Six months after leaving the US, I went back to attend a conference last April. The familiarity of everything American dawned on me at the airport, even before I had left the German soil. I had traveled to four other countries in between, two Asian, and two European. However, none of them involved such an elaborate screening and security check process.
An airline official was ready with a long list of questions at the airport. Am I a terrorist? Am I carrying illegal substances with me? Have I received any unknown package from anyone at the airport? Instead of getting perturbed, I started to re-realize that I am indeed going to the US. I went through this for eight years, and something felt very familiar and strangely reassuring about it.
There was a final point at the airport after I had checked in my bag and gone through security clearance. There was another security checkpoint near the gate. I was traveling with a German colleague, and interestingly, he was allowed to skip that last security check, while they asked me to go through security once more. They even patted me all over this time. I don’t even have to guess why the colleague was allowed to go and I was not.
It was an eight-hour long flight to EWR, followed by another shorter flight to ORD. Things were uneventful during the flight. As we took off, I looked below and strangely, did not feel even an iota of sadness about being away for 1.5 months. For a brief second, I wondered if I should feel anything at all, but let go. It is what it is, and emotions can rarely be forced.
The food was horrible, cold, and bland, the chicken rubbery, and the cutlery all plastic. I knew that I was definitely flying an American airline (On a different note, the best food I have had is while flying Emirates and Turkish Airlines. The last time I flew Turkish, they served an eggplant preparation. I have never tasted a better eggplant preparation before!).
Immigration at EWR was easy-peasy. The officer greeted me in German, and I told him that I understood no German. He checked my documents, asked me why I was here, and that was it. When I said that I used to live in the US, he even added, “Welcome back, and enjoy your stay.”
My next aim was to find a power socket. I suddenly realized that I needed no adaptor (I have to use the American to European adapter in Germany; my laptop is from the US). The power cord fit in perfectly. It was symbolic. It felt like I was back at a place where I fit in perfectly.
Being unlost in translation gave me a high. Suddenly, I could understand every announcement, every small talk people around me made, could navigate around machines and ATMs, and did not have to use the "Translate to English" features anymore. I needed to buy a ticket, and my credit card worked perfectly, not protesting a bit. After using cash for the last six months, I was back to swiping my credit card. These little things gave me a certain comfort that came from the familiarity of how to navigate around and get work done (for example, I have two medical bills in my bag right now, and I have no idea what they say, and if both of them say identical things. So I will wait until Monday to ask a colleague to translate all of that for me. I am of course back in Germany now).
Anyway, back to Chicago. I flagged a cab to take me to my hostel. I was so happy to hear fluent English that I start chatting up. Cab drivers make excellent people for conversation anyway, since they meet so many people on a daily basis. And this one sure was one of the most interesting ones. When not driving cabs, he spends his free time reading about the brain. And learning Deutsche at the nearby cultural center (I was too quick to ask, "Why on earth?"). He told me about the neocortex in the brain, neural network, why old people become forgetful, why people are afraid of studying science, and a bunch of other interesting theories of his. He was from Russia, and knew that New Delhi is the political capital, Mumbai the commercial capital, and Calcutta is the cultural capital of India. I was almost tempted to ask him to have dinner with me, so that I could continue to listen to him. Just listen to him speak interesting things in a language I understood. That is the extent to which I had missed hearing English.
Much later, while dropping dead out of exhaustion in my room did I realize that in my excitement to talk, I did not ask for a receipt. I never got reimbursed for that ride.