The thing I remember most about England was the shock of it all.
Now that may seem a bit silly considering what we’ve been through thus far. Considering the exploits and adventures and escapades. Considering this long voyage across seas and over continents, through time zones and beyond reason. After all of that, after the bribes in Bali and the tuks tuks in Thailand and the seashells in the Seychelles, after all of that what could possibly be so shocking about England?
Every single day of this trip was about learning. My brain was more active, my mind was more challenged, my senses were more heightened than ever before. More precise and keen and agile than even a Harvard exam period. It was sharp.
It had to be sharp.
When I was little, my father used to pick me up from school every day. The toll for this service, for driving the 3 mile round trip and waiting in the unending line of parental pick up cars, was a fact. Every day, I had to tell him something new I learned in school. Now for a taciturn teen, this occasionally posed a challenge.
Not any more.
Every day abroad was learning. Learning about people, what makes them tick, what makes them cry, what elicits joy, what incites terror. Learning about other cultures and seeing my own culture differently as a result. Learning how to dissect a fish for science. Learning how to turn said dissected fish into dinner. Learning how to drive stick shift left handed. Learning how to navigate around an island without a map. Whatever it was, it was always learning.
However, if I walked away from this trip with only one lesson learned, it would be understanding and appreciating and taking joy in the human condition.
We are, as it turns out, an extremely malleable collection of flesh and blood and atoms and organs. Malleable flecks of life that adapt to our surroundings and soldier forward in conditions that threaten our previous sense of comfort and stability
I didn’t quite realize how adapted I had become to life on the road until I got to England.
It was culture shock of an entirely different sort. I wasn’t shocked by the poor hygiene and the treatment of women and the poverty and the foods and the customs I encountered traveling. I am sure I was at first, but I grew to understand them.
And then 10 months of outhouses and cold showers later, England felt foreign. It turns out my body had done just what it is supposed to. It adapted. It adjusted. It acclimatized. It welcomed the unknown.
So, the sudden introduction of the comforts of the developed world overwhelmed. It’s the little things that overwhelmed the most. The details that stirred. The minutia that made me pause. The trivialities that brought me to a halt.
After months of toilets that didn’t flush and refrigerators that didn’t refrigerate, after months of walking barefoot through villages and crawling into bed with ever sandy feet, after months of opening coconuts and forgoing deodorant, England was a shock.
These little things, they are still so vivid.
Cereal and milk. It was the first meal I ate upon my return to the western world. I was craving it. The crunch of the cereal. The mouthfeel of a spoonful of 2%. After months and months of powdered “long life” milk, very little still brings me more simple pleasure than a tall cold glass of fresh milk.
Walking barefoot on carpet remains one of the purest forms of luxury. It’s like the feeling of wearing new socks, over and over. When your feet grow so callused from barefoot adventuring that digging a shard of glass out with a dive knife doesn’t phase you, your feet seek new comforts.
Clean sheets will forever and always be changed. When you wake up most mornings covered in the sand that you tracked into bed the night before, you learn to appreciate even the smallest pleasure in life.
A day without sunscreen. When you look like me and you live on the equator, sunscreen is a natural, necessary nuisance of life. The clogging, the stinging, the sweating, the sliming. The first day without sunscreen was like throwing off the veil of an oppressive mask.
Then there were the people, so much like me, and the language, so much like mine, and the history and the cars and the television and the local pubs.
I enjoyed many of these comforts. Some of them were comforts that I didn’t even realize I had been missing. Some of those I didn’t miss fell out of my “normal life” routine. The perspective I gained from going away and coming home was refreshing.
And nowhere was this perspective more prominent than my first trip to the grocery store.
With fresh eyes you realize just how preposterously large our selection is. Just how unnecessary some of our amenities are. Just how gluttonous we are in every respect. From an entire aisle of chips to frozen meals of every flavor, we have more than we could ever need and then some.
When I was grocery shopping abroad, primarily in the Seychelles, an entire store could fit in the fresh produce section of a Whole Foods. Walking into my first British grocery store was the most poignant moment of culture shock.
I had become so accustomed to eating from local fisherman and local farms and, when that failed, being limited to the cargo ship supply. The grocery store, well it was just too much.
After spending a few days drinking milk and walking around on carpets barefoot and sleeping in clean sheets, I drove around, saw some friends, drank some pints, visited a strange rock formation, and saw some castles.
I went back to England, which we can talk about later, but this first visit, it was full of culture shock and dairy.
I am glad I went abroad for the perspective it allowed me to bring home.
To hear more about these European perspectives in Germany check back, same time next week…