My purse pocket was the place I’d scavenge to make the bus fare. Now, finding shiny two-ruble pieces and old bus tickets in every crevice, I’m reduced to a whimper. Suddenly nothing is garbage anymore and every photo is precious regardless of its quality. Suddenly it feels like I’ve been in the US for twenty years, not three days, and Russia is nothing but a distant memory stored away in the farthest corners of my prefrontal cortex.
Accurately describing the feelings, the anxieties, the general haziness of heart and mind when arriving Home from a long trip is a feat beyond my capacities. But if you don’t know the heart-wrenching despair you may experience when you step on that place heading home to comfort, family, and familiarity, I’m so sorry.
My family is angry with me because I’m a bit mopey and a lot hopelessly nostalgic and I don’t feel like decorating the house for Christmas and I just feel like watching Judge Judy clips on Youtube. My family feels like I feel their company is inadequate, and I feel like I can’t convince them that that’s not the case. I don’t know what the case is, just that I used to be in Russia and now I’m not anymore. I’m in a quaint commuter town in New Jersey where the streets are clean, the lawns are kept, neighbors say hello, and the pace of life is sluggish at best. It’s a small community where the vast majority of denizens have decided not only to be law-abiding but also polite. How strange.
So I may officially be in New Jersey, but I’m new here. I’m foreign. I’ve long abandoned the mindset required to live happily in charming Suburbia. My mind is in the dirt-ridden streets of Russia. My mind has been left behind in a dusty century-old tenement of St. Petersburg, one where Dostoevsky himself may have lingered in candlelight, a decaying building with cracked walls and webbed chandeliers and double-bolted doors and a view perfectly suited to observe drunken street fights from a comfortable distance (the alcohol always wins). So my mind has decidedly been left in Russia, just like my mishandled luggage had been left in Heathrow. Either way, the baggage hasn’t caught up with me.
Russia is all I want to talk about and it’s the only thing I don’t want to talk about. How badly I want to talk about Russia and tell my stories – less than that – I want to mouth them out loud and hear them myself, but the actual story telling never comes to fruition for the most absurd reasons:
I fear I’ll bore people, force words on them that they’re not interested in. I understand. I’m not the center of the universe. But damn, that one story is so good! Do you want to hear it? No. I can’t tell it well enough. I’ll tell you I’ll tell it later even though I never will. You’re relieved.
If I do tell you, you’ll act entertained, but then I’ll get mad because there’s no way you could possibly know what I’m talking about. You’ll get frustrated because these stories are largely on a “had to be there” basis. Then I’ll pick up on your social cues and stop.
The only listeners I need to make this a worthwhile endeavor would be my partners-in-crime, the people who gave me those stories in the first place. I imagine us sitting at our regular bar, shooting the shit, drinking sub-par but cheap beer, reminiscing and laughing together in complete understanding. But alas, those people are nowhere near me, nor I them.
You see where the problems come in.
I’d give anything to get back to that shitty bar and see my friends there. Because that’s the true evil of Reverse Culture Shock: you mourn, you beg, you barter to go back, but I know that if I got my wish, if I magically found myself on Nevsky Prospect, I’d be just as out of place as I am here. Because I’d still be without the people who made the memories, people who are integral to the story. Because in the end, you’re not just at odds with dissimilar cultures, you’re struggling to accept that what you’re actually pining for is a time, a place, a company, a moment, a breeze. The Shock is just intense nostalgia; once the moment is gone and the trip is over, you’re temporarily discontent with every coordinate on the grid. What an existence.
Culture shock, psychological adjustment to foreign cultures, has always been a non-issue for me. I’ve never experienced it. Rather, it’s never been so pervasive or persistent to actually be memorable. I’ve always been most comfortable in completely foreign places. Places with language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, fresh new ways to fuck up, uncharted ground to discover, new countries and cities to explore physically and intellectually. Because that’s when I’m at my best. When I travel, I grow exponentially. I can clearly see myself becoming a better mind and person. Yesterday I wasn’t as assimilated as today; now I know how to order that or say this; I understand why these people do that, and so on. The more places I see, the more people I meet, the smarter I get. The more I realize how little I know. The more I’m okay with that, all the while never abandoning the pursuit of knowledge and perspective. It’s a puzzle, a test, an adventure. Movement versus stagnation. This has become the defining dichotomy of my life, a traveler’s life, a perpetual clash that I may very well never see an answer to. A life of flying high and crashing hard. Of inner peace and inner turmoil. Maybe these extremes will lessen with time, maybe I’ll find a balance. But until then, it’ll be hard. Because Jeremy Clarkson had it right: “Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”