In the movies, if a character has just come to some earth-shattering revelation, or had their world completely turned upside down, the camera will do a sweeping pan, spin all around them as they stand still. Around them, the physical surroundings stretch out thin and distorted, while the music intensifies or makes the sound of air being sucked out out of an over-sized hose.
You get the idea that something truly, incredibly messed up is happening: here comes the new and reality-gutting plot twist. Everything is about to get completely out of control.
In early June, our family crossed over a few thousand miles of land and ocean, making a few stops along the way. Significant altitude changes, four different U.S. ecosystems in two weeks, (plus a brief overnight stop in Japan–if that counts) is a lot to take in over the course of two weeks.
The kids just kind of roll with it; they experience some travel fatigue but seem to fit right in and quickly locate the fun (and the books) along the way. But this sort of thing has a much stronger effect on me. As a general rule, I don’t transition easily. It takes me a long time to adapt to a new place and if the stay is only a few days, the process is still underway by the time we pack up to move onward. As smoothly and gracefully–even elegantly!–as my husband sails through the identical changes, there I am alongside, panting and gasping for air and drenched in sweat and with my shoelaces undone and good grief, my shorts are actually literally on backwards.
It doesn’t seem fair.
Over the years, I have learned that anticipation and some advance prepping can help. There’s no guarantee, though. It’s a huge relief to be struck with only a mild case of ack-what-is-this-place!-itis. When that happens, I get all smiley and feel like doing a little dance. “Hey, look! I am here and pretty recently I was not, but it turns out that’s fine–Hip, hip hooray!”
It feels great when that happens. Other times, it is truly dramatic up there in that brain of mine. Big Screen level drama.
That scene in the movie, where I am standing still, say, in the middle of an intersection while all the other pedestrians are walking by oblivious to the ominous soundtrack growing louder and louder—that is what happens inside my head just as soon as I step outside an airport. Nevermind that this is my fortieth visit to this very airport or town; forget that I have been standing in this exact spot about a hundred times before. This time it is Different! This time Everything Is About to Change!
At least that’s what my brain tries to tell me. But usually there’s a whole lot less to panic about than I think there is, if I can slow down to get a good look around.
Someone once pointed out to me that with all cultural transitions, and the experiences of shock that accompany them, it is good to remember that at the end, you learn more about yourself than anything around or outside of you. I’d say that’s pretty much been true for me. There are few objective insights into places, or ethnic groups, or nation-states as they exist in the twenty-first century for me to share after years of travel and living abroad. It is too easy to devolve into generalizations that quickly become meaningless.
People, on the other hand, are deeply mysterious, but still knowable if you are willing to work at it. Dig into the one that is nearest and closest to you; try to become less and less of an outsider to yourself. Find the hidden stuff down in there that is worth discovering and, chances are, there will be something really worthwhile to share later, too.
Finally, since I seem to be in an advice-giving kind of mood, be sure to check that your shorts are on properly before you step outside, so that way even if the playing field isn’t completely fair, at least you’ll be off to a better start.