In pre-pandemic life, we would have arrived in London by now, and after a few hours, been on a plane to Biarritz, and from there, a bus to Saint-John-Pied-de-Port. When I googled the name to make sure I was spelling it right, this picture popped up, and a little part of me died.
This might be the time to mention that while I love traveling, I’m not always the best traveler. I get a little tense on planes—not physically sick, just… tense. My husband gets onto a plane and falls asleep before the safety instructions. I get on a plane and fall asleep never. The happy-go-luckyness of my fellow passengers who can shove headphones in their ears and drool on their travel pillows amazes me. At some point, my subconscious seems to have decided my role for me—if I’m not paying attention, this plane is going down.
It’s a lot of responsibility. In fact, it’s downright exhausting.
So I would be arriving in London a cranky mess, chasing down a bathroom post haste, alternating my guzzling between water and caffeine, nodding off while we waited for the next flight, then the bus. At some point I would see a zombified version of my non-travel self in a window: darker circles under the eyes, sallower skin, limper hair. I would begin to prioritize my needs in a sort of Traveler’s Hierarchy: shower, food, sleep or shower, sleep, food?
In 2002, Will and I went on a whirlwind month-long trip to Europe, partially funded by the last bit of cash on my student loan and my first semester of teaching. (We were young, and this seemed like a very good use of our funds. Now I’m older, and this still seems like a good use of funds.) We flew into Paris, got on the wrong train, walked a bit in the wrong direction and eventually took a taxi to our hotel. We showered and collapsed onto the twin beds, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. (Pro tip: don’t do this, even if it seems like a good idea.) We were probably asleep for half an hour when there was a knock on our door, then a key turning, and while we sat up in bed, too stunned and groggy to protest, someone from housekeeping came in and removed the quilts from our beds, chattering all the while in French. We fell back asleep and woke later, turning to each other in a daze. Did someone come in here while we were sleeping? Did she take the quilts off our beds? We spent four days in Paris, but this mystery was never solved, and the quilts were never returned.
Arriving someplace new can be overwhelming.
It’s the strangeness coming at you all at once—the language, the food, the customs, the cars speeding past on the “wrong” side of the road.
There are two ways to handle the newness of international travel. In one, you take your (American) privilege and barrel through the new place, trying to get it to conform to your expectations. What do you mean there are no waffles on the menu? I must have waffles! The logical end to this approach, after a constant tug-of-war between expectation and reality, is a miserable trip, with no understanding when you return of the place you have been.
We take ourselves—our backgrounds, our insecurities, our own odd little habits—with us.
Wherever you go, there you are.
The other approach is to fumble your way through the new landscape, mispronouncing words in conversation and trying again, laughing. The other approach asks you to be mainly silent—a listener, an observer, saving up the moments to process later.
Lately, I’ve found myself waking up in the morning and wondering where I am. I’m in our house, of course. I’m in our bed, and Will is next to me, having taken more than his share of sheets and pillows. LG is tucked under the covers, her body warm against the back of my knee. Baxter is snoring on the floor next to the bed, the deep, dreamless snores of a 105-year-old. I pinch myself, and I am alive. So that, of course, I understand.
But in other ways, the world is alien to me, an unfamiliar landscape. I lift my phone from the nightstand in the morning and scroll through pain and suffering, through fear and vitriol. I grieve. I try to understand. Sometimes I block or unfollow. I turn the phone off, walk into the other room, come back later for another hit. Much of the world has become incomprehensible to me, and I don’t have the language to respond. I don’t know the customs, and I’m unsure how to adapt.
The process of this arrival has been very different. We have all packed our bags, and here we are in this uncomfortable, inevitable moment. Inside our bags are those beliefs and experiences, and maybe they don’t feel quite right at that moment—we’ve packed sweaters and sweatshirts but it’s blistering hot here.
The landscape is new.
I’m learning the language.
Paula Treick DeBoard