My parents returned home this week from serving as missionaries in London for the past year. I'm sure it was a time of conflicting feelings for them -- happy to be home, especially with a new grandchild about to be born, but sad to leave friends and places that have come to feel like home after so long. We are so proud of them and the example they have set for their family.
I know how weird it feels to return home after years away. You expect everything to be the same, or you fear it will all be different, and in reality it is a mixed bag. Things have changed just enough that you feel off-kilter, a little disoriented. Familiar objects in different places, or familiar places filled with different objects. People whose faces have altered just enough to make you realize time has passed without you there to watch it. I should know this, you say to yourself. But you don't. You know just enough to realize you don't. You end up not being quite sure how to react, how to function, where to find things. You forget now and then that you are no longer away, and you find yourself looking for people and listening for sounds that aren't there. It doesn't take long to fall back into the groove, though, and after a while you forget you've ever been gone. But for that first while, it's like wearing someone else's shoes. Functional, even comfortable, but strange.
When I first moved to Canada, I had little idea what to expect. Oh, I can do this, I thought breezily. I know this. They speak English here, after all. How hard can it be? So I went about acting as if I were at home, expecting all to be, well, normal. And then I spent the next few months putting my foot in my mouth, because it turned out there were hidden differences and unanticipated quirks and I didn't understand as well as I thought I did. I ended up making a lot of mistakes based on faulty assumptions. (By the way, when Canadians tell you "Oh, it's okay. Leave your shoes on" when you go to their home, take off the shoes!) I sometimes think it would have been easier to move to a completely different culture, like Japan, because then I wouldn't have assumed anything. Of course eventually I molded to my surroundings and now it all feels perfectly ordinary. Now it's when I go back to the States that I feel as if I've stepped through the looking glass. I feel like twitching my shoulders and adjusting my head, à la Adrian Monk, trying to settle.
I picture my parents now, back among the beautiful mountains of home (which mercifully never change). I envision them touching familiar things, unpacking, finding forgotten treasures that they hadn't realized they'd even missed. Happy, sad, and feeling -- just for a while -- like tourists poking through someone else's house. Remembering, reacclimating. Getting the shoes to fit.