“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Howard Thurman
Last week I shared my initial thoughts on coming home in Part 1. Was That Life? Very Well, Once More! This week, I’ll reveal my first impressions of being back. This is Part 2 of a 5-part piece called Thoughts on Coming Home.
A Brief Debriefing
As I planned my return flight to the US for Christmas, I decided to slowly reintroduce myself to normal civilian life. Or as my mom joked, I was “debriefing” myself, much like the way a solider is debriefed after a mission. (Yes, I know how terrible it sounds that my mom is suggesting I “debrief” myself. And yes, I also took her advice literally. But those stories are for the book).
I designed my march back to help me ease into home by subtly reintroducing myself to familiarity:
Stop 1. London, England: A familiar, native English-speaking place.
Stop 2. Reykjavik, Iceland: A foreign, yet familiar place. (And technically Iceland is home to both European and North American continental plates.)
Stop 3. New York City, NY: A familiar, multicultural place Stateside.
Stop 4. Chicago, IL: My most recent home.
Final Stop. Cleveland, Ohio: My first home.
Just as culture shock is an actual thing, reverse culture shock is just as real. If you’ve ever been to a foreign place for an extended period of time, say a month or longer, you know. It’s not so much that you’re *shocked* by culture back home. It’s actually quite familiar. But that’s exactly what’s shocking — while you’ve personally changed dramatically, nothing seems to have changed back at home. The lens through which you view home has been polished or scratched, upgraded or downgraded. Either way, the lens has forever changed.
I experienced this phenomenon years ago after coming home from a study abroad summer in France. For the first time in my life, I felt something that could only be described as being depressed. It was nothing clinically severe, but I’d never felt so low in my life. The experience of living abroad was a huge, adrenaline-pumping high. And coming home, a floor-shattering free fall.
So in coming home after this journey, I tried to prepare myself as best I could. But I’ve realized it’s impossible to avoid the let down of coming home. It can only be managed. And the best way out is through.
"Of all the adventures and challenges that wait on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home." - Rolf Potts, from Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
First Impressions of Earth
During my first few weeks home, every time something surprised, or shocked me, I jotted down a note on my iPhone notepad. I hoped that by identifying why I felt so shocked, I’d be able to make sense of it and shorten the let down of coming home. Here are my most notable observations:
1. The novelty (and burden) of being able to understand people. I’m surprised by how OVERWHELMING it is to be back in crowded places where everyone is speaking English. Besides being in the UK and Ireland, for the better part of six months I traveled to countries where the default language was not English. Normal everyday situations like sitting on a domestic flight, walking down a busy street, or eating at a crowded restaurant is seriously overstimulating. While traveling, since I couldn’t understand much, all foreign conversations simply acted as background noise. Suddenly back in the States, I can instantly understand ALL conversations. It’s infinitely harder to concentrate and focus on my own thoughts. This is probably magnified because of my introverted nature.
2. Our collective permanent connectedness. Although Europeans use smart phones as much as Americans, it still startles me how heads-down we are with our devices. I include myself in this. Other than the SIM cards I activated in Serbia and Iceland, my phone was without calling, texting, or internet surfing unless I was in a WiFi zone. Even then, I mostly used my SIM for the occasional text. Suddenly I’m back in the US when I can text, call, and surf the web AT ALL TIMES. It scares me how quickly I resorted to my old ways, head glued to my device as I constantly check emails, tweets, and statuses. I notice I do this out of nervous habit. Without constantly having this escape while traveling, I would instead focus on the interesting outward world, or have conversations inward. Disconnectedness is liberating.
3. Europe is soooo white. After landing in New York’s JFK airport, I headed toward a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. As I walked through the subway, the honest-to-God first thing to pop in my head was: “Holy shit, Europe is sooooo white.” Although I was a foreigner in Europe, as white and somewhat racially ambiguous, I blended in pretty easily in most places. People threw a gambit of cultural guesses at me, most of which were Mediterranean-ish: Spanish. Italian. Greek. Turkish. But sometimes I got British (huh?), Arab (what?), and Asian (how many Asians have blue eyes?). As I walked through the subway in New York, I actually felt more distinct as I stood among a diverse melting pot of cultures and colors.
4. How easily environment influences thought. This is what shocks me the most. While walking through the familiar streets of Chicago or sitting in my parent’s house in Ohio, I find myself falling back into old familiar thought patterns. While traveling, I felt like I conquered so many unwanted vices and unwarranted fears. But being back in a familiar environment, those old inhibitions and thoughts slowly crept back in. It feels like two steps forward, one step back as the unique confidence and fearlessness I cultivated on the road is challenged once again. I’ve realized keeping these thoughts at bay is a lifelong challenge and requires constant practice. It also proves how important it is to continually surround myself with people, places, and ideas that inspire me to become my best self.
5. The rich joys of a poorman’s Christmas. Being without income for 6 months and going slightly over my allotted travel budget, I wasn’t exactly coming home to a mound of cash. I pride myself on picking out thoughtful Christmas gifts for my family, most of which aren’t cheap. This year, I challenged myself to make Christmas just as thoughtful, but spend more time and love, less money. I spent hours touching up some of my favorite photos of my trip, overlaying them with my favorite quotes, and professionally printing and framing them. For the first time I can remember, my gifts brought tears to people’s eyes (namely, mom and sister). Even without me explaining what it took to create it. It didn’t take words to describe the amount of love I poured into each of the gifts.
6. How sedentary (and invisibly unhealthy) normal life is. Whether it’s true or not, I feel unhealthy and out of shape. We can partially blame the annual holiday binge-fest, but I’m certain I’m moving my body much less than while traveling. Over the past six months, I spent at least 50% of every day outside. I walked several miles each day, often times lugging around a 30 pound pack. I wasn’t consciously trying to be more active, but I was by default living a more active lifestyle. And despite consuming more pizza, kebabs, and beer than I ever have, I didn’t gain weight. Instead, I lost some. I ate when I was hungry and didn’t structure my day around meals. I was more fit in spite of myself.
7. The lightness of being alien and free from responsibility. Upon coming home, I noticed how quickly I began to compare myself to others. There’s an uneasy heaviness in this. This relates to #4, but just being in the presence of people who know me back at home, I feel more influenced.
While traveling, I felt zero need to impress anyone but myself. And with no set agenda, I was able to do whatever the hell I wanted to do. Things like:
Take a five hour walk alone through Zagreb, Croatia? Sure.
Spend a night writing at a pub in Bath, England? Done.
Study the analytics on my website and figure out what’s driving the most traffic? Why not.
Invite a cute Estonian waitress to sit down after her shift to chat about life for a few hours? Yes, please.
Share some homemade rakija and amateur guitar-playing with new Serbian friends? No problem.
Surrounded by people who know nothing about me, I had the opportunity to be whoever or whatever I wanted with each new country, city, or hostel. But instead of creating some false persona, I just acted like myself. With no inhibitions. no reservations, and no superficial bullshit there’s only one thing left: the purest feeling of being alive.
Something funny happens when you accept who are and are free to do whatever you want. First, you feel at peace because by doing only things you want to do, you’re being true to yourself. Second, like-minded people enter your life as if they’ve miraculously dropped out of the sky and placed purposefully front of you.
Despite not knowing anyone and being in a completely unfamiliar place, the moment I embraced this, I instantly began connecting with like-minded people who were also being true to themselves.
Once you understand who you are, and become clearer on who you’re meant to become, you find people who understand you. They magically enter your life. I can’t really describe it in scientific or logical terms. Call it the law of attraction. Call it good vibrations. Whatever you want to call it. I just know it’s real and happens like clockwork.
The Travel Drug
If pressed to answer the question “Why do you travel?” in one sentence, my answer would be: I travel because it makes me come alive. Understanding this sense of aliveness while traveling is key to understanding the hangover of coming home.
This is why travel is sometimes referred to as a drug. Similar to drugs or alcohol, travel has the power to temporarily remove all inhibitions and superficial worries, heighten the senses, and if only for a moment, allow one to ignore ego and feel a sense of oneness with the world. For me, travel evokes a sense of aliveness that is unparalleled to anything I’ve ever experienced.
This sense of aliveness can be most extreme when traveling alone, because in addition to curiously focusing on the foreign outside world, you gaze just as curiously within. If you’ve never truly experienced being alone in a foreign place, the first time might feel like this:
You’re walking alone. You don’t understand the language, the currency, or the culture. You look around for a familiar face, but none are found. You reach for your phone to text or call a friend — oh, that’s right. You don’t know anyone in this entire country, much less this city. You feel like an infant again — everything is new, you’re curious, and a little scared shitless.
With no external place to turn for comfort or support, you eventually look inward. Finally, something familiar, myself! I know myself! Right? And then you begin to question how well you actually know yourself. Why am I feeling this way? Where am I going? What am I doing? Somehow, you feel even more lost when you look inside.
After this initial shock of confronting your honest-to-God stripped-down self, you begin to understand yourself more with each subsequent moment. What makes you happy. What makes you upset. Why these things make you happy or upset. What gives you energy and what takes it away. The lowest points are just as revealing (maybe more so) than the highest. You pay closer attention to your feelings. You begin to understand yourself in a way you may never have before. It’s a beautiful thing.
For me, the travel-evoked sense of aliveness allowed me to get better in tune with myself. When you enter a foreign world full of uncertainty, the singular familiar thing is you.
So upon coming home, surrounded by familiar faces and places, I began to find comfort again in those old familiar things. Simultaneously, since I myself was no longer the most familiar thing, I began losing touch with my Self. And so starts a downward spiral off a euphoric high. This is the most shocking part of coming home.
As I write this, I’m actually feeling much better now than I did a week ago. I felt flat. Anxious. Insecure. Lost. A general uneasiness and sense that something was missing. I was uncharacteristically apathetic toward everything. It feels like the worst hangover ever.
To help this initial hangover wear off, I’m challenging myself to appreciate Coming Home as part of the journey. And to remember that the curiosity and aliveness that traveling evokes is a mindset that starts within.
And what if, within the prisons of routine and familiarity, I have a hard time remembering that? Well, maybe it’s time to pack a bag and hit the road again.
"[I]t's important to remember that your vagabonding attitude is not something you can turn on and off when it's convenient. Rather, it's an ongoing, organic process that can be applied even as you unpack your bags and readjust to home." - Rolf Potts, from Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
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This is Part 2 of a 5-part piece called Thoughts on Coming Home.
Part 1. Was That Life? Very Well, Once More!: Initial thoughts on coming home after a 6+ month wander.
Part 2. Reverse Culture Shock: First impressions on being back in these United States.
Part 3. These Things Traveling Taught: The most important lessons I learned on the road.
Part 4. Art, Creation, and Getting Naked: How writing and creating art changed my life.
Part 5. The Journey Continues: What’s next for me? And for this website, blog, and email newsletter?