Archive for April, 2010

Quit Messin’ With Me, Texas: Ending the Odyssey, For Now

Dallas, Texas/Ann Arbor, Michigan

Fall Colors, Michigan

On April 12, my grandmother turned ninety-five. I have no scientific evidence to corroborate this theory, but I suspect her longevity is positively correlated to the distance she has traveled.  She has visited all seven continents. She was the one who took me to Greece when I was thirteen.  Granted, I spent most of the cruise through the Greek Isles plotting to throw her overboard; but my grandmother remains a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my globetrotting.

She is one of the most worldly, independent, and intelligent women I know; yet she insists on living in Dallas.  A few weeks ago, my liberal, Yankee family descended upon my grandmother’s retirement home in Texas to celebrate the momentous occasion with an ice cream social.  On our first day in Dallas, which also happened to be my first day back in the United States in over a year and a half, we went for lunch at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant.

As soon as we stepped inside, we were enveloped in a din as thick as the hot, humid Texan air.  Cacti and lizards decorated the walls; a black and white, life-size, cardboard replica of the owners stood above the fireplace.  Christmas lights twinkled while frenzied waiters served refills of salsa from oversized syrup jars.  The stimuli so deadened my senses that I couldn’t read the menu, let alone order or eat anything.  While my family ate chips and salsas, I had a giant helping of culture shock.

Of course, Michigan is quite different from Texas, and I assumed I would feel more at ease in Ann Arbor.  However, all alone in the house, I am shocked by the silence.  Birds chirping and the low rumble of a train in the distance are the only noises I hear.  Occasionally, I clear my throat to confirm that I have not lost my hearing.

Like aspic, everything appears suspended in a transparent gelatin.  The only thing that moves, other than me, is the sun.  I drift from room to room, staring at objects as if they were artifacts in an American Suburbia Museum.  I wonder if, when no one is home, the household objects come to life, make themselves a sandwich and have a smoke on the patio.  Maybe that’s why I find them in such ungainly positions – they froze mid-movement to avoid being caught.  They’re probably all waiting for me to leave.

When the phone rings, I am startled, as if the curator caught me mishandling a priceless relic or the homeowners walked in on me rifling through their medicine cabinet.  I hear a woman’s voice, but I can’t discern where it’s coming from or what it’s saying.  Fearing for my sanity, I run upstairs and search for flights to Malaysia.

I gave up the idea of moving abroad again, but not the idea of backpacking long-term.  I could travel between October and May, escaping the winter and returning in time for my brother’s wedding.  Perfect, right?  Except for one nagging question: then what?  In all likelihood, I would come back from traveling to and with absolutely nothing, other than a stack of notebooks full of anecdotes, and no one to publish or read them.

When I look at an atlas, I feel like a contestant on Temptation Island.  I want to be loyal to my literary aspirations, but it’s hard with all those countries trying to seduce me. At this point, going abroad seems more like a diversion than a step in the right direction. That is why I’ve decided to return to the States, work on my portfolio, and apply to MFA programs.  Unfortunately, this means renouncing one of the most valuable things to me: my identity as an expat.

I don’t know who I am without my passport.  Now that I am just another American living in America, I am nobody special. Maybe I wasn’t anything special in Argentina or New Zealand, but in those places I belonged to something – the expat community.  Fellow travelers are my true countrymen; can I achieve that same sense of belonging at home? Until I do, my mind and spirit will continue to roam the globe.  With all my strength, I am resisting the urge to chase after them, because staying here is for the best.

Does this mean the odyssey is over? Not entirely.  I’m not under house arrest or anything, and if I do become a student, I plan on writing lots of essays about “what I did on my summer vacation.” But effectively, the answer is yes.  I’m back in the States indefinitely.

So, old friends, great opportunities and cute boys, please take note – I have a cell phone and a permanent address and expect to hear from you all very soon.  Oh, and that voice I heard?  It wasn’t coming from inside my head.  It was the call waiting.

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*Itinerary Subject to Change: Temporarily Suspending a Trip Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.

A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.

In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings.  It’s spring, but the air is still cold.  The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.

Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.

And scene.

That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France.  Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip.  Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.

Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport.  If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.

Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head.  You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again.  This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality.  In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.

Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock.  Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

However, at some point imagination gave way to realism.  In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.

Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend.  Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires.  The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy.  Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.

On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills.  I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.

The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own.  It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.

As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent.  Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.

When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted.  I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.

Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.


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