For Christmas this year, I got to go home for two weeks for the first time in twelve months. Besides the obvious joy of seeing my family, friends, and pets, it was simply glorious to be back Stateside. Sunshine! Mexican food! Shopping at Target! Customer service! Shopping at Target! A mani/pedi for $20! Obama-mania!
I essentially took a two-week hiatus from the internet and basked in the pleasure of actual human interaction. I devoured both homecooked meals and lunches at my favorite restaurants. I stayed out with friends at our favorite bars to get gleefully sloshed until 2:00 am. I went shopping for new work clothes to replace my dated and threadbare attire. I took home clothes that needed hemming and alterations and had them tailored for half the price it would cost in the UK. I bought a bikini, new bedding, and jars of banana peppers to take back to London with me. I hit up the used bookstores and purchased enough novels to keep me sated for six months. And when it was time to leave, I happily paid a $100 baggage charge for my bulging suitcases and left the rest at the house for my generous mother to ship over.
It was not without its stresses. Trying to cram in all the visits, errands, and appointments I arranged was a headache, as there simply wasn’t time for it all, especially since I sold my car. Although I have a loving relationship with my parents, we haven’t lived together under one roof for ten years and while it was mostly wonderful to be with them, there were tense moments when we all reverted back to my teenage years (aka The Dark Time).
It was both too long and not nearly long enough. Too long in the sense that I became comfortable and spoiled by the reassuring familiarity of home, so that my typical two-week post-vacation depression has been exacerbated into full-on gloominess. While I spent the first vacation week checking my Blackberry, shuffling client reports, and phoning Saudi Arabia at 8:00 am, panicked at being out of touch, by the second week, I forgot that I had to work for a living at all and returning to the office felt akin to the diagnosis of a terminal illness. DOOOOOOM.
While my absence from home was not nearly as dramatic or protracted as others I have met (a Chinese client I had who visited his family for the first time in five years, or a Romanian woman I worked with who had not seen her young daughter for seven years), I nonetheless had a bit of a jolt as I adjusted to my return to American soil – call it reverse culture shock. Here are some of my experiences…
1) VEHICLES. Christ amighty, our cars are HUGE. Everything looked outsized for the first few days and I would comment on it, disgustedly, like a self-righteous European tourist. Admittedly, however, I was more pleased to see pick-up trucks than ever before in my life.
2) FAMILY. I was terrified that my parents would look really old when I saw them for the first time. This had been a nagging worry for me, that they would have speed-aged in my absence and would look like AARP-ers. Thankfully, they look pretty much the same, which didn’t stop me from bursting into tears when they picked me up from the airport.
3) INSURANCE. As in, I no longer have any. Which meant that when I tried to rent a car, I was faced with almost $500 of insurance fees on top of the rental itself. Which in turn meant that I rented no car and did some walking, and there is nothing weirder than walking in a car city. We just don’t have sidewalks in a lot of places, and I definitely turned some heads when I decided to go to Walgreen’s one morning (craving powdered sugar doughnuts) and it was just me and the homeless guys, ambling along while the traffic whizzed past.
Additionally, my visits to the dentist (three) and the gynecologist (well-woman exam) were all out of pocket, to the tune of about $1500. Besides having my teeth and ladybits attended to, I also got an eye exam and purchased new glasses. Routine maintenance is always expensive but damn, I hope the new and improved regime gets onto that universal healthcare plan right quick.
4) SCENERY. Things closed in my absence! Like my preferred IHOP that my dad used to take me to when I was a little girl for funny face pancakes (sob). New houses were built on our street (out of nowhere), half of my long-favored outdoor shopping center was demolished, and the end of my street was newly blocked off (which I would forget every time I left the house). As I generally reject change, none of this made me happy.
5) MONEY. Everything is so cheap in America. Oh, my god. When I was wondering at this to my Venezuelan dentist, he smiled and said that he thought every American should live abroad for a period of time so as to appreciate the incredible wealth and convenience we take for granted. Never again will I take Target for granted, or the simplicity of going to the grocery store and not calculating my purchases based not on what I need, but how much I can carry. Paying less than four dollars for toothpaste is a luxury, people. Renting a new release at Blockbuster for under six bucks is a privilege. I’m not even going to talk about gasoline.
Further on money, I was very startled to discover that I had to think about change, actually calculate it in my head. Several times I gave the wrong change at a store because I was equating a quarter to a 50p piece. It sounds bizarre, but having no cause to handle American coins for a year, I was examining them like Euros before I paid.
6) ACCENTS. I actually quite enjoy being an American abroad, because it marks me as different. Although less pronounced in as international a city as London, I’m accustomed to people looking at me when they hear me speak and taking note of my accent. Yeah, it seems I like the attention, because I thought it was kind of a bummer to be back at home and sound exactly the same as everybody else. Nobody asked where I was from or my thoughts on the election because, rightly, nobody gave a shit.
7) STUFF. I visited my warehouse when I was home, the warehouse packed floor to ceiling with all the material things I’ve accrued over my lifetime. And it made me sad, seeing my books, furniture, photos, clothes, music, everything squirreled away in this fenced-in gray building in a dodgy neighborhood. You can say to me, well, it’s just stuff, but it’s not, to me anyway. All that stuff has memories associated with it and meaning attached, and it made me long for a base that’s just mine, a space I’ve created with some semblance of permanence.
So I’m back in the UK again, and the non-stop crises at the office and a weekend trip to Scotland have filled up my time, and my homesickness has been pushed to the back of my mind by the necessities of the everyday. In a week or two, I’ll be fully engaged in my life here again and the meloncholy will lift and plans will be made for other trips, events, meetings, and I’ll forget why I miss America again. But it was good to have a reminder of home, however bittersweet it is to leave it, and I’m going to make sure I never stay away this long again.