In contrast to the flight there, I felt very relaxed when I boarded the plane home. Sunlight was streaming in. The flight attendants were extremely friendly and joked in flawless English and Spanish. A couple of guys brought instruments on board and the coolest flight attendant, a bald guy who’d just said something witty in Spanish, quipped, “In-flight entertainment!” as he helped put up an accordion. It was a rather festive environment that almost made me feel happy to be suddenly flying home for no reason my heart could understand.
I didn’t have the luxury of an invisible neighbor this time; next to me was a quiet Spanish man in his thirties, possibly early forties, who was no bother by keeping to himself as I wrote the final entry in my journal about Krakow, which had miraculously come to the last sheet in the book. About an hour in as we were high over the endless Atlantic, the bald flight attendant passed by and informed us that a strike had left the plane without a vegetarian lunch option for the day and everyone had a complimentary drink. I ordered wine and my neighbor gestured to make that two. *Sigh*, Sutter Home from a plastic bottle again, just like New Year’s 2012. While I wasn’t a third done, my neighbor ordered another one followed by a double shot of whiskey.
Soon, he leaned over to see what I was writing and roped me into a sob story about a girlfriend, his mother, and his alcohol addiction, all in Spanish and with great detail which was mostly lost in translation. He said this was the first time he drank in five months, telling me to order whatever I wanted as he poured some of his whiskey into my cup. The lady across the isle threw me sympathetic looks as he exclaimed how much he loved his mother to an ever larger portion of the plane. Meanwhile, the flight attendant continued bringing him double shots of whiskey (to put him to sleep I presumed), cutting him off after seven. Yet the man was not sleepy, but rather, gropey. I leaned back into the window away from his active hands.
“Sorry sorry!” he drunkenly blurted, before reaching over to do it again.
“Manos aqui!” I yelled, restraining his wrists and moving his hands onto his lap.
“Sleep! Duerme!” I said. He put his head on his tray and soon conked out. The flight attendant apologized repeatedly. I don’t know why I said, “it’s okay”; it really was not okay. I probably could’ve milked the situation for more drinks if I thought of it then.
At any rate, the rest of the flight went smoothly. Half an hour before we landed the man woke up, reverted back to the quiet self who didn’t say a word to or make eye contact with me.
It might sound corny, because it is, but when we flew over the shore “America the Beautiful” started playing in my head. A minute later, we flew over vast lime green pools glittering under the sun; tons of waste poured like a waterfall saturated after the rain into a dirty brown river. Philadelphia the beautiful.
I’ve already talked about how many fast food places Philadelphia International has. Maybe it was me, but the American people coming home appeared noticeably less healthy than their European counterparts; less fit, more stressed looking. It wasn’t strange to suddenly understand what everyone around me was saying again, and it had never been not to. I never felt isolated in Europe because I couldn’t understand the language. In fact, sometimes at home I wish I didn’t understand the language.
My first thought getting off the plane was, I can’t wait to travel again. It had been too abrupt an end to this trip and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had stayed out longer. But even three months is enough to give you some reverse culture shock. I had never had anything to compare our American ways to (Belarus being but a distant memory of a playground, farms, and apartment buildings – things common to the U.S.), but after Europe, roads seemed disproportionately big, highways and Home Depots ugly. It really is a vast country scrunched closer in the east coast. It took a while to readjust to driving everywhere again when I’d been walking and taking trains (my new love… most of the time). But the biggest surprise was how much things had stayed exactly the same, especially when I felt I hadn’t. I was determined not to fall back into my old habits – but I did. I drove and became lazy.
My mind and body both lagged behind actual events. With walking every day I’d developed an appetite to match my energy output (see: kebabs), but the walking 95% stopped as of the next day. My appetite, however, took a while to readjust. For the first week I ate like I was starving and didn’t know what was wrong with me; it wasn’t like, I’m bored, I think I’ll have these cookies. It was like, must eat can’t think. This is legitimately an effect to be wary of. It took weeks for my apptetite to readjust to my new, much humbler activity level.
On the mental side, the first night I dreamt of still being in Krakow, sitting in the hostel and picking the next destination. The next night I was elsewhere in Poland, and the night after that again, and by the fourth it faded to somewhere vaguely in Europe until it stopped altogether. I couldn’t deny the feeling that I’d found the scent of something out there which continued to pull me onward, and left in the middle of a life. This felt, in a way, like a very long detour. And that I could fly back anytime and pick up right from where I left off.