I started a list several months ago of things I was missing while on the road and kept adding to it whenever things came to mind. As I get ready to finally touch down on American soil again after thirteen months, here are some of the things I miss the most:
1. Pizza. Being gluten-free means I can’t eat pizza in most of the world. While I found gluten-free thin crust pizza at a restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia, my lips have not touched the delicious mix of gooey cheese, tomato sauce and buttery crust in over a year now. I guarantee my first meal back in Chicago will be gluten-free stuffed pizza from Chicago Pizza & Pasta.
2. Watching American sports. I am a huge sports junkie and I miss meeting up with friends to watch March Madness, getting crazed over my fantasy football team and stressing over Hawkeye football. Watching my favorite teams at odd hours via slow internet streams just didn’t cut it.
3. Public transportation. In Chicago, we like to complain about the CTA a lot. After a year of flagging down crowded marshrutkas and missing my desired stop more than a few times because I couldn’t tell where to get off, I appreciate Chicago’s public transportation system more than ever. I can’t wait to get back to a city with route maps at each bus stop, mobile bus and train trackers and large buses equipped with digital signs showing upcoming stops.
4. Mexican food. I have tried tacos in Irkutsk, nachos in Odessa and enchiladas in Bishkek, but none even come close to “real” Mexican food – or at least not the American version of it.
5. Familiar clothing chains. Yes, you can buy clothes while traveling but it can be extremely difficult to find things that fit right, flatter and are of a style that you actually feel comfortable wearing. As the seasons changed and I needed to swap out my wardrobe, I wasted hours searching for new clothes – most of which I wouldn’t be caught dead in back home. Can you blame me that I got a little giddy at the sight of a GAP store when I got to Almaty?
6. Knowing where to find things. Again, yes, you can buy just about everything you need on the road. But finding those things can be a challenge. In most of the places I visited, daily essentials were spread out among many smaller stores and it took me a while to figure out where to go for what I needed. I searched for a mini-sewing kit (or at least a needle and thread) for weeks in St Petersburg with no success. I stopped at about five different places in Odessa before finally finding band aids and when I desperately needed an umbrella in Yerevan, it took me several tries to find one.
7. Not paying to use the toilet. I think this one is self-explanatory.
8. Skim milk. I grew up drinking skim milk and really don’t like the taste of whole milk at all, but that was often all that was available.
9. Food variety. If I ever eat another tomato or cucumber, it will be too soon. Seriously, that seemed to be the hallmark of almost every single meal I ate over the last year. I reached points in both Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, when I was starving yet I could not bring myself to touch the tomatoes sitting right in front of me. They disgusted me. I couldn’t do it. And while I initially loved plov, shashlik and doner kebab, eating one or the other almost every single day for three months in Central Asia got pretty old.
10. Free, non-carbonated water in restaurants. Again, this should be self-explanatory. Plenty of places offered free bread, but free water? Nope.
11. Fitted sheets. These do not seem to exist in the former Soviet Union and I just don’t get why not. Every homestay, hostel, guesthouse and hotel I stayed at used a flat sheet directly on top of the mattress. All it took was a few turns in my sleep and the sheet came completely off the bed.
12. Cold drinks. Sure, it is fairly typical in Europe for beverages to be served without ice, but people in several of the countries I visited seem opposed to the idea of cold beverages altogether. Arriving in Azerbaijan on a day topping 100 degrees, my host offered me hot tea. When I finished a six hour hike in Tajikistan, my host actually argued with me over the fact that I wanted to drink cold water – she insisted hot tea was better. I personally have never been a tea or coffee drinker and the idea of accompanying every meal with one of the two is one I never want to entertain again.
13. Speaking English. Having to speak a foreign language almost every time I left the house for 13 months got exhausting – it was a lot of work for my brain. At times, I went weeks without even conversing with someone in English. I can’t wait to get home and not have to think about what language I am speaking.
14. Street signs and building numbers. 90% of the places I visited seriously lacked noticeable street signs and building numbers, making it even harder than it already was to find my way around. One day in Samarkand I spent about 4 hours of the day wandering around completely lost and saw only 3 street signs the entire time. Even worse? The names on the signs didn’t match those on my map!
15. Dryers. And for that matter, washing machines as well. You can only wash your clothes by hand so many times before you realize they are never really going to be clean again.
16. Respect for people’s time. At home, when someone says “let’s meet at 9:00,” they generally mean “let’s meet at 9:00.” If they are running late, they will call or text you to let you know. We have a basic appreciation for people’s time and not wasting it. Such was not the case while I was traveling. Nothing seemed to start on time and someone saying they would meet you at 9:00 meant hopefully they would be there by 9:30 – likely with no contact whatsoever to indicate they may be late. When we were planning my going away party in Yerevan, when I said let’s meet at 9:30, everyone laughed and said “American time or Armenian time?” Indeed, most people didn’t arrive until closer to 10:30. I think this just reflects a more laidback attitude, but as someone who hates waiting around, I’ll take the American way every day.
17. American men. I know many women fawn over foreign men, but the men in the former Soviet Union did not appeal to me at all. While they may celebrate women on International Women’s Day, every other day of the year, most came across to me as controlling, condescending and overprotective – they just walked around with this machismo attitude that was such a turn off! Give me a good old American guy who can see a woman as his equal and appreciate her independence. And who wears baseball hats and khakis rather than skinny jeans, Adidas sweats rolled up to the knee or black leather jackets that are slightly too small.
And then there are a couple things about home that I really don’t miss at all – and am not really looking forward to when I return:
1. Cell phone contracts. I had the cheapest plan possible with T-Mobile when I was in the US at around $70 a month, which still provided me with far more minutes and text messages than I ever used. While traveling, I simply picked up a new SIM card in any country where I planned to stay for more than a week or so. They cost as little as $2.00, including some existing credit, and could easily be reloaded at any one of a plethora of “payboxes” around town. I really, really wish the US could get on board with this.
2. Prices. I am going to have major sticker shock when I return to a world where a bottle of Diet Coke is $1.89 and not just 50 cents. And where $3.00 won’t get me a salad at a fast-food joint, let alone an entire lunch. And where $5.00 won’t get me home from downtown Chicago in a taxi, much less across the whole country in a minibus.