“Oh my God, I haven’t been on Instagram in like, five days!”
These were the first words to grace my ears as I sat down on my flight from Berlin to LAX. I was surrounded by a soccer team of 15 year-old girls and their parents — the dads all wearing what seemed to be the same pair of khaki shorts and polo shirt, differentiated only by color, and the moms all wearing bug-eye sunglasses reflecting the glow of their iPhones. The girls continued with exclamations of “I swear, it’s gonna be so nice to have ice in my drinks again,” and “And air conditioning! How can they not have air conditioning here? Like, what’s up with that?” and “I can’t wait to actually understand everyone around me again.”
In a futile attempt to ignore them, I looked up at the little TV screen in front of me, which was displaying “the news.” I saw two disgusting, absolutely vile words I had thankfully managed to never hear in Europe: Kim Kardashian. The screen seemed unabashed in informing me that her child was named after a direction and that she was finally losing weight again. With a tear in my eye, I knew then that my session studying abroad was truly over, and that this was what I was going back to. This was America.
Twelve hours’ worth of short naps and episodes of “Modern Family” later, my plane began its descent. I looked out the window and was disturbed by the tangible layer of sickly brown that sat on top of the runway. I had forgotten what smog looked like. On my way to baggage claim after exiting the plane, I was met with the words “Welcome to the United States of America” atop a portrait of Obama. It was located over a descending escalator, so as you went down, it seemed to enlarge and look down on you to the point where it might’ve well as said “Big Brother is Watching You.” As if the portrait wasn’t Orwellian enough, I had to go through at least four security checkpoints before getting my things and getting outside. My dad soon pulled up, loaded all my luggage and gave me a huge, prolonged hug. And in that moment, the teenage girls, Kim Kardashian and the 1984 qualities of LAX didn’t matter. There aren’t many things in the world that can’t be swept away with the comfort of family.
The first day was entirely surreal. Driving on the 405, going through the San Fernando Valley, walking into my bedroom again — all of it seemed as familiar as it always had, and yet a part of me still felt like my home base was my dorm room in Potsdam, and where I was now felt foreign. Going about my hometown for dinner and hearing passerby was much stranger than I thought it would have been. I had only half-understood all the German exchanges I would overhear and I could convince myself that everyone was having great and meaningful conversations; by understanding everything, all the time again, I was forced to accept the reality that people usually talk about their brother’s new job, where they got their shoes, what their cat did the other night and other bits of mundanity. However, I got to eat tacos with authentic salsa for the first time in months that night, which were glorious and more than made up for any mixed emotions I’d had.
I spent the next day in a jet-lagged haze, playing with my dog and constantly dumping stories of running around Greece and the Czech Republic on my sisters. And not even being back in the country for 48 hours, my friends were inviting me to check out this or that bar or club, which did seem fitting considering that every fourth picture I uploaded to Facebook involved me holding either a beer or a glass of absinthe. Unfortunately I had to then tell each and every one of them that I am still at the painfully taunting age of 20 until October (in Germany, the drinking age is 16 for beer and wine, 18 for spirits). My keychain bottle opener had gone from an almost daily-used tool to just a dangling bit of nostalgia.
As a result of being arbitrarily banned from spending time the way I had for the last four months, whenever I wanted to hang out, the thing to do ended up being going to the movies. In the five to six weeks I’ve been back, I ended up seeing “Pacific Rim,” “Elysium,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel,” “The World’s End,” “Man of Steel” a second time, “This is The End,” and “Monsters University.”
And with every reunion, I was just giddy to share all of my stories, and was only so rarely given the chance. This is because the only question anybody usually asked about the entirety of my experience was usually the vague and all-encompassing question “So how was Europe?” which prompted the vague and all-encompassing answer of either “Good,” “Amazing” or “European” — leading me to the conclusions that I am perhaps a bit vain and that most people are bad at asking questions.
Then finally, I moved back to Riverside, after a nearly six-month absence. I saw the Bell Tower, with all different types of people hustling and bustling around it at all times of the day. I saw the C, looking across the city atop a mountain I’ve huffed and puffed my way up many times before. I saw the UV, with students out in the patios of the many restaurants hanging out, chatting, or waiting to see a movie. All three of them warmed my heart as symbols of my prior college experience and a little part of me is happily reminded that they are once again symbols of my current college experience. And yet, there is this little nagging voice in the back of my head that remembers Uni Potsdam am Neuen Palais, and can’t help but look at my surroundings and say, “This isn’t a palace …”
Now here I am again, right where I was before I left, wondering where the last months went. Going back to old faces and old locations makes me feel as if I’ve gone back in time, and yet where I’ve gone back to has moved forward and wants me to continue moving forward with it as if I had never left. One can’t help but feel disoriented at times. But until my next great adventure, simply moving forward is the only thing I can do now. And if I have to move forward, at the very least, I get to do so as a Highlander again.