**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**
Day 813 – 22 May, 2017
Guatemala City to Ft Lauderdale on a rickety Spirit Airlines flight, the plane was a mix of American tourists and Latin Americans returning from family visits. When the plane landed, I was immediately aware of a sense of urgency. I couldn’t quantify it or really explain it, but there was a buzz of electricity that everyone seemed to be in such a hurry, for what I’m not sure. It was a Monday morning and throughout immigration and the terminal, everyone was rushing. Women in heels and business suits, designer laptop bags slung over their shoulders, cell phones glued to their heads, click click clicked down the corridor. The club lounge was like a rotating door with elite members darting in for a takeout coffee and running out again just as quickly. I kind of felt like a snail in a sea of ants. My head was spinning. It all felt familiar, but in a foggy dreamlike state. I tried to remember when I used to be in a hurry, but I just couldn’t bring it back.
I had about 8 hours in Ft Lauderdale before I would be continuing to Tampa so I chose a restaurant that didn’t look too busy so I could stay there awhile. The menu was long, almost too long to keep my attention, with descriptions of everything in terms of size – Monster-this and Mega-that. The server came to my table and plunked a large glass of ice water down with such force that it sloshed over the side and asked if I was ready to order. I said something goofy about being more than two years since I had been given free water at a restaurant and told her I needed more time with the menu. She just looked at me like I was from another planet and rushed off to her next table. She came back approximately three more times before I had finally decided to order the Monster Turkey Sandwich and then checked on me about six more times after I had eaten it. Exasperated, she finally asked if I could close out my check because her shift was over.
Nowhere else in the world does service quite like the United States. Working for tips is another unicorn (like free water). Some international tourists view American tipping culture as uncomfortable at best and American service workers as desperate and fake. They would say its rude to drop the check on a table without being asked. They would say let me enjoy my meal and if I need something I will ask – don’t bother me. I had never thought about the stark contrast between the US and basically everywhere else until being gone for so long. I used to be a server in the US, working for tips, where the difference between a good day and a bad day is how quickly you can turn the tables. I understood the hustle, but I had come to appreciate and favor a slow lingering meal. I began to realize I might not see that again unless I was eating at home.
I arrived in Tampa late that night. My parents collected me at the airport and tried to understand when I was explaining how it felt like everyone was in such a hurry. They nodded knowingly while Dad zipped out into traffic. Traffic was a whole other beast. In many cases, you could almost feel the road rage emanating from faceless drivers as they jockeyed for position on the expressway. Where traffic in lesser developed countries felt like a carefully crafted dance, here it felt like battle; no one wanted to give any ground, holding fast to their position, unwilling to negotiate space for another driver. Drivers in Vietnam and India who would share the road with motorbikes, trucks, animals, and pedestrians would shift to the right or the left as a gesture of sharing the pavement. In a word, traffic in Florida felt angry. When I took the keys for the first time on my own, my parents reminded me not to look other drivers in the eye because “people carry guns here and they are likely to just shoot ya. It’s happened before.” Unfortunately, yes, I remember.
That week was a blur of visiting friends and trying to organize my life. Mom basically wanted to bleach me and everything in my backpack before I was allowed on the furniture. We went to the beach. We met Rhett at Top Golf and I was introduced to the concept of electronic golf. I tried to buy something at the supermarket by swiping my credit card and was told that I needed to insert the chip. I just stared at the cashier, WHAT chip? A lot of things had changed. I used a public restroom and scanned the stall for the wastebasket in order to throw away my toilet paper before realizing that I could actually put it IN the toilet. I used words like “jumper” and “keen to (do something).” I put on makeup for the first time in months and felt like a clown. I went shopping for clothes that didn’t have holes or stains on them and realized I had no idea what was even in style. I went to the gym and almost died. This was perhaps my greatest devastation because I had always been so fit and was somewhat of a gym rat in my previous life. I was a square peg and the US was my round hole.
I had booked a flight to go home, my Chicago home, for June 1. I had felt so out of place in Florida that I thought maybe everything would fall into place when I got to Chicago. I would be staying with friends for a little while as my condo was still rented out and I didn’t have a job. It was a Thursday morning and everyone I knew would be at work. I took the train from Midway, loud and dirty, so unlike the metros in Europe. Midway’s orange line is elevated so I could see the whole city come into view as we slowly clacked past Roosevelt up Wabash. I looked out the windows to the right and could see The Bean with the blue sky reflecting back to the clouds. To the left, I went past my doctor’s office and Macy’s (that will really always be Marshall Field’s). At Clark & Lake, I changed trains to the brown line and we went over the greenish blue river and memories of every time I had ever run next to Upper Wacker came flooding back. The ferries for the architectural boat tour had already begun. Ever so slowly we chugged past the Merchandise Mart and I got chills because this was my neighborhood, bizarrely familiar, yet unfathomably foreign. Gleaming new high rises towered on both sides of Wells Street. I couldn’t believe how many new buildings and where did all the people even come from? My condo was about five blocks down Erie Street and I could straight off see my balcony because the people that had always lived below me had a very distinct patio set that I recognized. It was all very surreal, being here, yet not.
The first couple of weeks was another flurry of activity, catching up with everyone that I missed. Some friends had moved, others had gotten married or had babies while I was away. People would ask, “how was your trip?” And me answering, “it was great!” without really having another way to describe it and feeling completely overwhelmed with that question. I could tell that everyone had a different level of interest in wanting to know where I had been or what I had done so I tried to be sensitive to not talk about it too much. However, I quickly learned that I literally had nothing else to talk about, no frame of reference for friendly gossip and very little in the way of current events. I would find myself sitting quietly sometimes at group dinners trying to decide if anyone could see through my anxiety. We celebrated my birthday on June 8 when my friends, Wendy and Ryan, who visited me in Thailand, hosted a party at their condo. I smiled and ate cake and drank wine all while wanting to crawl out of my own skin. None of it felt natural, but I wanted it to so badly.
Any novelty that had existed for me being back wore off by the end of June. I couldn’t move back into my own place until mid-July and it would be even longer until I could start work. I was kind of a lump that melted into the sofa watching hours of MSNBC on a loop. I found some solace in walking around Chicago as if I was a traveler. I had seen all the sights before, of course, but never really seen them. I walked by a hostel and lurked outside like a creep, just wanting to hear some foreign accents. I was home and I had never felt more lost.
I knew this would pass if I gave it time, but meanwhile, the wanderlust is still in my blood. I might be able to tame it for awhile, but there is no cure. It is only a matter of time before I would need to go again.
Some pictures of home:
All alone at The Bean, Cloud Gate