Many asked if coming ‘home’ would be bittersweet for me. I don’t know if ‘bittersweet’ is the right word. I’m certainly not bitter and life is still sticky sweet. I’m certainly not saying that my journey is over… in fact far from it—it’s only just begun (hum your version of the Carpenters tune here).
Here in bustling New York I am continuing to meet new people giving me that same positive rush I now crave that I felt during my worldly travels. I’ve caught up with old friends and new ones that I met online through this very website–some were inspired and asking me for advice on their own upcoming adventures, some were getting back in touch after reading about my trip in the local paper, and others were trying to sell me some kind of ‘enlargement.’ I’ve been told I already have big ‘cojones’ for doing a trip like this… so I guess I don’t need that now. But it goes to show you how traveling is a great way to meet people–even if you are meeting New Yorkers or Chicagoans while you are in Istanbul. Even when I’m not sure what to do next or feel flashes of confusion, I find it hard to stay that way because I keep coming back to the fact that I’ve been so extremely lucky and fortunate to see what I’ve seen, not just in the last 15 months, but during my entire life.
I am now back in the land between the two shining seas, the United States, but the only plan I have now is to stay in New York for about a month, then go to Chicago for another month or two, and then cross the country to Los Angeles for a few months to stay with my friend Mark, try to publish some more of my writing and/or photos, do some freelance PR work for Pueblo Ingles that I picked up in Spain, and most importantly lay at the pool.
Many have warned me about the very tough re-entry after a trip like this and that returning back to the US could be the biggest culture shock of all. I think like a good (or bad) movie, I heard so much about this ‘reverse culture shock’ that the hype was a bit more than the real deal. But I also feel like flying from London to New York made things so much easier. It was quite a seamless transition to go in between possibly the world’s two greatest, most diverse cities. I guess I’m doing what you would call not ripping the band-aid off quickly by creepingly slowly transitioning back to life in the US. As you can presume, I have never been away this long. So I wanted to try and see things differently here in the ‘US of A.’ You can see, do, and experience just about anything and everything in London, but nevertheless, New York City was still a bit of sensory overload.
There are just so many things for your brain to absorb—no wonder people are stressed. A multitude of signs are everywhere you look, telling you something: ‘Stop!’ ‘Sale,’ ‘Barack wins this primary’, ‘Hilary wins that primary,’ ‘Hot Pizza’, ‘Cold Drinks’, ‘Buy this’, ‘Eat here,’ ‘Walk,’ ‘Don’t Walk,’ ‘Don’t Shoot!’, ‘Run for your life…,’ etc. There are so many, too many choices for everything.
I mean it’s nice to live in a land where things are plentiful, but sometimes it seems a bit ridiculous. I now realized how simple my life had been for the last fifteen months. I only had a few pairs of pants (that’s trousers for the Brits–I did have a week supply of underwear, fyi) to choose from each day, I had no bills to pay, and my only worries were finding a new place to stay every few weeks, booking some form of transport, and avoiding most insects. I had avoided most media while I was away. It was a really nice break from being force fed lots of information, most of which is not 100% true, and a lot of which I frankly just don’t need to know. For the most important world news, I could scan the headlines on the internet or watch the BBC News and get a really nice five minute (that’s long by US news standards) update on the latest scuttlebutt of the US Presidential Race. I really didn’t need to know about any traffic-causing car crashes on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago or old warehouse fires in the South Loop or another sad missing child story.
And speaking of the media—there is also an overabundance of television channels (do we really need 300?), magazines and tabloid newspapers being flashed in your face all day long. And then there are the stores. I went into a drugstore (of which there are a multitude—practically one on every corner—just like the now omnipresent Starbucks) just to buy a simple tube of toothpaste. It was intense. First I had to sort through all the brands on offer. Once I settled on one name, I had to study each package for the various differences—gel, paste, tartar control, whitening, whitening with baking soda, all natural, all chemical, 4 out of 5 dentists recommend it, with fluoride, with crystals, for sensitive gums, for gums of steel, plaque control, with scope mouthwash, minty fresh, orangey goodness, or a swirly combination of everything. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh… my brain hurt. Do we really need all this?
I was also confronted with a plethora of unguents, emollients, moisturizers, creams and lotions that claimed to firm, tighten, buff, polish, darken, shine, and improve my life, or at least the life of my skin. For more than one year I have done without nearly all of this but thanks to good marketing—now I just had to have some. It was too easy to get sucked in–in fact I think they have a lotion for that–so I just have to avoid going in these stores at all.
The day I returned to our fair country, I flew into JFK International in New York City. It was weird to go through immigration and not be a “visitor” for once and actually be around more American citizens than I’ve seen all together in more than a year. I have heard a few horror stories from my ‘foreign’ friends about their experiences being grilled by US immigration officers and I have to say I was a bit disappointed with my experience. I was sure hoping for a little stern interrogation or maybe just a comment about me being gone for so long. But nope. The white, stocky, grey-haired officer barely glanced at my customs card (on which I had to list where I’d been on my visit out of the country–twenty some-odd countries took up more space than allotted of course), took a cursory flip through my stamp-laden, well-worn passport, stamped me in and said, ‘welcome home.’ There was no ‘what were your dealings in the Middle East?’ ‘Why were you in Turkey so long?’ Not even a ‘Wow, gosh, gee, 15 months is a really long time!’ Oh well. Very soon it will be like I never even left.
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Very nice post. No travel descriptions: just plain real life. I see you have a lot of time to think about your life now… life’s still a travel!
Cojones?!? I’ve always thought you were a bold and decisive woman, but never did I suspect you had cojones, let alone big ones. No wonder the underwear selection was larger than any other apparel category. I suppose the denims were the brand with a scooch more room. It’s been said that going to New York is one way to see the world. I’m sure that’s true when it comes to people, but the land you have to see for yourself. As beautiful as the pictures are, I’m sure the visions held even more majesty.
Now you’re back, perhaps it’s time to let all of your other gracious readers down as easy as possible and reveal to them that the toughest thing about being gone so long was that you missed me. They can handle it. This has been a very fun exercise in letter writing and correspondence. At some point you need to take your pictures and thoughts into schools and show children the world through your eyes…It’s a wonderful way to see it.
Looks like you did have a bit of Reverse Culture Shock after all. Perhaps not as bad as the hype, but realizing we have too many brands of toothpaste to choose from is a part of it.
After both of my years spent living abroad, I came home and found that two things really bothered me.
The first was the one you mentioned–the obscene amount of selection. I loved the four-aisle grocery store I used in Germany, and I felt absolutely overwhelmed by the U.S. supermarkets.
The second was the rush I felt in U.S. restaurants. Are you ready to order? Can I get you something else? Should I bring the check? It was all order, eat, get out. I missed the leisurely style of eating, in which I was free to linger as long as I wanted and actually enjoy my meal and my company without constant interruptions and a feeling that my table needed to have been turned over ten minutes ago.