It is late morning and I walk into my local coffee shop and see Nayri sitting at a small table by the far wall. Her back is to the door and she doesn’t see me as I approach and tap her on the arm. I haven’t seen her in while and want to say hello. She gets up to give me a hug and I notice that she has an open journal and doesn’t seem her usual bubbly self. “You look really sad. Like you’re about to tell me some seriously bad news,” I say to her.
“I just came back from vacation,” she responds, “and I’m having a hard time adjusting to being here.” She’s just returned from a two week vacation visiting her brother and his family in Beirut, Lebanon, the city of her birth.
“Then why are you sad?”
“I miss it there,” she says. “Here there isn’t anywhere to sit and watch the sea, the mountains. The landscape is really, really different. There’s isn’t anywhere here where you can go and enjoy that natural environment. I guess it makes sense that they used to call Lebanon the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. It makes sense that I would think it’s such a beautiful place because it is a beautiful place.”
Besides the country’s natural beauty, Nayri seems to also miss its people. In a small city like Beirut, it’s easy to run into people during the normal course of a day and to maintain a vibrant social life.
“Here in Glendale, I’m noticing – like I came here and ran into you – that I always run into someone. There’s Armenians around. There is the social aspect of it here – that you go someplace and run into someone. Those things exist. That familiarity is there. So what doesn’t exist?” she asks herself and contemplates the answer for a moment.
“I’ve written them down. It helps me,” she says and reaches for her notebook and begins reading from her list, “Does not have the same landscape. It’s not the same rock family, the same soil family – the dirt in Lebanon is a brick color and you sit in the mountains and watch the sea. You can’t do that here. You can’t go to a restaurant on the hill, in a garden setting, hang out and enjoy the view. There, you drive fifteen minutes into the mountains and you can get away. Everything feels different there, the landscape, the flora, the architecture, the stone. Everything is either marble or stone. Here it’s stucco,” she says with disdain and a wave of her hand at the surrounding buildings surrounding.
“Have you been outside of L.A.?” I say, trying to tease her out of her reverie. She responds with a big laugh.
In response to the question of whether she would consider resettling in Beirut, she says, “I think that boat sailed a few years ago. My parents lived there and a few years ago I told them, ‘Yalla, let me come back there and let’s finish this bi-country existence.’ But they told me to stay. They came over [and settled here] but my brother stayed there.”
Nayri’s brother lives in Beirut with his young family which includes two children aged one and five. He would consider moving to L.A. but is concerned that his business, manufacturing men’s shirts and suits, would not survive the transition intact.
“One generation ago my grandmother was there and we were here. Every time we left [Beirut] to come here, she would cry. Now it’s the same thing but in reverse. My parents are here and their grandchildren are over there. This is it. It’s never ending – this being apart from each other. But I’m here and I’m adjusting,” she says with a resigned air. The separation of families is the lament of all recent immigrant families.
“I miss them a lot. Being physically close to children is healing. Feeling their warmth, their love and charm.”
“Is it the human contact you miss?”
“Yes, but that also exists here,” she says. “And then it’s my personal choice in terms of what I want my life to be. So here I am: back – and do I want the life that I have?” Nayri asks the rhetorical question. She wouldn’t seriously consider moving back to the country of her birth. She is attached to friends and family here and knows that now, when she visits there, she’s taking a break from reality. “It’s hard to compare because when you go there it’s for a vacation. It is different circumstances. You’re not working. You’re spending time with family and friends. It’s a different environment. It’s not fair to compare.”
Even though Los Angeles is a coastal city, many in the vast metropolis do not have easy or frequent access to the ocean.
“For example, I enjoy my condo. It’s on the second floor and from there I can see to the north. I was, am satisfied with that,” she says, emphasizing the present tense to convince herself. “There, many homes face other buildings but many also have a view of the sea. People live on their balconies and have the space and freedom to breath. Here the beach is an hour away. The beach there has more beauty and charm. It’s part of your everyday life. Driving to anywhere, you’re on the coast.”
“The Mediterranean Sea is different than the Pacific Ocean. You can’t compare them,” I say to her. “But,” I say sounding cheerful and trying to give the conversation a more humorous bent, “on a clear day, driving from Glendale to Pasadena, you can see the ocean from the freeway.”
“So I’ll just stay on the freeway driving back and forth,” Nayri agrees with the joke and responds with a big laugh.
“This happens all the time,” she continues, “I come back, it takes time to adjust, nothing tastes good, nothing looks beautiful, things that were important are now unimportant. But that feeling fades away, you can’t even bring back your memory or even the memory of the difficulty of adjusting. Everything becomes okay. This is okay. This becomes beautiful,” she says with a wave of her hand towards the hills of Glendale.