I walked through border control in the Seattle-Tacoma airport at the end of summer 2011, I hadn’t been home in a year.
I handed my passport to the agent with a mustache. (All Border Patrol agents have mustaches. Even the women.) He flipped through it. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or was just totally ignoring me – his only vital sign being that of his thumb moving through the book. About halfway into my passport, he made the first notable facial expression I’ve ever seen a Passport Control agent make – aside from stone sour. He raised his eyebrows, still looking down. I could’ve sworn he almost smiled. I remember his words like it was yesterday.
“Well, Mister…Liebing, is it?”
I decided, against my better judgment, to correct him. (Never correct a customs officer.)
“No, it’s pronounced LEE-bing.” I emphasized the “eeeeee.” (Everyone but the Deutsch-landers says my name wrong. Maybe that’s why I love Austria so much.)
He was unmoved to pronounce it correctly.
“Yes… well, looks like you’ve made quite the rounds here…”
He let the last word linger ominously in the air, almost as if a question. I’d spent the last year living in Saudi Arabia and then backpacking around the Middle East and Europe all summer. I wasn’t sure whether he was going to have me cavity searched for Arabian contraband or let me pass unscathed.
“Impressive.” And with this, he flicked my passport towards me in the stiff routine two-finger hold and looked me square in the eye as if he was going to say something utterly profound.
And then he did.
“Mr. Liebing, welcome home sir.”
I wanted to hug him and weep on his shoulder. I refrained. I scampered down to baggage claim wanting to sob for joy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so patriotic. I swear I almost stopped and saluted the American flag hanging in the rafters of the food court. My duct-tapped guitar case clanged down the baggage carousel belt. The Bob Marley sticker on front had even survived the trip. I’d lugged this thing through so many cities I actually shook my head at what should have either amazed or made me feel incredibly stupid. I’d almost sold the acoustic Fender to my friend CJ who I met couch-surfing in Istanbul. I can’t tell you how glad I am that he refused to take it.
Traveling alone for long stints, that Fender guitar and Sierra Nevada backpack got to seem like old friends. The guitar was that drunken buddy for whom you always had to apologize to the taxi driver. “What, you’re bringing that thing?” they’d whine with their eyes (or verbally, in a few instances). “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s alright,” I’d say, hustling them to pop the trunk of whatever beat-to-hell old mid-90s Toyota they’d turned into a cab, hoping they wouldn’t take off before I could close the lid and jump into the backseat.
When you’ve been gone for a long time – and I mean really gone, for a really long time – the word “home” starts to seem less like a place you’re from and more like a hazy dream you had a long time ago. When I first heard the old song “Brandy” on the radio with my Dad as a kid, I never thought it would mean anything to me. But I love that song now. I can hardly listen to it without crying. There’s a line that drifts sweetly: “Lonely sailors, who pass the time away, and talk about their homes.” By my twenty-fifth birthday, that lyric had become one of my all-time favorites.
Home is a funny thing. All we wanderers, and expats, and wanderlusters, and adrenaline junkies, and road-trippers – we can’t help but come back broken hearted. We find ourselves back in the old places, passing time in old jobs bartending or selling cars, with one foot out the door and half an eye on the next adventure. Our hearts hurt. We get stuck in the past and can’t seem to reconcile where we’ve been with where we are. Faces and memories fly by – and you can’t get over the fact that you’ll probably never see most of them again. You’ll never get to have one last cigarette on the roof of the apartment as we smile and watch the neon streets of Seoul bustle below. You’ll never have another long chat in the villa in Saudi with our old friends as we kill time watching Al Jazeera and talking about how batshit crazy the whole place is.
You might never get back to that bar in Beirut, on that night, as you watched her glide through the door and sit down across the bar. You’ll never get to re-live that utter blast of falling in love over a Queen song and talking for four straight hours and feeling something totally foreign and luminously new.
But we forget to count our chips. We forget that – for better or worse – it’s all part of the deal. The adventure. The heartache. They don’t mix too well, but they sure ain’t sold separately. The true travelers venture out for experience and much more. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and open our eyes as wide as we can and stand it for as long as we can stand it, because – that’s living. Heartbreak is the nature of our business, the necessary flip side to falling in love in Paris, drinking a Stiegl at the top of a mountain in Austria, trying to get yourself up on a surfboard off the coast of Beirut, passing time getting to know people and smoking hookah on a seaside dock in Saudi Arabia.
It’s hard to leave pieces of your heart lying on the ground of city streets 3000 miles away. But it’s beautiful. We weren’t meant to come back with a fluffy conscience and a clear head. My heart aches for old memories. I miss old friends. And I always will. There’s no getting over it. But that’s what happens when you live with heart open and palms up. My heart didn’t get taken. I went with it open. It hurt then because I knew it wasn’t forever – and it hurts now because the times are behind me. But in the emptiness there is love. Parts of myself are gone. They belong to people and places far away, and that’s where they’ll stay. And if you want to have adventures, you have to be OK with that. You have to know from the start that the thing is going to change you – and then you have to let it. And then when it’s time to go home, you have to really go home.
Home became sweet to me because it was so far away for so long. Distance gave me perspective. But I don’t have it down perfectly. I’m still learning to be where I am, whether that’s near or far, home or abroad. Some people say that you can be at home wherever you are. Maybe. But I like keeping home as it is – a fixed reality of one place, singular and steady; a port of call for a restless soul. Home is the framework that makes it all possible, the steady harbor, the friend that will always have you back no matter how long you’ve been gone. Every time I walk through airport gates, I’m reminded of how severely lucky I am to have a place where even the soulless Border Patrol officials with mustaches look me in the eye, and squarely acknowledge, with dutiful sincerity, that I belong.