In our own strange little self-confirming way, travelers tend to recall most of their big “life-changing moments” as happening abroad. For the sake of storytelling and constructing the inwardly-directed narrative that helps us understand how we became our current selves, the distant encounters and moments take precedence. G.K. Chesterton said that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” The emphasis, nonetheless, remains on the foreign.
In the mental book that makes up our lives, it is easier to attach drastic changes or realizations to a foreign place. We remember the first time we stepped off a plane in an unfamiliar land. That feeling of profound aloneness combined with the realization that the world really might be ours for the taking. That long slow sigh of peace after an arduous journey: seeing the sun set over the mountain peaks as we lay exhausted in our sleeping bags, caked in mud. The trepid excitement as streams of yellow halogen begin to make haloes on the filthy window. 16 hours in a cramped bus seat, witnessing our newly adopted city arise from the highway darkess a faint hour before the dawn.
These things stand out. So do the people. We never forget our foreign friends who helped bring us into the fold and understand our adopted cultures. The simplest little interactions that acted as a keyhole through which to consider new ways of thinking. The tiniest of events open up entire hidden avenues. One could name dozens of examples, yet out of context they are meaningless. Silly, even. Travel becomes a long string of unrelatable references. “You had to be there, man…” An inside joke you share with no one. Only fellow vagabonds seem to relate, through empathy, being unable to have the same experiences, lest they were really there with you.
All of these moments add up in our minds and get sorted by place rather than time. We are building our life stories based on the more easily compartmentalized highlights. You can always identify a fledgling traveler when their stories consistently begin with “when I was in China”, “when I was in Morocco”, “when I was in Ecuador.” It has nothing to do with attempting to brag, at least it does rarely. They simply haven’t begun to think of their trips as part of a greater whole. The stretches abroad are when travelers feel they are truly living. Time at home is spent in a sort of greyed-out limbo which is not inflated by the idolized status of a foreign environment.
Even being aware of all this, one starts to question oneself. I have been home since December. I was only planning to stay six weeks. The time may total four and a half months before I leave again. Am I a traveler if I am not traveling? How can I relate my experiences to my current life, those past lives I’ve lived far from here which feel as if they were half-forgotten dreams? Outside of old friends and continents-distant fellow travelers, there are few to relate to.
At my temp job, I overhear snippets of conversation. The students were caught making a Ouija board. Contraband. A staff member fears aloud that now the school could become possessed by demons. A different pupil has a mysterious skin rash — punishment from satan for having a goat tattoo with the numbers. Six. Six. Six. On another day, the cashiers at my grocery store speak casually about the oncoming apocalypse while ringing up boxes of children’s cereal and low-fat milk.
This feels weird. Subtly but somehow very disturbingly weird.
G.K. Chesterton, it seems that you were right. My hometown is now beginning to feel like a foreign land to me. I just never really expected it to happen in this way. Although, in retrospect, that’s exactly what I should have anticipated… Even the most inexperienced of wanderers can tell you: real travel never works out quite as expected.