In early August I had to go back to the Home Country, as I call it, which is to say the Four Corners Country, USA. This wasn’t unusual. During our five years in Bulgaria I went back home a couple times each year to visit family and friends, report for stories or books I was working on, and to re-ground myself in the place about which I most often write.
Usually the trips are preceded by a mix of emotions, by eagerness and anxiety, both. This time, as I boarded the bus in Milina, I was again excited to get my sagebrush and sandstone fix, but I was also more reticent than usual—sad to leave the place we had called home only for five weeks; worried about leaving when wildfires were burning all over Greece; heartsick about leaving Wendy for four weeks just as we were embarking on a new adventure together.
And then there is the length of the journey. In Sofia we were only a 15 minute drive from the airport. Here, it’s a bit more complicated: A ninety-minute bus ride to Volos, the nearest city, then another couple of hours to Thessaloniki, a 90 minute walk to the hotel—broken up by a fabulous dinner at one of our favorite restaurants—and then a 5 a.m. taxi to the airport, for the Thessaloniki—>Brussels (with a very tight connection that necessitated a full-on sprint through the airport and the duty free shops)—>Chicago (another tight connection and endless border control lines)—>Denver (where Shake Shack closed, at 5 p.m., because of staff shortages)—>Durango (shrouded in smoke from Oregon and California wildfires, and yes I did feel guilty for flying and thereby contributing to the problem with fossil fuel emissions). All while wearing a mask.
The jet lag was wicked, but I was able to ease into the rhythm of the Home Country nonetheless, thanks in large part to the hospitality—and coffee—of our good friends Ann and Steve. A couple of days in I ran up to Lake Nighthorse to jump in and cool off, testing its waters for my first time. It was no Aegean, but no complaints here. A few good friends and I climbed an obscure Durango-area peak. And though I was busy with book promotion and other work, I soon made it into the sagebrush and sandstone for some nice desert runs, a spectacular Ute Mountain moonrise, and plenty of just sitting and absorbing the din of desert silence. I had done the same dozens of times before, but this time there was an inkling of a new sensation: homesickness.
How could I feel such a thing when I was immersed in the Home Country? And yet, there it was, an indecipherable longing that crept from head to heart, a yearning for our little abode, for the limestone, the light, the mineral-tinged wine, and the little fried fish.
After touching down in Thessaloniki I caught a train in the run-down old station and sat back and watched the landscape along the Aegean Coast float by: industrial zone, olive grove, wetland, village, olive grove, Mount Olympos, tunnel, town, olive grove. The rains had arrived, dousing the fires, washing the air clean, a balm for the tinder-dry land. This time Wendy picked me up in Volos. She was radiant, even more so than usual, and infused with a new energy I hadn’t seen in years. I immediately sensed that something had changed and that we were in for a wild ride.
We made the winding drive in the dark, the windows open on the little Fiat, drinking in the moist and aromatic air. At our house, Wendy reached up and picked a ripe fig from our tree and handed it to me, sweet and succulent. We opened the door to the house and were greeted by a jumping-licking-playful Lada.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m still an Auslander here, groping my way through the unfamiliar and the novel, trying my best to decipher the language, terrified sometimes by the darkness ahead and delighted when I hesitantly reach into the murk, pull my hand back, and find a fistful of stars. And when I say “here” I mean Greece and the Pelion, but also the landscape of a new chapter in life which I greet with both apprehension and anticipation.