The Prodigal Cheesehead

Alternate title: American Woman

 

Often, people will say that the point of travelling is to learn how similar the world is – from Bangalore to Berlin to Bumblefuck, Wisconsin. It’s true, people all over the world typically have the same desires and struggles, and getting outside of one’s own backyard is essential to really accepting and understanding the world in which we live. However, past a certain point of globetrotting I came to a profound appreciation of America’s differences and even developed a preference for my own backyard.

 

This was never the case in my early youth. As long as I can remember, I dreamed of Spain where my grandparents had lived. I dreamed of the Philippines and the jungle, of Korea, of Turkey – the places my family had lived in the military. My grandmother collected souvenir spoons and I would marvel at the display, asking her if she really had visited every state stamped or painted onto the spoon. It was impossible to believe that one person could see so many places but still be my grandma from Chicago! This became my dream.

 

Early on I learned foreign languages. As childhood grew into the painful teenage years and young adulthood, I saw these languages as my ticket to another world. I always imagined life would be fundamentally different somewhere else, even if it wasn’t necessarily better. I would learn to drink coffee and eat strange French food, my love of romantic and medieval literature a buoy in the cultural tempest. I could travel to South America, my missionary’s accent overshadowed by my ability to adapt to new vocabularies and syntax. Gone would be the anguish of not having a family, since I would be thousands of miles away instead of in the same time zone, same state, even the same house. Always, I dreamed.

 

So I traveled. Cross country trips in the US are like visiting a foreign country – sometimes you find you can barely understand locals in Appalachia. It’s not the same as the Deep South, it’s not the same as anywhere. Even Minnesota and Illinois can be starkly different from central Wisconsin. As I made my first forays to France and Canada I reveled in the contrast to home. Being able to thrive (not just survive) in a language other than my mother tongue was thrilling! We discussed literature – from my favorite medieval topics to the great American writers of the 20th century. We all had something in common, even the Hungarian girl whose boyfriend had to translate for her. It felt wild.

 

I fell into the job I have now and travel came. I can be sent abroad for weeks at a time, traipsing through enough European countries to give my bank a heart attack. I love breakfast in Milan, Germany, Portugal; my favorite Thai food is in Sweden. People watching is the best in Amsterdam and Portugal because they’ve got such stunning population diversity. Despite these unique cultural differences the people I worked with all wanted the same things – time off to travel and healthy families; they all had the same hobbies like sports, fashion, reading, and photography; they all voiced the same frustrations with their government about corruption, the economy, fears of pollution and under-funding of public services. Sure, America is very different from Europe when we talk about social policy, but people everywhere want the same basic things.

 

Maybe it’s no surprise the epiphany came when I landed in JFK after spending two weeks in 5 different countries. I found myself ecstatic to land in a place where I had the right currency, inherently understood the local customs, and spoke the language with native fluency and had no worries about my idiomatic proficiency. Normally language barriers don’t phase me – even in Germany I spoke enough to get by in the shops and could understand printed directions well enough. I’ve been speaking French and Spanish since I was a young girl so it’s no sweat to spend my day “getting by”. Even in Lisbon I started to learn the language and now do fine in Portuguese. I get reimbursed for currency exchange fees and EVERYONE takes Visa. I have no fear about potentially embarrassing myself and learning new customs, so what’s the deal?

 

Sometimes it’s all just too much. I have no problem being sent abroad for weeks or months and adapting to new cultures, but all told I really appreciate being home. Charles Darwin said it’s not the most intelligent creatures that survive, but the ones most able to adapt, and I truly have taken that to heart. Even though the work is useful and necessary, it still takes a toll. I like instinctively knowing how to drive, order food, and talk to other people when I’m home in the US. I like knowing what’s popular and relevant, and I like having an idea of what the people around me are experiencing. I’ve been far too empathetic since I was a kid, and either I would be uncomfortable when others were or I would be yearning to learn new ways of living and experiencing the world. Maybe it’s a great thing when you’re a kid, since it drove me to learn and experience new things with little fear and a great deal of excitement. Now, I think I might not have the energy for it anymore.

 

So, yes, the world is a wonderful place full of new experiences and people who often share the same hopes and fears that we do. Get out and experience something different for a while – let it change you and broaden your perspective. Let me know if you don’t grow tired of it after some time and yearn to be home despite all the delicious breakfasts, cool clothes, and fun times you can have in these exotic places.

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Categories: getting old, reflection, travel, Workaholic | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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