On Thursdays at 1:29 pm I always get on a train to commute to my university job. Twice now I have shared the trip with the new ”Native Speaker”, i.e. English Assistant from my husband’s school. Sam from Illinois, who — as he told me last time — likes to spend the entirety of his disposable income on beer and traveling on the weekends. Just one of the many things we have in common - or had in common? I’m not sure whether to use past or present here, because every time we talk, I reconnect with modern America and am simultaneously thrown back into the past. Exactly thirty years ago, I was Sam. An English Assistant, new to this country having just gotten a Liberal Arts degree from a Midwestern university. No clue really what the future would bring but kind of excited about not knowing. Or at the very least, being okay with not knowing.
Side note: I usually change the names of people to protect myself from the guilty, but here the name is so perfect. Sam. As in Uncle Sam. As in my personified heritage, my past self, reappearing in my life for the sole purpose of making me reflect on how my life has gone since my emigration 30 years ago. And how my home country has changed since I left it. Because . . . despite all the things I have in common with Sam, it is the differences that really get to me.
When I came here I wasn’t saddled with student loan debt to repay and I wasn’t facing a dire job market. I didn’t have to spend my precious time here applying for jobs at 50 different companies in the hopes that one or two would pan out. I didn’t spend every free moment seeing as much of Europe as I could just in case this turned out to be my one and only chance. If I hadn’t studied Literature I would now write ”The world was my oyster.” But I learned the true meaning of that saying to be “I will take a knife and use it to get what I want.” The world was definitely not my oyster at that time – it was the envisioned sum total of all my future travel destinations.
That was the plan anyway. What I actually ended up doing was becoming the ultimate homebody living out in the country, outside a small village, near nowhere, since forever. But that is okay too, because as I was settling, technology was advancing, and with each big change, the world came closer to me. First the PC came and then the internet. Then satellite TV. Then email came. Then cell phones and Facebook and Skype and WhatsApp. Each innovation helped me reconnect, more and more, with the world I had left behind.
On our train ride, I told Sam a bit about how it was way back then without all these things. How 5 minutes of static-y telephone conversation with Mom cost the equivalent of a meal and a beer and so we did it sparingly and infrequently. (Now with Skype it is like we are in the same room and it’s free to boot!) I told him that if friends or family wanted to reach me on my later travels they would have to write a letter and address it to “Poste Restante” + the city and country I was currently in (if they even knew at all) and then hope I would go to the main post office there sometime in the next month and pick it up.
Sam said to me on the train that on his first evening here he was already on Skype and Facebook, checking in with all his people, and that he didn’t think he could have come here at all under the conditions that I had.
I have never been one to say that things used to be better, but somehow that statement made me sad. I realized that never again would a young person really just take off into the world completely on their own.
I got off that train and made my way to the bus stop. Standing and waiting, at first lost in my thoughts, I slowly started looking around at all the other people there in a different light. Every single one of them, as usual, was holding a cell phone talking on it, reading off it, typing on it. We were all in the same place, in the same situation, waiting for the same bus. And we were all disconnected.