You never realize how culturally ingrained you are until you visit an unfamiliar place, somewhere you hadn’t even known existed before your happenchance physical deposit. I do a lot of travelling, mainly because my nomadic upbringing as the daughter of two Army Colonels has granted me the itchy disposition of home-life instability. Before my years at university I explored the area as far as I could go but still in earshot of my father calling me in, out of the misquotes. It wasn’t the coming of dark my southern parents feared; it was the whining child scratching herself bloody that dragged my blackened bare feet in well before dinnertime.
My first approved adventures often occurred on horseback. As long as I had my riding helmet my mother didn’t care how deep out into the trails Junior and I went. Junior trotted through a hock-high creek dried thin by the summer sun, kicking up just enough water to attract the horse flies. The feel of the wind against my arms without the noise of a motor is now a largely extinct experience. When I traded my companioned four-legged freedom for that of a tiny plastic card and a set of keys, the rules changed. No more than two passengers. Always wear a seatbelt. According to the state of Alabama, curfew for a 16 year-old is midnight. So when I failed to stop long enough at the four-way intersection on Bearden road and Pelham Industrial Parkway, on the last leg of my journey home, the red-and-blue lights were sure to send me to the road’s shoulder. It took the Sheriff six minutes to run my licenses plate, to walk up to my window with his piercing flashlight, and ask me for identification and insurance; two words that start with ‘I’ but don’t ever make you feel like an individual or included. It was now four minutes past midnight. This was one of the many times I learned my father’s occupation could grant me excuses, and loads of wiggle room.
My mother was always moving for work. Maybe it’s that damned glass ceiling still making permanent work an impossibility for her. Or maybe she really wanted to be away from my father despite her paltry attempts at coming home on weekends to “keep the family together.” Whatever it was, it offered me endless opportunities for getaways, independent flights, all on my own, a chance to feel like an adult. I had no idea adult-hood was terrifyingly overrated and something I am still stretching for at 24, five years education, and 23 countries under my belt. But there I was, in a place where my Department of the United States passport did little for me. My mother told me not to go, it was a poor country, a piece of the world those Alabama teachers taught me nothing about.
Leaving London was more difficult, so was the getting back in, boarder patrol asked a few questions, looked me over a bit, scanned my thumb and index finger, and stamped that approving sound I had been so anxious for. The Slovenian boarder patrol stamped my passport without even the slightest look at me. I made attempts to speak as clearly as I could without sounding patronizing. In cafes I sought out the youngest staff members for help, as I was told that they know English and often welcome the interaction and practice with native English speakers.
But the feeling of obscurity wouldn’t pass. Surrounded by flashing lights and smoke rising from hands and mouths to the celling of the industrial park turned nightclub. Familiar chart hits reverberated inside my ribcage. I was alone in a world I couldn’t understand. My excuse: High school only required one year of a foreign language. One year of Spanish won’t help anyone navigate a Spanish-speaking country. “The world knows English,” Mrs. Hicks said to me after I completed my below-average oral exam. The bar tender replenished my drink after my simple gesture to the bottle’s label and returned this sort of sign language with four fingers. I paid my bill and rested my shoulder blades into the cement wall. Three approaches, but all were deterred by my English. That’s what I’d come to believe. I was too American, too ungratefully privileged; I’m sure that’s what they thought. This was the reality of being othered. I’d spent years reading African memoirs, studying Feminist literature and Gender theory. The persona non grata and the uncertainty of existence in an unknown place, none of it’s real when there are only words on a page, just a reader and her book. To be outcast, to be the oddity, the non-native, the illegal happens for so many immigrants. But in true, distasteful American fashion we are all raised in the “greatest country in the world,” not needing anything outside our borders. They call the USA, “the melting pot” but what they don’t run in the headlines are the inherent unspoken ideals of all new immigrants being something less-than, something unplacable. The world’s a bigoted place, un-admittedly.
I left London for a week in Greece and one day in Turkey. I disembarked from the small ship each morning to wander a new place. Surrounded by the amenities I was so accustomed to back in the UK: Starbucks, Full English Breakfast, shops totting tourist themed merchandise that I could pack up and send home. Soaps, key chains, coasters, shot glasses branded with a cultural photo (an olive leaf and twig, a donkey, the iconic bright blue Evil Eye). Trinkets that were made elsewhere at a cheaper price and sold to help the Greek economy. These restaurants and shops attract tourists who fear a possibly unfamiliar holiday. But how do you get away from the comforts of home you’ve grown critical of? How do you let go of your cultural particulars allowing yourself to take-up the world around; I mean really take-up?