Here’s the opposite of fun: One of your 5-year-old twins has fallen from a tall, dangerous playground apparatus, and possibly broken a bone, and so you are in an emergency room where English is not spoken, attempting to have a type of conversation for which Berlitz doesn’t prepare you, and the pain and suffering and maybe long-term well-being of your kid hang in the balance.
I couldn’t have imagined myself in this situation a year earlier, which was when my wife came home from her Manhattan office and asked, “What would you think of living in Luxembourg?” I didn’t know exactly where Luxembourg was. Or even what it was. A country? City? State in Germany?
Wherever and whatever Luxembourg was, I had never lived anywhere except New York City and an upstate college town. I regretted this hole in my personal experience, worried that it reflected an unappealing level of cowardice.
I was at a good point in my career for reinvention. After years of being a book editor, I had quit and become one of those overcaffeinated, undergroomed guys you see in downtown cafes, pecking away at a laptop, ghostwriting and book-doctoring and freelance-editing, working on ideas and projects that weren’t really my own.
I thought it would be easy for me to leave New York behind. I was nearly 40 years old. If this type of adventure was ever going to be part of my life, this seemed like my best chance to embark on it. So we took what’s called a preview trip, a long weekend in a business hotel, nice meals and fine weather, visits to the tourist attractions. And a full day of house-hunting with Petra, a skeptical relocation agent who had a hard time accepting that we wanted to live in an apartment in the dead center of the UNESCO World Heritage old town. We wanted a European version of Manhattan.
We found our vision on a curving street called the Rue de l’Eau, just a single lane wide, no room for parking on either side. Across this narrow street was the thick, rugged stone wall that protected the backyard of the Grand Ducal Palace, which is to say that the monarch lived across the street.
Sure, I thought: Let’s move here. Then we went away, with no specific plan to return.
As it turns out, Luxembourg is a small country that’s about the same geographic size, and half the population, of Rhode Island, wedged into the intersection of France, Belgium and Germany. Luxembourg is also the name of its capital city, though I had grown up with 8 million neighbors, so “city” didn’t seem quite the right word for a place with fewer than a hundred thousand residents, with no subway or bad neighborhoods or street food.
My wife immediately started going to her office, doing the thing she came to Europe to do. Me, I looked at our twins, their big eyes staring back at me, and I thought: huh. What now?
I was eager to embrace European newness – Celsius and kilometers, euros and French, the ineffable pleasures of traffic circles. But at the same time, I was forced to embrace, tentatively, being a stay-at-home parent, the endless loop of chores and errands augmented by navigating the bureaucracy of moving abroad (residency permits, physical exams, dog insurance). That was in addition to the complication that I didn’t really speak the language.
This was not fun. On the other hand, when I walked out my front door, I passed a handful of cafes with outdoor tables, two museums within a minute, a dozen restaurants.
It was a pretty appealing version of Europe. Also appealing was the prospect of traveling a lot. We rented an apartment in Rome, another in Barcelona. We flew to London for a long weekend, to Ireland for a long night of dinner with friends in a castle.
Little by little, I learned how to do everything I needed to do. I made some friends. I spoke enough French to get by, and enough Luxembourgish to not be rude.
I had achieved a level of stasis that looked a lot like a normal life. So at the beginning of our second year abroad, I took my laptop to a cafe, typed “The Expats” at the top of a new file and started writing a novel.
I was trying to lightly fictionalize my life. But I realized I needed to invent a bigger shift, because, even fictionalized, my life overseas had become too routine to be exciting. So I added a huge twist: The protagonist hadn’t quit a normal job to move to Europe, she had quit being a spy, and her husband had never known. Luxembourg was exactly the type of place where this thing would go on: private-banking center, tax shelter, Pan-European locale where half the residents were from somewhere else. This is where someone could come to reinvent herself. This is where I had come to reinvent myself.
Then, one day four years ago, my wife got another difficult-to-refuse job offer, back in New York. Our adventure came to a sudden end.
Life in New York seemed to revert to what it always had been.
But my absence from the city had made it newly wonderful to me: the incomparable energy, the immense diversity, the vibrant street life, the high quality and nearly unfathomable delivery speed of ordered-in Chinese food. The relentless ambition in Manhattan is contagious, and it propelled me to finish that manuscript I had started in Europe. “The Expats” was published two years ago.
I hadn’t known exactly what I would gain from our sojourn in Luxembourg, but it certainly wasn’t what I brought back. As with all the best journeys, perhaps, it’s the surprises that are most meaningful.
The arm was indeed broken. Sam wore a cast for a couple of months, after which I asked him what he had learned from the experience. “Breaking your arm,” he told me, “doesn’t hurt that much.”