As more and more of us experience the pain of moving abroad, no matter how hard we wanted to emigrate, we need to find a word of our own to define our feeling

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The French fields are flaming outside like a furious emerald under the summer sun. Crazy to say it when weeks ago I saw the snow for the first time, and some more weeks before that, I saw my homeland for the last time, without any idea of when I’ll see it again.

After living my whole life in Venezuela, I took the chance of leaving and moved to France to join my husband, who came to this country to study a couple of years ago. There were months and months of conversations and planning, collecting documents and suffering Venezuelan bureaucratic corruption, but we made it. 

The city that adopted me is called Grenoble. There’s plenty of life in it, like a French Barquisimeto, only crazy during rush hours. I look for the spark of the excitement of a crowded city right in the core of the town, the Centre Ville. Ironically there are also cable cars, some mountains and a river that crosses the town, a little bit like Caracas. Instead of El Guaire, I have the Isére River here (let’s not compare).

Now my pulse tries to sync to the rhythm of this new place, this metropolitan tribe. Often, I miss the frenetic and unpredictable afternoons in Caracas. In lieu of a bunch of guacamayas doing a bochinche in the sky, I find the company of some grumpy crows in the rails of the tramway while I walk.

But something’s not right. In the chaotic and morphing Caracas, a city that forces you to run, I could really find myself. Now that I’m far away, I feel boldness. 

For the ones who leave, the frame of the farewell needs no introduction: the wild, colored tiles of Carlos Cruz Diez. The mosaic in Maiquetía has come to mean a promise of a new world waiting for us if we abandon the only life we’ve known. In my case, everything happened so fast that I could barely say goodbye to my mom, in tears. Others don’t have the luck or luxury of seeing the colored tiles and have to deal with hellish trips by land or sea, packing in their luggage an even heavier uncertainty.

The difficulties of each migration story can vary depending on each person’s opportunities, but the alienation and homesickness that come after transplanting your life from one corner of the world to another are unavoidable. As humans, we crave a sense of belonging, and when we decide to move, we lose it. 

The Culture Shock of Buses

In France, 7.7% of the population was born abroad, and yet some natives are horrified when they hear a different accent. And my French could be better. I’m not ready to engage in complex conversations without struggling and making mistakes.

In French, to rain is “pleuvoir” and to cry is “pleurer”. Sometimes I say “va a llorar” instead of “va a llover“. Still there are some very common expressions between French and Spanish that make me wonder if our cultures are really that different, like “no se qué” and “je ne sais quoi” both meaning “something that cannot be described”. But the most extravagant coincidence to me, was the French adjective “capillotracté” which has the same exact meaning as in our expression “jalado por los pelos”.

While I had the chance to study the language before I moved here, others can’t choose and have to start from the very beginning, and on the road, not only do you learn how to communicate but learn how to behave. And that’s a shock, because you realize that a good amount of the things you’ve learned in your country have no use in the rest of the world. If you did emigrate, your life is in a new default language, and the social rules have changed. Being friendly and talkative with strangers is frowned upon in some countries. 

Before this trip, I never knew anything else than Venezuela. It felt strange when I took the bus for the first time in France, just hours after landing: it was totally silent, so clean and so different compared to the unforgettable Venezuelan Encavas (the brand of most little buses in the cities) which are usually full of stories of people’s struggles, thieves and candy sellers shouting in the heat, passengers eating the tip of the pan campesino they just bought, listening to a fancy mix of salsa baúl in the background, only interrupted by the voice of the collector, always mean.

I challenge the reader to try to remember how many times they listened to “Me tengo que ir” during a ride in a camionetica. In France’s public transport, everybody’s on their phones, minding their own business.

There’s not a single face known to me, and this is what overwhelms me the most. In Venezuela, we know everybody and if we don’t, we pretend we do; the social barrier between Venezuelans is only thick like a fried plantain chip. On New Year’s Eve, we have no problem wishing a feliz año to people we’ve never seen before and why not, if they are kind, invite them to try our abuela’s hallacas.

Our culture is our history, this is something we will always have with us, no matter how far we are from our native land. We’ll always think “chinazo” after hearing a pun, no matter the language in which it was said. And secretly, in our pantry, we’ll always have a yellow package of corn flour.

The Traps of Missing 

One of the most beautiful memories I have of Venezuela is from my childhood. I was at a port in Margarita with my mom, waiting for the ferry that would take us back to Tierra Firme, the way Margariteños call the Venezuelan mainland. It was very late in the night and there were a good number of people waiting with us. I asked my mom if I could get out of the car to try to look at the sea. The smell of saltpeter and the hot humidity of the island were dancing outside with the warm scent of a little puesto de empanadas, where I could tell they were selling empanadas de cazón just by sniffing. A distant and almost spectral bachata song was being played somewhere. The waves were quietly bouncing against the rocks of the breakwater. It was just an ordinary night in Nueva Esparta. It was home. People echando cuentos around the place, that very fireproof smile and laughter of the Venezuelan people, evidence of the (almost) never-failing resilience.

In “El amor en los tiempos del cólera,” Gabo wrote something like when we’re far away from the motherland, we’re victims of the silliness of only remembering the good things we left behind. For us, the outsiders, the things we miss are condensed in a collection of captivating and magical details that make Venezuela a savage pandemonium of authenticity and the home of courageous people who balance every day over the thread between death and life.

I don’t miss the night my young brother called home, panting and panicking, to tell me that minutes before a malandro had robbed him and pointed a gun at his head at the Bellas Artes bus stop after working a tiring Christmas Day at Mercado del Cementerio. We don’t miss the crimes, the corruption, the impunity, the missing people, the 3:00 a.m. shootings, our heart beating in our throat each time we hear the engine of a bike approaching slowly, the intermittent anxiety when you see you don’t have enough food for the week.

A Word for What I Feel

Leaving your home country digs a hole of emptiness inside you, no matter how many times you cursed it, how many times you cried while surviving it. Attachment doesn’t distinguish between good or bad choices, you just know that you’re far from your home, your family, your friends, and your old daily challenges.

“It’s the most gentle, depressed-looking creature I ever saw; it seems to have the mal du pays,” I read in The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth. Homesickness can be described as a nostalgic depression: in French, it’s called mal du pays, in German Heimweh, in Gallego-Portuguese it’s morrinha but I guess we’ll all agree that for us it can only be called guayabo, the Venezuelan term for despecho, the pain of heartbreak you feel when love has ended. 

Depending on the land that you’re stepping on, and your preparation to fit into the society that you emigrated to, guayabo can be moderate or severe. Venezuelans moving to southern countries may not have the same culture shock as the ones that move North.

I don’t think I was the only one who once heard that leaving Venezuela feels like getting a divorce while you’re still in love, and what we feel when we leave, depending on the context of our case, can be quiet inner grief or a stormy sorrow.

In any case, our human nature helps a lot: we tend to adapt to most circumstances. Being Venezuelan also means that you’re taught to hacer de tripas corazón, to embrace change with the best attitude you can.

Because of the abrupt changes that have been striking Venezuela during the last few decades, we’ve developed the tiring ability to reinvent our lives to try to keep breathing in the fierce reality that surrounds us, always changing without warning. We managed to survive several years of a currency having a different value in the morning than in the afternoon, and we get creative when it comes to adjusting our goals and plans to the landscape in front of us. 

In a country like Venezuela where the only law that stands is Murphy’s Law, the disorder evolves virulently, and our habit of managing uncertainty is our key to adapt and keep running the race set before us. 

Plot twists are a pattern in our stories and even in our history. The crisis has made us live the present violently and get ready for the future, whatever it brings, even if the guayabo never fades away.