I’m fortunate that most years I get to go somewhere; 2015 was exceptional in that I was able to go to many somewheres. Each of these journeys not only left me with photos and cherished memories, but also stretched me, nudged me out of my comfort zone, and left me with a richer, more nuanced understanding of the world. As the song in the musical Wicked says, somewhere between January and December, I was changed for good.
At home on the Potomac
The year started with a trip to D.C., where my husband was attending a weeklong MBA program in business and public policy. With my camera in hand, tips from my sister (a GW grad), a roster of friends in the area, and an assignment to write a city profile for a relocation company, I didn’t have any trouble keeping myself busy. Which I figured was good, because my previous visits to the nation’s capital had left me feeling meh.
Boy, was I in for a surprise this time around. I read Foreign Affairs at Teaism, overheard young wonks discuss current events at Off the Record, found Stephen Colbert at the National Portrait Gallery, chatted with a guard about the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery, and pondered signs about former anarchists in DuPont Circle. I made an impressionist portrait of myself at the Phillips Collection, browsed recommendations at Kramerbooks, contemplated the canal in Georgetown, and got absorbed in exhibits about contemporary tribal life at the National Museum of the American Indian. I also giggled at the traditional menus, which I had previously only associated with senior citizens (meatloaf? pot roast? really?). Yet, as I licked my lips I had to admit that there was something to be said for not only keeping the classics around, but doing them so well.
The biggest highlight was catching up with friends from college and grad school. I was in a state of awe that people I’d known in Minnesota, Oregon, and Poland were all in the same city, doing fascinating things. But as we talked over cupcakes at Baked and Wired and drinks at The Hamilton, I felt a twinge of envy. How was it that they had ended up here, at the center of policy and international relations, while I was still stuck in Arizona? My husband had a similar reaction: after meeting with senators and hearing experts at the National Press Club, the thought of returning to his daily routine felt flat.
We spent our last morning in denial, pretending that we were simply locals enjoying brunch at Founding Farmers. A few hours later as we soared above the clouds, we looked at each other gravely and said things like, “We have to get out of here.” Here being there – the life we were returning to. Sometimes, it seems, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes, seeing the life you might have had instead – or might still have – just makes you want it all the more.
A Hectic Interlude
Spring raced by in a blur, as I continued to work at a relocation company in addition to my intercultural coaching and writing, and my husband worked fulltime while finishing his MBA. In the blink of an eye it was June, and we were in China for his two-week study abroad program.
China was, in a word, incredible. I did more pre-departure prep for this trip than any previous ones, including reading academic research, working with an intercultural colleague, and teaching myself Mandarin on Pimsleur. It definitely paid off! Not only was it easier and less overwhelming than I’d anticipated, but it was engaging and enjoyable.
I brushed my palms on the Great Wall, spoke in English to a precocious preschooler at a hotel, and spun a prayer wheel at a Tibetan temple. I ordered street food in Chinese, saw a pyrotechnic production of an ancient opera, rode a high-speed train across the countryside, and took a nighttime river cruise along an illuminated skyline. I ate roasted ginko nuts, floated on a gondola in a traditional water village, folded dumplings in a local’s kitchen, and stood face to face with a terracotta warrior.
I heard old people hoot and holler as they played games in the waning light, stood under a pagoda surrounded by lily pads, and accidentally went to a fake Starbucks. I drank osmanthus tea at a historic teahouse, admired the robust, clean, and modern subway systems, took thousands of photos, and was amazed to see my own two shoes looking back at me on Tiananmen Square. I also expanded my guanxi by meeting a local colleague and making friends from Iran, Australia, England, Norway, and across the U.S. Thanks to the friendly folks in my husband’s program, I truly felt included in a way that I hadn’t expected, but very much appreciated.
At the same time, I was exhausted, sweaty, and perpetually thirsty. I became weary of washing clothes in the sink, despaired of ever taming my hair again, and began gnashing my teeth at certain people and certain things. One day I watched four hours of Mr. Bean in Chinese because the hotel’s remote location made it impossible to go into town. I winced when I saw our bus drive across a flooded bridge mere feet above a raging river. We spent our entire allotment of free time one afternoon trying to find an ATM, and then missed the closing hours for the museums whose cash-only entrance fees had prompted the search. And we ate multiple times at places like McDonald’s and Haagen-Daz, because they are much better than at home and we were rapidly losing weight.
Erma Bombeck said, “When you look like your passport photo, it’s time to go home.” When we boarded the plane, we were poster children for her quote. But once we recovered from jet lag, we found home to be ho-hum. After dancing in a kaleidoscope, regular life seemed a bit like staring at a blank wall. Our minds and hearts were spinning a million miles a minute, our memories giving us re-entry overload. People asked if we wanted to move to China; I think that would be a difficult decision on many levels. What I can say is that China is a remarkable, multi-faceted place – one that defies simplistic stereotypes, and one that I sincerely hope to see again. Sometimes, when you take a leap of faith, you learn that there is a whole lot of wonderful on the other side of the globe.
City of Angels
In September we visited my brother in Los Angeles – something we did regularly before grad school took over. As we drove across the desert, we did as we always used to do, and imagined ourselves moving to our favorite city. As sprawling metros short on water, we share many of the same problems – but L.A. comes with a beach. And Koreatown. And creative dreamers who believe they’ll amount to more than their present circumstances. Yes, yes, and yes! I’ve been smitten for years.
After a pilgrimage to some old favorites (Father’s Office burgers in Culver City, Diddy Riese ice cream sandwiches in Westwood) we added a few twists (Hawaiian breakfast at Rutt’s, window shopping on Venice’s Abbot Kinney). Perfect on paper and in photos – but it was unfortunately also very hot. You’d think we’d be used to this, but what we’re really used to is being blasted by the AC when we walk indoors, which is not a thing in this normally breezy beach town. It was also very hipster. Like, a record store called Vnyl with hopscotch painted on the sidewalk, and umpteen bros wearing the same red Warby Parker glasses and walking the same precious dogs. It was all I could do to keep from shouting at random people to get over themselves. And, it was expensive. A parking meter here and a valet there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. Which, judging by the pace that my brother’s neighborhood has been seized by condo developers, some people are making an awful lot of. Grumble.
Sitting in the shade with my Blue Bottle iced coffee, I asked myself where these feelings were coming from, and what they meant. Had L.A. really changed that much? Or was I just growing up, with a reduced tolerance for pretention and an increased yearning for substance? Since 2007 we’ve nurtured a fantasy of moving here, where I was sure we would continue singing at the top of our lungs with the windows rolled down, just like when we were 24. Now, having finished school and with kids on the horizon, our life in the suburbs seemed both more manageable and real. A truly scary thought – scarier than the hordes of Fun. lookalikes.
We drove home feeling happy that we’d seen my brother, but also a little deflated. If we were surprised by how much we felt like we belonged in D.C., we were deeply chagrined that we no longer got that rush from L.A. The mismatch caught us off-guard, like the awkwardness when you realize that you no longer have much in common with a childhood friend. Sometimes, when you look more closely at what you thought you wanted, you realize that you’re not so sure you want it anymore.
These jaunts took place against the shifting backdrop of life. My husband finished his MBA and accepted a new position. I ramped up my intercultural work – and, realizing there is only so much of me to go around, stepped down from the relocation company. We finally got some sleep, which we drank in greedy gulps. We went on walks, binge-watched Netflix, caught up with neglected family members, and revisited our favorite Phoenix spots. In a word, we relaxed – and in doing so, discovered a fresh sensation: contentment.
In this new state of mind, we started to question what we were trying to achieve. Yes, Arizona’s politics are notorious, and we get tired of the summers – but we also love the sunsets, the food, and the pace of life. Sometimes, you reconsider that home might be everything you were seeking all along, just not in the way you’d imagined.
As summer turned to fall and we packed for our last big trip of the year, we felt lighter, with more equanimity. My husband had a conference in Vienna by way of Munich and, in what had become quite the pattern this year, I was tagging along. We had visited Vienna before when we lived in Poland, and on a layover when I had a conference in Slovenia, but it had frankly failed to leave an impression. On our previous visits, I could see that it was all very nice with its architectural coherence and cakes, but my spirit wasn’t stirred. This time, I hoped I could figure out what the big deal was; at the very least we would connect with Central Europe again.
In a week that mirrored our trip to Washington, I found myself feeling at unexpectedly at ease in Vienna and even enchanted by its seriousness, orderliness, and cordial coziness. It was a relief not to have to smile all the time, I looked the part in my tights and scarves, and I breathed in the crisp autumn air with satisfaction. Everything we did was enjoyable, from touring the summer palace and viewing the crown jewels to attending an opera and getting acquainted with the many varieties of bread. I relished the opportunity to slip into a sidewalk café, I came to appreciate the energizing yet soothing presence of classical music, and I had to restrain myself from skipping with glee over each and every cobblestone. I had never lived here – but I had lived nearby. Now, by some marzipan magic, I felt at home. I understood it. And wanted more of it.
After a few delightful days it was time to fly back to Phoenix, but this time I didn’t resist or resent it. Instead, I felt reassured as it suddenly hit me that I had accomplished my young adult dreams. All I ever wanted was to see the world, and while we may or may not get to be expats again, this year showed me that I don’t need a label or an international address to create a global life. Sometimes, revisiting a city from your youth serves as a mirror shining back at you, revealing more about your own self and how you’ve grown than anything about the place itself. And sometimes, a walk in the park, a leisurely sip of schnapps, and a brisk November breeze are just what you need to see life clearly.
Parting thoughts . . .
Mark Twain once said:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
2015 took us to more places than any other year, from trusty favorites to those we’d once dismissed, and some that made our families nervous. In a year like this, you see that the places where you once felt at home, you have started to outgrow. The places that once bored you now inspire. And the places that were once intimidating can become welcoming. In a year like this, you realize that no matter where in the world you are, and no matter where in the world you go, every day is an opportunity to see, explore, engage, and expand your perspective. That even two kids from the desert suburbs can embrace the world, and be transformed by it.