The uncomfortable middle

Photo of Cloud Gate in Chicago

I don’t like short bursts of visiting a different place. It takes me a long time to feel comfortable in a new space, so any trip shorter than a few weeks always feels more exhausting than I expect it to be, even if I’m visiting a place I’ve been before.

But even as I write this, I realize that it may not necessarily be the new space, but the new people. Earlier this year, during the summer, I visited some friends at my old MFA program. While that trip was exhausting in some ways (the train being four hours late, among other things, would do that), I didn’t feel quite as drained because I knew people. They were my real reason for leaving my house.

When I traveled to Chicago recently, I was mainly there to attend a conference, not visit any person in particular. Even though I had an idea of what to expect from a conference (I had done online conferences before), I was also overwhelmed by all the things I didn’t know—all the people I didn’t know. And so I returned to Lincoln completely exhausted.

This is a bit of a tangent, but sometimes I talk with my partner about how I might have changed my undergrad experience, especially the process of looking for and applying to different colleges. On paper, a much smaller school might have fit my introverted personality. On the flip side, though, I think attending a small college would have put me in an uncomfortable middle ground. I’m fine in one-on-one conversations, and also fine with the anonymity of a crowd. A smaller college, though, would make me feel perpetually scrutinized in a medium-sized group.

This is to say that the conference was that uncomfortable middle ground. Not large enough to get lost in, but not small enough to feel like a one-on-one conversation. At some point, I decided that I needed to cut my losses, so to speak, and not beat myself up over feeling so put out by this experience. And so when I wasn’t at the few panels I wanted, and was able, to attend, I sought out familiarity.

My hometown is north of Chicago. During this trip, I also went home for the first time in a long time. I surprised my parents; I hadn’t been home in several years, since before the pandemic. I also reached out to a few old friends who lived in the area, and we met up for a few meals during the days I had free.

I was maybe more nervous about these parts of the trip than the actual presentation itself (since teaching had somewhat cured me of my public speaking anxiety). But it had been so long since I’ve been in the Chicagoland area. It had been so long since I’ve been in my parents’ house. It had been so long since I’ve seen these friends face to face. But these familiar things were rejuvenating. The familiarity grounded me.

And when I didn’t seek out the familiar, I sought solitude. When I had a free afternoon, I walked for hours in the parks along the lake shore. I tried to sit down and write outside, but it was a little too cold for that, so I went to the public library instead. I had some meals alone and sat at my table with a book and a notebook, putting down some words in between bites.

This is how I travel solo: I try, as much as possible, to do the same things I do at home. I find a cafe with a nice window and sit there for a while to eat and write. I go to the public library. I find a park and take in the scenery. I go for walks. It’s not the most exciting itinerary, and I miss a lot of opportunities to do things.

But if I don’t travel in a way that makes sense for me—in a way that includes as many grounding, familiar things as possible to help me feel more comfortable in a place that isn’t home—then why the hell am I doing it?

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

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