Last night I was musing aloud on how much I would miss the call to prayer if we moved away from Tunisia. Axa remarked in reply, “Which do you prefer, Christmas or the call to prayer?” Tony immediately protested that the two things were too different to compare. I know what she was driving at, though, and she quite impressed me with her six-year-old insight. In a predominantly Muslim country like Tunisia, she knows without having even experienced it yet that Christmas as we knew it in the States or in Italy just won’t be the same. We won’t answer the door to find carolers, or cruise around the neighborhood to see the lights, or visit a gigantic creche display in an ancient church. Nor will we wake on Christmas morning to find a winter wonderland. But if we went back to Italy or Ireland or the United States, where Christmas lasts from November till January, we would miss the call to prayer. Five times a day we would unconsciously listen, and unconsciously be disappointed . . .
At this point my sentimental reverie was interrupted by the evolution of the conversation into a technical discussion of whether the question meant 1825 calls to prayer in exchange for one Christmas, or involved the logistics of celebrating Christmas five times every day. In the end, no definitive answer was reached on any variation of the question. It’s a hard question. But it’s very like the many questions serial expats like us ask themselves with every contemplated relocation to a new country. Every time you move, you give up something, and gain something else. Or to be more accurate, you give up a thousand things to gain a thousand other things. Some of them are small, like avocados, gelato, or black and white pudding. Others are really big, like friends, libraries, and a home you love. Some you’re happy to get rid of, like fast food joints, bureaucracy, and garbage in the streets. Others you’ll miss forever, like Trader Joe’s, your favorite piazza, or a Mediterranean sunset. There are even some things you never even notice you love until you’ve already moved on. I could go on endlessly attempting to catalog and quantify everything I’ve ever loved and hated about a place I’ve lived. But there’s no real way to definitively list the thousand things under the column of Country A and weigh them precisely against all the attractions of Country B.
And after all, perhaps we shouldn’t attempt it. Maybe places to live are like children or friends, to be appreciated for themselves and not compared to one another. If I think about it, I am grateful for every corner of the world I’ve seen, and for the unquantifiable richness that each has brought into my life. Moving from place to place helps me to appreciate the call to prayer every single time I hear it, knowing that someday I’ll really miss it. And at the same time, it lends an indefinable, yearning sweetness to both the memory of Christmas past and the promise of Christmas yet to come.