This telling of the tale of my midlife gap year of travel has reached a significant juncture. I have wrapped up my summer of bicycling in Europe and am flying from Berlin to Chicago. There, I’ll be visiting my parents ahead of travels around the US and Canada. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.
One reason there has been such a long break since I last posted about my midlife gap year is that we’ve reached a challenging part of the story. I’m flying from Berlin to Chicago – a visit “home” and that sort of complicates things.
I’ve spent over four months in Europe – travelling primarily by bicycle. I’ve almost always been on my own, only occasionally meeting up with old friends or making new ones. It has been months of external and internal exploration and discovery. And now I’m going “home” to the United States.
Since moving to Australia in 2000 I have spent only short holidays in the US – three weeks at the most. There are people and things I miss. But mostly I am very grateful to live in Australia, to have found a place elsewhere which feels more like home to me.
In planning my midlife gap year, I decided to spend two months in the United States in order to engage with some of my prejudices about the place and, also, as something of a final grand tour. I thought I’d go and see a lot of friends in a lot of places, see how being there feels. I expect I’ll never spend this amount of time in the US again. The world is too big, and I’ve seen too little of it to spend any more time than necessary in the United States.
So, it was with considerable ambivalence that I began this part of the journey. Part of the challenge I’ve been facing, in preparing these posts – or, more, the challenge I’ve been avoiding is – how much of my criticism, my negativity, my ambivalence do I include? Honesty in the storytelling is important to me but I’m also reluctant to shout it to the world. That is what has delayed me. But, if you’re reading this now, then evidently, I have overcome all that to share something with you. Here goes.
Tuesday 13 October 2015 (Day 142: Berlin to Chicago)
I get a little teary posting my ‘Travelling From Berlin to Chicago’ post on Facebook.
I’ve been Travelling From and Travelling To just about every day for the past four and a half months. Along the way, I’ve been trying to Be Here Now. So, in some ways, my movements from one place to another have lost their power.
This transition though, from Europe to the United States has power. The weight of this transition sits on my sternum as I prepare to board my flight.
In Europe, I have been an anonymous, curious traveller, a stranger to the places I’ve visited. Now I’m making a journey “home”. I’ll visit friends and family while crossing familiar landscapes and engaging with a culture I know intimately – even if I have been estranged from it lately. I’m feeling nervous and uncertain. These are similar but yet different from my feelings before I left Australia for Europe. That was a nervousness born of travelling into the unknown, this is … a complicated reunion.
American-English travel writer Bill Bryson said, “America is my mother; England is my wife.” I understand that.
BE HERE NOW
I’m trying to ready myself with directives to silence my critical (of the US) voice, and to try to experience new things and to take them at face value. I want to try to be an Australian tourist in the US more than an American immigrant returned. When in doubt I’ll try to imagine seeing the place through my Australian friends’ eyes and try to be happy about being there. I will do things which lend themselves to happiness and save my critiques for my journal.
My aeroplane is descending through the clouds. I catch my first look at suburban Chicago: baseball diamonds. Nice ones at high schools and rugged ones in parks – loads of them. When I still lived in the United States and was a more-nervous flier (though I still can be a bit of a nervous flier) I would count baseball diamonds during take-offs and landings. It was mindful and distracting and reminded me of a thing I love.
Well, I’m here now. The next phase of my midlife gap year begins. Let’s see what happens. Think kind thoughts, be friendly, afford the benefit of the doubt.
America, you are not making this easy
My first 90 minutes in the country sorely test those intentions.
At border control, I hand over my US passport and then, too, offer my Australian passport – which is the document I’ve been travelling on since May.
“We don’t recognise that,” says an officious woman with a steely squint and pinched expression which indicates that, as far as she is concerned, my Australian passport smells of shit.
“Why,” I begin to wonder, “am I spending some of my precious midlife gap year here?”
And then, I discover, to my horror, that Starbucks is selling a Pumpkin Spice Flat White.
Quiet, brain, quiet – just try to be here now.
On the bus I catch to my parents’ house I find yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times. It is reporting, within a two-page spread, details of violence around Chicago this weekend, including 13 shootings.
Between Saturday at 5:13 am and Sunday at 5:00 pm there were 13 shootings (two fatalities) and a victim of an earlier shooting succumbed to his wounds:
A 31-year-old man was shot in the shoulder; a 20-year-old in the calf; three men (aged 21, 22, and 22) were shot during a fight on a party bus; a 48-year-old was shot in the left arm and foot; a 30-year-old was the victim of a drive-by shooting; a 24-year old woman, a “documented gang member”, was shot in the arm; the police shot and killed a 35-year-old man who was trying to break into a house; a 35-year-old man was shot dead and two others (aged 40 and 24) were injured – all were sitting in one car when someone in another car opened fire on them; a 22-year-old man was shot and killed, and; a man who had been shot on 4 October had died overnight.
Oh, America – you aren’t making this easy.
Back on the Streets of My Youth
My mom is staying at a rehabilitation centre near her home recovering from a broken ankle. She and my father are both in their mid-80s. I go to visit her and have lunch with my Dad at a nearby chain sandwich shop. We are having a conversation about the presidential election – over a year away and already well underway. Opposite us sits a woman working on her computer, she earlier completed a business-like phone call, and, by all appearances, has long finished consuming whatever she had bought. She joins our conversation. Just jumps in, to share her opinion. Very weird.
I go to a chain sports bar in the nearby mall to watch some of the baseball playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the St Louis Cardinals. The flight has left me a bit tired so I order a Coke. I try not to laugh when the waitress replies, “No Coke. Pepsi?”
There are screens everywhere – giant ones and smaller ones and they are all showing the game.
The bar is full of people who, as I once did, live on the north side of Chicago and are, by default if nothing else, Cubs fans. It’s loud and bright. The full-on sensory overload is pummelling. The cool of Berlin and quiet of the Irish countryside have tuned my senses to a lower pitch. I need to recalibrate for the USA.
I wave down the bartender to pay for my Pepsi – she says, “You’re okay.” Because soft drinks are like water in the United States. But you still have to tip – I toss $1 on the bar and walk “home” through quiet suburban streets while listening to the Violent Femmes.
When I arrive may dad is just settling in to watch the Democratic candidates’ debate. The thunderously loud television bashes me as soon as I walk through the door. Why, oh why, is Sheryl Crow singing the national anthem? Since when?? Since when is the national anthem sung at debates? My dad sings along for a few lines, then stops. It’s so loud I can’t be in the same room as the TV so retreat to my Mom’s room – where I’m staying in her absence. It was my room when I was a little kid – I think I last slept in here when I was 12.