Many emotions go into leaving a country you have called home for over two years. A combination of excitement and fear hit the top of the list. Excitement in the fact I was heading home to see friends and family. Fear in that those people will not see the change in me or I will revert back to a lesser self. Along the journey of traveling to America last month were meetings filled with strong emotion and anticipated divergence of life in Ukraine.
When I was preparing for my travel to California for the holidays I was trying to think of what to pack. It was no surprise that when I went to the airport, my bag was about 10-15 pounds overweight. Clothes, presents, and knickknacks filled my bag. Ironically, I forgot the most important item when traveling to the west coast, sandals and shorts. Those would come in handy, because a quarter of my time in California was spent walking on the sand and watching sunsets go down over the pacific ocean.
From the moment I stepped out of the terminal, I knew my trip would be unforgettable. In what may not come to a shock to any of you who saw my Facebook pictures, my dad, mom, brother, sister-in-law, 2 nephews and niece sat at the gate with separate signed saying “Welcome” “Home” “Uncle Richy”. While the spelling of my name and their placement of the phrase as they stood in attention might have been a bit off, it was a warm welcome thanks to my big brother who was caralling them in order to make sure they stood in the correct position. I will never forget the parade procession walking throughout the airport, my family to my left and right and the little ones running ahead of us screaming “Uncle Richy, Uncle Richy, Welcome home.”
After the procession, I had a few days to lay low and get into the flow of life in America. The second day back, I went to a Target. The abundance was a bit overwhelming; it had been two years since I had seen a place where I could buy anything I wanted. And, everything was in English. So much to read, listen to and absorb.
One of my first visits was (of course) to my grandmother’s house for an early Christmas celebration. It may surprise some and get me in trouble with others, but my grandmother ended up taking a shot of homemade Ukrainian vodka. Hearing my grandma say, “where is mine” after I poured shots for the family will always be a cherished memory. In Ukrainian fashion we made a cheers to meeting and enjoyed each other’s company throughout the night.
I was also lucky enough to see one of my mentors while I was also in Fresno. I say lucky because he also lives across the world. This day started with my first attempt to get back onto the golf course. It was not pretty. But, the dinner we had later that night was much more pleasurable. One of the most exiting parts of living abroad is meeting interesting people who have lists and lists of stories and wisdom to share. This dinner provided me the same opportunity in the comforts of my hometown. Tony and Anne Marie are two of the most fascinating people I have in my life and I am thankful for their guidance and support (as well an unexpected treat on my flight home).
Christmas day was like any other. My favorite part of the day was when I gave my brothers their gift (vishes). Because I do not like wrapping, I found this fancy drum-like box which I could throw all the shirts in. The problem, no one knew who to open it. We started bickering like little kids and one of the crowd who was sitting close called us monkeys. This drove us into a mind melt, where we put the box on the ground and sat around it like cavemen. We began to bang on the box and shout like gorillas. A perfect example of the fascinating relationship formed by brothers and how our inner child never leaves us. (*Don’t worry if that story sounds weird to you, that is normal, we are the weird ones–video upon request.)
A few days later I took my first road trip to San Diego to see my best friends from High School. I will never forget cruising through on the highway looking up at green exit sign saying “Hollywood Blvd next exit” while playing Hotel California on full blast and the windows rolled down. I felt like Glenn Frey singing in front of thousands of fan, a true “you are back” moment for my spirit. All of this, a foreshadowing to what was to come as the weekend began and the experience of celebrating New Years with old friends was officially underway.
It took us sometime before my friends and I got into the groove. Like dogs sniffing an old friend, we were hesitant to accept each other back into our space, but after the weekend went on there was no turning back from the notion that we will always be friends and have a deep adoration for one another. Celebrating and golfing were the activities of the night and day. A solemn devotion to always support, poke fun, and challenge each other was the deeper meaning to the trip.
I did not have much time to relax after coming back from San Diego. After a day back in Fresno it was time to pack everything up and head to Cambria for a weekend with the family. All of which thanks to the long standing tradition of Nanna gift giving in the form of a vacation. No surprise, the weather was perfect and the adventures where just the same. This was a special time for me to spend with my niece and nephews. Each day our family would sit around the breakfast table and the kids would want to go see the Elephant seals. A welcomed activity by the adult, because we could observe the Darwin’esk behaviors of the alpha seals as they collected their harem of ‘sealets’ and make jokes about how these behaviors are not far off from that of humans. Two out of the three days we took the drive to nearby Morro Bay were to my surprise we found the biggest and juiciest oysters in the world. Thinking of them makes me want to throw over my refrigerator because the food inside is so inferior.
After this vacation there was a week of relaxation at home and catching up on emails from Ukraine. A great reminder that it is okay to relax, and avoid burnout. There is something therapeutic about knowing that there is nothing on the day’s agenda; being free to throw the ball with your dog, clean up her poop, go to the gym, watch a good movie, cook and run errands. That was my life for a good five days, before the next adventure began.
It was not long before my family and I packed the car to go to the beach again. This time we stayed at a hotel right off of Pismo beach. The sunsets and rises were glorious. The weather was even better. In winter, I was able to take off my shirt, run on the beach with my dog, and even splash around with her a bit in the water. Another pleasant experience was seeing my grandmother who visited us from Maine (which is on the other side of nation and colder than Ukraine). It was enjoyable watching her see the Pacific Ocean for the first time in many years. I imagined that was what I looked like on the shore of San Diego just a few weeks earlier.
My brothers’ children are a main reason why I love coming home to America. To quote the Simpsons, “Will someone think of the children?” We definitely thought of them the entire time. My favorite part was sitting with the three little critters on my lap (in a restaurant where steaks cost 50 dollars), and Uncle Rich made the mistake of quoting Captain Under Pants while letting out a semi loud ‘Tra La LAAAAAA.’ This sequentially followed by an explosion of energy unparalleled to another. It probably didn’t help they all just finished a bowl of ice cream. One would think the doors of hell were opened and a few demons (sorry for saying the D word Nanna, your Gkids aren’t demons, it’s a joke) briefly sparked the mischievous gene in each of their minds. All in all, a great example of God’s creation of male birth control.
When we returned to Fresno I noticed that my time in America was running out and it was time to see family. I started by traveling with my oldest Bro to Fremont to see my great Uncle and Cousin, which is a city at the base of the San Francisco Bay. I thought I would have time to go see my friend from the Peace Corps during my time in the Bay area, but the conversation with my family turned from 1 hour to 2 hours, and ended after 3 and a half. My brother and I did have time to go to the tourist trap that is Pier 39, where I was able to buy some much needed gifts for people back in Ukraine.
My brother and I got back to Fresno at about 1 o’clock at night. And, the next morning I had to prepare for another road trip to Los Angeles to see my cousins. I met them at their work (The Grove) were I was impressed by their stature in the organization and the relationships they formed with everyone at what seemed to me, a Disneyland in Hollywood for adults who like to spend money on fantastic clothes. After having dinner at the grove we went out on the town. This is the part of story which may need to be locked in a vault and not share to the public. All I will say, brunch in the morning was a combination of heaven and hell.
When I got back to Fresno I only had about 3 days left. All of which I spent with family and friends. I had the opportunity to try my hand at golf one last time, but this time it was at our home course and I was invited by our neighbor. Nothing brings you down to earth more than seeing 3 60 year old men kick your butt up and down the golf course. But, it was fun, and after 4 holes of nonsense, I was able to find something that resembled a menial golf game. It was a weird feeling walking off the 18th green. A subtle remind that in 48 hours I would be getting on a plane to travel back to Ukraine.
My last night in America was spent with family and over the heat of a BBQ. I must admit, I should have spent more time around the BBQ because I may or may not have burnt our whole dinner. I still blame it on the old BBQ. At least we know what to get Nanna for her birthday. And, I will be extremely angry if the video ever gets out of us playing charades and me attempting to personify birth. That was not a pretty site.
The next morning I said my final goodbyes to my mom, sister-in-law, and niece as they went off to work. Nanna cried, of course. But, that is what moms due. As my brother alluded to while dropping me off at the airport; just another one leaving the nest again. I was sad to say goodbye to all my family, but exited for adventure to come. Not only in Ukraine, but also what awaited me on my flight from LAX.
As I hinted at earlier, I was given a pleasant surprise in the form of an upgrade to business class on my 12 hour flight from LA to Munich. This would mark the first time flying with a reclined seat and actually getting sleep on a flight without having neck pains for 3 days. Another welcomed surprise was the Star Alliance Lounge which I had full access to during my 7 hour layover in Munich. I was able to treat myself with a drink at the bar, the buffet, a shower, and some much needed coffee. As I made my way to the terminal I started to hear faint sounds of Ukrainian and see people holding large jackets. At that point I knew, I was close to home.
A testament to the great way Peace Corps treats volunteers is the fact that there was a driver waiting for me at the airport, at 00.30 on a Saturday night. I received an unexpected call from him the moment I turned my phone off airplane mode and I welcomed the idea that I would not need to take an Uber. As we drove down the ice ridden streets of Kiev I looked out the window and was thankful for the grace which has been given to me throughout my life. Joining the Peace Corps has been the best decision of my life and I am content on making the most of the time I have left as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
*These are the thoughts of Richard J. Roman and are not in affiliation with the Peace Corps or its partners.