The slow retreat of Covid 19 and its Omicron variant have allowed me to safely plan a trip back to the United States this month. My last visit was in November of 2019.
It’s been an eventful time in between, to say the least: a once-in-a-century pandemic, subsequent global travel bans, local and national lockdowns, unprecedented vaccine research, development, approval, and distribution, protests against same said vaccine (and masks), lots of hand washing and hand ringing, a worldwide healthcare crisis, millions of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and lots and lots of Netflix.
Insert numerous opportunities to overdose on isolation, self reflection, Zoom calls, and TikTok videos, and you’ve got a hot mess of things to recover from…and only some of them medical.
Like many of us, I’ll still be in Recovery Mode as I board the Air France flight back to the land of my birth. I was never considered someone who ‘played well with others’. Now, I must reenter society and behave after a two plus year hiatus from traveling, socializing, or being in a group larger than the six people in front of me at the grocery store checkout.
Nerves have frayed and anxious questions have popped up since making travel plans: what will the airport be like? How many people will be on the airplane? Will I have to sit next to any of them? Will we have a ‘coo-koo for cocoa-puffs’ passenger who refuses to wear a mask? Is complimentary champagne still being served?
Other issues loom large: what will America be like when I return? Will it really be different? Or will I just see it differently? Will I slip into that psychological gap that snags so many other expats: not being fully at home in your native country…or in your adopted one? Will I want to distance myself from America? Or embrace it’s free-wheeling culture like an old friend? (Realistically, I’m thinking distance.)
Will I remember how to drive a car? I’ve walked or taken the metro in Paris since living here. Los Angeles traffic requires not just a drivers license, but a certain Mad Max Mindset to successfully maneuver…or simply survive. (Note to self: download Uber app.)
How will I react when a waiter tells me his name, half his life story, and asks me how I’m doing and where I’m from? (French waiters simply say Bonjour and take your order.)
Will I notice price increases? Everyone I speak to in the states is positively shocked at the inflation rate. I’ve been living in euros. What will I actually sense and find?
And what is the actual political atmosphere? Is it as angry and divisive as I’ve heard? Are things really about to erupt like some overdue volcano? Or are most people just too busy to fight right now?
Is this my last visit to the United States for the foreseeable future? Will I see the need or have the desire to return? How do I feel about being American?
Oh, it’s a mixed bag, indeed.
I recall that Washington Irving wrote his legendary short story “Rip Van Winkle” after returning to the US after an extended stay in Europe. Will my time away and sudden return prove inspirational? (Realistically, I’m thinking not.)
Of course, seeing Mommy Dearest will be a pleasure. I’ll have lunches or dinners with a few close friends and a few remaining family members. Will they notice a change in me? Has there really been a change in me? For someone who doesn’t really think about himself that much, these thoughts are a little disturbing.
Best to just get on with it, putting one piece of luggage in front of the other. So many of our worries run into a ditch before getting to us. So many things remain familiar, even after an extended absence.
Still, just as one never steps into the same river twice, I must acknowledge that time–especially this extraordinary time–has changed me. Just how and how much…well, I’ll probably be the last one to know.