I have arrived safely in Madrid, Spain, and have now gone for 120 without shaving. Yes, that’s right, I’m growing a beard. Why? I’m not sure. I think someone back home in the United States put me up to it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. I just can’t remember who.
If this sounds slightly absurd, consider this: I have a habit of using multi-day, overseas plane flights (and the accompanying lack of sleep that goes hand-in-hand with them) to forget vast swathes of my life back in the States. A typical journey works something like this. As I pass through security, I set aside any lingering sentimentality I may harbor toward my daily routine at University of Cincinnati. I tell myself that I won’t be homesick. By the end of the first leg—in this case, Cincinnati to Chicago—I have left my most pressing concerns behind. If there is something I need to do once I get settled in to my final destination, I make a note of it; chances are, however, only a few items will merit this. That link to such-and-such website that I was supposed to send to so-and-so to help her with this-or-that? Or that paper I was supposed to proofread for a half-acquaintance? Chances are, I will have forgotten these things before I even leave the country. If you happen to be one of the victims of this purging of social responsibility, I apologize. You have six months to forgive me before you see me again.
The overseas flight, whose principle characteristic consists of twelve-some hours of sedentary purgatory (in this case, from Chicago to Warsaw), marks the beginning of the most difficult mental purge I carry out: the emotional one. During the six months I passed in the States, I accumulated at least two 50-pound suitcases of emotional baggage. Since those pounds are reserved for clothes, toiletries, six months’ worth of medications, and my mobile chess library (yes, I’m writing the third volume of my Wojo series while in Europe), I must be sure to leave everything else behind. As I sit there on the plane, unable to sleep, I consciously shelve my emotional attachments to as many people and places back home as possible. These feelings, whether they be positive or negative, will serve little purpose during the time that I’m away. And when I come back, I will be able to start afresh with my friends and family. If this sounds harsh, perhaps it is. But for me, it’s an imperative. Without it, I’d go insane. By the third leg (Warsaw to Madrid), I have reached the one day point with no sleep, and am quietly slipping into Zombieland. When I arrive, I live out my first day in the city just as if I had gone to sleep the previous night and woken up that morning. That is, I don’t sleep again until it’s actually bedtime. The spring goes back in my step as I leave the airport and begin building new social connections—connections with my new host family, new teachers, and new friends. The lack of sleep prevents me from remembering many details of the plane flight, and those things I do remember seem hazy, even surreal. This leaves a hole in my memory separating my life in the States and my life here. My mental purge is complete. I am ready to learn the new worldviews, the new value systems, and the new customs, traditions, and languages that will form the very fabric of my reality during my time in Europe. I am prepared to be re-socialized in third different cultures before leaving Narnia and returning to my homeland, where only six months will have passed.
And someone there will laugh when he or she sees my beard. It's is coming in fairly well,** so I hope I put some money on it. Maybe someone made me a bet and will be kind enough to confess to it when I get back.
* To “comb the snake” (peinar la culebra) is a Central American phrase meaning to pass time whilst doing absolutely nothing. Snakes don’t have hair; hence, combing them is thought to be pointless.
** I'm lying, actually.