My skin crawls beneath the chemical-stiff caress of new sheets as I lie in the creaky used bed I bought on Craigslist this afternoon. Next week I’m starting medical school, here in the odd city of Cleveland.
It only took me 12 hours to trundle my way here from Boston in a rickety U-Haul truck, and for all the similarities of these small, cold, snowy Northern cities, I expected to feel more at home here. But it’s the little details that raise the hair on the back of my neck: the moldering, bricked-in buildings, the sidewalks devoid of people, the absence of streetlights. Where the hell is everybody? I find myself wondering.
Yesterday in the checkout line at the Cleveland Heights Dave’s Supermarket, a wizened old lady crept up behind me and probed my face with her sharp, bright little eyes. I smiled, happy to meet one of my friendly, new Midwest neighbors.
“The Lord talked to me today, you know!” she thundered, yanking a yellow pamphlet from her purse and waving it in my face.
I smiled awkwardly as she ranted about her visions, scuttling out the door as soon as my groceries were paid for. Back in my empty apartment, I can still see her glassy eyes feverishly rolling in her head. I can’t imagine ever feeling at home in this place, with these people.
But as a traveler and writer, I’ve learned there’s a timeline to these things. Even though I feel alienated and disoriented now, I know the path to normalization. It’s similar to experiencing a breakup for the fourth or fifth time — though the feelings are still as poignant as ever, you know you’ll eventually return to clarity because you’ve gone through it so many times before. Sometimes you just need to hang on for the ride. There’s no way to push things forward; you just have to take a deep breath and experience those feelings until they pass. Until they do, you trust in the timeline and learn to make the best of what’s in front of you.
The wood floor creaks and echoes as my little cat, Beau, makes her hesitant way through my near-empty apartment. My paltry belongings are huddled in the corner of the cavernous living room with no hope of filling the space. Ominous, metallic scrabbling noises drift through the window, rising eerily over the whirring of the fan.
I creep to the window and peer out at the large, shuffling mass wriggling around in the dumpster. Raccoon. I shut the window.
I think back to all the places I used to call home — New York, Germany, Stockholm, Ethiopia. I remember the thrill of waking up in a brand new place, of seeing the world with fresh eyes. I feel nostalgic for the freedom, independence, and power I gained from those adventures. My present life feels small and washed out, boxed in by comparison. Was all of that adventure really building up to this — four years in some rotting glorified suburb?
On bitterly nostalgic nights like this one, I’ll often dust off an old journal, looking for a stronger fix of warm, glowing memories. This is when reality sets in.
I’ve been here for 17 days, and I keep waiting for my spirits to lift. (Stockholm, Sweden, 2006)
I’m constantly looking at my time here as some sort of ordeal or test of will or strength or something that I have to endure, and I’m not really even sure why. (Leipzig, Germany, 2009)
As I move through each journal, the picture gradually changes. Isolation and depression give way to wild escape fantasies, grudging acceptance of my fate, distraction with work, but eventually happiness and connectedness. Ultimately, I feel sadness when I leave. And then the cycle begins again.
The best thing about this awareness is that it points a way out of the dark. If you know the timeline, you know the things that catalyze movement along its path.
I remember drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea in my favorite chipped red-and-white mug, staring out the window into a gloomy Stockholm winter and feeling oddly cozy for the first time in a while. I remember the smell of my favorite old sweatshirt, rolled up in a ball next to me inside my tent in Ethiopia, comforting me as I drifted off to sleep. I remember reluctantly joining my classmates for a birthday party in Berlin — that weekend catalyzed the development of several hilarious, slightly manic friendships that ultimately made it so difficult to leave.
Happiness follows from establishing a framework of home that you’re able to recreate wherever you go. It’s intangible, something born of the right combination of a few constant, familiar things.
I’ve been in Cleveland for two weeks now. I’m sipping a steaming cup of Earl Grey at my desk; Beau is contently snuggled in my lap.
A few minutes ago, I noticed movement on the giant, leafy tree right outside my window. It was the raccoon again, shimmying down the tree trunk. This time, her three babies were with her — fat little fur balls clumsily dropping from branch to branch.
A moment later, the musty, electric smell of summer rain began to waft through my window. The soft pattering is growing louder now, thundering down on the rusted metal surface of my balcony. The sky is backlit, pearly grey in late afternoon, catching on the heavy spray of water as it flicks off green oval leaves on its way down. When I press my face close to the window screen, I feel as though I’m inside a tree myself, looking out through the dense, verdant canopy surrounding me on all sides. Safe, and starting to feel at home.