On Feeling at Home Away from Home

It has been 10 months now and the earth has gone far enough in its circuit around the sun that the city is starting to throw recollections at me, fleeting memories of my first days here. The slant of the sun, still up now at the end of the work day, the outdoor revelry on weekend nights, the smells erupting from the open-fronted grills, and even the feeling of warm sand under my feet, these things all recall to me in brief moments the initial thrill of being for the first time in a place, then to me, utterly foreign.

It is a bittersweet emotion I feel when a sight or smell reminds me of that first rush in the early days of this journey. In my blissful naivety I felt like an explorer. Every walk to the grocery was an adventure. Every meal was an unfolding mystery. Every weekend was epic in its delicious sense of possibility. Those days are gone now. The streets still glow, but it is no longer the same quality of light. It is as if someone snuck into the booth, focused the camera, turned on the surround sound, and then, adding insult to injury, switched on the subtitles. For because I can read hangul now the menus and bus routes are decipherable. I know my way around the subway and the railway. I can negotiate with shopkeepers and motel-keepers. I can find deodorant and chicken bullion and Land-of-Lakes butter and fresh baguettes and Monterrey Jack.

Yet all of this familiarity has come with a price. It's an odd feeling of being lost in the familiar. This is juxtaposed in my mind with those first magical days, especially now, when I am being bombarded with intimations of what it was like before, back when I knew too little to be unimpressed by the now common sights that were once a source of wonder. An old lady sitting cross legged on a piece of cardboard selling tiny bunches of what look like weeds in the subway. A shop where a man is making tea from wood chips and roots. The street markets teeming with a thousand varieties of commerce, where live fish stands abut purveyors of rainbow hued sandals on one side and handmade ceramics on the other. The stinking drunk laying in his own puke, pockets turned out, in an alley off the rotary. The million tiny dishes and smoking grates covered in meat, that make up the cornucopia that is Korean cuisine.

All of this is still wonder-full, and I have come to love this place more and more as I have become comfortable, but I still miss those golden afternoons when the air, the light, and the sounds of this city all seemed permeated by an unknowable otherness. That loss is the price you pay for making yourself at home.