I rub my eyes, and try to refocus but everything still seems blurry and unfamiliar. I feel like I’m removed from the scene in front of me observing as if it’s a television sitcom. I just got off an 11 hour flight from Buenos Aires and I’m still in that long haul flight fog. I look around the crowded train of commuters and my senses are on high alert. I’m agitated and anxious – like the border collie sheep herder dogs I just left in Patagonia when they are around a flock and observing their every move.
I’m on the train, heading from Newark into NYC and I’m following the commuter’s every move around me – observing, thinking, judging. Signs are everywhere. Exit signs, what you do in case of emergency, special needs seating signs, legal signs stating the train workers rights, rules about who you must listen to, and what numbers to call in case you see something suspicious. Signs seem to take up every inch of train wall space. I wonder if the commuters even notice the signs. Probably not. When you are ‘in’ it you never see it.
The commuters around me bundle up in their winter coats and have headphones in their ears blocking out all of the noise around them. But I can’t block out the noise because the first day I arrive back in the US after being gone for months I’m bombarded by my own culture. And the crazy thing it’s that I love this feeling. It’s like being on ecstasy where your senses are all heightened and all you want to do is watch, smell, feel, and hear.
I arrive in Penn station and fixate on all of the eating places. So many places to choose from. Each one with bright lights and big colorful signs trying to outdo each other and grab the attention of the desensitized commuters. The commuters keep walking as if they are on autopilot – they have a routine to follow. But right now I have no routine so the signs grab my attention and for a moment I feel like I’m in Vegas being assaulted with glitz. Somehow I make it to the subway without gambling my money away on a Krispie Kreme and coffee – but don’t think I’m not tempted.
I hear everything. It started as soon as I got off the plane as if someone just turned up the volume in my brain. In fact I feel like I have super human hearing able to pick up and understand conversations far away from where I am sitting on the subway. Maybe I am superwoman – or maybe I just desperately need sleep. I hear them because for the first time in 2 1/2 months I understand them. My white noise of Spanish is gone. I’m in the world of English again – amazed at the personal things that people discuss in public.
But I myself am not ready to talk. I’m still in observation mode voraciously reading every English sign around me just because I can. When I have to exchange niceties with the commuters the words “si” and “gracious” come out instinctively. Argentina soaked into me more than I thought.
I wonder if anyone in this subway car has been to Chile or Argentina. I think about the mountains that I saw yesterday. Or was it today? It is at this moment I am struck by the strangeness of my life – my nomadic life. There are moments I think I miss routine and stability and commuting, but when confronted with it back on the NYC subway I realize that indeed I don’t.
I exit the subway car and things are becoming clearer, the signs are fading from my vision, the noise is dying down a bit, and the concept of familiar strikes me. The joyous re-entry high is disappearing – I can feel it slip away as I walk up the stairs out of the subway in Washington Heights. I wonder how I can get another fix. But I know that it’s not that easy – it means getting on another plane and leaving for months again. It’s early in NYC, but in my jetlag world it’s mid morning and my brain is now engaging again. I walk up the street dodging people who are in the middle of their routine. And then I see it – another sign.
But this one is in Spanish and it sends my mind spinning down a rabbit hole…where am I again?
Have you ever been away from your home culture for months? Do you like the ‘high’ of re-entry?