To be fair, I did not go directly from the Camino to the US; I spent a few days resting in Santiago before heading to Madrid on Sunday to catch a plane yesterday. To be honest, I was not eager to return. I considered extending my stay and paying the change fee for my flight, yet I was still too exhausted to truly enjoy traveling some more; for the last six or so weeks, I had slept in a different bed every night (save for my final two evenings in Santiago), and my body was begging me to STOP. And the thought of navigating Spain’s larger cities, after the simple pleasure of striding through the countryside, felt overwhelming.
Landing at JFK International Airport, however, I wished I hadn’t left Europe so soon. After exiting the plane, we descended a bare staircase to immigration. Overhead, in plain white letters on a blue background, a sign read: WELCOME TO NEW YORK. It’s a nice message if one reads English, but I suspect that many of the people arriving at this terminal do not. There was room to have included translations in the world’s major languages, what would have been a gesture of welcome and respect in America’s truly international city.
The staircase deposited us into a dimly lit basement-like room with a low ceiling; uniformed employees directed American citizens to one line, residents of other countries to another. English-only signs attached to the booths of the immigration staff said something to the effect that they strive to welcome each person in a friendly manner. It’s as if the printed intention served as a disclaimer or preemptive apology; an ashen faced official glanced at my passport and at my face, concluded they matched, and sent me on my way without a smile.
In one corridor I spotted an advertisement featuring an attractive young woman reading a psychology textbook. “From homeless to Harvard,” it read. Then, “Ambition. Pass It On.” Slightly dazed, and having been gone for weeks, I was unaware of the context for this poster. Still, its placement, at the JFK international arrivals area, a major yet shabby gateway to our nation, was disheartening, as if someone had insisted on emphasizing this American cultural narrative: Make a name for yourself, become a somebody, or else. We’re a country hooked on rags-to-riches tales, of “bootstrappers” overcoming great odds on their own. The Camino, if it had walls and paid advertisers, would have posters that say this: just be yourself, nothing more, nothing less. Indeed, Pilgrims along the way have written similar messages, mostly on the backs of road signs, to inspire others as they put one foot in front of the other. Indeed, without the encouragement of the people around me (and the friendly graffiti), I doubt I would have finished.
With five hours between flights, I wandered around the terminal. I stopped at a Starbucks to get a tea. I noticed they were serving holiday beverages, which struck me as odd. In the food court, Christmas muzak filled the air, sounds I hadn’t heard in nearly a year. How strange, I thought. I glanced at my watch, and the date. In Galicia it had been hunting season, the silence occasionally punctuated by gunshots and barking dogs. Here it’s muzak season, a nearly endless onslaught of cheery tunes to help us hunt for gifts. I sighed, wishing I had stayed abroad through the end of December.
My younger brother picked me up at Logan airport last night. He told me he thought I had lost weight. I stepped on his scale; my weight is about the same, but my shape has shifted, maybe I’ve turned some fat to muscle. This morning, opening the duffel bag I had left at his house, whose contents I had forgotten, I pulled out a fall jacket I bought a few months before. It fit then, but now it feels a bit loose, as if it belongs to someone else. Ditto for my somewhat saggy pants. I unzipped my cosmetics bag; in it were several bottles and tubes of moisturizer and cleanser. Compared to the quarter-sized vial of lotion I carried for the last six weeks, they seem gigantic and superfluous. My purse which, at just 9″ square, is not a super-sized fashionista bag, felt heavy when I picked it up. My not-so-smart phone is hefty, so is my wallet, filled with many affinity and membership cards. Did I really need all of them?
My brother and his wife asked me if I had plans for today. Nope. They handed me a map of the town’s forest, accessible from their neighborhood, with the different types of trails marked. I could cut through the woods to visit the commercial center. Map in hand, I walked towards the woods. I couldn’t find the entrance, but a woman trimming her bushes pointed the way. Dry leaves crunched underfoot as I tried to match the markings on the page with the paths on the ground. At one point I took a wrong turn. An old instinct prompted me to reach for my phone to call and find out which way to go. But I had gotten lost in Spain a few times and, with no one to dial, had retraced my steps. And so I did today, and kept walking. Right now, that’s all I can do.