I don't care how well-traveled you are, when you're ensconced in your own culture, you tend to stop noticing things.
I've been to lots of places: Europe. Africa. Mexico. The Middle East. I know what it means to see the world through foreign eyes, to feel my skin tingle when my plane touches down and new sights, sounds, and smells bombard my head. I know that excitement, that honor, of witnessing life somewhere else, and feeling my pulse quicken at everything, and nothing at all.
But when I'm home, I forget to apply the same sense of wonder to my own world, my own surroundings.
Everything's familiar, with softened edges. Colors look nice, but don't really sparkle. Smells can be good, but they don't intoxicate. It's just... home. And while I love home, and the world around me, I'm rarely thrust outside myself and forced to see it anew.
I had this chance a few weeks ago, and it changed everything.
A teenager from a small Swiss town joined our family for 2 weeks as part of an exchange program. At 6"3 and 17-years-old, this was no young child. But it was his first time in the U.S., so everything about this place was new to him.
He marveled at the size of the airport. The width of the highway. The tanker trucks whizzing by.
Couldn't believe the enormity of our refrigerator, and took a photo to remember.
When we ate out, he was utterly wowed by the free tap water in every restaurant, and each time a waiter filled his glass, he broke out in a huge, gleaming smile. "We have to pay for this in Switzerland," he explained. "It's incredible!"
He ate his first grilled cheese, his first sweet potato fries, his first true American hamburger.
We were on vacation for a few days, and so we drove him down the California coast, playing tourist alongside him. At the house we rented, we found an old record player and a beat-up Monopoly game. My kids taught him the rules (buy Boardwalk if you can, always collect your $200) while my husband slipped a Stevie Wonder LP on the turntable.
Can you imagine hearing Stevie Wonder for the very first time? The sheer joy of that man's inimitable sound?
When we hit the pier later that day and stopped at a gift shop, I pointed out his name on a mini California license plate, the kind sold on key chains in every American city, every tourist spot coast to coast.
Think about it: You've seen these things a million times. They're... chintzy. But to someone who has never seen his name on a mini-license plate, I'm telling you, his reaction was priceless.
When we returned to the Bay Area, we took him to San Francisco. Spent a few hours on Alcatraz, and ate a good lunch. Then we boarded a double-decker tour bus to circle the city.
The day was warm, and unseasonably calm. We settled in open-air seats up on top, felt the sun kiss our cheeks.
We expected the tour to take two hours, three max, but traffic snarled midway through, and the bus started crawling. One hour turned to two, two to three, and, finally, three turned to four. Deep in that fourth hour, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun dipped low, the wind whipped high. Behind us, the city glowed pink.
I looked at this young man, and I apologized. It had been a long day, and I was eager to get us all home. I knew he must be cold, and hungry, and exhausted. I certainly was.
"I'm so sorry," I said, more than once.
He smiled the first time I said it, but the second time he spoke up.
"I'm in San Francisco!" he blurted. "In California! In America! The Golden Gate Bridge is behind me, and the sunset is incredible. It's amazing!"
He was right.
It really was amazing.
The next day, he and the boys were looking for something to do.
"Have you ever had lemonade?" I asked him.
"No," he answered. "What's that?"
"Go pick some lemons from the tree out front," I said.
And he did.
I got down the citrus juicer.
And we showed him how to make his first lemonade.
We took a sip, and this time we all agreed:
It really was amazing.