? Was he misdirected by a travel agent with shakey geography? Did some childhood romantic notion move him or was he descending on an unsuspecting second cousin or childhood friend of his deceased uncle?


All we can say for sure is that neither an expat nor a blow-in is a tourist, though that term too will call for clarification. We can hardly put in the same bag someone who Ryanairs to Vienna for a skinny week-end and someone who puts on a pith helmet and spends months descending Africa from Cairo to Cape Town.


The peregrinations of James Joyce furnish an historical case. At twenty in 1902, Joyce went from Dublin to Paris intending to study medicine. He soon gave up hope of being a freshman expat given to hard labour and became a blow-in drifting in the breeze on short rations for a while before returning to Dublin. In 1904 he and Nora Barnacle determined to be forever expats and departed for a promised job in Zurich. But there was no job and they went on to Pula and Trieste where they remained anxious expatriates till the whirlwind of World War I. Even the poet Joyce couldn’t call that a zephyr. They wafted back to neutral Zurich, blow-ins again. In 1920, when the chances of publishing more of his work grew, they went to Paris as tourists. But they stayed for twenty years as rooted expats. They were airborne again in 1940 when World War II sent them in a gust back to neutral Zurich, where the Joyces were distressed blow-ins until James died.


As for tourists, the American author, Paul Fussell put the word on the rack in his book Abroad of 1980. The subtitle indicates something of its scope and tenor: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. Fussell’s conviction that we shall never see such glorious men on the move again brought charges of snobbery. To these, Fussell, had he not died in 2012 at 88, might reply with a list of masterpieces written by snobs. Another of his books was entitled Bad–Or, The Dumbing of America (1991). With a satirical sneer, he insisted that the rootless national culture chases after the the fake and the phoney. Clueless, it takes for a badge of distinction what is only dolled-up advertising.


Abroad is full of nostalgia for a time Fussell never knew and for him has the magic of the good-old-days before phoniness and fakery triumphed and infected everything, even travel writing. His book is stuffed with fascinating detail. But one idea haunts it, a tourist (bad) is not a traveler (good). The former is a consumer of foreign parts who picks one off the supermarket shelf, dumps it in his cart and moves on to the next aisle looking for the special offer. The traveler, on the other hand, is a slow-moving human sponge intent on sopping up the juices of a country. Musing, he pauses long enough to be enthralled and perhaps to write a poem. Most of all, the traveler SEES. If he wears shades they are wiped clean of mass tourism’s self-concern.


In Abroad’s survey of travel writing there’s a thought that throws light on the nature of expatriation. Fussell, has already shown that all British travel writing is based on the contrast between normal life in the home country and the often-mocked, often-praised anomalous lifestyle of foreigners. He introduces the idea of the Norm:


“…[H]ome is the norm, which one occupies more richly for the experience of anomaly. The known limits of familiar boundaries are psychologically useful….Participating in this glory of normality is what exiles deprive themselves of….”


The exile, in other words, often feels on his own, even lost. But here the author should have noted the important point of transition when the exile becomes an expatriate. That happens when the way of life in the place he started from no longer seems the only reasonable human norm. He has embraced another way and has received a warm hug in return. He isn’t lost and faces the larger truth that everyone of us, whatever our roots, is nothing more than a blow-in in the starry universe.


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