When an American customs agent hands an American citizen back their passport they say “Welcome home.” I had forgotten about this. I remember hearing the words and feeling them sink in when I was told this on my return from Ukraine. Home. The word that we anchor so much to was at the same time heavy and hollow to me.
Yesterday was my one year anniversary of closing my service with Peace Corps Ukraine. I could not be happier with where I am in life right now. I’m financially independent, have a job that suits me and am living in a neighborhood that gives me amazon rainforest sized butterflies. In this year I’ve interned in the field I studied, fulfilled a lifelong dream of working at a farmer’s market, hung out with some super hero five years olds and found a job at a start-up.
Over the past 24 hours there have been two moments that seemed to crystalize around me. They all had elements of things I would yearn for in the middle of winter in Ukraine. Last night I played Settlers of Catan with friends while drinking my favorite beer and eating delivery pizza. This morning I ordered local roasted iced coffee in a cafe near my house while The Pixies played in the background.
Ukraine is still very much a part of who I am and I still can’t go a day without thinking about it. While living there I learned the sacredness of fresh produce and bread. Washing the occasional piece of clothing by hand is a chore that is stepped in memories. Mostly of how awful it was when my clothes would freeze before they dried out. Hot showers always start with a prayer of thanks. Cyrillic letters instantly capture my attention. None of these things existed in me before March of 2010.
I owe an insurmountable amount of gratitude to my friends and family members that have help me get to my year mark. They’ve listened to my memories of a life I left behind, bought my drinks, danced with me, found me work, showed me everything I missed and have given me nothing but pure unfiltered love.
I’m looking forward to this next year. There is now a level of permanence to my life that has not existed for some time. I’m ready to wiggle my toes into the dirt and start defining what home is to me. Welcome home, now start growing your roots and stretching towards the sky.
I stopped writing towards the end of my service because things got weird. My whole self was upside down. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the fact that I was leaving Ukraine. Some mornings I would stare in reverence at the calendar in my kitchen with my departure day circled in purple permanent marker. I dreamed of foods that I would eat and friends I would hug. Some afternoons while running around the courtyard with grimy second formers holding my hand I felt invincible and could live there forever. As the things in my apartment disappeared to other houses I got more stressed about returning home, about all the purple permanent marker question marks in my future.
Then, with much warning, the day arrived. I threw the last of my garbage out, folded up my sheets, lined up my suitcases and waited for my landlady to come collect the keys. A perfect bright spring morning was my last glance of Rivne. Kiev was nice to me in my last few days. Offering up beer tents, getting caught in a rain storm that overfilled gutters, and sweet goodbyes with other volunteers and Peace Corps staff. In my airplane seat I accepted with grace the tears that ran down my face as Ukraine disappeared below me.
A friend picked me up in the airport, holding me close she whispered “I’m so glad you’re home.” Sixteen days earlier than he expected my father came home to me sitting on the front steps. With no exaggeration, it was the biggest shock of his life.
Now, lets fast forward six months. The pieces of the life I wanted are starting to rumble into place. During this time of transition I’m balancing four different version of self. The first is working in a Saturday morning farmer’s market stall for a bakery. The second is child wrangling a sweet five year old two days a week. The most time consuming and interesting is interning at an urban planning research center in San Francisco. The final version is the non-work Julia, who I am when I am not expected to be anything but me. She’s a shade quieter than she used to be and can now take vodka shots without wincing. She defines what post-soveit culture is over $10 cocktails. She buys new clothing in freighting amounts. She tails people around grocery stores when she hears them talking in Russian. She still says a silent prayer of thanks every time she takes a hot shower.
I can still feel Ukraine’s hold on me. Most days it is like someone has dug too hard into my arms and left deep dark bruises under my skin, at times it resembles a freckle on the back of my hand.
Tonight is the eve of first volunteers from the groups after mine (39/40) coming home. In the back of my head I’ve been keeping this date as a benchmark of where I am in life. Things aren’t perfect, but they are moving towards it. I’m taking all the right steps to get to where I want to be. In six months is my next bench mark. Tonight I will spend my bus ride scribbling down notes about where and who I want to be in six months.
America, I love you. I missed you.