Returning to your home country after a long absence is rarely easy. Occasionally you glide seamlessly back into place, but more often you hit the ground in a series of bumps and skids, small moments of culture shock and disorientation that leave you breathless and wondering how much you really know about your nation or yourself. Take for example my recent shocker in New York City.
It happened, of course, in a dive bar.
Rich and I ducked into Johnny’s one sweltering day around noon, near the end of a long walk to meet friends for lunch in the East Village. We’d visited Johnny’s once before, and at the moment all we wanted was a cool place to sit for a few minutes to recombobulate. I ordered a Coke and Rich asked for iced tap water. The woman behind the bar gave us a long, slow, “you miserable cheapskates” look. “Yeah, OK,” she snarled and stomped away. So far so good; this was the classic New York attitude I remembered from visits in the eighties. I wondered idly whether they taught them this stuff, or just hired people with natural aptitude.
She delivered our drinks in grim silence and disappeared to the other end of the bar. Five minutes later she was back and — brace yourself, here it comes — she said, “I am so sorry. I was terrible to you two. You didn’t deserve that. Someone yelled at me earlier and I took it out on you. I want to apologize.”
I almost fell off my barstool. When was the last time a bartender apologized for too much attitude — in NYC or anywhere? We proceeded to have a lovely conversation and were soon on a first-name basis. When Amy learned we’d arranged to meet a friend there the next evening, she said, “The first round’s on me.”
“Did that just happen?” I asked Rich the moment we left the bar.
“Obviously this must be a different New York than the one we remember.”
And that’s my point. Returning to our home country, we tend to see every encounter and variation in the landscape as a commentary on ourselves and the changes we’ve missed by being away.
As I have often observed, America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don’t want to lose my touch. That’s why Rich and I keep a cottage in a small town north of San Francisco. We escape the crushing heat of Seville’s summers, spend time with family and friends, take care of any financial affairs in need of attention, and make the rounds of doctors and dentists. More importantly, we reconnect with our native culture.
Arriving back after many months overseas, we feel a bit like strangers in a strange land. Jokes and cultural references go completely over our heads. For instance, are we the last people in America to know that rappers Cardi B and Offset named their baby Kulture Kiari Cephus (the poor kid)? Does everyone but us know what “gochujang is the new sriracha” means? Will we all soon own online size-measuring shopping suits? It always takes us a while to catch up with what’s trending. But to recombobulate emotionally, Rich and I rely on three simple rituals.
#1. Walk the neighborhood.
As soon as we arrive in San Anselmo, we take a long stroll around the neighborhood to see what stores have opened and closed, make sure our favorite coffee house is still there, and say hi to the statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones donated (along with an entire park) by our town’s most famous resident, filmmaker George Lucas.
#2. Indulge in a favorite meal.
Seville has enjoyed a foodie revolution in recent years, but it still doesn’t have a decent taqueria, so we always make a beeline to our favorite Mexican eatery. Their hearty burritos have become our definition of heaven and the true taste of America.
#3. Explore someplace new nearby.
One of the joys of travel is the way it encourages an open mind and sense of adventure — not only on the road, but when we’re back in familiar territory. Every time I return to my home state, I discover something wonderfully quirky: goofy roadside attractions, the former egg capital of the world, a haunted motel. According to online accounts (obviously a totally reliable source) California is positively brimming with ghosts, yet incredibly, I’ve never had a single sighting. But there’s always hope. Which brings me to our upcoming road trip.
Our whistle-stop tour of Northern California’s dive bars and diners
Being train buffs, Rich and I have decided to use Northern California’s new railway as a hop-on-hop-off vehicle to check out various diners in towns along the route, ending our journey in Santa Rosa, exploring the city's dive bars. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that the most convenient place to stay overnight, an old hotel directly across from Santa Rosa’s railway station, is rated #6 on CA’s Most Haunted Hotels list. Yes, of course we’ve booked a room there. Will we see the ghost child who (allegedly) rides up and down in the hotel’s elevator around midnight? Tune in next week to find out.
And by the way, yes! It’s great to be back.
Do you have any tips or tricks for recombobulating after a long trip? Let me know in the comments below!
I love my native California, but sometimes it’s hard not to view it as a caricature of itself. Take the latest supermarket offering: hemp milk. Yes, it’s actually made from cannabis plants, but – as the manufacturers hasten to assure us – it contains only trace amounts of THC, the element that gets you high when you smoke the leaves. It’s rich in all sorts of nutrients, but I suspect a lot of old hippies are buying hemp milk more for the nostalgia value than the omega-3 fatty acids. They may not smoke pot any more, but they can get a kick from pouring it over their granola.
Rich and I were the only people who seemed gobsmacked by the presence of a cannabis-based beverage on the supermarket’s shelves. And I reflected, not for the first time, that while one of the benefits of returning from a trip is seeing familiar places with fresh eyes, the downside is that you can have a disorienting sense of being out of step with those around you. Worse, you can feel out of step with yourself. If being on the road leaves you discombobulated, don't worry, you can take these simple steps to start getting recombobulated.
1. Unpack your bags – physically and mentally. Seeing your clothes and gear come out of your suitcase and get distributed around a house is a powerful signal to your psyche that you’re here to stay awhile. I learned this from my dog; when we traveled and left her with friends, the moment Pie saw her possessions (blanket, bowl, chew toy) in a new place, she settled right down.
2. Go food shopping. Nothing is quite as grounding as purchasing milk, cereal, and bananas. Buy things you’ve missed during your travels. (Granola cookies and hemp milk, anyone?)
3. Take a walk. Strolling past well-known places really helps you reconnect. Arriving in San Anselmo, Rich and I visit our favorite coffee house, then head to the town’s new park, where I greet the statues of Indiana Jones and Yoda while Rich relaxes to the soothing sounds of the fountain.
4. Read the local newspaper. It’s the little stories that remind me why I love this quirky place. There was the one about a man reporting his wife’s jewelry being stolen – years after it had gone missing; suspicious loitering that turned out to be firefighters answering a call; and a woman insisting that her house was sweltering because a neighbor was filling it with hot air (it was July). Yes, that’s my town!
5. Visit the public library and the local bookstore. I love my Kindle, but to me, few sights say “home sweet home” like a stack of books on my bedside table.
6. Get back into your routine. As soon as I’m back, I start writing every morning and doing yoga three times a week. Rich is currently taking ukulele lessons; I think he’s planning to spearhead a trend in flamenco ukulele.
7. Get together with friends and family. A few hours of gossip about the latest dramas will make you feel as if you never left at all.
If you’re suffering from “soul delay,” as speculative fiction writer William Gibson calls it, these simple acts can help your soul (and your psyche, mind, and heart) catch up with your physical body’s new location. They’re gentle, powerful reminders that you have arrived in a place where you belong, and it's time to hang up your hat, kick off your boots, and make yourself at home.
Do you have any special tricks that help with re-entry? I’d love to hear about them!
Many thanks to Robin Killoran, who wrote last week about the Milwaukee airport’s “Recombobulation Area” sign just past security, and to John Baxter for talking about author William Gibson, who coined the term “soul delay.” Your comments helped inspire and enliven this week's post.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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