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!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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