Some years ago, I journeyed home from a year of teaching abroad via a rather convoluted route. My teaching buddy Lisa and I began with an overnight train from Vologda, Russia—where we’d been living—to St. Petersburg. The next morning, we caught another train to Helsinki, and there, at the airport, Lisa and I parted ways. She flew to NYC and then to Richmond. I, on the other hand, flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Cincinnati to Greensboro, NC, where my parents lived.
It had been a wonderful, absurd, terrifying, lonely, and exhausting year. We had been living in a dormitory with swampy bathrooms and a door-less toaster oven and a hotplate for cooking. It was Russia; it had been cold. I spoke embarrassingly little Russian. We ended up, through one adventure, thrown out of Ukraine. We were stranded in Moscow. We had slogged through months of mud. (The muddy months were a thousand times worse than the snowy ones.) We had each survived the year on a single suitcase’s worth of clothing. I had gained, over a year of potatoes and blini and ice cream Snickers bars, twenty pounds. Twenty. Pounds.
Our students had thrown us a big end-of-the-year party, complete with dancing, Irish poetry, gifts for us, and awards for our students. A few months earlier, we had spent the night at a student’s dacha where we buried something to cook it—I think it was a chicken--drank too much bad beer, told jokes around the fire, used an outhouse, and crossed a broken rope bridge.
Before that, there had been a spectacle of winter sports that I really, really, really sucked at: ice-skating, cross-country skiing. Walking on icy sidewalks. (I fell. More than once.)
We had marathon tea parties with our friend Olya. A parody of the Dating Game in our American Cultures class. A fifty-something businessman in our adult class who, struggling with American idioms, announced, I feel myself very horny. (The sentence is modeled after how emphasis is done in the Russian language; the horny was a slip. He meant to say corny.)
Months earlier, when we first arrived, we gobbled Pepto Bismol tablets constantly. I went into a store on one of my very first solo shopping missions to purchase a can of tomatoes and came away instead with Italian canned bovine. A little girl stole food from our makeshift kitchen. Lisa and I cut each other’s hair. We—two non-singers with bad colds—sang “Country Road” to a packed auditorium.
The night we left, fifty-some students gathered at the train station to bid us good-bye. That was almost all of them. Lisa and I cried together in our little sleeper-room, the train pulling out. We waved good-bye.
There, on the platform, our beautiful Olya stood holding a scrap of paper on which she'd written: “SAD BUT GOOD.”
Olya, one of our least proficient English-speakers. She understood us perfectly.
Before we left, Lisa had told me I should call the airlines, get a more direct route. It was crazy, what I was doing, zigzagging across the country like that, spending the night in a Los Angeles hotel. I had the same suitcase I'd come with but its contents were completely changed; I’d thrown away almost everything I brought--most of my clothes had disintegrated--and kept the birchwood trinket boxes, the silver ring my students had given me, and a year’s worth of photographs. I flew home wearing a gift from Lisa, a t-shirt with scraps of fabric sewn to it. The scraps were Cyrillic letters that read, Co-ed Naked Banya Team.
I could have called the airlines, but I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t. I realize now what I dimly recognized then: I needed the journey home to be long. I needed to spend hours in airplanes. In airports. Places that didn’t feel like places at all. I needed the first people I heard speaking English in public-—too loud!!—-to be strangers. I needed to sit in a plastic chair at an airport in Cincinnati, before the last flight into NC, and just watch people walk by.
I was going home to start my life. I’d already applied for teaching positions, already had some ideas about where I wanted to live. On my own for the first time. Already had plans to re-connect with friends, to spend time with family, to drop twenty pounds.
Before, I had thought my year teaching abroad would be a throw-away year. A year between college and my real life, a year when I wouldn’t really accomplish much. Just a year to live elsewhere, to see some things, do a little traveling.
SAD BUT GOOD, Olya had written on that scrap of paper. SAD BUT GOOD. Sitting in that airport, waiting to board, I began to put it together. SAD BUT GOOD, yes; but also, it was SAD because it was GOOD.
I rarely get a chance to fly anywhere, but when I do, I still like layovers. I arrange them. I like time off the road on trips across the state to the beach. A half-hour in the McDonalds in the middle of a town I’ll never be in again. I’m there in the restaurant, but I’m not really there, in a town whose name I likely don’t even know. Pausing between where I've been and where I’m going. Drinking a diet coke. Thinking. And sometimes, yet, I wonder: is it really possible to waste time? My throw-away year wasn't throw-away at all. And neither is the time in between.