I have been back in San Francisco for about two weeks now, after nearly two years of living and working in Colombia. Many things are the same here--the weather that changes moment to moment, the hipsters on their fixies, the lovely Victorian architecture--but some things have definitely changed--way more fancy coffee and ice cream shops in the Mission, a new apartment building where I remember an empty lot. Kind of like me, I suppose: I am still Moira, but several seemingly-small changes I have undergone in the past two years have created important shifts in my character. Now I have to figure out how to navigate those changes in myself and in the people and places in this familiar-yet-different old home of mine.
Despite the fact that it's been nearly two months since I've been back in the U.S., I still have periodic moments of culture shock, though the feeling of confusion and disorientation have mostly faded by now. In my first days back in the Bay, though, I didn't feel totally at ease in many public settings because the norms I became accustomed to in Colombia are different in so many ways. A couple weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who has also spent time in Colombia, so we were able to talk in depth about current events and dynamics in the country. As she explained her analysis of recent guerrilla and paramilitary activity, I found myself tense, and glanced around to see who might be listening in. As soon as I realized what I was doing I laughed at myself and relaxed; here in the U.S., unlike in Colombia, I don't have to be careful about what I say where.
It's a relief not to have to be so careful about my words, but one thing I'm not as happy to have to get used to about being back in the U.S. is the sense I've had that, on the whole, people here tend to take so much more for granted. That's a generalization, of course, and certainly influenced by the kind of people I spent my time with in Colombia, and the space(s) I inhabit in the U.S. But to the extent that it's true, I think that it has to do with the fact that in Colombia, a country in conflict, you can't take for granted even the basic things: you can't be sure if you will live to see tomorrow: a grenade might explode on the bus you take to work, as happened a few weeks ago in southern Bogota, or your village might get bombed by the army, as happened to an indigenous community in late January.
Though I don't have to be as careful about what I say, sometimes finding the right words is a bit of a struggle: several times I have found myself struggling for a simple English word because I can only think of the term in Spanish! Returning to using English in my daily life instead of Spanish, I appreciate even more the way that different languages capture situations and emotions differently. I love the way, for example, that Spanish allows almost anything to be turned into a noun, or for nouns to be re-worked for a different context. For example, a bobo is a foolish person, and a bobada is a foolish thing a person might say or do. Perhaps only other Spanish speakers will appreciate my example, but I really do miss the way that Spanish feels rolling off my tongue.
I also am feeling cut off from current events in Colombia, after so much time in which it was my job to know what was going on. I am trying (stay tuned for an article I am writing about the upcoming presidential elections), but doing so feels a bit surreal when I glance up from a Semana article to see the San Francisco skyline outside my window. And I still haven't gone salsa dancing! That, clearly, is something that I can I need to change!