Saying goodbye to my American life
After a decade in San Francisco I’ve come to realise only Ireland can be home, writes Maura McElhone
‘I’m not moving to Ireland.” There was the ultimatum. If he and I were to have a future together, I needed to make the US my home.
For as long as I remember I’ve dreamed of living the American life. It was first ignited by Disney cartoons. The older I got the more I was dazzled by American sunshine and charmed by its beautiful people, with their perfect teeth, suntans and go-get-’em attitude.
I got an opportunity to study in sun-drenched San Diego during my second year at university, and arrived in 2004, a 20-year-old from Co Derry. As I watched my first Pacific sunset from the cliffs of La Jolla, silhouetted palm trees lining the gardens of the surrounding mansions, I was smitten. And then I met the tall, dark, and curiously distant guy from Los Angeles.
Apart from three years finishing my education at home, I spent all of my 20s in California. I’ve snowshoed in the Rockies, partied in Las Vegas, snorkelled off Hawaii, met movie stars in Los Angeles and kissed a cowboy in Kansas on July 4th.
I had it made. The job with a publishing company in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area, the boyfriend, a perfect climate, and great friends.
Back in Ireland, life went on. One of my closest friends gave birth to her first baby, my godson. Another got married. My father turned 60. My younger sister broke up with her first boyfriend, and my younger brother found a new girlfriend.
I followed as best I could from 8,000km away. Although I made it home for a few important events, every visit involved a 30-hour round trip and more dollars than I care to calculate. Living in the United States meant I was now a visitor in the lives of the people I cared about most.
I went to work, savoured weekends with my boyfriend, enjoyed happy hours with the girls, bought groceries and got my US driving licence. I imagined a future here: the all-American house with, parked out front, the minivan I’d use to ferry my kids to after-school activities.
But what about cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents all living in Ireland? We’ll be starting a new family, he’d say. I understood that, but surely not at the expense of my existing one?
My final decision to return to Ireland was based not solely on family but also on little things I didn’t fully appreciate until I was faced with the prospect of life without them: Ireland’s rich history and culture; knowing who your neighbours are; health and education services that don’t cost an arm and a leg; strangers saying hello on the street.
Even after the “I’m not moving to Ireland” blow, I waited two months before handing in my notice. I have accepted that my relationship is over, but I’m not yet reconciled with the fact that the American chapter of my life will soon end, too.
I wonder where I’ll be in six months. I hope I’ll be working, have my own place, and have settled back into Irish life. In the meantime I’m bracing myself for the frustrations of the job search, Irish weather, and those times when I’ll miss California.
I have reached a point at which “home” is less of a place and more of a state of mind. As I wait for that longed-for settledness, there’s little else to do but spread my arms out wide and let the winds of change at my back carry me on to my next chapter.
This article appears in the Weekend Review today.