I've spent most of the last eight years abroad. Most of it alone. I almost forgot about the isolation until a few days ago. The isolation returns after the honeymoon 'can-you-believe I'm here' period ends and work begins. I start to notice the cracks in the facade and then it's here. I start daydreaming about hot showers and washing machines, buffalo wings, and halloween costumes. Extra large snickers bars and NFL football. The isolation seeps into my life when I'm abroad. I start to think I ought to find friends, find a community, build relationships, and seek out a niche. But the truth of it is, I really don't have to do any of that. I just hope to have those moments that last...in between those other moments...when it's silent in the house. The isolation is there. It is always there.
I noticed it in Prague...the evenings staring at an empty dinner table, wondering what movie to watch or CD to play. Or should I go play foosball with Honza and the owner at Bar 69 and drink a pitcher? When to go to bed really doesn't matter if you don't have to wake up until four the next afternoon. When is it time to go out, find a bar, meet people? What was my excuse to wander this part of town, right now, in the middle of the day? Exploration or curiosity or boredom, or all three? Or did I just want to fit in, be apart of a place without having to be with someone else. Like one of those cool goth chicks who go to cafes, read novels, and daydream of Trent Rezner. In Prague there was always another me, another American seeking me, the commonality of an upbringing or sports bringing two idle wanderers onto the same team for a night. Maybe an exchange of numbers and a friendship would ensue. Or not. Maybe it was a late night chawarma and "Fargo" at three in the morning. Cigarettes burning on the window cill. Snow falling sideways. More silence. And then listless sleep. When I wake up, more quiet...
if you want to know the truth, I never really like seeing another me. I never know when to start a conversation and how to call it off once it starts going south. How nice do I have to be because he's from Eugene and she's from Colorado? I always cringe when I spot a Red Sox hat, a beer gut, a fanny pack, tube socks, or a brand new Patagonia fleece.
"Where are you from? Why are you here? What an exciting adventure! Aren't you afraid? You came here alone? What does your family think of it all?"
It's always the same conversation. Polite and uncomfortable. Better just to avoid eye-contact and proceed to the nearest exit.
In Ukraine, the isolation grew. How could it not with the winter and the Black Sea. The cold, awful freezing wind, putting on the same gloves, hat and coat each day. The harsh Russian language and tourist graveyard that was Odessa, The City of Humor. Except there wasn't much. There was the teachers' room, the classroom, Derebbossivskaya Avenue and - if you were lucky - a weekend event planned. But there was also the vodka. Even if you didn't remember it the next morning, you probably had made friends the night before. Cloudy mornings, a lesson to plan, maybe a train ride to Kyiv to look forward to the next Friday after class. Other teachers become your saviors. So many nights spent boiling potatoes and cabbage and cold soup, drinking bad Ukrainian beer before going out, laughing about a student we all knew. Watching soccer in empty sports bars just because we knew the others would show. Sooner or later everyone showed. The days with no electricity, no hot water, when you didn't have to ask your colleagues why their hair looked like Flock of Seagulls and they smelled like the train to Poland. The common understanding we all shared, what we had as friends and colleagues..was knowing those good times were those moments you wanted...the moments we spent together to offset the silence and the isolation and those other moments.
In Asia, it was a separate sort of isolation. A physical difference and a bit less blending in. Working harder, for more money, brought the responsibility of employment but also the reticence to Go Big.There's something to standing on a packed train full of suits and hairy legged-women. Employers had expectations of me. I really did have something to lose. I really did need to walk the fine line. I had to pick my spots when I wanted to Go Big. I was in my thirties. I had to dance around the expat hashbars, I'm twenty-two and I don't give a f---Ijustwannarage attitude prevalent with teachers younger than me. This was the phase in Korea, in Japan, in the pensions travleling thru southeast Asia, and on the overnight trains in between hostels. I started having a conscience, two-day hangovers, meloncholy and fatigue, pangs of guilt about where my life was heading...thoughts of the future and making something of my time. Isolation wasn't as fun anymore.
And then to Mexico and the tortillas and tacos and cerveza, ordering it all in Spanish (or trying to) and the poverty and wonderfully awful air I breathed every day. Still no Americans or allies, just strange looks on the buses, friendly people who thought Godknowswhat about why I was in their little town, carrying text books and a jug of coffee, chalk on my jeans, and the accent of a gringo with no street cred. Before I knew it, I was on chicken buses in Guatemala, grad school in less than a month, freaking out about re-entering my own country again, Christmases and Thanksgivings already planned, cultural deviations out the window. In short, conformity and accountability. The whirlwind of travel and chaos and uprooting a life you barely understood when you were living there and now you're going back to it and all your friends are married with two kids and a third on the way and Facebook-posting is the equivalent of catching up with old buddies and nobody has time to re-hash the past unless it's happy hour. And even then, they can only stay for one because dinner's getting cold.
I am mostly comfortable in this isolationist paradise. I'm comfortable getting stares, being different, being left alone. But very uncomfortable besieged with requests. I do much better with less to do than with the restrictions, commitments, normalcy, and a routine....that makes life comfortable but not unique. Or wacky. Or unpredictable.
People are starting to call me by name around campus. Black, collegiate men in their twenties who know me. I always say hi then spend the next ten seconds trying to remember who they were. I usually have no idea. Not by name anyway. I keep walking and get more stares. People are curious but leave me be, watch me but don't follow me. I am an oddity.
Ben, the village neighborhood kid, came by this morning after a month's absence. He wanted something again. Money. First, it was companionship, then water, then the bathroom facilities, now cash. Cash for a trip to Entebbe with his class. And it really bums me out.
"Why do you think to ask me?" I ask him. "What makes me the guy and not your parents, your relatives or your older brothers?"
I knew the answer but I wanted to hear him say it. But he just smiles and looks away. The whole thing just set me off...
I had another one of those conversations with Dan yesterday about money. He still hasn't paid me back the cash I lent him three weeks ago. After promising to twice, yesterday he finally came clean.
"I think I'll have to do some laundry to repay you...."
"But I do my own laundry."
"You know, the lecturers that lived here before had me work for them," he begins. I can see where he's headed with this one. "The one from Indiana gave some stuffs to do and-"
"Dan, I'm not here to put you to work. As much as I appreciate it, I don't need your help. I appreciate you mopping my floor, but beyond that...I can kinda take care of myself..."
I listen to gospel voices, birds cawing, and the occasional child laughing. The wind picks up and dries my clothes on the line. I read more, wash my kitchen sink, and cook potatoes and sausages. Sunday Brunch.
I'm through my day essays and now just have the evening's group to go. 51 down and 23 remain. I start in on a few of those and then put them down. I think about Ben some more. I think about the mindset of a black boy asking a white man for money. A man he barely knows. And I wonder where he learned it. Is it instilled from the moment he's on the streets, watching his world work? Do his parents hammer it home? Either way, it's rampant and he's not to blame. And, no, I don't think it helps to open the floodgates. If I say yes today, he'll come back tomorrow. The pattern repeats itself, with Dan, with Ben, with everyone who wants something.
Time to go out and find life in this day. This breathy, windy, liturgic, Sunday that - like so many before it - is silent. Everything I do is contingent on choices I will make alone. Do I read, do I take a boda, do I go to a cafe, to a bar, to a museum, to a park? No matter what, no one is going to bat an eyelid whether I do or I don't. There's freedom in that, but also fear. Fear of not doing anything and regretting it. Fear of wasting time. Fear of the unavoidable debate I have with myself, of my choices and their consequences. Is there anything I really should be doing?
Actually, there isn't.