I moved to Alaska in summer, 2001. I left when winter rolled around, unsure if I’d ever go back, but before I knew it I was working on an assembly line in a paper factory in rural Missouri saving up the money to return. From then on, it slowly but surely, wonderfully, became the place I call home. To steal the descriptive phrase an immigrant used to describe her homeland to me, returning to Alaska after a short vacation or a year in New Zealand, soon felt like “entering a warm bath.” Ahhhhhhhh.
But of course, though I loved it there right away, it took a little time to feel that good. I remember thinking, in the early days, that when I had a particular experience, I could officially be considered, and consider myself, an Alaskan local. What was that experience? Seeing someone I knew while waiting for a flight to Juneau in the Seattle airport.
One airline flies into Juneau – Alaska Airlines. Note: after landing at the Juneau Airport, the flight attendants do not say, “We know you have a choice when considering airlines and we thank you for choosing Alaska Air.” No, they don’t say that. Or if they do, the entire plane snickers. There is no choice, and believe me, the cost of flying into Juneau will make you believe in capitalist competition.
In addition, if you want to fly into Juneau, you will not only be on Alaska Airlines, but, with the exception of a few options that go through Anchorage, you will be routed through Seattle. For this reason, after spending the majority of the last 10 years in Juneau, I have joined the ranks of locals who view the Seattle Airport as an extension of our town. I know which restaurant will give me an extra taco for only $2.50. I know which hot chocolate is the best. And, after months of shopping only at Juneau’s Fred Meyer for everything I could possibly need, I get freaking excited about the Seattle Airport’s shopping opportunities. I choose itineraries with long lay-overs so I can get lost in Borders, check out the clearance rack at Ex Officio and be simultaneously disgusted and intrigued with the expanding variations of Crocs.
But for the first few years of passing through the Seattle Airport as frequently as I get my hair cut (2 or 3 times a year), I never saw anyone I knew waiting for the return flight to Juneau. At the gate, other locals would be catching up, “Hey, where have you been?” “So, how long you been away?” “You’ve been visiting your mom, right, how is she?” “Did you get your shopping done?” I’d just sit there quietly, knowing I was going home, into that warm bath, but not yet recognized by others who were doing the same.
Until. One day. I had just boarded the plane and tucked into my seat and was getting out my book when I heard, “Hey Molly! How’s it going?” I looked up and saw someone I recognized. Someone who recognized me! He was walking down the aisle, lugging a duffel bag hoisted up over his shoulder. I remember everything about this moment except this person’s face and identity. It was the feeling of being recognized that I remember. Recognized by whom was insignificant. I answered, “Oh hi! Nice to be headed home, eh?” He nodded and continued to his seat. I turned my face to the window and grinned ear to ear. Even got tears in my eyes. It was official. I was now a Juneau-ite.
In recent years, I have found myself sitting next to the girl who makes my latte at the coffee shop, the guy I used to guide with at the kayak shop. I’d recognize various local legislators on board and exchange a subtle nod with friends of friends – we can’t place it, but we know we’ve met each other before. Now, when returning from a vacation, I avoid the gate area for the flight to Juneau if I’m not ready to chat with the handful of people that I will inevitably know!
In New Zealand, I really have yet to achieve that feeling of being recognized. When you are new to a place, any place, but perhaps particularly a foreign land, it’s so easy to feel utterly invisible. Sometimes it’s liberating. Other times, it’s a heavy, depressive feeling. No one here would know if I didn’t get out of bed in the morning. Wandering through your whole day, sometimes without hearing the sound of your own voice or someone else saying your name, it’s easy to begin to wonder if you really exist. It’s easy to feel a little bit like a ghost, no one meeting your gaze, asking about your day or your family. Anonymity can be wonderful; it can also be discouraging when the novelty wears off but familiarity hasn’t replaced it.
This year, my 4th year in New Zealand (not consecutively nor in the same region) has been noticeably better. Suddenly, I see a familiar face now and then and I think a couple people might get concerned if they didn’t see me around for several days. Ok, maybe after a week. But that’s progress. I have a friend or two who I meet for coffee. What a nice feeling to show up at the café and see someone there waiting for me, who stands, and says “Hello!” when I arrive because they were expecting me. Me!
But still, when a car toots its horn on the street or a random person yells, “Hey!” from behind me, I don’t turn around. They aren’t talking to me. This is a city of 120,000 people and I know about 12 of them.
So imagine my surprise yesterday when I was riding my bike home from a long day at Uni and work. Sitting in the bike lane at a red light, someone in the car one lane away from me yelled, “Hello,”… and for a split second, in between his words, I wondered, was it possible he was talking to me? … and then the rest of the phrase came, “Molly!” I look over and former fellow grad student waved at me.
It’s hardly a warm bath, that takes time; but for a few seconds it reaffirmed my existence here in this time and place. And that feels mighty good too. I’ll take it.