I got a window seat. That, of course, could not fully compensate for the fact that I was about to spend nearly 10 hours in a tinier-than-usual economy class seat, but it was nice to be able to enjoy the view. With my seat located all the way in the back of the narrow plane, I was left with barely any room to move around, so pushing the chair back (even a little bit), stretching out my legs, or making myself comfortable in any other way was close to impossible. It was easily the worst designed seating arrangement ever, but I did not care. On the contrary, I considered myself lucky to get a fairly priced round-trip ticket on a transatlantic flight booked exactly 5 days before its departure.
My mom called to order the tickets the moment I finally received my green card in the mail. Was it all that spontaneous? Not exactly. I decided I was going back to visit Minsk, the capitol of Belarus, the moment I found out that my U.S. permanent residency status would be finally granted to me sometime during that summer. I could not wait. Unwilling to compromise my international student status and having to deal with unnecessary paperwork every time I would reenter the country have been the main reasons why I abstained from traveling outside the U.S. for the past four years. I decided to focus on my education and part-time job, but I still promised myself to visit Belarus as soon as the right time came. And so it did, the summer prior to my junior year in college.
My absence from Belarus for four years made me extremely anxious to go back and once again reunite with my family and friends and former teachers. What would it be like to visit the school and the music college I attended, walk the streets of a city that I have for many years called home? Going to Minsk made me excited, nervous, and a little worried about how things once so familiar might have changed during my absence.
When I finally got to Minsk and reunited with those who are still dear to me, it almost felt like nothing had changed at all, as if my 4 years away did not exist. Nothing seemed to estrange us from each other. Spending time with my dad and meeting up with my old friends made me reminisce about all of the childhood and adolescent memories connected to my town. Of course, dedicating time to the people I love was my first priority, but I also wanted to get a feel for the town itself, to see and experience it all over again, this time from a new perspective. I took the familiar walking routes, strolled through the same parks and squares, shopped in an old small grocery store right by my house that I used to go to all the time. I stopped by my old school, quietly observing the changes, curiously examining every corner, every poster, every sign hung on the doors and walls of new student faces. I absorbed everything that came my way - the places, the people, the shreds of conversations overheard in the cafes, in the subways.
I had a weird feeling. It felt like nothing had changed and yet everything did. Visiting the places where I grew up was without a doubt one of the happiest, most elevating moments that I have experienced in the past few years. Still, I could not help but feel that despite my nostalgia, even the most familiar things and places, though pleasing and familiar to my senses, felt distant to me now. I knew that Minsk was a place where I would always want to return, a place where I would always feel welcomed and accepted, a place that I would never try to separate myself from, but it wasn't home anymore. Up until my trip to Belarus, I never really acknowledged how strongly I am connected to my life in New York, how tightly my thoughts, plans and aspirations relate to it. Before my trip, I constantly felt nostalgic about my native town, yet failed to realize how much of a home New York had become to me.
On my flight back to New York, I could not help but think about how much my life had changed since I had taken this same journey 4 years ago, worried yet resolute, uncertain but hopeful, anticipating something wonderful and extraordinary. As I walked up to the passport control officer at the JFK airport and handed him my documents, he smiled at me understandingly:
“Got a lot of family in Belarus, huh?”
“I sure do,” I laughed.
“So how was it?”
“Haven't been there for almost 4 years. It's been crazy.”
He nodded, knew exactly what I meant, used to live in Argentina, still visited from time to time, nostalgia and all. After finishing the appropriate paperwork and stamping my passport, he smiled at me and, handing back my green card, said: “Welcome home.” I walked away from the passport control window chuckling to myself. It was nice to be home.