It's been exactly two months. On April 3rd I wrote the first installment of "Notes of A Temporary Ex-Pat." It's not looking so temporary anymore. Walking down Visegradi Street, passing little butcher shops and greengrocers, I think to myself, "I made it; I got out of the Matrix." I breathe a sigh of relief. People ask me how I did it. The Paul Simon song from the 1980's comes to mind. "Slip out the back, Jack/ Make a new plan, Stan/ Don't needa be coy, Roy, just listen to me."
Use any metaphor you like: The Matrix, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, or "The Hotel California." They all tell the same story. There is a place that has bright, shiny surfaces. It seems like the only place there is. It's a risk-free, artificial environment in which you are buffered from the unpleasant realities that chafe at your sense of certainty. Everything is handled. Death does not exist. But it's a little unreal. People don't seem fully alive or authentic. You're living in a bubble. Something is wrong, but you can't put your finger on it. Inside the bubble, everyone reassures everyone else that it's real, and that it's the best, or only, place to be. Outside the bubble is danger. After all, the bubble contains the best of everything--the best healthcare, the best food, the best houses, the best education ... doesn't it? Surely it is the world everyone wants to be a part of, the world no sane person would voluntarily leave.
Living elsewhere demonstrates otherwise. I go into a travel agency and see the posters on the wall for destination spots few Americans consider: Islamabad, K2, Cuba. Wow, I think. The poster for K2 shows a magnificent, snow-capped mountain. Feeling a little embarrassed, I ask the agent where it is. He tells me it is the second highest mountain in the world -- in Pakistan. I also find out there are islands off the coast of Croatia where I can rent an apartment in a fishing village for about $20 a night. It's a different world outside the Matrix. I think I like it.
I had coffee recently with an ex-pat from PA. She came here with her family two years ago, and now is returning to the house in the Pittsburgh suburb from whence they came, richer and wiser in experience. She knows her old neighbors won't be interested in the family's travels; they already treated her like a parent of questionable judgment when she told them she was taking her children out of the country for an extended period. What would they do for school (as if there were not good schools in other countries) or health care? One neighbor said, "It's dangerous out there. You shouldn't take your children."
America sticks to you like fly paper. You can slip out for a quick trip to Fantasy Land, or a Disney-fied version of another country, where you're carefully kept plugged into the Matrix through "safe travel" -- like cruises. You eat "safe food," stay in "safe hotels" where everyone speaks English, and come home with a bunch of pictures of monuments to show to the people in the "real world" of America. In my twenties I spent two years driving European back roads. I traveled behind the Iron Curtain, camped out on beaches in Greece and Spain full of international groups of young people, lived in people's homes, and overall, had my world turned inside out. But, when I returned to the US, people related to me as if I had been on vacation. They couldn't wait to catch me up on what had been happening in the world of the Matrix -- the Real World.
There is a lot to keep you there. Media and shopping malls conspire to make you think you are at the center of the universe. Everything revolves around you -- your fears, your desires, your ambitions and addictions. Most of all, your illusions. Who doesn't enjoy that? But ... there is a price. In the "Hotel California," you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Don't kid yourself. It's almost impossible to unplug in America. It's not the technology to which I refer; it's the bubble. That's much harder to leave.
I don't know about you, but I am neither saving the world nor running a multi-billion dollar company. I don't run a daily newspaper that informs the nation or write critical legislation. I am not shipping urgent medicines to Haiti or stopping the oil spill. If I don't log on for a few days, no one will die. Probably no one will even notice. It is only my ego that thinks otherwise, and that is what keeps us plugged in. Every time we think "I MUST check my messages," we are feeding the Matrix, which tells us "I am so important that if I miss a single Facebook message about my friend taking her cat to the vet, the world will come unglued."
Unplugging is more than turning off your Blackberry. It is disconnecting from the delusional bubble of self-importance that allows your life force and blood to be sucked from you, while you are plugged into the world of pleasant illusion. You think you are getting the best of everything, but you are really feeding the machine with your soul. Try unplugging from that.
"Hop on the bus, Gus, you don't needa discuss much, just drop off the key, Lee, and set yourself free." Free. Breaking the spell of "this is how it is." It can be a marriage or a job. It can be a country or a culture. Getting free means stepping outside the illusion that this is all there is, and the fear that, beyond the known -- as the old maps used to say, "Here there be monsters." It's stepping into nothing and seeing what shows up and what you can create. It's an act of faith. It's also a dangerous thing to do: Take the red pill.
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