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Country roads . . . take me home . . . .

We’re well into our second week back in the U.S. and the novelty, at least for DiploSis and her family, has worn off. We’ve been absorbed into the household with a modicum of fuss and are now being yelled at for leaving the toilet seat up just like members of the family.

Coming back is different for FS folks. We’re not exactly the prodigal kids/sisters/brothers, but it’s close. We land. We descend. We are guests, but we are not. We are expected, and we expect, to help out with groceries, housework, kid wrangling, and the wine supply. We stay in the “guest” room, on air mattresses, on floors, and some of us run screaming to a hotel for a few days. Or our hosts do. My parents have the funny habit of inviting DiploSis, DiploBro, me and our families over and then escaping to a nearby hotel. Chickens.

The DiploBoys think that the U.S. is awesome, and who can blame them? For many DiploKids and other TCKs/expat kids, “home” means endless visits with grandma and grandpa, amusement parks, movies, and fast food. It means summer camp, hiking in the woods, and backyard barbecues with friends. In short, it’s a six-to-eight week exercise in indulgence.

It’s not just family and experiences that overwhelm us, but it’s also just being “back home”.

After so many years living overseas, I never cease to be amazed at how out of place I feel when I first come back. Landing at the airport, the DBs and I are spit out into a terminal that is so clean it could be an operating room in some of the other countries that we’ve lived in. The distance we walk to immigration, customs, and baggage claim has been planned out to ensure proper traffic flow and to make sure you’re not all crammed up fighting for space and a position in line with 10,000 other people. It’s a far cry from being in West Africa where you walk off the plane to the tarmac through sweltering heat and then actually see the hands of the person throwing your luggage onto the creaky, 60’s era luggage carrel.

Picking up our vehicle is kind of a transition. I have found that at the Dulles Airport that the majority of the counter agents for car rental companies are recent immigrants. I have been rather lucky in that the last several times that I have picked up my car, I’ve had a conversation with someone about “home”. Last week, I talked Bollywood movies with Vijay. He thought “Bang Bang” was awesome; I’d just watched it on the plane on the way over.

After loading up the minivan (I love playing “minivan mom”), breaking out the car seat for DB2 for the first time in months (“I HATE this! I don’t NEEEEEED this!”), and mentally reminding myself that we drive on the right side of the road in the U.S., I’m spit out onto the highway.

Holy crap, this country is BIG. Every shop we pass is far away from the edge of the road. No piles of God-only-knows by the side of the road.

Even if you could see the store from the side of the road, you couldn't see all the stuff they are selling.  Inefficient.

Even if you could see the store from the side of the road, you couldn’t see all the stuff they are selling. Inefficient.

Even the overgrowth looks orderly, as if it would not dare to present anything other than a perfectly disordered weed patch. I’m amazed at how wide the road is, and wow, everyone is actually staying within the marked lanes. I have to admit, part of me thinks, “How uncreative.”

Arriving in DiploSis’s town, I am filled with a sense of nostalgia as I drive down the main street of Hometown, USA. Low-level buildings built at the turn of the last century line the street and house a variety of mom and pop stores, government buildings, and local eateries.

Main Street, USA

Main Street, USA


We arrive at DiploSis’s house and the “hey!”, “welcome!”, “I missed you SO much”, and the accompanying hugs mean that I can finally relax and melt into my younger but taller sister’s frame, lay my head on her shoulder and breathe in the scent of family.   A while later, I settle into my “Auntie DiploMom” role, and babysit while DiploSis and her husband enjoy a night out.

There is no way that I’m cooking after over 48 hours of being awake, so we head out to dinner to The Outback. Yes, we ordered the Bloomin’ Onion. No, I so didn’t need to. I know from all the health magazines that I read and ignore that the portion sizes in restaurants are HUGE, but man, I’d forgotten how true that is. Halfway through the meal we give up. Me, because I just am too stuffed to consider finishing everything, DB1 because he can hardly prop himself up any longer, and DB2 because, well, he fell asleep in the booth before his food had even been delivered. The leftovers are used at two later meals.

After a decent night’s sleep and an obscene wake-up time the next morning, we are ready to begin Operation Restock. We head to the local strip malls. Whoa – there’s SPACE here. Parking galore.

Look at all that space!

Look at all that space!

It’s nothing like when we have to have D get creative just so we can run into a pharmacy to fill a prescription or into Nature’s Basket to get some lemons. I’ve got a parking space bigger than many Mumbai homes to park my larger-than-life Dodge Caravan. Awesome.

In quick succession we hit Target, WalMart, and Kohl’s. Target is particularly sordid.

The House of Goodness and Unintended Needful Things

The House of Goodness and Unintended Needful Things

It’s bad enough that under normal circumstances I can’t go into Target for a gallon of milk without walking out with that plus about $100 in other stuff I just can’t live without. Imagine going if you’ve been on a months long locality-imposed hiatus. The dollar bins look even more attractive, if you can believe that. (I soooo neeeed little minibuckets in pastel colors! Look at those cute socks! I’ll use the World Flags flashcards to teach the DBs all about other countries!)

When we come back we also visit our favorite “service providers”. No one but no one can do my hair like Richard at PR@Partners can. I fought the urge to have someone fix the horrible haircut someone at Jean Claude Biguine gave me for six weeks just so Richard could repair the damage. He did. It’s awesome.

Following suit, the DBs refused to allow DiploSis to take them to her local barber and insisted on going to their former (and favorite) barber back in Northern Virginia.

We walked in and the ladies said, "I thought you moved!"  Wow.

We walked in and the ladies said, “I thought you moved!” Wow.

DB1 was able to put a Pebbles Flintstone ponytail in his hair and DiploBroInLaw was visibly grinding his teeth by the time we swung by the old Father & Son Barber Shop.

By the end of the first week, we’ve been through our first drive-through (seriously, this is weird when you think about it), eaten our weight in summer produce (except for DB2, aka the Kid Who Eats Air), and almost kicked jet lag. We start to notice even more “strange and different things”.

The U.S. innovates. A lot. Not all of this is good. One of our “traditions” is trying all the new junk food that’s come out in the last year. Or it used to be. There were a couple of nasty Doritos flavors that put us off that a few years ago.

This year's odd Doritos were OK.  But they taste just like the jalapeno Cheetos.  Don't ask how I know this.

This year’s odd Doritos were OK. But they taste just like the jalapeno Cheetos. Don’t ask how I know this.

Besides, it’s too hard to keep up nowadays. You can now get gluten-free gluten, 3,478 kinds of snack/granola/sports/protein bars, and at least fifteen different brands of organic fruit snacks. I’d never be able to fit in the milk DiploSis sent me to the store for if I tried to include it all in the cart.

OMG, the variety!

OMG, the variety!

When I went to get gas the other day, I found this –

I am sure this is a sign of the impending apocalypse.

I am sure this is a sign of the impending apocalypse.

Can you believe it? It’s called “GSTV”. Gas Station TV, I assume. I have to say that I hate this new innovation. I think it’s really, really annoying that you have televisions everywhere in the U.S. It’s almost as if we can’t be trusted to entertain ourselves with our own thoughts. Or smartphones. In any event, I got out of the minivan practically shaking from all the fighting and noise (OMG, you would not believe how loud four kids can be and how many stupid things they argue over – “My nose is cuter than yours!!! DN says “fish” the funniest!”), and looking forward to a 15-gallon long quiet break when “ . . . and THAT’S the news for now!” startled me out of my child-scream-induced haze. I felt cheated. But I watched it.

When I went running with my girlfriends, I was amazed at how clean the air smelled and how green the trails were.

Green, glorious green!  Capitols and Big Cities in DiploLife mean not much of it.

Green, glorious green! Capitols and Big Cities in DiploLife mean not much of it.

All dogs I met on the run were properly leashed, and I’m relatively certain none of them had mange.

I saw lots of cows. All of them were in their “natural habitat”.

And not one of them is eating out of a garbage pile.

And not one of them is eating out of a garbage pile.

None of them stood by a place of worship, and DB2 was safe from free roaming cow attacks. I still get excited when I see livestock. A few years ago, my friend, T, made fun of me when I shrieked and pointed out a flock of sheep in Colonial Williamsburg. I hadn’t seen sheep in weeks, and I felt that my life was lacking something.

Some things stay the same. The Capitol Beltway still sucks.

And, we hit the slowdown.  Ugh.

And, we hit the slowdown. Ugh.

Still. I don’t think it ever won’t. Sad.

For the most part, the U.S. is an overwhelming place to be for the semi-prodigals, even if it’s “home” and even if we like it.

I was trying to think of how to explain the U.S. to non-expat folks without sounding snotty, and honestly, it’s kind of hard. Wherever you live, your bar gets set. What you consider pretty stupid to whine about when you live in a neighborhood where people live on the sidewalks (or what’s left of them) and you go to three different grocery stores to find the “right kind of milk” [/princess moment], really does matter to anyone who lives in the Land of Milk and Honey. (Make that fat-free, 1%, 2%, whole, organic, rice, almond, and soy Milk and raw, organic, unpasteurized, still-lots-of-icky-comb-and-bee-stuff Honey.)   In short, I’ve gotta take a moment to slip into my empathy shoes and realize that although I think five cars lined up at a stoplight is nothing, it really does mean traffic to DiploBro and it upsets him. When my friend complains that there are no gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free cupcakes at the bakery in Giant, it’s a huge, honking deal to her. (OMG, what is a cupcake if not flour, butter, and eggs, and for crying out loud, why do you think Giant of all places will make this???)

After thinking quite a bit about this, I’ve decided this is the best comparison: The United States is Disneyland.

Yes, Disneyland. Maybe even Disney World. It’s clean in ways that look freaky to outsiders (i.e., non-cast members). There is pretty much anything you want to eat there, and it’s all on a meal plan you really shouldn’t be able to finish. There are a large number of attractions all designed to rile up your children, teach you new things, and make you spend money. There are lots of people (i.e., services) available to make your life easier, and they all do it with a smile, even if they are paid minimum wage. Lots of people (in small towns – not in DC) are happy, helpful, and smiling. Unlike being at home (wherever that is), you feel relaxed, happy, and that little “buzzing” in the back of your mind that keeps you alert turns off.

Still, it’s only been two weeks. By the end of every trip, I find myself exasperated just like the locals, swearing at trucks that cut me off on the highway, complaining about the high price of gasoline, and dreading running the kids all over creation in the minivan while worrying about whether or not I have enough chicken nuggets and tots to feed them for dinner.   And it will be time to go home.

But over the next few weeks, I’m gonna pretend my rental minivan is a Space Mountain rocket and our camping trip is taking place in Adventureland. Because this is home, but it’s vacation too, Mouseketeers.