North America / Travel Piece

No Need

I sat flicking through the in-flight shopping magazine, willing time to fly; not just the plane. Unfortunately, I’d read everything else in my seat pocket while the plane taxied out to the runway. Mostly, I’d skimmed through articles after the point of each became too laboured. There was only so much I cared about chess boxing after the initial FAQs were covered in the introduction: two men sat in a boxing ring, played chess, then hit each other to prove that brain and brawn were the epitomy of masculinity. No clubs in Australia yet, so I’ll just leave my left hooks and white rooks on the shelf till then (ho ho!).

The shopping magazine, on the other hand, was addictive. I poured over page after page of garish, ugly crap, and modern, useless crap, playing the game: “you have to choose one thing to own on each page”. It’s a tired observation, but I’ll repeat it again: who buys these things? Items on offer included ‘The Always Cool Pillow’, ‘The Original Sleep Sound Generator’, the ‘“Keep-Your-Distance” Bug Vacuum’, a ceramic drinking water fountain for pets, the ‘Front Pocket Wallet’ – because nobody I know can ever fit their wallet in a pocket – and ‘The Genuine Handmade Irish Shillelagh’ – a walking stick. My two favourites for their complete incomprehensibility were ‘The Marshmallow Shooter’ (a toy that wastes perfectly good sugary food), and partitions to keep cats away from your keyboard and computer. Finally! Unstable pieces of plastic that clutter your desk and supposedly keep a 5kg animal away! That’ll keep the cats away!

It’s an almost five hour flight to San Francisco from Miami, but I can honestly say that after I’d marked about fifty gadgets as birthday gifts I’ll never receive, it was one of the most excruciating of the entire trip. American Airlines don’t seem to have upgraded anything since the 90s – I felt like I was trapped in a Seinfeld episode, or a film starring John Candy. The in-flight entertainment was bland, there was no complimentary food (on a 5 hour flight, come on!), and the seats rattled around like they were hastily bolted down with an allen key as we rollercoasted through turbulence.

I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the Northern Hemisphere winter, but stepping out of San Francisco airport was much like entering a southern Australian winter, and much more bearable than the icy climes I’d experienced on the trip so far.

I decided it was a good idea to book a hotel near the airport as I was only staying in the Bay Area for a few nights over New Year before catching the final flights home on New Years Day. The BART train system sweeps over the area like a public transport rainbow – and made getting into San Francisco cheap(ish) and easy, and my hotel was close to several very good restaurants and supermarkets. The only problem I had was tiredness. Not just from restless sleep, but of travelling. I’d travelled five months straight, staying nowhere more than two weeks; the constant packing up and worry of washing and where to sleep and eat was wearing thin. I felt like I was standing still and the landscape moved past me like painted backdrops in a cartoon: details were starting to blur into repetition. A lot of the excitement of a new place had gone, and I’d started thinking a lot about home.

With a sigh, I continued my trek around San Francisco, crossing Fort Mason, keeping an eye on the Golden Gate Bridge through the trees, telling myself “You’re in San Francisco, you’re in San Francisco… look at that. That’s the bridge. You know, the famous one. Apparently people throw themselves off it all the time. Oh look, Alcatraz” all in a monotone mutter; a pointless patter of encouragement to enjoy the moment. I did at times: San Francisco is too beautiful not to have some power over your moods, but mine were overwhelmingly a mixture of nostalgia and nervousness. And something about the light made the city seem retro, like I was in an replica of ‘yesteryear’. Maybe it had something to do with the change from tropical Caribbean island to grey winter: or maybe because it was the end of the year, as well as the end of my trip that I couldn’t help but fall into reflection.

I was worried not only about the return to ‘normalcy’, but what I would do for New Year’s Eve. I’m not a fan of it. Mostly because it reminds me I still haven’t met someone to celebrate it with (or as people would cynically point out, a lover to fight with, too), and I’m not a huge “partier” (oh God, I sound so unhip and square). In New Orleans I’d been lucky to meet friends for Thanksgiving, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt from experience, or Aslan, is that rarely do the same things happen the same way more than once. Also, I just didn’t have the energy to deal with strangers. The entire time in San Francisco, I felt close to tears – I experienced every human encounter like a robot – my expression became what a close friend of mine calls my ‘sock puppet face’. Even my attempt at banter with a thrift shop employee came out embarrassingly stilted:

Employee: “You’ll need this jacket now it’s cold.”

Me: *beat* “…Oh it’s not c-cold. Cold.” Smile. Expression: Phewy, do I know cold!

Employee: “Yeah I guess we can’t complain here, but we do!”

Me: “Well, it’s just like winter where I’m fro- Back home… And we complain…too?”

Employee: “Where’s home?”

Me: “Aust- Adel- Adelaide… Australia.” Beam. Wait for obligatory, “How close is it to Sydney?” question. Nothing. End transaction with polite “Have a good new year”, leave shop. Trip on step on way out.

*

On New Year’s Eve I decided to head back into the centre and poke around a few more places and then take myself to see Black Swan and decide how I felt about New Year’s celebrations after that. Black Swan was perhaps not the best choice (even though it was my top choice) – the psychosexual poem about paranoia only enhanced my own pensive mood, and as I left the cinema, blown by a litter-strewn wind, I decided to return to the hotel and celebrate the new year with Chinese take-away and the television. I looked around at the grey streets, outnumbered by bums and junkies, and bid adieu to a city I felt bad for just breezing through.

That night I went to bed at ten thirty, trying to convince myself it was just another night and my homesickness would be over soon.

*

On the first of January 2011, I spent the day writing the previous blog, surfing the internet and eating more Chinese take-away. My flight to Sydney didn’t leave until eleven that night, so I paid for another night to keep my room. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but I felt impatient. I’ve made several returns home after living overseas, and the fear I get is whether I’ll forget what I’ve done, who I’ve met, what I’ve seen, and all those mini moments of growth. Will going home – back to the familiar – undo all of it? I fear that when I’m home I will fall back into old habits that I was desperate to change. And in a hotel room on the other side of the world, I waited, like in a dentist’s reception, for the disappointing reminder that I need to take extra steps to a cleaner, whiter smile… Or towards contentment: wherever I find myself.

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