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The House of Shells - Guest Post by Carmen Bugan

20 May 2016 12:41 | Deleted user

Until December 2015, we had the pleasure of counting the talented poet and memoir writer Carmen Bugan amongst our members. The 'official' biography states the following:

Carmen Bugan was born in Romania in 1970 and emigrated to the US with her family in 1989, following her father's imprisonment for protesting against the Ceausescu regime. She was educated at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Lancaster University, The Poets House (Ireland), and at Balliol College, Oxford, where she obtained a doctorate in English Literature. Her memoir 'Burying the Typewriter' has won the Bread Loaf Conference Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction, was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Shearsman Books has just published her third collection of poetry 'Releasing the Porcelain Birds'.

But to those of us who knew and loved her, she was an inspirational workshop facilitator, a passionate advocate for creativity in all its forms and a really special friend. Since the end of 2015, she has moved back to the US with her young family, and we miss her dreadfully. Here is the story (in her own words) of how she is settling in.

The House of Shells

Soon after we moved to Long Island we went to the beach, where we collected egg-shaped stones, peach-colored shells, rosy stones and dark shells. The children ran on the sand dunes shouting, the winter wind blew their words every which way. We used my husband’s pockets as transport containers, and when our fingers froze with the cold, we drove back to our newly-rented, empty home. There, I took a large sheet of thick paper and drew a house on it. My husband and I sat with Alisa and Stefano on the floor as we filled in walls, windows and the roof with stones and shells. We glued them all in and made a little path that led from the white road to the door.

Our belongings sailed the wintery Atlantic for more than one month. Children’s toys, our beds, plates, books, clothes took forever to arrive. We slept on air mattresses and folding couches feeling homesick. Homesick for what, we kept asking ourselves? I was homesick for the morning walks in the countryside with our French neighbors. I missed the Sunday village market. Alisa said our apartment in Prevessin must be crying from loneliness and the teachers at her nursery school were waiting for her. Stefano kept asking when we were going to install the phone so he could call his best friend who had just turned nine. One day Alessandro walked into the house with a grocery bag looking triumphant: ‘Look, I found soppressata and Lambrusco!’ He was nostalgic for his father’s favorite salami and his mother’s native wine: he missed his Italy.

‘I hope this is the last time we are going to move,’ I told my husband last summer, when we were trying to decide between England and the US as the place where he would accept the ‘permanent-sounding’ job offer.  

‘You know, our children don’t have a sense of home,’ he agreed. ‘They go to school in France, have American passports, they are half Italian, half Romanian, Stefano was born in England, Alisa in Switzerland…’

Stefano interrupted, ‘But Mommy, I am half-English!’

‘Well, once we settle some place and buy a house, the rest will come naturally. We just need to give them stability.’ I tried to sound confident.

‘I like this house,’ jumped in our four-year old: ‘We stay here.’

‘No’, I argued, ‘we will buy a nice house, this way we won’t have to deal with this awful leaking ceiling in the kitchen. And we could explore America!  How about that?’

How do you give children a sense of home? I am a political refugee from Ceausescu’s Romania.  When I was a child I helped my parents build our own house. We had trees, flowers, and a kitchen garden. We had neighbors, friends, cousins, grandparents and our priest with his own wobbling cantor. When my father protested against communism, he was incarcerated. The rest of us became prisoners in our house, where we lived under continuous surveillance for years.

After Dad was released from prison, we sought political asylum in the US. We were welcomed by people of good will in Michigan. My parents and siblings settled there. They bought houses and built a church with the Romanian community in Grand Rapids: Mom and Dad put up the church doors. Yet for me the rupture was so deep I never felt at home anywhere, though I have felt privileged to experience each place where I have lived since.

After leaving my native country, I began thinking of myself as a traveler who is one with the road. I fought the need to have one place that is deeply mine. When I met Alessandro in Oxford we embraced our cultural differences and cherished the comfort of our similarities. We have lived in several countries and with the research careers being more temporary than ever, moving is a part of life. We’ve become academic migrants. I am enjoying a sort of post-exilic state of mind, and our children were born on the move, as it were.

But this life style is not as light-hearted as it seems. Though you can’t beat the exhilaration of exploring new cultures and landscapes, it’s disorienting to have no place you can call home. Distance is hard on our ageing parents. We tend to improvise on furniture that falls apart sooner than the rental contracts. Transitioning the children to new schools and languages weighs on our minds too. They are at the stage when they make friends, who give them a sense of continuity. Moving is disruptive, they have to start all over again.

As we prepared our Big Trip, Stefano’s friends gave him their phone numbers and skype addresses, promising to keep in touch every day. We flew in the day after Christmas with suitcases crammed full of presents from Alessandro’s family, who were sad to see him leave Europe.

We are far from buying our house, even though we promised ourselves this will be the first thing we do when we arrive here. Our lives still feel provisory. The new garage is half filled with unopened boxes. We are waiting to move into that new house that will be ours and it will give us a sense of place. Alisa and Stefano are tired of being reminded not to put stickers on their doors: ‘It’s not our house,’ I say, ‘it belongs to the landlord, and last time Alisa drew her masterpiece on the living room wall, it cost us our rent deposit.’ ‘It’s just exhibiting fees,’ smiles my husband.

The children have been playing a game they invented in France. It’s called: ‘Is this window ours?’ They walk around the house asking if the doors, windows and beds are ours, and if we will take them with us in our new ‘permanent’ house where we will, one day, move. ‘Nothing is ours,’ I tell them, ‘in having none we have all of them, like countries and like languages.’ I say the world is our home. This does not satisfy them.  

Lately Stefano goes around asking all his new friends at school to vote for Bernie Sanders. The other day he asked me to cook him Korean noodles: ‘It’s an American food, Mommy,’ he informed me delighted at this new discovery. Alisa has fully mastered the transition from Saturday to Sarrurday.

Meanwhile our house of shells, which we built ourselves, just like once upon the time I built my own real house in a country far from here, sits on the dresser in Alisa’s room. Now and then someone draws a flower or a little tree in the garden: after all, it’s going into spring. Outside the kitchen door, a red cardinal and a few robins hop around. The cardinal peers inside: it looks comfortable with me, as long as I sit still.

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