Returning back to America after 27 months in Azerbaijan was made much easier by traveling after Peace Corps service. My itinerary, which started in Istanbul and stopped in Vienna two months later, took me from East to West, and at the same time took me from the developing world to the developed one.
Almost everything made more sense to me the further west I went. I commented to a friend in Berlin that of all the places in the world that I’d been to, Berlin was the most similar to America that I’d seen. She was a shocked by the accusation, but I quickly assured her that such a claim had more to do with where I had been recently than it did with the city of Berlin itself. The more time I spent in the West, the more comfortable the idea of returning home became.
As I traveled, going home seemed like it was simply the next destination on my journey rather than having the story of Peace Corps and Azerbaijan abruptly end. I was becoming used to being in an unfamiliar place again, which you would think would be part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, but doesn’t quite apply.
Part of this deals with how normal and comfortable Peace Corps Volunteers become with their host communities and nations. I’ve had a hard time describing Azerbaijan to people now that I’m home because things that would have stuck out to someone passing through faded into the background for me. The bizarre things that I experience in Azerbaijan become quite normal during my Peace Corps service.
Spending time with new people in strange places like Transylvania in Romania helped me remember how to navigate an unfamiliar place again. I remember being really glad that I’d been able to conquer the metro system in Kiev when I finally arrived in New York and had to find my friends house on a rainy October evening by myself with nothing more than an address and a subway stop.
Such a task might have been overwhelming in the past, but I didn’t really think twice about it. It might have been the resourcefulness that PCVs feel when they are given a task that appears unfamiliar to them, but I think a lot of it had to do with the time I took after Peace Corps to cruise around and put everything in perspective.
That night in New York, I had the same euphoric feeling that I bet happens to almost every Peace Corps Volunteer when they return to the U.S. after two years. I was giddy standing in at the passport control and felt like high-fiving the lady next to me when I saw my backpack come around the corner at the baggage claim.
As I searched for my friend’s house, I was listening to my ipod, which had been my faithful companion for both my Peace Corps service as well as my trip around Eastern Europe. Between songs I heard a couple people next to me talking. Since I had developed the habit of eavesdropping on people to try to figure out what language they were speaking over the past couple of months, I paused the music and started to listen in to what they were saying.
I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that they weren’t just speaking a language that sounded like English, but English itself. After taking the long route, I’d made it home.