Going back to move forward

We went to CVS to look for Jenn.

When we lived in Marblehead, she worked at the photo booth in the drugstore and had made a connection with us. She always expressed an interest in our lives and provided a warm, friendly face on cold winter days. So we dropped in to see if she was still there, 15 months after our departure from the U.S.

She spotted us across the store and rushed over, beaming, to the photo counter. “How wonderful to see you!” she exclaimed, giving us a warm hug, asking all about our adventures then forbidding us to pay for the photos we developed.

“You can’t do that,” said Skip.

“Oh, yes, I can,” she stated emphatically, staring us in the eye and pushing us out the door.

Next it was Charlotte, the feisty 82-year-old office manager at the Glover Landing condo complex where we used to live. Dropping in unannounced to her office, we were embraced again, questioned intensely about our lives and left with pockets filled with chocolate.

Then it was Gary, Skip’s optician, who spotted us from across the street and dashed over to chat.  And Liz and Marina, the delightful dental assistants from our past who insisted we sit in their waiting room for more than half an hour (it was empty) telling them all about life in Cambodia and what we were doing over there.

And so it continued. Acquaintances from our past lives in Massachusetts who reconnected with us. Friends who pulled us back into their lives as though we’d never left. And strangers who surprised us with their hospitality and warmth, dispelling any concerns we may have had about coming back to the U.S. for a visit.

After living in Cambodia more than a year, I have to admit we’ve been spoiled. Our lives now consist of interactions with graceful people, impeccable service and hospitality unparalleled in many parts of the world. So we had a few concerns about “coming back”.

Concerns that service in the western hemisphere may be brusque, indifferent or gushingly fake (“Hi, I’m Bambi and I’ll be your server tonight”). Apprehensions about seeing life through eyes that were focused on the next Starbucks or the last BlackBerry text message.

But we were happily surprised. Our first contact was with a jovial TSA agent at LAX airport who smiled warmly and joked with us on our arrival – and it kept getting better. Motorists in Maine waved to me as I jogged along the road. The check-out clerk at Target said she loved working there and the waitress at the IHOP serving our pancakes (who worked there 16 months ago) was warm and helpful with anything we wanted and gave me a hug when I complemented her.

Sadly, there were some glitches along the way.

At our first brunch in Marblehead, the waitress “didn’t think it would be possible” to make an egg-white omelette (Skip offered to show her how to separate eggs) and the hostess at the bar where we had our get-together continued to remind us we were blocking the path with our party (never mind we were bringing 30 customers on a Sunday night).

Worst of all, was our unfortunate last taste of the U.S. when the airport security guard in Los Angeles took great delight in painstakingly holding us up after we told him several times we were running late and had only 20 minutes before our flight departed.

But, as our plane left the ground and we headed far, far east, it was not the difficult people who were on our minds. Other than the dear friends and loved ones we’d come to visit, we’d mostly remember the smile of strangers along the route. And the warm embraces from Charlotte, Gary, Marina, Liz and Jenn.

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