“Wow. You’ve been a lot of places.” This waitress in Healdsburg, CA is flipping through my passport, seemingly unaware that every time she touches another page and opens her mouth I come one step closer to kind of wanting to punch her in the face.
“Tanzania? Bolivia? That’s a big visa from Kenya, huh?”
I smile politely and ask her, again, if she could possibly deliver on that order of zinfandel I just put in. Oh right. She smiles and hands my passport back to me before day-dreamily walking back towards the bar, totally unaware that I am sending her stabbing eye jab looks at the back of her head the whole while.
This scenario played itself out twice that night, again at another bar with another server who felt entitled, when I handed her my passport as identification, to flip through the pages and discuss the contents of the last 9 years of my life while I sat on the other side of the bar listening to my internal commentary switch come dangerously close to “f**k it” and “f**k you.”
I suppose bar patrons, particularly Americans living and drinking in America, don’t often use passports as the common denominator of identification. But I don’t really have much of a choice at the moment. My Massachusetts-issued driver’s license ended up on the losing end of a battle between me and a Malawian cop who for various reasons (ranging from me having an expired “certificate of fitness” on my car at the time to a streak of obstinance that prevented me from bribing him purely out of my own stubborn principle) resulted in my license being impounded sometime in July, effectively vanishing into the abyss of the Malawian police system never to be heard from again. Hence, the passport as my principle form of I.D. – As it turns out, it also now functions as a passport into my life when placed into the hands of complete strangers. Zikomo. You are certainly NOT most welcome.
Reverse culture shock this time around is creeping up on me in ways I didn’t anticipate. Some things are the same, like the fact that my first trip to the local supermarket nearly gave me a heart attack. (Are you aware of how many kinds of blue cheese there are? Or the fact that a pint of sour cream is only $1.69?! It’s criminal — CRIMINAL. Someone needs to stop the insanity). But the emotional ebb and flow of being back in California this time around is hitting me up side the head a bit differently, I suspect mostly because I am having to dually reconcile that this time it isn’t a vacation. This time, I’m not going back to Malawi.
I was standing in line at Peet’s Coffee the other day, waiting patiently to order some sort of ridiculously fancy and overpriced cup of coffee/espresso/tea/whatever when I had a little mini “WTF America” moment of unpleasant zen. The couple behind me were talking about repainting their house. The two women in front of me were discussing the sale going on at the local boutique where they were apparently headed to next. The entire place was packed with people, chattering, jabbering, gibbering people. When the cashier at the front said “hello” to me he looked genuinely surprised when I answered back, “Hi. How are you?” (Because greeting people in America is apparently akin to holding them up at gunpoint and demanding the soul of their first-born child). At any rate, it was your typical yuppie coffee shop scene, and all I could think about the whole time was, “jesus, this is utterly ridiculous cacophony…and there is a panic attack lurking riiiiight around the corner as a result.”
It’s only been a little over a week since I left but I miss the sense of living life in my own personal observation bubble. When you live abroad and don’t speak the language, the daily sound of life is almost like friendly white noise. It’s like a chipper background tune in a foreign tongue that buzzes around your head in an odd, yet soothing, urban symphony that you don’t realize exists until it’s no longer there. Or you’re no longer there. Instead, you’re in a new place where you suddenly understand EVERYTHING being said and demonstrated by nearly everyone around you almost all the time. I find this incredibly unnerving and kind of intrusive. Quite frankly, I’m having a really difficult time concentrating on the internal when everything external is just so incredibly chaotic, rapid, and irritatingly “loud” both in an audible and lurid sort of way.
And as “American” as this place so obviously is, so much of it sends me right back to thinking about people or places, even specific moments in Malawi. My friend J out there always says that even on the worst days of work, in the afternoons where you feel totally depleted as if the inanity of Malawi has actually, finally, crushed you, there is always this moment at the end of the day as the sun is setting where you catch a glimpse of something bigger. When you can suddenly understand the reasons you’re there and why we all do the things we do. The sun dips low on the horizon. The sky turns orange…then pink…and ends in a sea sky full of deep blood-orange red. You are conscious of your heart as all this is happening, and the sense that it is expanding, bursting, and breaking all at the same time. Everyone around you could be talking total bulls**t but that one moment in the day is clear and nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world could bring you more peace and clarity than the site of that sky and that sun setting in the distance.
I’m having trouble letting go of those sunsets out east and embracing the ones out west. There’s too much background noise here. Too many people, too many cars, too many kinds of blue cheese. I underestimated the learning curve getting back into the groove of American society. It’s not bad, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard and I have moments where I feel torn and tired, and a bit compelled to hibernate from the world and my friends and LIFE for a little while I retune my internal radio settings. None of it is unexpected but that doesn’t seem to lessen the fact that it kind of sucks.
Which is where the passport situation comes in. I am putting barricades up against the noise. I’m plugging my ears to the dissonance. I’m fighting NOT to have panic attacks at the supermarket and do normal things like have a nice glass of wine with friends I’ve known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a year. And yeah, I know you’re curious about all those pages and all those stamps, and god knows you probably don’t come across them all that often, but those 22 pages of my very old American passport are a little summary of my life, one that I don’t have an obligation to share with you and one I am clinging to while the discord of my new life in America knocks on my door as asks to be let in.
So, madam bartender, if I may? Please just serve me up that glass of vino. Go back to your banter with the other patrons. Comment on the weather. Wipe up your bar. Do whatever is you need to do while I take a second to myself here. I need a moment with this part of the sky, with these new 7 p.m. pinks, oranges, reds, and blues. Because I’m looking for that heartbreaking moment on the horizon where it all makes sense…so far, it still feels a world away.