I’m not sure which is more strange: returning to a place that was once home and hardly recognizing it, or returning to a place that was once home and seeing the things that appear to be just as you left them six years ago.
It’s been just over a week since we arrived in Arlington, Virginia, the final destination of our month-long Great American Road Trip, and our home for the next eight months. We have gotten settled in our apartment, scoped out the plentiful assortment of restaurants, cafes, shops, and parks within walking distance, and taken Frieda to a couple of dog parks in the area to stretch her legs and sprint out some energy. It’s not easy for a pup to live in an apartment on the twenty-first floor of a high rise, after all.
Arlington had been my home for several years after college. In fact, the northern Virginia / Washington, DC area is the closest response I can muster when anyone asks where I am from, as I have lived in this area for about twelve years over the course of my life. Yet, at this moment, it feels nothing like home to me. With concrete jungles and crowds of people buried in their phones while walking down the street everywhere I turn, the area has exploded since I left for Minneapolis in 2008, in many ways bearing little resemblance to the northern Virginia I used to know.
Apparently, living in the Midwest and then Mexico spoiled me socially. I became accustomed to people who greet each other on the street, and smiled if they made eye contact. Here, we stand together in the elevator in silence, almost as though our neighbors are deliberately averting their eyes lest they have to speak. On more than one occasion, my “good morning” has been met with utter silence. I ask myself, is this something new, or did I simply not notice it before? Worse still, was I this cold and aloof when I lived here? People seem detached from one another, their heads bowed and focused only on the tiny screens between their fingers. When did this happen?
I walked into a bakery/cafe a few days ago, prompted by the Help Wanted sign in the window, thinking that perhaps this could be a good opportunity for me to gain some hands-on experience in a professional kitchen. Now hiring, the sign said. Seeking enthusiastic, friendly individuals to join our team. When I asked the employee inside for a job application and inquired about the position, he was anything but enthusiastic, and friendly is not exactly how I would have described his demeanor. Is it the concrete jungle that makes people this way? I felt disappointed and unmotivated to apply for the job.
I don’t remember Arlington being quite this way.
Even amidst such transformation, there are things that have not changed a bit, and seeing them now is surreal, if not even a bit eerie. The running trails that used to be so familiar to me are still here, just as hilly and difficult as they always were. I ran by my old apartment last week, wondering how and why it hadn’t been demolished and replaced with one of the fancy towers so ubiquitous throughout Arlington. I even saw the same gentleman I used to see every morning, when I lived here, like clockwork, walking on the trail in a button-down shirt and khaki trousers, as though not a day had gone by since I left. I wondered whether he had been walking on the trail every day for the last six years.
The purpose of our time here is for M. to learn Russian and complete professional training at the Foreign Service Institute in preparation for our next overseas post in Riga, Latvia, for which we will be departing in May. As for me? I have what I like to call a flexible schedule, which I intend to fill by cobbling together a mix of running, teaching Frieda a few more manners, learning some Latvian, experimenting in the kitchen, volunteering, and putting a more serious effort into my writing. Don’t get me wrong; I fully enjoy having a flexible schedule, but there is a (large) part of me that feels like I should be working. I had an opportunity to do so (aside from the bakery), but decided instead to pursue a few other things during this short gap in my more normal working life.
Meanwhile, I am trying to overcome this feeling of culture shock that I haven’t experienced since I returned home from the Peace Corps ten years ago. On the bright side, I am excited to be able to spend lots of quality time with dear friends and family while we are here. And, it is certainly refreshing to be able to walk around freely, especially after dark, and to be able to access so many services, including a swimming pool, multiple parks and running trails, and a library all without taking our car out of the garage. Home or not, this is what we’ve got for the next eight months, so we are trying to soak in all of the good stuff while we are here.
Thank you for reading!