“Sir, are you finding everything ok?” the sales associate with a fake smile interrupts my moment of day-dreaming.
“Yes, of course,” I say and I walk away, but I am irritated, and I don’t know if I’m annoyed more by the fact that she talked to me when I was obviously not trying to make eye contact or by her choice of words - the most aggravating conversation opener used by salespeople in the northwest.
“Do you want to apply for our store Visa credit card today?” I am told later at the cashier’s desk, again, with a huge, unjustified smile.
“Do you know you can save ten percent of your purchase price today if you apply for the credit card?”
“Yes, and I still don’t want it.” Please stop offering me things I don’t need. Just ring me up and take my money.
“Do you want to donate one penny for the Special Olympics?” the grocery store checkout clerk asks me.
“No.” I look her straight in the eyes but my laser gaze misfires. I don’t care for the Olympics, special or not, and I only donated money once, long ago, during the Microsoft giving campaign, to a cancer research institute. I am a bad person and I do not want to save the world. I swipe the credit card; the cashier gives me the bag with groceries and before she hands me the receipt she takes a brief look at it, then turns back to me and says, sporting the same punch-me-in-the-face smile: “Thank you, mister Sturgeon.”
I give her the look of death again, but I don’t say anything. I’m back home and it’s generally considered impolite to tell people what you think, i.e. I really, really don’t want you to act like you know me and say my name when you thank me for shopping at Safeway; I do not need you to try to make me feel like I am at the neighborhood mom-and-pop store and you’re my best friend. And certainly I don’t want you to butcher my name mispronouncing it, which is more likely to happen than not.
Now that I can compare I realize that the salespeople at home are just as annoying as those from the Cairo bazaar, albeit a bit less aggressive; they just have a different style. I don’t know what is more pitiful or irritating – the impertinence and obstinacy of street-vendors and taxi drivers in third-world countries, asking you, the presumably-rich foreign backpacker, for prices five times higher than what they expect to get in the end, or the excessively obsequious and unnecessarily friendly attitude of American sales associates working for commission or simply being forced to apply what their management considers good customer service.
Later that evening we have dinner at a local restaurant in Queen Anne. The over-the-top friendly waiter talks too much, and pushes the specials of the day at machine-gun-fire speed, his smile so wide and bright I could almost believe he loves being there with us more than anything else in the world. At the end of the meal I take the bill and add the tip, 15% before tax, plus a few pennies to round up. It’s been a year since I last had to figure out a waiter’s tip, write it down on a bill and do some post-dinner math. In most places we had just followed local customs – leave some coins to show that you don’t care much about the petty change in most small eateries; tip nothing in Europe or risk getting the “pathetic American sucker” look; add up to 10% in more upscale restaurants anywhere else.
A trip cannot last forever; sooner or later, moving from place to place every few days becomes too exhausting and starts undermining the desire to travel; slowly, the need for some sort of stability, for a home, settles in. And now, a year after packing up and cramming all our belonging into a 12x10 storage room, we ended up back in the same town that we used to call home before this adventure started. There are quite a few things about Seattle that I did not miss during our year away. The semi-permanent rainy season is one of them. Having to pay 8 dollars for a plate of Thai food that used to cost me one dollar merely a few days before is another. The price of gas, the housing market, car and health insurance, being stuck in traffic on the way to work listening to an uninspired morning show on the radio…
I can’t let those things and thoughts take more importance than they are due. There are plenty of reasons why it’s fine to be back at home. During the past week I saw a few of my old friends: some have longer hair, some have lost a bit more of theirs. Some have lost or gained weight, others have more wrinkles around their eyes. But they are still the same people and I’m glad to see them again.
I missed the way our beautiful little city shines on a sunny day, the clean, quiet tree-lined streets in the residential neighborhoods, and the views of downtown from the freeway. I missed drinking microbrew ales on tap at a local tavern, the Capitol Hill coffee shops and my favorite Thursday night hangout. I missed working out at the gym and having a proper bathroom. I needed to be around my horses, play my guitar, and maybe most of all, I missed my weathered, beat-up 1988 3-series BMW, which still needs new suspension, a few sensors and a replacement left-side door lock since thieves broke into our apartment’s garage more than a year ago. Maybe if I get a job I will be able to afford all that.
Strange as it sounds, after a year of keeping my brain in hibernation I miss having a job – just the exciting parts of it, the challenges, the rewards and the fun, not the stress and the occasional nights and weekends spent trying to meet a deadline.
Life is normal again. Or is it?