Homeward Bound

by Angela Smith Kirkman

I can hardly believe that our big field trip is drawing to a close. I’ve been walking in a stupor these last few days in Tokyo. Yesterday, a black cat crossed my path as the kids and I strolled toward the playground in our neighborhood. I stopped in my tracks, wondering whether it could be an omen. Later, back at our hostel, I mentioned the incident to our chip-toothed host. He giggled and told me that black cats are considered good luck in Japan.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel so empty here. For starters, Japan has no smell. Until now, each country we've lived in has had its own particular aroma, just as each person has a specific scent that everyone but he can detect. Brazil smells like over-ripe fruit. India like masala and burning plastic. Thailand is kaffir limes. Bulgaria is redolent of roses and roasting chilies. Tunisia is orange blossoms. And the entire country of Vietnam smacks of fish sauce. I wonder whether we’ve been away from the U.S. long enough that when we get home we’ll be able to detect the fragrance that’s uniquely American. Will it be sizzling burgers? Apple pie? Barbeque? Doughnuts? Bacon? 

I’ve been an emotional wreck for a week now. I generally prefer to think of myself as the breadbasket of the family, but lately I’ve been more of a basket case. On one hand, I’m happy as a pig in slop to be going home—seeing Ma and Pa again; giving bear hugs to little ones who’ve grown so much we don’t even recognize their photos anymore; speaking in English; planting my garden; sending the kids off to school in the morning; stopping by a friend’s house on the way home from a supermarket.

And on the other hand, it’s killing me to think that this adventure is really ending. Global gallivanting / Gorilla wayfaring has become a way of life for our family. I can’t believe we’ve almost finished this thing, this dream, this crackpot mission. We’ve made it most of the way around the world in one piece. Heck, from here, we could just grease our asses and slide out.

Jason and I spent the better part of ten years dreaming up this journey: adapting our careers so we could take our show on the road, padding our savings account, waiting for the kids to grow just a little older. Last night, after we tucked them into their futons, we sat on the rooftop of our hostel enjoying one last bottle of sake. As we contemplated the skyline of Tokyo, we shared thoughts about the expedition coming to an end and what might be in store for us next. We talked about how this trip has brought out the best in our relationship, forcing us to focus on our strengths and come together to make this thing happen. And it has happened. At times it’s been beautiful, and at other times nerve-wracking, but always challenging and exhilarating. 

And now it’s ending.

When we made it to our departure gate this afternoon at Tokyo International Airport, I broke into uncontrollable sobbing. I was suddenly surrounded by more American voices than I’ve heard in the past two years combined. And not only was everyone speaking English, but they were speaking with my accent. I turned away from the children and sprinted to the bathroom to regain my composure. When I returned to the gate a few moments later, my eyes were dry, and my lips were turned up in a smile. 

I may have been able to keep it together if it hadn’t been for the middle-aged, middle-America fellow approaching the gate. He could’ve easily been Pa: polo shirt tucked in a little tight over the belly; toothpick dangling from his grin; squeaky-white tennis shoes; khaki pants that had probably been ironed by his wife before he left home; and that John Wayne strut. And, just as if he knew me, he nodded as he passed by and flashed me that good ol’ boy smile.

“Howdy there.”

He topped it off with a wink. I couldn’t even return his greeting before melting into a blubbering puddle. I covered my face and walked away, but he followed. He put his hand on my shoulder, awkwardly, offering me a seat. I collapsed into the chair, wiped my eyes, smiled apologetically, and opened my mouth to explain, but no words came out. Just a few squeaky noises and some spittle.

“Don’t worry,” he said as he offered me a tissue. “I have the same effect on my wife.”

Just what Pa might have said. 

Wow, that’s exactly it. That is the essence of what I miss most about Americans, and what other people can’t necessarily appreciate. That informal, easy intimacy. Greeting strangers on the street. Waving at other drivers going down a country road. Striking up a conversation with the guy at the Quickie Mart, and feeling like maybe I’ve known him since we were kids. Things that would win me only blank stares here in Japan. Blank stares, but no eye contact. I still don’t know what we Americans smell like, but that’s how we feel. And I can’t wait to feel it again.

As far back as I can remember, my life’s goal has been to travel around the world. Now, as I sit in row twenty-two of our Boeing 777, chasing the moon over the Pacific somewhere between Tokyo and the International Date Line, I can feel the book closing on this chapter, on the whole epic adventure. And the same question keeps resonating in the back of my mind. 

Now what?

ANGELA SMITH KIRKMAN recently returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico from a two-year journey around the world with her husband and three young children. During the adventure, her family hiked the Inca Trail, snuck into a dilapidated communist headquarters in Bulgaria, rode camelback through the Sahara, got chased out of the Grand Mosque of Kairouan, caught swine flu in Istanbul, taught at a tribal school in Rajasthan, and communed with snow monkeys in the hot springs of Japan.  Kirkman blogs at www.thebigfieldtrip.com and lives with her family in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she’s busy growing leeks and conjuring up the next voyage. Stories from The Big Field Trip have been published in International Living Magazine, Asia Literary Review, Eventus Magazine and World Press Review.

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