From the Outside Looking in

Where now?
Where now?

It’s winter outside. When I say winter, I’m not talking about the lovely season between autumn and spring, but rather the debilitating time of year where the world has turned to late night television static and Albert Camus’ views on suicide become perfectly reasonable. The weather here does have its perks, sure – then again, so does clubbing baby seals and excessive cocaine use – but you won’t see me writing about it today.

A week ago, I was in the States, the first time since 2007. This was the fourth time I’ve returned home in the almost seven years I’ve lived in Poland and the second time with my wife. On the way to the States, in a layover in Frankfurt, I realized that I no longer feel like a foreigner in Poland. It didn’t occur to me until I was surrounded by German and signs I could not read. Also, there’s an alarming purposefulness in the way Germans walk, a slight determination in their mannerisms that feels positively foreign once you’ve spent any length of time in the almost lackadaisical disarray that Poles seem to thrive upon. This isn’t meant to put them down, it works in its own way, and I’ve find myself identifying with it more often than not.

Frankfurt was only a teaser. Stepping off the plane in America was like entering an alternate reality; one I knew enough to recognize but differed enough to put me off. Americans in Poland, especially in the summer when they arrive in greater numbers, are loud, and seem perfectly content in advertising who and what they are, especially when expressing their displeasure.

And being in America was like going to a commercial break, when suddenly the volume jumps up. Everybody is inexplicably in a hurry – even if it means getting to the next red light – and they possess a sense of entitlement towards everything, a trait that should feel positive, but comes across as being morose instead. How is it that America is the supposedly the greatest country in the world and everybody looks so miserable?

I think about the America I miss, and I am concerned by the possibility that the country I long for 5,000 miles away on a cold winter day like this one never really existed, that I took the Horatio Alger mythology and the Whitmanesque romantic notions and constructed something warped and impractical. And then I read all these articles and watch all these video clips filled with people explaining what America needs and the things that have to be changed. Everyone wants to change the game with new rules – meanwhile no one seems to remember what the original rules were to begin with.

Right. And where was I?

There were things I kept doing wrong. I instinctively said dzienkuje instead of thank you and I kept handing the cashiers my bank card rather than using the convenient machine right in front of me. I kept tuning out conversations like I do in Poland, expecting not to understand everything being said. I ate much more than I should have. I made eye contact with Joe Davison.

Things I welcomed again included having my personal space back, being able to drive without feeling like I was going to die at any moment, and being able to have a completely delicious and unhealthy breakfast at three in the morning. I especially loved seeing Washington DC again after many years, and being able to see it for the amazing place that it is rather than just another city, especially with my wife beside me.

It was also wonderful to see my family and friends, who, more and more, are becoming the sole reasons for my returning to the States. Flying during the holiday season isn’t a pleasant experience, but after being in the company of old friends and the house of my parents, it quickly became worth it.