April 19, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Patchy light rain 13°C

Two worlds, two selves

No Man's Land is a world apart, a transitional space, Neither Here Nor There. In that world I become "Nobody."
By Elaine Luti
Published: 2014-04-19

'm increasingly nervous in the days before my departure. I'm irritated by everything and everyone, unable to sleep, throwing things around, panicking about not being able to find what's right before my eyes. In technical terms, I'm freaking out.

I always sleep too little the nights before leaving, with a nameless anxiety and probably a lot of unrecognized sadness. We get to the airport, check in, waste some time rummaging around the airport, have a coffee and then move on to security. I say goodbye to my husband, waving repeatedly through the security line, and then walk through the magic barrier, like the vertical pool of water in science fiction shows, into No Man's Land.

No Man's Land is a world apart, a transitional space, Neither Here Nor There. In that world I become "Nobody," another person passing through. I roam around, decide what to eat, look in the shops, play with the makeup and squirt the perfume (never at me, or I'd be stuck smelling it for the whole trip) and sit and read my book in peace.

The plane is an extension of this land, but with uncomfortable seats and a feeling of never ending discomfort. To distract myself, I wonder if perhaps some time in the future, anthropologists will unearth one of these jets. They may wonder if these metal cans where humans were strapped into narrow seats and watched over by uniformed guards were not some sort of prison. Will they wonder at the cruelty of these ancient times and how they dealt with criminals? What crime could be so heinous that would merit such imprisonment, suspended for hours in space, unable to stretch out or to stand, or sometimes even to use the toilet?

I interact, I eat, I read, I wait for connections.

Eventually I arrive in Boston. After customs and passport control and other bovine herding phenomena, I pass again through the magic barrier of time and space, and emerging again from No Man's Land, myself.

But which self? Not the self I was in Rome. I am one kind of foreigner there, another kind of foreigner here. Having landed, I don't really remember what I was feeling when I was back in Rome, or even who I was. Everything on the other side of the barrier exists through a fog, pixilated like a pointillist painting, clarity lost, hard to imagine.

There's a bit of adjustment, the colors of people's clothes, less black, more pastel, white shoes everywhere, more wide open faces prone to smiling, superbly self-conscious in some ways, and extravagantly oblivious in others.

"How ya doin'?" people ask. I'm not sure. Maybe I fit here. I think I begin to feel like me again.

And which me the Rome "me" or the Boston "me?"

In Rome, even after 40 years I'm always a foreigner. I long ago stopped trying to dress like an Italian, act like an Italian, think like an Italian. No matter what, it's never possible ever to really, fully integrate. Some of what I am is completely "me" yet it's dismissed as, "Well, she's American." Some of it is also unquestionably American yet it's somehow seen as my particular idiosyncrasy.

But I'm not much of a fit back in the U.S., either. I own no clothes that won't clash in the suburban landscape there. I have no Bermudas to wear to the cookout. I definitely have no polo shirt or gym shoes. But some things feel so timelessly like home, in the subtleties of a way of being, that I feel like I'm coming back into a part of myself I left behind. Sometimes I long, not so much for the left-behind place, but for the "me" that could exist in that place, be recognized and be understood at a glance.

Which self does the traveling?

Then it's time to come back. The day before, I'm freaking out again, tension building like in animals before an earthquake. I pack and push and sit on my suitcases to take every scrap of home I can shove into the baggage allowance. I'll miss it all, painfully, achingly. I get to the airport, a teary goodbye. Long security checks, more herding. Then I walk through the magic barrier, and suddenly I am without memory, without self. I interact, I eat, I read, I wait for connections. I burn with envy at the hundreds of passengers in dreamland even before the fasten seat belt sign blinks off. I can't sleep. I ponder the infinite black space where we're all suspended, seemingly in eternal stillness, try to soothe my mounting anxiety by watching the faces of the flight attendants, who must know if it's dangerous, right? Time passes. We land, exhausted and stinking of fuel exhaust, wanting a shower and some real food.

Shuffling along approved and stamped again along the way I find my way through the magic barrier. I see my husband waving. We walk to the car. "How was it?" I remember the events, the friends, the places, and the cookout. But I've kind of lost track of who I was. It's not so painful to be back, in fact it's familiar and pleasant, and after all it's still me, just a different me. So who was the other? Ask me when I meet her next time in Boston.

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