You Can't Go Home Again (and Other Foreboding Destinations)

By Al Reese

The author Thomas Wolfe popularized the phrase, “You can’t go home again.”  His caution was more spiritual than physical, writing, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . Back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame . . .”  Having grown up in central Wisconsin, I think that limitation is both figuratively and literally true for me.  I love going back to revisit old haunts, see my sister and other local friends, pay my respects to my departed parents, and cheer on my beloved Packers.  But the ability – and certainly the willingness – to spend extended sessions in Wisconsin has long since evaporated. 

My hometown of 7,000 is a shadow of its former self, having been decimated by a new bypass road and a Walmart that killed off most local retail.  From my earliest days, I couldn’t wait to move on.  I last lived in my parents’ house between my freshman and sophomore years in college, and I spent that entire summer hitchhiking back and forth to Wausau to play bass in a country rock band.  When I do return, I feel as though I don’t belong, a sentiment I’m sure is shared by more than a few of my former town-mates.  Some of my dislocation stems from economic reality: although I could certainly make a living in financial services in the Midwest, over three decades of living in Boston has provided me with a business network that I could never replicate.  Plus, all four of my children were born and raised in the Boston area and, as an unofficial liberal, I’ve come to value what I see as the common sense and humane politics of the Northeast.   

But, as children do, they have all grown and are (mostly) out of the house and on their own.  As I was contemplating my new-found freedom about a year ago, I thought seriously about the prospect of living overseas for an extended period.  My daughter and 1 ½ year-old grandson live in Linz, Austria, a lovely and vibrant city of about 200,000.  I had no personal ties anchoring me in Boston at the time, so I booked a three-week trip over the holidays as a “trial run” of what a longer-term stay in Austria or Germany might feel like.  The prospect of living like a local in Linz (or Vienna or Berlin!) all seemed very exciting to me.

Reality hit hard this most recent visit, however, as I was reminded that – much like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel – the truth of establishing roots in an unfamiliar location can’t match my romantic ideals.  Clearly, language is a serious barrier.  I found myself starting conversations in German that I couldn’t continue: “Ein Wasser mit Gas, bitte.”  “Ein grosses Weissbier, bitte.”  “Ein cappuccino zumitnehmen, bitte.”  My fake accent was often good enough to elicit a response in German, but then I was lost, shrugging my shoulders in silent protest.  But there was more at play than simple communication.  As I watched Austrian friends, couples, and families laughing and sharing holiday cheer, I recoiled at the thought that I would always likely be just an interesting curiosity in those circles.  If I were to be “dumped” there, yes – I could survive and perhaps thrive after a long period of acclimation.  Nonetheless, despite the pleasure of spending the holidays with my daughter and grandson, this stay reinforced how grateful I am for my home in Tiverton and how comfortable I am being in familiar and welcoming surroundings. 

I hope that all of you had engaging (and perhaps eye-opening) experiences of your own over the holidays.  Although we at USWM can’t assess the viability of whatever dreams or aspirations you may have, we can certainly help you incorporate them into your spending plans and assess how they will affect your financial future.