After a three-month pilgrimage across the European continent, we stepped through the magic portal of international travel, and returned to the north Oregon Coast. Several forces are at work upon the soul in homecoming after traveling abroad.
First, there is jet lag. I’ve heard some people claim they don’t ever face jet lag when flying overseas. I don’t believe it. Every time I’ve flown overseas, the first three or four days after arriving, I live in the hybrid world of jetlag, stumbling through the fog of half-asleep and half-awake. My 6’4” body just doesn’t fit any airplane seat comfortably so I have difficulty sleeping on an airplane. As a result I tend to arrive at my destination sleep deprived. Humanly speaking our bodies, minds, and spirits are rhythmic, relying upon the daily cycles of light-dark, hungry-full, weary-rested, waking-sleeping. When these fundamental cycles are disrupted, we make adjustments and adapt to the new rhythm, but it takes time. There’s no magic switch to flip to get back on home time. Jet lag takes time to wear off.
Second, there is secondary culture shock. Primary culture shock is that feeling you have when you step outside your comfortable box and enter into a new culture, feeling disoriented or displaced. This is normal and expected. What can be surprising is secondary culture shock, that equally strange feeling you have when re-entering back into your home culture and feeling disoriented or displaced because of adjustments you’ve made internally to the foreign culture. The toilet at home can seem new after using all sorts of toilets abroad. Why do American toilets have so much water in the bowl, when most European toilets have very little water in the bowl. Why are we wasting all that pure, clean water? 27% of water used in any American home goes to flushing a toilet, at an average of 5 gallons per flush. European toilets typically use only a gallon per flush. Welcome to secondary culture shock. Traveling abroad causes you to experience other ways of life, including toilet design. When you return home and see wasteful water practices in your own home, you can’t help but compare and wonder at the differences. This kind of secondary culture shock happens over and over for the first few days upon returning home after a trip abroad. Even encountering friends or family members who want to hear about your trip can be disturbing. How do you answer that simple question, “How was your trip?” How do I summarize in a few sentences or words a three-month journey that carried us to seven countries, and down through two thousand years of living history. I tend to answer politely with grand generalities: “We greatly enjoyed our travels, but it is good to be home.” Behind that simplistic answer is a yearning to sit with a good listener who shows genuine interest in hearing story after story about our travels. But generally speaking, people are not that interested in the details. They are just glad to see you again. But are likely thinking, “please spare me the two-hour photo slideshow of every castle and cathedral you saw while away.”
Third, there is memory sifting. We tend to sift our memories after traveling, separating out the better memories, and letting go of the painful memories. Our hearts often sift out the pain and suffering from our memories, leaving the joys and beauties in our memory database. Upon returning home from traveling abroad, I tend to cling to memories of beauty and goodness, often expanding or guilding these memories as reveries. Traveling abroad is extraordinary (exciting, uplifting, and invigorating). Returning home can feel quite ordinary (dull, commonplace, tiring). When you first arrive home, there are many ordinary tasks demanding attention: unpacking, going through mail, paying unpaid bills, listening to voicemail messages, washing clothes. The lists are long, and most things on the list, in comparison to traveling abroad, are boring or wearisome. I find my soul returning to places of exquisite beauty, such as our balcony in Assisi, Italy, overlooking the city, watching the sun set across the medieval town with a golden glow, as the harp and cello music lifts up from the piazza below, we raise a glass of crisp white Italian wine to the good life we shared in such a beautiful place. Such reveries are to be expected upon returning home and re-entering the daily grind of life and work. They lift our soul with the ephemeral joy we had when we sat together on that Italian balcony hearing harp music, watching the setting sun turn everything, including our memories to gold.
Traveling to another country takes its toll upon the body, mind, and spirit. Those who engage in this behavior can expect to be stretched, challenged, and transformed by the experience. As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Innocents Abroad.
- First, go slowly. Give yourself the gift of time, allowing days and weeks to unfold as you adjust to being back home again. Try not to jump into “life as usual” upon your return, but give yourself space and time to reflect upon your recent travels.
- Second, be gentle with yourself. No sense in beating up on yourself for not being perky the first few evenings home. Accept your limitations that you are dependent upon such basics as sleep and food. Cut yourself lots of slack for the first few weeks upon your return.
- Third, let go of your expectations of others. No need to expect other people to be as interested in your journey as you have been. Others have their own journey to tell as well, and though it may not be as glamorous as yours, take time to enter into another person’s story about life since you’ve been away.
- Fourth, journal. Even those who are not used to writing down their thoughts and experiences, journaling is a proven way to connect with your recent experiences, allowing your mind and hand to bring to light and ink some of the wonders and challenges you’ve recently encountered.
- Finally, give thanks and celebrate the joy of the journey. There are hundreds of millions in this world who would like someday to have the opportunity to do what you’ve just done. Traveling is one of life’s many gifts, too easily overlooked when weary upon your return. In the face of that underwhelmed feeling of lethargy, try giving thanks to God for giving you the open door to travel to places so different than home.