“Well, it looks like you’ve been gone for a while,” observed the officer sitting behind the passport control desk at the Atlanta airport.
“Yes, 13 months,” I said with a smile.
He looked at me inquisitively before asking a series of questions: Where did I go? Who “sponsored” me? What did I do? Why?
I answered, apparently to his satisfaction, and then he closed my passport, stamped my customs form and handed them back to me.
In the weeks leading up to my return, I prepared myself for the worst. I told myself (and everyone else) that it was going to be weird. That I would feel overwhelmed. That I wouldn’t be able to adjust to being back in the United States after 13 months of traveling overseas.
And then I came back.
And the tears that I cried on my way to the Riga airport to fly to Barcelona were nowhere to be found as I boarded the plane from Barcelona to Atlanta.
And the tears that I expected to fall when I landed in Atlanta never fell. Instead, I inhaled a few chicken tacos at Qdoba, bemoaned the lack of free wi-fi and appreciated the fact that I could charge my iPod without an adapter plug.
When I finally arrived at Chicago’s Midway airport, I simply smiled. I felt a sense of relief to be back on familiar ground – to be walking through an airport that I recognized and to be hopping onto a train into the city and knowing exactly where to go.
The next day, I headed to another familiar place: Target. I was grinning from ear to ear as I wandered through the store and realized that nothing had changed in 13 months – all of my favorite products were in the same place. I was able to refill my makeup supply and stock up on Neutrogena soap, Rice Chex, peanut butter M&Ms and Diet Coke.
It was awesome.
I walked around neighborhoods I used to live in and appreciated the little things. I marveled at the appearance of fresh food carts. I went to Chipotle (a few times!), chowed down on gluten free stuffed pizza at Chicago Pizza & Pasta and ordered Thai take out.
I met up with friends for a welcome home party at the same bar where I had my going away party and the biggest change was that the bar now serves sweet potato tater tots (yum!). I was nervous to see my friends again because I afraid I wouldn’t be able to relate to them anymore – or that they wouldn’t be able to relate to me. But the conversation flowed surprisingly well and it wasn’t long before I was feeling as if I had never left.
Surely the reverse culture shock would set in when I got back to Minnesota, right?
Nope, not really.
Sure, I had to sit and think for at least a minute or two before I drove a car for the first time, trying to remember which pedal was the break and which was the accelerator. But even rush hour traffic in the Twin Cities feels tame compared to the congestion of Moscow or the craziness of Tbilisi.
And yes, I had to stop myself from picking some random berries to eat as I walked through a park near my parents’ house – and then ask myself why I was stopping since I ate wild berries and other fruit fairly often in Central Asia – and then tell myself that somehow berries in Minnesota might be different so I still shouldn’t eat them. In the end, I kept walking.
I love being back in the fall. Sure, we have plenty of trees in Chicago, but the colors of the leaves around the Twin Cities are just gorgeous – as vibrant and rich as the foliage in St. Petersburg last year. I don’t know that I ever noticed the leaves changing colors in the past.
I love that my almost 4-year-old niece remembered me almost immediately and that my almost 2-year-old nephew has figured out who I am and calls me by name.
I love that almost all the restaurants here seem to have gluten free menus or offer gluten free options.
I love having a significantly larger wardrobe that I can store in a closet and dresser – that I have clothes that I actually like and that fit me and make me look and feel like a normal person. I love wearing heels and makeup and my favorite black trench coat. I love drying my hair with a hair dryer and styling it with a curling iron. I love having my choice of cute Coach purses to carry instead of the same old worn out shoulder bag.
Does that make me shallow or materialistic? Perhaps, but I don’t care.
I have been back in the United States for three weeks now and it feels incredibly normal.
Not weird, but comfortable.
Not overwhelming, but calming.
Not shocking, but refreshing.
Just like home should feel.