Almaty: Empty. Kiev, Budapest: no one there. Milan: no one. Lisbon: get your luggage and skate toward down town. Madrid to Dublin: empty airports all. When you’re not expecting anyone airports are strangely quiet. There are so many people waiting behind customs, at least five of them in the back standing on their tiptoes, hushed and expectant. They look at me, look right into my eyes. No. No you’re not him. I shoulder past them all. I already know there is nobody to find in the crowd. The people do not want to lose their viewing areas and are reluctant to move a few feet to let me pass. I and the bag: a salesman, a vagabond, a gypsy. I haven’t come from anywhere and I haven’t arrived anywhere. There is a seamless connection between Kazakhstan and Ireland, because I haven’t stopped once to say: “Here I am.” And no one has yet asked me “Where were you?”
I haven’t been home in years. Not to America at all. Not anywhere near it. The closest I got was Sarajevo and Sarajevo is still pretty far from America. When I was there I remember thinking to myself, this is the closest I’ve been to America the whole time. I looked west from Sarajevo but there was a mountain in my way. No Europe, no Atlantic to see.
They say there’s a reorientation period, that you have cultural shock. They call it reverse culture shock which is stupid. After being gone this long, culture seems like a very relative thing. It’s ridiculous to say that it’s reversed because you once understood the culture now shocking you. It didn’t happen to me. Not in America, at least not in that disorienting way. Every last volt of culture shock passed through me in Budapest. I wasn’t sure, I thought maybe there’d still be some communist vestiges there, you know? A Pushkin street or an old oxidized sign in Cyrillic somewhere. Nothing. This was a city well within the borders of its own democracy and now well within the borders of Europe.
In the Budapest airport, the tourist map I’d found had a restaurant directory by category and there was a vegetarian category. I couldn’t believe it, after years of piroshky, a complete meal. I couldn’t decide if I should eat or find a place to stay first. When I considered how nice it would be able to do anything without the dacha I had on my back, I decided to find a hostel first.
Near downtown, I found a backpacker place that looked like some youthful adventure club. All the places I’d stayed over the past couple of years, I’d usually been the only one there. If there were others it was hard to tell. It seemed to be expected that you would never meet. Here it was clearly encouraged. They even had outings planned and pencils dangled from string, making small hatch marks on the paper when the front door opened or closed.
“Would you like to sign up for the walking tour?”
The guy at the desk spoke English like it was normal for him to do. I was used to using echolalia and word salad techniques to make myself understood and it was almost difficult not to interrupt him and ask him to speak slower.
When I taught English, a lot of the kids would explain to me that they had already studied German. They explained this patiently in their own language. ‘Sorry, buddy, I’ve already started my third language [The native language and Russian being their first and second]. Can’t start over again and learn English this time. Wish I could, but German’s already in there taking up all the room.’ Then I would turn to them with paternal ‘sprechen sie deutsch?’ The poor kids, they would immediately respond with ‘da’ because they were almost hard-wired that way. I would repeat it ‘da?’ Realizing their mistake they would scramble to correct it, but often found that they did not know what the German word for ‘yes’ was. I would restate my offer to teach them English and at this point, most of the kids accepted it. ‘Parlez-vous francais’ worked the same way.
I wondered if this Hungarian guy had ever tried to get out of his English lessons, or did he realize at a young age that he lived in a pluralistic world and not many other people on it spoke Hungarian.
I went into my room to lie down. It was a dorm room but there wasn’t anyone else staying in there. At night, that seemed the oddest thing to me. Here was a room crammed full of bunk beds and I was the only person sleeping on one.
In the morning, I went for a walk and ate at the first place I saw offering vegetarian food. While I ate, I looked up at the menu. There is was. ‘Vegetarian.’ It actually said it on the menu. I stared in disbelief for a while longer before accepting it and wandering back outside. It was just a word after all, but one that signified such a drastic cultural shift.
All day, I walked slowly. There was too much to process: the fast food restaurants, the diverse population, how expensive the metro was, men wearing tennis shoes in public and the obvious rock and roll influence that never made it past the Urals.
In the evening, I went back to the hostel and on the way I passed a park. It was filled with young people. Not kids, but people in their twenties that were not married or acting like adults. They drank beer, smoked and laughed out loud. They rode bikes and put their beer bottles in the recycling when they were done with them. I wanted to go up to each one of them and introduce myself. But I remembered that this is a disheartening correlation between places where there are a lot of young people around and places where no one has the slightest interest in you. I was part of the crowd, but I wasn’t. I smoked cigarettes and grinned like a moron at everyone, waiting for someone to come over and ask me what I was doing there.
After the first day things got less disorienting. I went to another hostel, known for being a party hostel and became completely confused by the hedonism of the residents. I’m not going to say that I had been forced to live like a saint while I was away, but I hadn’t seen anything like this in a while. The Scottish girl who checked me in had been drunk at 4 in the afternoon and when I had come back in from a long walk around 2 am she was sitting at the bar drinking and laughing. She told me she couldn’t leave. I could see why.
By the time I left Budapest, it almost all seemed normal again: different kinds of restaurants, places that took credit cards, police that generally left non-criminals alone. What took me an unexpectedly long time to get over was all the tennis shoes.
I took a late-night bus to Italy expecting to be woken up with a flashlight in my face at the Slovenian border and a hard-faced border patrol demanding my dokumenti. Nothing. I didn’t wake up until we were already in Italy. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t even heard anything on the border. Did we even stop?
I continued to travel around Europe like I was visiting some kind of limbo. The starkness of the soviet landscape was nowhere to be found, but neither was there much evidence of American enterprise. There were no clover leaf exchanges, rows of fast food restaurants, large new cars or entire places shrink-wrapped in advertising. I expected to still be surprised by some of these things when I got off the last flight and walked down a once-familiar street.
I had gotten as far as Dublin, and my last night there felt like my last night in Philadelphia years before. I killed the day walking around a park and taking pictures of a typically green and overcast Ireland. I tried to walk down to the Martello towers where Joyce used to live, but I got sidetracked and ended up going back downtown. I took pictures of spider webs on wet iron gates and bridges in the distance, not really knowing what else to do.
Over two years before in Philadelphia, I was looking at all the pennies shining on Ben Franklin’s grave. Why not old keys? Did these people all confuse Franklin with Lincoln? I walked by the liberty bell late at night, the same self-sufficient copper glow. America: paved in copper. It wouldn’t have drawn the immigrants as well as the gold rumor, but it had more truth.
I walked into south Philadelphia, thinking I would go see some live music. I didn’t expect to have the chance again for a long time. I watched a band with keyboards and trumpets for a while, one of those bands that has more members than they seem to know what to do with. I couldn’t get into it and I went back to my room. It was late. I started at my bed and then went back downstairs. I didn’t have a phone anymore. I’d already cancelled the plan. I asked at the front desk where I might find a place to make a call.
“Like a pay phone!? I honestly have no idea.”
‘Interesting how people say honestly to mean ‘really’. Gives it a little more ponderousness, I guess.’ I thought to myself after someone else told me maybe all those 7-11s still had payphones in their parking lots. I went to four before I found one that would work. Luckily, Philadelphia, at least the part I was staying in, has a lot of 7-11s.
Because I was still in America, I felt like I hadn’t yet made a decision. I could still rescind. I didn’t have to go, but deep down I knew I did. Everyone knew.
The call went like this.
“I don’t know about this.”
“Sure you do.”
“Did I make the wrong decision?”
“Well, you’ll never know will you?”
“I think it’s the only decision you could have made. It’s your decision.”
“I don’t think I can do this.”
“You’re being melodramatic.”
“Yes, but it’s 3 AM, and I’m standing in a 7-11 parking lot making my last American phone call. I’ve barely got anything left to hold on to.”
“You don’t know what’s out there yet.”
There were a few more encouraging words before I hung up. The diner, the coffee, the drugstore, the bus ride, a giant cemetery outside of queen’s with a smokestack towering over it and a 20 dollar phone card that I bought in La Guardia and never used again and then I left. At first, I thought about it all a lot. On long walks, in the morning in my room, in the afternoon reading outside my host family’s house I would imagine myself returning tearfully to it all.
I held on to these fantasies for nearly a year. It was as if I’d left only so I’d be able to return and say I had left and then never have to do it again. Even when it was clear that I would have no right to my former life when I returned, I still held on. It’s hard to stand by while the world changes around you. Usually, you have the comfort of knowing you can do something about it. From where I was, I watched my world change as if I were reading about it in a newspaper. Babies were born, friends moved or died. There was no closure to get from anything. I just watched it happen and hoped that every so often someone would remember me, just remember me; I couldn’t expect them to call.
I stood on a bridge that spanned the Liffey, the night before leaving Ireland, unable to really remember all of that. I knew it to be there, but I couldn’t remember it. I tried telling myself, but the words seem to fall away without revealing their meaning. The only thing I wanted was a welcome home. I wanted the stony-faced customs agent at the airport to look up, assume a mild expression and say ‘welcome home,’ like saying thank you. I didn’t want anyone at the airport. I didn’t know how emotional it was going to be, but I wanted the customs guard to welcome me back. I wanted someone impartial to acknowledge what I had done.
It was after the first year that I began to accept my situation. I stopped living like I was in exile and started to accept where I was for what it was. I stopped feeling like I was killing time, just waiting to go home. I understood that I lived in this place. I wasn’t visiting it. I had learned a lot of the language and had internalized parts of the culture. After a year, I had finally begun to understand that one day I was going to miss this place too. Once I understood that, there was no more struggle. I had a life here and until I went back, it was completely here.
There was no one in the Dublin airport and no one in the Chicago airport when I came back. I really had used up all my culture shock in Budapest. I found I had none left. Once I cleared customs, a taxi driver stopped me by the currency exchange windows. I was trying to exchange a few remaining euro coins.
He asked me if I needed a ride. I told him no, but stood there talking to him. He took me through the subjects, weather, sports, his job, evidently looking to kill some time. I talked a little but mostly listened to him. I didn’t have anywhere to go, not right away anyway. Before he walked away, I gave him the euro coins. I don’t know why. I thought maybe he could find some place to exchange them, or give them to his European fares as change.
I went outside. I went out into Philadelphia, looking for a pay phone; I went out into San Francisco to go to the library; I went out into the Michigan summers I loved when I was a kid; I went out into an early autumn day outside Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I went out into everything I had ever known and realized that it was no longer the whole object it had once been. I put my bag down, kneeled and put my forehead on the sidewalk and I could already feel it, in the midst of my return, I had already begun to feel what was missing, but I could also feel the sense of returning to something.
“Ahhh, here I am,” I mumbled into the sidewalk. Here I am.