But what I seldom admit, even to myself, is the dull ache that often comes when I’m on the road – that sense of distance from my own place in the world, especially the disturbing disorientation of not understanding maybe 30, 50, 70 percent of the action and conversation going on around me. At least, that’s how it is when I’m in another country.
Yeah, you can usually find an English speaker, but that's only when they are talking to you. Otherwise, they are thinking and speaking in a language you may not understand. It would take years before you could eliminate the guesswork factor in watching the news or reading the paper, or making out street signs, menus, or things for sale in the shops.
Why should it be otherwise? You’re the outsider there, you know. And rarely is there a full-time interpreter at your side. For me, almost never. I don’t suppose I need one. But I feel a twinge of jealousy for friends who go on some two-week trip in the expert hands of a guide, never forced to feel the effects of being a stranger in a strange land.
I have enough experience to have a pretty good idea what kinds of things can happen, and the range of ways in which to interpret my surroundings. I can ask questions, or just coast, or charm my way through. But the loss of independence and competence sometimes feels like waking up and not having two arms anymore.
Maybe the typical tourist does not feel it so much. You certainly don’t get pick up on this if you’re just an armchair traveler. Guys like Rick Steves make it look so easy, don’t they? They seem so comfortable with themselves and their host cultures. Maybe if they didn’t have a camera crew, hired drivers and “fixers” (not to mention editors and producers), they wouldn’t go from one wonderful cross-cultural serendipity to another.
But real cross-cultural travel is no more like a travel show than family life is like a sitcom, and it doesn’t wrap up in half an hour. It goes on and on, and while there may be wonderful moments, there's often a lot of pain and confusion in between, just like trying to learn anything new and complicated that you aren't naturally good at.
I was trying to remember that on Saturday, when I dropped by the European food and culture festival at the park near my house. Tears came to my eyes as I watched the Bulgarian dancers, chose between a piece of baklava or a couple of pirogies, and listened to some guy speaking Russian on his cell phone. I wanted to be overseas again. I missed this kind of stuff. I identified with these bi-cultural people.
But I have to admit it isn’t all fun and games, traditional foods and dances. Learning to be okay with yourself when you’re the person caught between cultures – or between subcultures – it’s a lot of work. It's exhausting.
It’s the kind of thing that will drive you to prayer and force you to listen to your emotions and pay attention to your fears and expectations.
It takes faith.
So, is that a down-side or an up-side?
Overall, I find it more positive than negative.