15 things I notice being back in the US after 158 days away


While Drew and I are nomadic, we often include some US travel into our nomadic lifestyle- enough so that we don’t necessarily feel like expats. But this past “jaunt” kept us off US shores from mid-May when we joined my sister for her adoption in Ukraine all the way until this past week. 158 days across 15 countries and 3 different continents.

US-> Ukraine-> Latvia-> Estonia-> Finland-> Croatia-> Montenegro-> Bosnia & Herzagovina-> Slovenia-> Hungary-> Serbia-> Bulgaria-> Turkey-> Egypt-> South Africa-> Namibia-> US

After all of that, returning to the US is actually just as exciting as traveling. It’s long been hailed as one of the perks of traveling- the wonder of return. So rather than pontificating on the reverse culture shock, (or rather reverse culture wonder), I’d like to highlight 10 things that hit me when I return after a long time away.

1. I can eavesdrop again!

Standing in the airport in Chicago for instance, I paused at the strangeness of hearing American accents all around me. In Egypt there were almost no other American tourists, and my ears became accustomed to picking out the sound as an anomaly- a break from the norm. How novel to understand all of the conversations going on around me.

2. Places of business are huge compared to the little store-fronts of much of the world.

You know, we’ve all seen those little “shops” that are little more than wooden tables with roofs constructed over them. They consist of a little countertop and a slew of items behind a counter for you to point to. And we’ve all seen the restaurants which, upon passing by the kitchen, you can’t help but notice the one singular stovetop.

But here in the states every store and shop is a “facility” with just as much space accommodating the behind-the-scenes functions as anything other part of the store. If there is something for sale, then there is a back office and a storage space and a restroom and on and on. A far cry from the fruit-stand appearance of the little “shops” alongside the road in Egypt or Turkey.

3. Grocery stores have everything.

US grocery stores are now designed to basically be one-stop-shops. Somewhere between Montenegro and Namibia, I realized that I hadn’t been in one of these massive one-stop-shop sorts of places in months. Estonia had a fairly large grocery store, and I’m sure Finland did as well, but pretty much all the places we visited after that had either few “grocery stores”, or the sorts of grocery stores that pretty much focus on food. No cosmetic aisles, pharmacies, or photo-processing at places like that. Not that I really missed all the bells and whistles. But when I walked into a Walmart the other day, it blew my mind a little bit. So. Much. Stuff.

4. I can have as many conversations as I want.

We are very fortunate that we really do get “visitors” who travel with us fairly frequently. In May we were traveling with my sister’s family for the duration of her Ukrainian adoption. Only a month or so went by before our friend Ben joined us in Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Budapest. A little more than a month later, my dad joined us in Turkey. Again, a little more than a month later, we visited friends living in Cairo and went directly from there to a roadtrip with blogger friends in Namibia.

But even though we’ve gotten to interact with friends or family nearly every month, the month in between can feel like a long stretch of being a stranger, or worse, a walking dollar sign. We don’t learn the language of every place we go, so you could say it’s our own fault.

In the states I feel amazed by how many conversations I get to have. Conversations with no sales-pitch attached to the end, or no inevitable turn towards America. I can talk as a representative of myself instead of a representative of my country.

5. I don’t need to show my passport at every hotel.

6. I have to take off my shoes at the airport again.

I swear everyone around probably thought I was taking my first flight ever when I tried to walk through security with my shoes still on.

7. Iced coffee doesn’t have ice cream in it.

Iced coffee is a staple of Drew’s diet, but we’ve recently realized that few other countries serve it iced without “icing” it with ice cream. In just about every other place, iced coffee either doesn’t exist, or exists as a milk-shake type dessert. I personally love the milk-shake type dessert version, but Drew is less of a sweet tooth and just wants the coffee to be cold.

8. Everyone can understand Drew’s name without the “like Andrew, but without the “An”” addendum.

9. It seems like everyone here has traveled abroad, or at least left their home area. 

You may disagree with this, and in fact, the US sort of has a reputation of having lots of folks who don’t bother getting passports, but lets think globally rather than the narrow comparison between US citizens and Europeans. If I think back upon my conversations with locals the past 6 months, so many of them had never been out of the region of their country, let alone their country. I remember people taking pictures of themselves at the airport for short domestic flights, and realizing that this was probably a special thing for them.

I mean think of how many American friends you know who have traveled abroad. Even if I limit myself to listing friends outside of the travel-hacking hobby, I can think of so many people who have traveled internationally at least once in their lives.

Now think of how many American friends you know who have taken a flight anywhere, even if only a domestic one.

This is more of a “developed country vs undeveloped country” thing I think, but it still astounds me.

10. I don’t have to use my adapter anymore.

11. I have to tip when I go out to eat.

12. Everyone has a car.

This whole country is structured primarily for cars and less so for people.

14. No more kebab places. 

There happens to be a kebab restaurant in Charlottesville, but it’s not a REAL kebab place with someone carving meat off of a doner or anything like that. And there are actual doner kebab food trucks in New York City, but it’s strange for something that was so consistently available for the last 6 months, to be suddenly an anomaly.

Not gonna lie. I don’t miss them yet. I’ve had my fill of kebabs for awhile.

15. The roads are paved, which means that google directions are more accurate!


Your turn! What are the things that surprise, delight, horrify or amaze you about the US once you return from a lengthy trip abroad?

10 Comments on “15 things I notice being back in the US after 158 days away

  1. I certainly went in some big grocery stores in South Africa! And you can never EVER have enough kebab shacks. EVER!

  2. it’s kind of weird but one of the biggest things for me was how wide the streets are in America. Coming from SE asia, a 2 lane road could easily be stretched to 3 cars + motorcycles.
    However coming back to USA I was like “the lanes here are huge!!”

  3. I loved this post Carrie! As a person born in a country other than the US I really enjoy when a US person ( I hate and don’t use the term American or America referring to the US) has a global perspective and doesn’t talk as if the US is the best thing ever. In terms of your question, I’d say whenever I go back to my country, a tiny 3.5 million population place, I feel EVERYTHING is tiny indeed: streets, cars, kitchen appliances, cups, beds, you name it. It’s kind of cute. People are not very polite, they cut in line, customer service is bad, traffic is horrible but life is much more sustainable. What a great thing to see everything with a critic’s eye and realize the goods and the bads.

    • Thanks for this comment Leticia! Drew and I often talk about how we are conditioned to recognize the good things about our own culture, but are much less conditioned to recognize the values of foreign cultures. Being mindful of this helps us to try to really watch for the values we might otherwise overlook. So instead of whining about a culture that doesn’t que in line as well, we might watch for how much better a culture is at showing patience on a long bus ride or watching out for the elderly.

  4. One of the things I always notice when I come back to the US is how often waiters/waitresses come over to your table and ask how everything is. Usually it’s annoying (can’t they see we are eating and obviously enjoying our meal, and, btw, having a conversation they just interrupted), but sometimes it’s nice, because if you get your meal in the UK and don’t realize immediately that it’s missing something or there is something wrong with it, good luck getting someone’s attention before the rest of the table has finished their meals.
    When I came from Europe back to the US, I realized that, yes, everything is much more commercial here. But that often makes life easier. I just couldn’t get over the roads just being lined with businesses.
    On a road trip in Italy, one night we hadn’t planned where we would stay and kind of thought we would just pull off the motor way and stay at a motel and then get up and keep driving. Well, you don’t see hotels/motels at every other exit like you do here. It required a bit of effort to find a place to stay.

    • You’re so right. We had a very similar thing happen to us, also in Italy lol. (Maybe you stayed at the same Best Western between Milan and Venice that we did!)

  5. Sort of building on (3), but serving sizes. Eating out in the US after having just come back from Asia, especially, this one often sticks out to me.

    Also, racial diversity in the States is incredible compared to parts of the world. Flying from China especially, I’d land on the east coast somewhere and just think “woah” looking at the melange of skin and hair colors at immigration.

    • I keep hearing people mention the portion size thing, but I kinda felt like the portion sizes were pretty big in parts of Asia too. I guess especially Thailand.

      But I totally agree with you about the racial diversity in US. I should have included that one because Drew and I have noted that often. Especially when we fly from Asia to NYC, arguably the most diverse city that exists!

  6. This post made my day! My list below is more in response to travel in southern Asia:
    1. What’s a dry day? I can drink alcohol any day I want!
    2. I can hail a taxi without having to haggle or being refused for no clear reason.
    3. I actually have to hunt down someone in US department stores to receive service: “Somebody, anybody, please take my money.”
    4. People actually use the sidewalk.

    I could go on and on. Thanks for the fun post!

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