I landed in Philadelphia in late May, just seven hours after departing from Madrid, but it took me until early July to realize I had stepped off the plane.
The most difficult thing about re-assimilation is you actually have to do it. You can only fool yourself for so long, and I was doing a pretty good job of it by avoiding, both selectively and unintentionally, human contact for the larger part of my summer. As bizarre and unsettlingly foreign my bedroom appeared to me on first visit—like a museum to my former self—I quickly got over it and the small, cluttered quarters soon became the site of my hermetic existence. After ten-hour days at a job I hated with a soul-bruising loathing, I would shack up and use Facebook to talk only to people who were in a time zone six hours ahead of me.
Home still felt like a vacation at first. After so many bus rides to different regions of Spain and multiple trans-Europe flights, the very place I grew up in could have been just another weekend jaunt and I tried to convince myself that I would soon be returning to my flat in Oviedo to drink café con leche and breathe the mountain air.
But it wasn’t. After months had gone by the curtain finally came down and drew out the dividing line between my life then and my life now. The fracture point at which the people who once swirled about me on a daily basis began to develop without my influence and I without there’s was suddenly clearly defined. The ocean between us now spanned light-years, and crossing it was an undertaking with a departure point that was tenuously real at best.
I didn’t have a very good summer.
It was one hot afternoon, in a particularly dismal mood, that I set off on a walk with my dog in the hopes that the open air would pry loose the negative feelings draped like a thick dragnet over the lumpy surface of my brain. I was thinking, fully against my will, about all the time I wasn’t spending with interesting human beings of my own age group but was instead unable to find a way to crawl out of the miasma of ennui that too often chokes my thoughts on lonely days at home. It was in this toxic mood that I passed two young girls who I could’ve sworn said “Por eso” in a low conversation to one another.
My hometown is not very well populated. Even when houses are clumped together in neighborhoods, they’re often spaced fairly far apart by massive lawns. Even more often, though, they’re separated by vast tracts of farmland. So, if you’re walking your dog, the maximum number of people you run into is typically one, and unless you both are acquainted in some meaningful way, you don’t stop to have a chat.
So it was weird when these two strangers made eye contact with me, and even weirder when I felt their eyes follow me down the street when I turned left and away from them.
Conventional wisdom goes that the human, as the more advanced being in the relationship, is to dictate the course and duration of the dog’s walk. Not true. My dog, when tired, will stubbornly sit down and refuse to get up unless we begin walking in the opposite direction. And so it was that I was barely out of sight of the two girls when I found a dead weight at the end of the leash and knew that I was going to have to walk by them again.
Still not in the proper mindset to have a conversation with anyone, I headed back with my eyes to the ground, awkwardly glancing up now and again to see if they were still tracking my movements.
Then they started following me.
It wasn’t a spontaneous decision on their part to just start walking in the same direction. It was a deliberate, calculated effort that was decided upon after a hushed discussion.
I looked over my shoulder and there they were, calmly but firmly gaining ground on me. I kept walking, thinking maybe I was wrong and there was a chance they just thought the street I chose was a really nice street. I mean, it is a pretty nice street. I walked like a man pretending not to know he is being followed, which is to say I walked like a man who was 100% certain the people behind him could tell he knew he was being followed. I wondered if I’d make it to my street only to see them walk on when they called out to me.
“Excuse me, can we walk with you?”
Their accents weren’t American. I fumbled around for some excuse as to why I didn’t stop when I saw them making a concerted effort to catch up with me. I wished my dog could talk—she’d probably be much smoother in social situations than I am.
Finally, I settled on asking them where they were from.
“We are from Spain.”
The rest of my day was changed for the better. In the end, I walked with the two girls well past my house. As I found out, they were from the Basque Country, not too far out of the city of Bilbao, which I had visited on one of my many travels in Spain. I asked how they and the others they had traveled with ended up in my town, of all places. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania doesn’t exactly capture the scope of the American experience, but as it turns out, it is a pretty good way to make sure you’re isolated amongst English-speakers. Luckily for them, their exchange program had organized excursions to New York and Philadelphia, among other places, so they weren’t going to leave the country empty handed.
I told them the parts of Spain I had seen and loved, and we talked for awhile about what it’s like to be a long-term visitor in a foreign country. Their very assertive, almost intrusive way of introducing themselves and brazen disregard for social discomfort reminded me of something I myself did many times while in Spain. When meeting people is reduced to a sink-or-swim basis, all the normal rules go out the window. If you’ve only got several weeks to make friends or even acquaintances in a place where you don’t even know the language that well, suddenly it seems perfectly acceptable to follow strangers down the street. So I was not only understanding, but very happy that I was their chosen target for the day.
I didn’t see them again after that, but I was pulled out of my funk for the rest of the day. My would-be stalkers taught me again that when you’ve got nothing to lose, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to simply leave the house and see what happens.