Land. Ho.

You awake to the command to sit upright. We’re going down.

You realize landing. Fine. But something’s not right. You’ve been dreaming. You were at home in bed, surrounded by hundreds of strangers in sleep masks snoring from various corners of your bedroom. You were comfortable with it.

But as the sun comes in brighter than the overhead light, the room is pitching and the people are actually here. You realize the screen before your desiccated eyeballs shows a live feed of the ground you’re plummeting toward.

Plus, it says your watch is useless.

You feel the clank of the landing gear hitting unsteady soil. Brace for the explosion. Grasp your seat/floatation device as the baby on your left wails and the other passengers begin clapping for some reason. Congratulations on sparing our lives, they want to convey to the captain. He responds with an announcement in three languages, each spoken more poorly than the last. Only after he thanks everyone does the plane come to a stop.

You look out the window onto greased pavement and distant trees. You shouldn’t be here by now. A steamship would have been the reasonable thing to do.

 

Deplane

You are not present. You are not absent. Take this moment to stare at your passport until the picture seems to be mouthing Erma Bombeck quotes to you.

Waddle off the downed aircraft with contents-shifted bags strapped to your body. Get into an unmoving line. You must now answer questions as to why you’ve come. Reveal whether or not you have more than 10,000 dollars in cash and/or fresh fruit on you. How long do you intend to stay? And what is the nature of this? How about your involvement in sabotage? Nazi war crimes? Let’s hear it.

You are deemed to fit to walk about this exotic land despite your visible nausea. You find another line, this one for taxis. A driver steps out of one and offers to take your bags in a language you remember learning once, but which you are now hearing as a series of chuffs and comical diphthongs. Hand him the slip of paper with a name and an address. Then fall fast asleep on his torn upholstery while careening through the morning traffic jam of an endless, unreal city that doesn’t match your guidebook’s description in the slightest. Still, as a precaution, keep your copy in your lap open to the page about public pay toilets.

Reach, at last, an acceptable bed. Drop all bags, whether they are yours or not. Crash onto the mottled bedspread. You don’t even care.

You are wide awake.

 

Following day

Who are you? Who were you? Someone is curious, but you haven’t figured out what’s going on with the satellite television channels. All of your unpacked stuff is hopeless. Douse yourself with hand sanitizer anyway.

Outdoors, stroll through sidestreets with your eyes unfocused and your head not committing landmarks to memory. If you notice anything, let it be how especially weird your pants are. Of course, it’s the natives’ pants that look weird, but their puzzled expressions, and in some cases pointing, make it obvious that you’re the one in the wrong. Cinching them they way you do declares, “Amateur pickpockets, have a go!”

You find all this funny, but also deeply touching for a reason you can’t figure. Weep about your pants and your melodramatic circadian rhythms. You’ll be drowsy and inappropriately dressed for life. Honk into a tissue from one of the various zippered pockets out of self-pity, sure, but also because you’ve never been anywhere in the world so crushingly beautiful before. All the movies never captured this.

After pulling yourself together, realize you’re simply famished, despite having just eaten a Viking-style meal that must have been lunch. It’ll be dark again soon.

Declare with relief this day to be a wash.

 

Following week

You have changed. You have a new spring in your step. This is a place outsiders view as magical and transformative. Revisit the travel guide. Make attempts at the local dialect again. Ponder how to greet the crankier denizens. Do they appreciate a handshake at the local bakery? Or maybe two kisses on the cheek? Pointing fingers in the shape of a gun and “firing”? Settle on giving the slack-jawed baker your phone number and a gentle, prolonged squeeze on the body part of your choice. You are making memories now. You are giddy with all this fitting in. You will undoubtedly be invited to a low-ceilinged café only the locals know of that contains a time portal transporting you back to this country’s golden age of visionaries and dashing iconoclasts.

First though, rush to the public toilets as you have hourly since the moment you arrived. As before, curse this fiery overrated paradise. No wonder the local economy is in freefall.

 

Following month

By now you’ve learned the clearest path to belonging is to keep moving. Borrow a car and set fast to the road. Take the highway as far as it goes, even when the signs make little sense and the GPS won’t hold to the windshield, instead rolling to the floor and repeating over and over the command to turn around. For the love of mercy, gentle driver, go back the way you came.

As you get away, note that the other people you encounter show an unusual wisdom yet with assorted blind spots in their thinking. Whether this comes as a result of the anachronistic religious beliefs or their elation/rage regarding the overthrow of the former despot’s regime or a routine expression of ingrained tribal tendencies, it’s hard to say.

Thank heavens you, discombobulated to your core, still have something to chase forever just out of reach down the scattered lines on the map. It might be your newness that allows you to understand this. It might be your total disorientation that affords this advantage.

But don’t get too confident. Be careful. It can take years to adjust to the US.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

6 responses to “Stages of Jet Lag”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    How I love this. I remember that reverse culture shock after coming back from 2 years in HK. For some reason, it was the lines that got me. I wanted to stand waaaaay to close to everyone. heh.

    • Not understanding boundaries of personal space, another symptom of the lag and one that I don’t know if I ever fully cured. If I’m in the right line at all, I’m probably standing too close to you.

  2. D.R. Haney says:

    Sorry to be so late in reading this, Nat. It brings back memories from the brief time when I, too, was an expatriate. I remember, when I returned to the US from Serbia once, the first thing I did, on getting off the plane, was to head straight to a newsstand. There had been a blackout on a lot of US media at the time, and I was too busy to keep with news, and I stood there at the newsstand, flipping through magazines, and thought, “Holy shit, this country is insane!” The stuff that preoccupied Americans seemed, after being away from America for a while, utterly ridiculous.

    Doesn’t fatherhood amount to a kind of full-time jet lag?

    • And damnit if I’m still not obsessed with the insanity of it when viewed from this outsider perspective. Or what’s the word…folly?

      Along similar lines, fatherhood amounts to jet lag to the point that I confuse the two.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Folly! Yes, that’s the word!

        The great thing about living abroad was that it cut my daily dose of American pop culture to a digestible portion. None of us need as much as get. A twentieth of that amount be more than sufficient.

        Say, weren’t you going to write a sequel to your piece about meeting your wife?

  3. “From the time [introverts] are very young, really, from like age two and three, they start getting the message that they should be more extroverted, and any preferences they might have to be off by themselves, or socializing in very quiet ways, that there’s something wrong with that and they should be always pushing through it,” Cain said.

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