Back Home with Sam

I’ve been doing some posts about my talks with a young American teaching assistant in Austria and how they never failed to flash me back into my own past. (“Travels with Sam” – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Well, this past weekend Sam visited us here in Milwaukee and it was a totally different feeling. A role reversal almost. Being on vacation – in this magical place where the morning hazelnut coffee brews itself, where there is always a bag of Cheetos in the cupboard and never any work to do – I was entirely in the present. On the flip side, Sam’s experiences in Austria had just recently ended and with us being a part of all that, he was the one reflecting on the past.

He arrived in the evening just in time for delicious homemade Reuben sandwiches and a beer or five on the porch. As we talked and he reminisced, we were interrupted by muted sounds of a ruckus going on in the next door neighbor’s yard. We looked over and discovered two other neighbors throwing rolls of toilet paper over her trees and bushes. They signaled to us to be quiet, then pointed at the house and whispershouted “Birthday!” My daughters were confused and asked us what was going on.

“Haven’t you ever heard of TP-ing?!?!” my sister asked them, equally surprised by this gaping hole in their cultural education. “Well this is your chance! Go up and get a few rolls – you can help!” My daughters got all excited and giggly as they ran out, armed with Charmin, and joined the other vandals.

The next day we had an invitation to a guided tour of the special exhibit at the art museum. We followed that up with a small “Art in the Park” fair and then gave Sam a mini-tour of the city’s hippest neighborhoods in their various stages of gentrification. It was not until the last 10 minutes of his stay – on our way to the train station – that Sam managed once again to get me reflecting back on my own past. He said how nice it had been to reconnect with people who shared in his Austrian life, because no one here seemed able to relate. He had prepared himself for a lot of conversations and curiosity about his life there, but the only question he ever got was “How was your trip?” – and even then, the expectation was a two sentence answer followed by a change of subject. These comments ignited a flashback in my mind to the time I returned home after my first full year in a foreign country. I remember getting that question and thinking: It wasn’t a “trip”! It was a life! I also remembered the terrible time I had re-acculturating – the “reverse culture shock” that made me bound and determined to finish my degree and get back to Europe as soon as I possibly could. I ended up taking my very last final exam of my studies on a Friday, moving out of my apartment on Saturday, and boarding a plane on Monday. At the time I thought I was just traveling – not emigrating. But, eventually, that is what it turned out to be.

Once you go beyond traveling and really start building a life in a foreign place, something becomes true about that saying “You can’t go home again.” You live a double existence and relating your experiences of one culture to a member of another can be nearly impossible. That is why I loved watching my girls vandalizing the neighbor’s house. It was one more quintessential experience of my Midwestern youth to add to their own lists. In the fifteen years of our extended visits here they have accumulated a lot of American childhood memories. They have drunk from bubblers and run through sprinklers. They have walked the Streets of Old Milwaukee and pushed the rattlesnake buzzer by the buffalo hunt diorama. They have melted at baseball games and frozen in shopping malls. They have made lemonade stands and heard the song of the ice cream truck. They have found the secret entrance to the Safehouse and eaten frozen custard at Gile’s. They have “gone up north” and tried the fudge in some kitschy “Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe”. At my insistence, they have even ridden the Ducks at the Wisconsin Dells – although that particular experience turned out to be a yawner despite my attempts to get them excited.

“Look at that rock! It does sort of look like a grand piano! Don’t you think?”
“No. Not really.”

All this matters a great deal to me. Despite growing up in Austria, a part of my daughters’ childhoods has been an American one. I will never have to explain those things to them abstractly. They will remember them in years to come and feel nostalgia. And when they go home next week and are asked “How was your trip?” they won’t know where to begin.

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