Peanut Butter and Jelly on Toast

Two months ago, I was in Strasbourg, listening in on French-German language switches.

A month and a half ago, I was jetting off to different destinations, meeting amazing people and breathing in Northern Europe from Edinburgh, to Copenhagen, to Stockholm, to Amsterdam.

A month ago, I was in Toulouse, working part time at the Dickinson in France Center, travelling to Charente Maritime with my friend Claire, attending a family reunion at Dorian’s parents’ home.

Two and a half weeks ago, I was in Berlin, visiting my friend Clément, demystifying the city of contemporary German government, of Holocaust memorials, of the infamous wall, of strangely-shaped Ampelmänner “crosswalk men,” of high-quality kebabs and Currywurst and of ecstasy-inducing, all-night-long techno clubs.

A week and a half ago, I was scrambling to get my things together, slaving away for hours to get my apartment up to snuff for inspection, precisely organizing my time to squeeze all of the people I hold dear into my fast-shrinking schedule.

Today, I woke up to the smell of peanut butter and jelly on toast, mixed with the tantalizing aroma of earl grey tea and the warmth of the sunlight pouring onto my bed at my parents’ home. Not to quote the college essay I wrote six years ago when applying to schools around the US, but that moment on the plane – as you sit for hours, neither here nor there, in limbo between one country and another, one culture and another, one identity and another – is indescribably fleeting.  The change between a few weeks ago and now is so dramatic; no person can be completely prepared for it.

My first day back in the United States after 9 months in Europe I spent hiding out in my home. I was not about to repeat the mistake I made two years ago of visiting people and travelling right away. My house provided comfort, I was able to straighten out my thoughts and fill up on all of the peanut butter and jelly I had missed out on for months. Then day 2 came around and it was time to leave the nest and attempt reintegration into society. The day went well, albeit with a few minor panic attacks. I walked through West Hartford Center and through Westfarms Mall, not fully understanding social conventions and behaviors that I theoretically am aware of, but that do not flow smoothly in my own instincts anymore. For a few days, all I can describe myself as is awkward. What to say and when and how and who are these people being so nice to me, I don’t know them, what do they want from me, how do you pay at the checkout, why is everything so hyperstructured, how do you just function, I don’t know anymore, let me lock myself in a room and just eat peanut butter and jelly. No matter how many times you go abroad for extended periods of time, reverse culture shock will never be easy. Integrating back into American culture takes time, and I’ve realized just how European I actually am.

Since I’ve been back, I have been able to flip the switch and bring back outgoing, social-in-the-American-way Anna, with my cute expressions and small talks skills. I’ve been reunited with my two best friends, Hillary and Abra, at Lauren’s wedding in Beach haven, NJ; I’ve seen my dear family friends Julia, David, Peter and Matthew Anchel in New York City; I’ve gone out to bars with my friend John and with two French friends, Philippe and François; I’ve put on my charming daughter face when visiting my mother’s office; and now I’m flying off the Minnesota to see the Dean clan. In short, I’ve been reintegrating. But I haven’t changed back completely.

Although I strive to reintegrate and to feel more at ease with my old American self, I don’t want to lose certain traits that I’ve picked up this year and in years prior. I want to remain my hodge-podge of a self, a mosaic of different elements from different cultures. I may never be able to clearly say, “I am American,” “I am Italian” or “I am French,” which is difficult when defining a definite identity and can cause confusion and a sense of being lost in the world. But I’ll try to stay true to myself. I can’t pretend the year didn’t happen. So if you’re one of my American friends, family members or acquaintances, please understand that I’m not going to be the same exact Anna that left last August. And if you’re a French friend, please know that next time I see you, I’ll be different again. I will be me.

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This is my last blog post for the year. I’ll be starting a new blog soon. Stay tuned for more news!

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