They say that traveling widens your perspective about the world we inhabit. And while I can attest to that statement’s truth, I also know that vagabonding for lengthy periods of time can leave one wildly disoriented.
After spending nearly a year abroad and completing a 9,500-mile bicycle trip, I recently boarded a flight home to New England. As the plane sped across the runway and lifted into the sky, I marveled at how fast we moved. I had spent the last three months slowly pedaling my bicycle more than 3,000 miles across Europe. Now, in a plane, we would cover roughly the same distance across the Atlantic Ocean in just seven hours.
Aboard the plane, a personal video monitor in front of each passenger displayed a map of the flight’s trajectory that transfixed me. While most people in the plane soon selected movies to watch on their monitors, I kept the map on. From Europe, I watched as we flew in an elongated semi-circle, going northward toward Green-land, then arcing down over Newfoundland and New Brunswick toward Boston.
Periodically, the digital map would zoom in on different parts of the earth we flew over. I watched as small cities and towns in France appeared on the screen, then were replaced by similarly named places in Quebec. The different maps inadvertently displayed the influence that European colonization had on North America.
Several months ago, I had a fascinating encounter that made me realize how tightly American and European histories are interwoven. When traveling, I often grapple with explaining where I’m from; although everyone around the world knows the United States, it is rare that you meet someone who can pinpoint Maine on a map. In many languages, I’ve had to learn how to say, “I live north of New York,” so people have a vague understanding of where I grew up. For this reason, I was stunned one afternoon in southern France when an old French man grew excited when I told him that I lived in Maine.
“Maine!” he exclaimed. “Do you know where Castine is?”
“Yes,” I replied with a shocked look. “I grew up right next to Castine.”
“Your home is very important to French history,” he said. “In the 17th century, a man named the Baron de Saint-Castin sailed to Maine and retook a French colony that had previously been under British control. The region on the Maine coast still bears his name, Castine, to this day. While in Maine, the Baron married a young Abenaki Indian girl and they had a large family together. Today, it is believed that Castin was even elected as an Abenaki chief and helped rally the Indians to battle against the English and Iroquois.”
Sitting in the plane, I recalled the Frenchman’s story as the digital map showed us passing over Penobscot Bay and the small town of Castine where I had once frequently gone to play grade school basketball games. After spending a month slowly cycling across France, I felt able to envision the places where some of the Europe-ans that colonized Maine had originally come from. Suddenly, the world seemed a bit smaller.
I began considering how relatively recent America was settled in comparison with Europe. After centuries of large-scale farming, much of the forests in Europe are gone today. Despite the many things I love about Europe, the lack of woods has been something that I’ve missed during these past few months. While staring at the digital map of North America, I recalled the vast unsettled expanses on this continent that I love, like the Maine woods.
That night, my father picked me up in Bangor and we embarked on the familiar drive south to our home on the Blue Hill Peninsula. Like the first American settlers, I sat in awe as the truck’s headlights illuminated more trees than I had seen in months.
“I can’t believe how many trees there are here!” I exclaimed in disbelief while staring at the seemingly infinite forest passing by the car window.
Back in America, I face a daily struggle of dealing with culture shock and rediscovering how the world works here. During my first week at home, I called the local superintendent of schools’ office to inquire about substitute teaching in Maine.
“Just come by the office anytime to fill out an application,” the woman in the office told me.
“Anytime?” I said. “What about lunch?”
“Oh, somebody is always here, don’t worry,” she replied.
I hung up the phone baffled. After spending months in Spain and France, where all businesses close for a siesta period in midafternoon, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that an office could be open all day.
In readjusting to life in America, I face both mental and physical challenges. For more than eight months, I have cycled an average of 60 miles each day. The amount of food I consumed during this trip was astonishing; oftentimes, I would eat an entire box of cereal as one meal. Yesterday, I reached for a box of Cheerios and re-alized I had no concept of how much I should eat. I poured a small bowl. It seemed like so little.
During the past weeks, as I rest from my bike trip and search for a job, I am starting to adjust to life off a bicycle. I’ve satisfied my need to exercise by going on frequent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing expeditions in the beautiful Maine woods. And slowly, I’ve retrained my stomach to accept normal portions of food.
It is a slow process of recovery. But, considering how much I’ve been able to learn about the world over the last year, it is a small price to pay.