No Smart Phone, No (okay, almost no) Problem

By the time I’d decided to go to Toronto, it was too late. My original plan had been to only be in Canada for a day: drive to the Ontario side of Niagara Falls from Grand Rapids, Michigan; spend the night; wake up early to see the Falls at sunrise; continue on to upstate New York.

But then a job assignment–a research piece on Toronto–popped into my inbox as I was settling in for the night in Niagara Falls. I wouldn’t have much time there–just a quick day and overnight. It wasn’t how I wanted to see Toronto for the first time; it didn’t fit neatly into my roadtrip itinerary. But it was only two hours away. And, since it was for work, I could write it off for tax expenses. So I said yes, and the next morning found myself driving north instead of south, west instead of east.

It didn’t dawn on me that I’d have no cell service or that my credit card company might put a hold on my card until I was about 30 minutes outside the city. Since I’d only planned to be in Canada for 24 hours or so, I hadn’t looked into the daily rate for international service or called my credit card company to let them know I’d be out of the country. And, given my time crunch to see all the things I’d come to Toronto specifically to see, I didn’t have time to stop by my Airbnb first to use my host’s cell phone or look up information on what it would set me back to turn my data on.

At first I panicked a little bit. I’m a planner; I don’t like unexpected potholes impeding my speed-walk pace. But, after the parking garage accepted my credit card and the ATM gave me the cash I would need in case I did run into problems, I eased up and realized that this could be fun. Could be an opportunity. Could be a nice change from the smart-phone aided travel I’d grown so accustomed to since caving and saying goodbye to my LG Chocolate in 2012.

So I went for it. I still used Google Maps as an alternative to the paper map and guide book combo I relied on in 2009 when sprinting around Europe for a month following my semester in Spain, but other than that, it was just me and the city. No text messages interrupting my rhythm. No pressure to be constantly Instagramming or tweeting. No Internet-aided information. Just the people, places and experiences in front of me, and the occasional borrowing of Starbucks WiFi to get my bearings and make sure I hadn’t wandered too far off course (see: previous blog post about my lack of internal compass).

Leaving Canada the next day, I waited a while before turning my data back on. I was enjoying the (brief) break from being constantly connected to people and instantly knowing what was happening around the world at all times. I know it’s entirely possible to set boundaries and have that kind of distance on a regular basis. But I’m not great with boundaries and, as a journalist–even worse: a freelance journalist who relies heavily on last-minute projects and being available–it’s not always responsible for me to be off the grid for too long.

Excuses aside, my little Canadian adventure reminded me that technology is wonderful, but it’s not necessary. It’s nice to not know every little thing about each landmark and neighborhood you’re in. It’s nice to just observe, ponder, daydream and–brace yourself–ask people for information, insights and advice. It’s nice to buy a ticket from a scalper and sit next to total strangers and learn the different songs and cheers of a Blue Jays game than a Twins game; to ask the baby-faced kid selling beer what the best local choice was, and then smile politely as he butchers the description of a lager vs. a pale ale and buy the beer he thinks is the hoppy one anyway to make him feel good (plus, it was beer, and I like lagers, so it was all good). It’s nice to leave your phone in your purse or pocket or backpack and have both hands free. It’s not always practical, but, once in a while, it’s nice.

I turned my data back on somewhere around Buffalo, New York. A couple text messages floated into my inbox, as did a few social media updates, emails and missed calls. The rest of my trip–through upstate New York, Philadelphia, down the coasts of Delaware and Maryland to Suffolk, Virginia, up to Pittsburgh, over to Chicago and back home–carried on per usual. But that reminder of life before smart-phone travel has stuck with me. Even if it’s just looking up and taking in my surroundings more, or asking for directions instead of turning to Google–little things–I’m going to try to leave my phone out of the equation more often. Plus, having two free hands is pretty nice. You should try it sometime.

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The Illusion of Peace

One of my neighbor’s alarms is “Taps.” It went off at 7 a.m this morning and for some reason had an echoing, far away sound that made it seem as though it were coming from an actual bugler on a hill off in the distance, rousing the troops for morning exercises, rather than from a phone across the hall from me.

The sound triggered memories of being in Mostar, Bosnia, and hearing the call to worship. It was my first time seeing minarets and mosques and hearing the call–six times a day, beginning just before sunrise–and it was beautiful in an eerie, foreign sort of way.

The towers poked up from the city like toothpicks, tall and skinny and prominent. They were not to be missed; they were not to be ignored. I’d never been in a Muslim-majority country and hadn’t really thought about religion when I was planning my trip. I thought about the Schengen Zone and the EU and language barriers and currency, but not religion. Not that it affected anything on a practical level: I was still free to walk the streets; I was still welcomed into the places I sought to go. But it wasn’t insignificant.

Religion has caused most, if not all, of the conflicts and wars in the Balkan region. Muslims fighting Christians, Christians fighting Muslims. Some officials will point to land battles or strategic advantage points as the reason behind centuries of bombing, killing, forced evacuations and the infliction of terror on ordinary citizens. And in so far as Bosnia and Herzegovina is located at a convenient crossroads between West and East with easy access to the Adriatic Sea (albeit through a tiny slice of Croatia, which extends as a thin strip of land all the way east to Montenegro save for a dot of land–Neum–that, oddly, is still Bosnia; no doubt the complicated and controversial 1995 Dayton Peace Accords had something to do with that) that explanation could be seen as logical. But it’s not the whole story. It’s never the whole story.

The story is fear. The story is power. The story is pride. The story is hatred. The story is the same story that has played out too many times in too many places, and is taking place right now everywhere. It’s the story of you don’t look like me, you don’t talk like me, you don’t believe in what I believe in, and I don’t understand you therefore I fear you. I dislike you. I feel uncomfortable around you. I want you gone.

Sometimes it looks like ignoring someone on the bus or the street. Sometimes it looks like giving someone mediocre service or a sneer instead of a smile. And sometimes it looks like violence, rage, abuse and war. Or, in the case of the Yugoslav Wars: ethnic cleansing.

The violence has subsided for the most part in the Balkan region in that it’s taking place on a “normal” scale: gang violence, the burning down of opposition party buildings, fights between individuals instead of nations. But the fear and uncertainty, feeling of displacement and unwelcomeness is still there.

Approximately 100,000 people were killed in former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995; 80% of those men, women and children were Bosniaks. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica--the largest massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. A country doesn’t recover quickly from that. Racism, nationalism, hate and fear don’t just subside once a peace treaty is signed.

I spoke to several men, women and young adults who saw friends and family members murdered in front of them; who were forced to leave their homes and walk for days without stopping because people who had weeks earlier been their neighbors had suddenly decided that, due to a difference in religion or ancestry or appearance, they were entitled to take over the homes, lives and freedom of other human beings. It’s been 22 years and people still can’t return to their homes. Distrust between ethnic Serbs and Albanians still simmers beneath the surface. Government officials still use racism and nationalism to rally people to their point-of-view and to feed the fear that they need their constituents to feel in order to stay in power.

The story in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Serbia, in Kosovo is the same as the story in Minneapolis, in Orlando, in Charleston. It’s the story of unjustified fear and hate, intolerance and insecurity. A peace treaty was signed 22 years ago to “solve” the Bosnian crisis just as a Civil Rights Act was signed 53 years ago to “solve” the issue of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in the United States. The laws are there. But they’re meaningless unless the people to whom they apply take them to heart and choose to change the story.

Smile and Wave

Walking to the coffee shop this morning I passed the usual unusual mix of people you encounter mid-morning on a Monday:

A short, portly, bald man leaving his house, shuffling across his unmown lawn to his car, slowing down to look at me and ask me how I was doing. “Pretty good,” I answered. “How are you?” “OK,” he said. “I’m OK.”

A pair of Hispanic men discussing something in depth, one of them pausing to toss a piece of trash into an oversize dumpster.

A construction worker standing off to the side of his work site, pretending to look busy studying a blueprint but really checking his phone.

My favorite came a block away from the cafe. As I contemplated how sweaty I’d gotten in such a short walk, I glanced down and saw a middle-aged woman approaching me pushing a double stroller. Strapped into the side-by-side seats were petite identical twin girls, about two years old. Bright blond hair, fine skin, delicate build, they looked like little dolls, barely filling the seats. As soon as I looked their way, they smiled and waved at me–same time, same smile, same hand, same wave. They looked so genuinely pleased to see me, to greet me, I couldn’t help but smile and wave back.

The moment only lasted a few seconds, and neither girl will remember the interaction (nor the identical interactions they’d likely already had with all the people they’d already passed on their morning stroll), but for some reason it struck me. It was so pure, so spontaneous, so real–so unlike so many interactions we (read: adults) have on a day-to-day basis. More than that, it was simple–just a smile and a wave–and yet it elevated my morning from average to temporarily delightful.

Indiscriminately smiling and waving at everyone you pass probably isn’t a great idea. But the occasional nod or smile or moment of eye contact with a passing stranger, barista, server or fellow coffee-shop goer might go a long way. It never hurts to be kind to someone. And hopefully it will lead to that someone being kind to someone else in return.

 

Happy Wanderer

I woke up on a recent Friday morning with the urge to drive. No destination in mind, no timeline involved: just get in the car, point in a certain direction, and go.

I pulled up Google Maps and started scrolling around Minnesota. I wanted to see a town I’d driven past or through but never really stopped to see; to get off the highway and crisscross my way through the communities just beyond the Top Travel Destinations of Duluth, Ely, Grand Marais, and Bemidji. As I zoomed in on that chunk of the state, a name popped out at me: Happy Wanderer. Sold.

Climbing into my trusty Toyota Yaris (his name is Murphy; we are inseparable; yes, I realize it’s just a car and not even a cool one at that, but that doesn’t deter my loyalty or my love toward him) with snacks and podcasts in tow, I set off. It was a perfect blue-sky day, just cool enough to avoid needing A/C. I drove north on I-35, allowing myself to get lost in the stories of gangsters and corrupt politicians as told by “Crimetown” and stopping only to refuel on caffeine via a can of Blackeye Coffee nitro cold press (PSA: they’re at Holiday gas stations; you’re welcome). I got to Duluth just in time for the lunch rush (then again, summer in Duluth is a constant breakfast/lunch/dinner/post-dinner rush), grabbed my Northern Water Smokehaus sandwich to go, and got back on the road as quickly as possible.

Happy Wanderer is located in the middle of the Superior National Forest. It is equidistant from Babbitt and Isabella (approximately 35 minutes from each) and appears to be reasonably accessible–just off Highway 1, with a little jaunt on smaller roads as you near it. At least that’s how you’d get there if you were paying attention and had done any semblance of research on the condition of backroads in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota.

The route I took to get to Happy Wanderer was a little less direct. In one of my podcasts (I was on to “Invisibilia” now), Eagles Nest, Minnesota, was mentioned. The story intrigued me and, when I pulled up the city on my map, it was close (enough) to where I already was, so I decided to make a detour. Making the detour to Eagles Nest (not actually a town, it turns out, rather a scattering of homes and cabins along a scattering of lakes, just north of Bear Head Lake State Park) took me far enough off my original path that I reentered the coordinates for Happy Wanderer into my phone and decided to take a more scenic route to get there. Because that’s always a good idea, right?

You’d think I would have learned my lesson about under-researched “good idea scenic routes” while in Europe. My miles-long detour to see a less-than-worthy tourist trap in Lisbon. My genius decision to hike up to the castle in Sintra. My poorly planned day-long sprint across Scotland that ended with me almost getting hit by the bus I needed to catch. But apparently I have a short memory for self-inflicted travel trials, so instead of being cautious of my sudden change of plans, I defaulted to, “What could be the harm?”

The harm, as I soon found out, would be a narrow, gravel-and-dirt road riddled with potholes the size of my tires, puddles the size of my hood, and boulders sharp and large enough to destroy my poor little Murphy. The “scenic route” I’d chosen had taken me from Eagles Nest through Soudan and Tower, down MN-135 to Wahlsten, along Highway 21, and onto roads called Forest Route 112, National Forest Route 424, and Forest Route 178. Perhaps the words “forest” and “route” taking the place of words like “highway” or “road” would raise red flags for most people. And perhaps, most of the time, I would be included in that “most people” category. But for whatever reason–the sunshine, the freedom of having no timeline and no agenda, the small-town charm and combination of lakes, open prairie, forest, and streams surrounding me–no red flags were raised. I was going to Happy Wanderer. I was a happy wanderer.

At least until I got to Forest Route 178. Then I was a worried wanderer.

Looking back, I don’t know why I continued. It was obvious that my car was not equipped to handle the kind of off-roading I was forcing it into. I had no idea how bad conditions would get or what I would do if I got stuck in one of the holes or popped a tire. I had no cellphone service, no extra gas, no flat surface on which I could change a flat, and no desire to become an early dinner for the dozens of giant horseflies diligently following me on my misguided foray into the wilderness. Yet I kept going. I kept swerving around the puddles and boulders, kept easing Murphy through the potholes, kept breathing despite my racing heart and Red Alert brain telling me to stop being a stubborn idiot and turn around before it was too late.

And then, it all came to a halt. The road to Happy Wanderer was blocked by a barrier saying it was government property and only authorized vehicles were allowed. My mission had come to an end.

Unsure as to how long a drive it would be (or what the conditions facing me would be) if I continued on Route 178 to Highway 1, I had no choice but to turn around and slowly backtrack through the now-familiar potholes, fallen trees, puddles, and horseflies back to National Forest Route 424, Forest Route 112, and Highway 21.

Somehow I made it back to Tower with little more than a few new scratches and a lot of mud on Murphy. My gas tank had been on empty for far longer than I though it would last, and indeed was very empty as I pumped unleaded into it and watched as it reached its 10-gallon limit. It was 6pm–much later than I’d planned my turn-around time to be; I still had a five-and-a-half-hour drive back to St. Paul. But as I scrubbed my windshield and waited for the gas to finish pumping, I saw the sunset. And I felt the breeze. And I realized I wasn’t tired yet–maybe due to adrenaline, maybe due to the copious amounts of caffeine still buzzing through my veins due to the Blackeye cold press. And on top of all that, I still had plenty of podcast episodes (“This American Life” for the win!) to keep me occupied.

So, with a fresh tank of gas, clean windshield, bottle of iced tea, and stash of snacks at hand, I got back on the road, gave a little shout-out of praise for it being paved, and set my cruise control. It was time to head home.

The Love Language of Food

There’s never enough room for all the food at our family gatherings. Platters and bowls crowd every passably flat surface near the kitchen. Cool Whip-topped desserts mingle with Miracle Whip-heavy salads. Vegetable trays compete for attention with bags of chips. Mounds of watermelon and jars of pickles squeeze between hotdish pans, Crock Pots, plates of meat, and miscellaneous specialty dishes. There could be 10 people or 50, and the amount of food would be the same, save for a pan or two of bars. Feeding people is our duty, our talent, and to run out of food–well, that would be among the greatest of sins.

At the most recent extended-family gathering, 40 people crammed into my grandparents’ two-bedroom cinder-block cabin. They filled their Styrofoam plates (you need Styrofoam for meals like this; paper plates–even the heavy duty ones–simply can’t handle the weight of such a bounty) with as much of the smorgasbord as possible before returning outside to claim a spot at a picnic table. The stream of people going in and out of the cabin was steady–a constant rotation of men, women, children, and teens pacing themselves so as to balance polite conversation while making sure they didn’t miss out on seconds of favorite desserts and dishes.

To newcomers, the scene must look like total chaos. There is some order to the ritual–gather as close to the food as possible, pray the common table prayer, wait the appropriate amount of time* to allow the littlest kids and hungriest teens to dish up before casually inching toward the table to fill your own plate (*as can only be learned by being a Minnesotan from birth and/or for as many years as is needed to learn our odd ways), claim a desirable spot at a desirable table while ensuring the best seats are saved for the elderly, eat quickly while simultaneously chatting and engaging with guests, keep an eye out to see when everyone has dished up their first plate and wait the appropriate amount of time (see above asterisk) before dishing up a second, repeat last step until stuffed–but only if you’ve been around it your whole life. It’s the Minnesotan luncheon equivalent of a contemporary dance performance: The patterns and reasoning behind the movements are there, but they’re hidden beneath layers of surface-level distractions and seemingly contradictory actions.

Near the end of this mid-day July weekend feast, my 16-year-old cousin turned to me and said, “I wonder if it would be possible for us to ever eat all the food at one of these things.” I laughed, shook my head, and told him not if he didn’t want everyone to get sick or go into a sugar-induced food coma.

I kept thinking about his comment throughout the weekend and following week. For such a simple observation, it was also very telling. About our family. About how we show we care. About how we’ve been trained to give more, to share more. About how on the surface it may look like we’re just gathering to eat a meal together, but by taking the time to make favorite dishes and feed one another we’re really telling one another we love each other and enjoy each other’s company.

Every family has their traditions and quirks, and my family is no exception. The things we deem as normal are only normal in our inner-circle definition of the word. (Singing “Happy Birthday” for as many people as have birthdays that month and clapping after each round, for example, is not normal, as I quickly found out after attending friends’ family birthday gatherings.) Our eccentricities may or may not outweigh those of other families. The mountains of food and pounds of leftovers after even small gatherings could be seen as excessive and unnecessary. But it all adds up to who we are and how we are: how we love, how we care, how we connect. We may never be able to eat all the food we bring to the table, but that just means we’ll never leave the table empty.

The long way home

The taxi was scheduled to take us to the airport at 4am on Sunday, February 26. We’d only been in Athens a day, but had seen plenty in our 10 or so hours of exploring and were ready to go home.

At least I was ready to go home.

I can’t speak for my friend, R, and how she was feeling about returning to work and grad school and life as usual back in Minnesota after joining me for a little over a week in Greece. But as for me, I felt tired. Road-weary. Saturated with experiences wild and mundane, grand and grating. I couldn’t wrap my head around doing anything more than getting to the airport, getting on a plane to London, getting to my hotel, and, the next day, getting on a plane to go home.

In retrospect, I should have expected my last full day of cross-continent travel wouldn’t be easy. Sure, I’d survived 147 days of buses, trains, planes, Ubers, taxis, metros, trams, and hiking, but when I arrived in London — an English-speaking country after so many months away from seeing or hearing English with any regularity — I let my guard down. I fumbled. Big time — repeatedly.

First, I should mention I was off my game in part because I was off balance. Literally. Due to the ever-fabulous world of budget flying, even though R’s backpack was completely within Air France’s carry-on limitations, they told her she’d have to check it, because they’d decided they were going to check everyone’s luggage that day. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but R had a tight turnaround time in Paris to catch her flight to Minneapolis, and were she to have to check her bag and reclaim it at baggage before heading through round two of security and customs, she wouldn’t make it.

We’d thought this might happen, and the night before had decided that if she wasn’t able to carry her backpack on, I would take it for her. It would only cost another $20 or so for my Ryanair flight to London from Athens and, for my flight home, it would be free: I would just check The Beast and carry R’s bag on with me. I was fine with the plan — her bag wasn’t nearly as heavy as mine and it would only be for a short time and a short distance of walking. Or so I thought.

Cue complication Number One. When I booked my flight home from Europe, I also booked a room at what I thought was the Hilton connected to Terminal 4 at Heathrow. Turns out, there are two Hilton Heathrow Hotels, one being the Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport, the other being the Hilton London Heathrow Airport Hotel. Both hotels advertise their proximity to Terminal 4, and both popped up on Expedia with deals. Turns out, I had clicked on the Garden Inn option, which is close to Terminal 4, but not connected to Terminal 4.

I didn’t realize this until I was on the bus from Stansted Airport to Heathrow at 9:45am on Sunday. I’d been awake since 3:30am Athens time (1:30am London time) and was feeling out of sorts for many reasons. I was going home the next day. I was exhausted. I had a third backpack with me. I’d just paid $35 for a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride between airports after growing accustomed to paying around $15 for six- to eight-hour bus rides that took me all over Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I smelled of sweat and exhaust fumes and dirt. And on top of all of that, I had a sinking feeling that the hotel I thought I was going to spend the night at wasn’t the one I had booked a night at.

All of this hit me at once and, without fully realizing what was happening until it was happening, I started quiet crying while looking out the window at the decidedly uninteresting landscape filling the space between the airports.

I let my mini pity party go on for a while, then blew my nose and forced myself into planning mode. I pulled up my Expedia email, confirmed that my sinking feeling had been correct, and started Googling to see how I could get to the Hilton Garden Inn now that my plan to just walk through a skyway was thwarted. After poking around Google Maps and the hotel’s website, I discovered that from Terminal 4 it was a two-stop tube ride to get near enough to the hotel to walk. Not ideal, but it was something. Done. Plan made.

The bus arrived at Terminal 4 and I heaved The Beast onto my back, clicked him into place, then fidgeted with the other two bags to try to find a comfortable way to carry them without losing circulation in my arms. After a few minutes of jostling and hoisting, I realized there was no ideal bag-to-arm ratio, and that I would just have to settle for the tried and true approach of “just make it work.” Off we went.

I waddled my way downstairs to the underground station, found the ticket machines, and was just about to buy a one-way ticket to Hatton Cross when a man appeared beside me and said, “There’s a free bus to Hatton Cross upstairs.” I should note that as I write this, fully rested and having just eaten breakfast and not lugging 40 pounds of gear around, I realize that this man was being helpful, was being kind. But at the time, all I could think about was the fact that he’d put a twist in my already broken and taped-together plan, and I was more annoyed than happy with his little tip. However, I’m not one to pass up free when the alternative is $6 for a two-minute ride, so I asked which bus it was, where I could catch it, said thank you, and made my way back upstairs.

The bus I needed pulled up to stall 6 just as I got my bearings outside the terminal. Running was out of the question at this point, so I fast-waddled my way toward the bus and silently (or maybe not — it’s hard to say what was in my head and what was out loud at this point of my travels) willed the driver to see me and have enough pity to wait for me. Whether he saw me and just didn’t care or just didn’t see me doesn’t matter, because not only did he not wait, but he pulled away just as I was close enough to yell, “Wait! Please!” at the closing doors. Too tired to be embarrassed, I threw what may qualify as a straight up hissy fit (no tears, stomping, dramatically dropping my bags and throwing my head back, and uttering a few choice words) before once again forcing my brain to try to think up yet another alternative-alternative plan.

I remembered the man downstairs saying two buses would go to Hatton Cross. The bus that had just ditched me was the 490; all I had to do was wait for the 482. He’d also said I could catch the buses at stalls 6 or 7. I’d just missed my option at stall 6 and saw a line forming at stall 7, so I headed that way and assumed it was what I needed.

One of my mom’s favorite things to say to me growing up was, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” My friends always got a kick out of it (probably because hearing my mom say “ass” was as shocking as when you discover in elementary school that your teachers actually have lives outside of the classroom), and it always annoyed me, but it also stuck with me and has proven solid advice in many situations — including my experience at stall 7 outside of Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport.

Instead of asking the bus driver of bus 482 if he did, indeed, stop at Hatton Cross, when the bus arrived I simply squeezed myself through the doors, plopped onto a row of seats, and allowed myself to relax. That lasted approximately two minutes — then the sinking feeling that something wasn’t right crept back into my stomach. I pulled out my phone again, and again turned to Google Maps, and watched as the little blue dot drove away from Hatton Cross. We were taking the loop in the opposite direction. I was headed to Terminal 5 — where bus 482 terminated.

Fifteen minutes of riding and another 15 of waiting passed until I boarded the correct bus. Another 20 minutes of riding finally brought me to Hatton Cross. My hotel was only 500 meters away according to Google, but there was one last catch: Part of that 500 meter walk involved climbing two flights of stairs to cross a rickety bridge over the busy highway/roundabout keeping me from a hot shower and soft bed. It was raining and windy and cold, and those stairs looked more treacherous than any 16-mile walk I’d dragged myself through in the past five months.

If you’ve ever seen “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” this is the part of my life story where I become Steve Martin’s character after he discovers his rental car is not in its assigned parking spot, and he has to trudge through sleet and snow and across an interstate to get back to the counter, where he subsequently strings together an impressive amount of F-bombs and other profanity at the too-cheery redhead chirping “gobble, gobble!” to her sister on the phone. In short, I was not pleased.

But somehow my legs and arms made it up and over and down the bridge, across the street, and into the hotel lobby. And somehow my room was ready even though I was 30 minutes early for check-in. And somehow I found the strength to be polite with everyone I encountered — to shield them from the crazy I actually felt. And after eating, showering, changing, and getting everything in order for my flight home the next day, I got to collapse into bed and sleep for 12 hours.

I opted to take the overpriced shuttle from the hotel to Terminal 3 the next morning. Security went quickly, and after spending the rest of my British pounds on lunch, coffee, and a couple books, I did as I always to before flights: people watch and, an hour before boarding, wander. As I walked I tried to think about what it would be like to be back in Minnesota — to see my family and friends, to drive and visit my favorite places. But every time I tried to think about it, I drew a blank: I’d become so accustomed to adjusting to the new, the unknown, that to think about adjusting to “normal” was beyond me.

It’s been a month since I got home; a month since I landed at MSP, debated whether or not I wanted to turn my phone back on, went through customs with surprising speed considering my odd assortment of luggage and many passport stamps, and was welcomed by my mom, dad, and sister (and a text from my brother). It’s been a month, and I’m still adjusting. I don’t know what constitutes “normal” anymore, but I know that I’m getting closer to finding out how the things I learned and experiences I had abroad fit into my life and identity in Minnesota. I’m getting closer. I’m feeling more confident. I’m trying my best. It’s all I can do, and I’m becoming okay with that.

 

Hold on loosely

I don’t know how to dress myself anymore.

I thought after five months of wearing the same three sweaters, two pairs of jeans, black leggings, Patagonia zip-up, and one black “dressy” t-shirt I’d be sick of them all — ready to embrace my closet full of favorite dresses and blouses, sweaters and tops.

Instead, I stare at it all with bewilderment. Then, after a few minutes of standing and staring, I push aside the “new” items and reach for the same sweater I’ve worn countless times since October 4, the same pair of leggings that have seen me through eight-hour bus rides and miles-long hikes, and the same pair of boots that have walked, according to my Fitbit, over 500 miles.

It’s not that I don’t want to wear other clothes, to return to the way I used to dress, to feel the way I used to feel when wearing certain things. But it’s all too much. Too many options. Too many combinations. Too many things. My closet is a Sam’s Club of choices when I’ve grown accustomed to the farmers’ market stall down the road: Just tell me what’s in season and what’s fresh, and I’ll take it. Sold. Done.

Of course, this is about more than clothing. I knew coming back to Minnesota, to my life before five months of just me, my backpack, bus schedules, and Airbnb reservations, would be an adjustment. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, and that I shouldn’t expect it to be the same. In fact, I don’t want it to be the same: If I wanted everything and everyone (myself included) to be the same, I wouldn’t have left in the first place.

I just didn’t realize how much of an adjustment it would be, coming back home — coming back to “normal.” For as many uncertainties as there were to consider when it came to trekking across Europe for 150 days, those unknowns were okay with me. Expected. Exciting. But this — coming back to a place so familiar to me, being surrounded by the people, places, and things I love the most in the world — this is hard. It’s confusing. Challenging.

I keep noticing the little things that have changed since I’ve been away. Relationships that have ended and been replaced. Rearranged artwork on the walls of my parents’ house. New restaurants and shops breathing life into what were dismal stretches of streets. It’s these small updates (maybe not small to those to whom they’ve happened, but small in the larger scheme of things) that have hit me hardest. The big things — deaths, pregnancies, engagements, milestones — popped up in my Facebook and Instagram feeds. They were announced to me via email and messenger, text message and video chat. But the little things? They were just life. Just time passing. Nothing to report on or broadcast — nothing that should be of any concern to me as I packed, unpacked, repacked, and hauled The Beast from city to city, shouting out every now and again to people back home to assure everyone I was alive and well and enjoying the limitless freedom that comes with having no responsibilities aside from staying upright and safe.

Life went on without me here, just as I knew it would, just as it should. And, as it did, my life went on over there. Changes took place and decisions were made. Thoughts were developed and actions were taken. Time marched forward — in different time zones, perhaps, but onward nonetheless.

It’s been six days since I returned home. The jet lag is finally wearing off, my hair is back to the length and color I prefer it to be, and my calendar is filled with dates and times to reconnect with the people closest to my heart. I’m reacclimating to life in Minnesota, readjusting to life with a homebase instead of a temporary apartment.

I know that with more time things will feel more normal and less surprising. But just as I had to adjust to a life of solo travel through 43 cities in 15 countries, so, too, do I need to adjust to life back home. It’s a different sort of adjustment, with different difficulties and different rewards. And while it’s caught me off-guard and left me reeling a little more than I would like, ultimately I know it’s going to be okay: If the last five months have taught me anything, it’s to take life as it comes and, holding on loosely, to allow it to carry me along wherever it may choose to go.