46. Flight home

When I stepped off the international flight from Beijing to Seattle, I felt like a madman in the making. Not the Don Draper variety but something closer to Charles Manson.

Bloodshot eyes, shaky limbs, unkempt hair, two-day old outfit… I stunk like a zoo and I’d gone more than nine hours without any human interaction beyond what was required to ask for “coffee” and “chicken” from the bubbly attendants.

Over the Atlantic, we were travelling backward through time, and I watched the sun set and rise in the middle of the day, in what felt like a single breath. It was about a nine-hour flight across the ocean, but by my clock it only lasted about two hours.

If you don’t know what that feels like, imagine writing nine essays in a row but only two of them count for a grade and you still get carpal tunnel in your wrists.

What kept me sane was knowing I was almost home.

When I landed in Seattle after seven and a half months abroad, the first thing I noticed was the standard North American plug outlet: two simple vertical slits, like cat’s eyes. I’d spent over half the year using a converter, which was about as useful to me now as an empty Bic lighter.

My mind was filled with the poor quality echoes of gunfights and car chases from the droll I watched on a tiny screen with cheap headphones. Denzel was being Denzel in “Safe House.” Wahlberg made smuggling look easy in “Contraband.” At least I finally got around to watching Cruise meet his autistic brother, Dustin “Rain Man” Hoffman, a classic that’s been on my list for a while. I tried to watch “Juno” again but it felt like a movie made to make itself laugh while ignoring the viewer completely, so I changed the channel and doubted the movie even noticed I wasn’t watching.

My favorite part of any flight is the complimentary meals.

I love the creative ways they manipulate chicken and pasta and fish and vegetarian dishes into plastic containers. I love the tiny plastic silverware. Everything, wrapped in plastic. Today I ate something like a sausage with something like an omelet with what might’ve been mushrooms. Nothing you eat at cruising altitude is the same as what you’d eat at sea level. It’s hardly food. It’s an experiment in culinary efficiency and you are always a guinea pig.

My second-favorite part of the flight is the view out the window: the way clouds over China look like puffs of cotton floating in a murky gray soup, the way you can see the curve of the planet, the way you can see other planes below you and ocean liners are but little tic-tacs on a glimmering blue table cloth.

Coming back to my home country was bizarre, just like they said it would be. Americans surrounded me in all their various colors and shapes. The English language was readily available. People were impatient again.

I found myself surrounded by my native language but with no real urge to use it.

You become surprisingly accustomed to being away from your home country after a half-year abroad. This includes being quieter and more introspective. You’ve forgotten what small-talk feels like.

Strange, the feeling that gnaws at you in those final days before your departure, when you wish for just a few weeks more to do all those things you never got around to doing abroad.

Word of caution: international transfers in Beijing are a doozy.

On the approach to Sacramento, I realized that my travel story was truly coming to an end. I could feel the lightness of that final page in my hand, the last few paragraphs flashing by too quickly, and the tender closing of the book as the wheels touched down.

Like most travelers, I can’t recommend traveling enough. I know it can be expensive, but the cost will soon be forgotten and the reward will be priceless. Aim for some place beautiful. See a foreign waterfall. Meet a foreign friend. Eat a foreign meal you can’t pronounce. Fall in love with (or in) a foreign city.

My adventure began with an arrival in snow-blanketed İstanbul and it ended with a warm summer day in California.

Tomorrow it will all feel like a dream.

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