I had to come home to remember how to feel out of place.
I’m at home in the souk of El Jadida, talking to bouncers in Riga, and arriving in Yangon without a clue. I was comfortable on the streets of a city 99% said is too dangerous to visit, and felt harmony in the sandpaper air of a frozen Neptune landscape.
But in my home town, among the crowd I hope to join (travel writers), I sweat and stammer, useless and misaligned. I am more wallflower, wallpaper, than I ever was in adolescence, and I cling to ego masturbation, remembering South African townships, gazing over the Syrian Plain, and Guatemalan border towns where drugs outweighed human meat and that’s all you are.
Pretty faces I cannot talk to drift around. What would I say? Did I ever tell you about wandering Hong Kong until I was sure I’d escaped the English language, then going for food, my consternation at the waiter’s rudimentary vocabulary soothed since it allowed him to tell me I could have pig heart instead of chicken?
Why does this place, this event, disassemble me so efficiently? Is it just that the room is too small and too hot, no seats and no oxygen, leaving me standing/sweating by the door? Or that a single half-glass of wine costs ten frickin dollars? More likely, it’s because these gods of an intimidating industry, conquerors of a world that hasn’t even stamped my passport yet, are just so damn….NICE! I want them to be pricks, so much easier to scorn, but they seem so damn welcoming. President, Prime Minister, and King, and I’d gleefully go to lunch with any of them. I should be able to talk to them. I would tell them they should move to a larger space. With windows.
Last time, leaving this interpersonal constipation made me dance, but tonight I’m astounded that the glass walls aren’t shattering behind me as I walk through Versailles, where bvlgari, Jimmy Choo, and other names I know from stories not written for my demographic, sell shit made in the same damn sweatshops for $(I have no idea) instead of the relatively honest $10 at Ross.
Models three times a human’s height and half the width speak with anorexic irony as they say “let them eat cake” down to the mentally disturbed man with a semi-circle spine pushing a shopping cart full of garbage.
But they don’t eat cake, it’s a chicken bone I step over in the BART hallway where the homeless sleep on their faces while we walk past in clean laundry.
I transfer trains in West Oakland, where freeway overpasses allow the affluent to pass right over the graffiti’d streets paved with broken glass and angry fear, where the only constellations are on their way to San Francisco International Airport.
I make the mistake of trying to talk to strangers as I get on my next train. I can’t help it. “Welcome to West Oakland” slips out of my mouth as I wait for disembarking passengers to alight; I’m such a nice young man. I’m met only by stony unresponsiveness, most people pretending I never spoke, while those too close for that act look prepared to fight.
I’m 20% inclined to cooperate with that, right now. I’ve become curious what it would feel like with flesh instead of the heavy bag.
“Oh, right, Americans don’t talk to each other” I mumble as I board. Great, now I AM the crazy guy. I manage not to add “I forgot, I have to leave the damn country if I want to meet anyone.”
What’s the best medicine for a grumpus? That’s right: a burrito. I had carnitas yesterday (just kidding, it was today at lunch, I’m being coy) so I opt for pollo asado, black beans (as if there’s any other valid option) and take it home to the house I am happy to live in, with the roommate I like, the dogs I adore, and a computer to hammer out a cathartic blog. I try not to swear, since my mother and her priest read this. Hi Mom. Hi Father Jeff.
Consoled by rice and beans, soothed by sour cream and avocado, I can take stock. Tonight wasn’t so bad. I went for a walk, nodded to some people I know, and the forecast looks promising for a lunch I’d enjoy, with one of the monarchs of the enticing realm of writers.
I still might feel more at home on the alleys, calles, mitaani, sadaka, (and other words for “street” that I’d have to google first) of foreign countries, but I’m pretty happy on my little Avenue tonight, overly grandiose as that title is.
PS. I know, Neptune’s surface is gas, but Mars is almost a cliché now, and Iceland ain’t red.
PPS. The pig heart was good. The oysters were the gross part of that bowl of slimy congee.
PPPS. “Bvlgari”? Whoever decided to spell it that way gets a prominent place in line for the guillotine.
PPPPS. No offense to those of you who prefer pinto beans. Luckily, there’s room enough in the world for all of us, even those of you with poor taste in beans.
I’ve got more pretty pictures of Iceland for next time.
I suppose I understand being less comfortable at home than while traveling. I suppose it’s kind of a feeling that the people in your home town are, in principle, people you’ll see again and it’s more embarrassing to have people you know see you do something odd than it is to have strangers see it. That nobody you know would actually see you talking on the subway somehow doesn’t quite function, though.
I think the uncomfortableness came more from the particular crowd, my self-doubt and the nerves of a career change. And foreign v domestic socialization…is interesting. “First World” (I loathe that term) nations seem to foster interpersonal separation, perhaps because we think we don’t need each other, that we are our own self-sufficient worlds, or perhaps more material wealth is not the blessing we assume it is.
Also, when people know you are traveling, they are more likely to approach you, perhaps as good hospitality (which is also more important in some cultures than ours, such as the Middle East), perhaps you’re more interesting, perhaps they are familiar with the vulnerability and openness of a traveler, and perhaps I am more likely to engender an outgoing response while in the mindset of the foreigner. Plus there’s a good chance I judge my own country more harshly than I do others, especially when a bit grumpy. 😉
Either way, thanks for reading!
Kudos for going – you’re braver than me. It may be that you’ll always feel a bit on the fringe but without a doubt the lunch will be a more natural forum where you can be yourself. That thing between the chopsticks – heart? – looks disgusting… but then I’m a food wuss.
I’m glad somebody thought it was gross! It was surprisingly tender though, and only a little gamey… 😉
I think you’re right, a smaller group is definitely a more comfortable setting for me, especially when there’s somewhere for me to sit!
To echo what Hayley said, I too think that you’re brave. You offer a unique perspective on the world that most of us in the USA probably don’t get to experience. So thank you for sharing your observations with us and reminding us that what we experience here in “‘Merica!” isn’t necessarily “normal” for everyone.
That being said, I hope it was one epic burrito, and I hope that since you posted, you got to reconnect with some folks who care about you so that your homecoming felt a little more welcoming. 🙂
I can’t claim to understand or speak for America (or myself, some days) but I do find it an interesting subject to compare nations/cultures/”scenes”. I understand that travel is not for everyone and that many people are perfectly happy without leaving the US, but our (politicians’ pandering) rhetoric about “best country in the world” is dangerous, misleading, and a disservice to both our development and self-awareness.
Wow, bit of a rant there, sorry. 🙂
The burrito was indeed a delicious one, though earlier that day I found perhaps my favorite burrito yet. (If you live anywhere near Oakland, I recommend Tacos Sinaloa, the food trucks down by International Blvd and 22nd…)
Yeah, but politicians do that everywhere. I don’t know if there are any votes in it, but they probably reckon it’s a better option than “average sort of country, decent at some stuff, more to work on”.
When I came back to the UK after 7 months in Nepal, I felt a weird culture shock that completely took me by surprise. I’d tried to prepare myself mentally before I went and spent quite a lot of time whilst I was there feeling very homesick – so the idea that “home” wasn’t something I could just step back into like a pair of old slippers just didn’t occur to me at all.
Anyway, those kind of gatherings are always difficult. If you work out how to relax at one of them, please share the secret.
And did I mention? I love your post titles.