12 April 2009

Far from home

I used to be a culture snob. I've always romanticized travel, going to new places and meeting different types of people. I've always considered it the highest calling to set up in a foreign country, or at least a foreign culture (the coasts in the US can be quite different) and experience life there for a while. I've always looked down a little bit on people who rationalized a decision with "I want to stay close to home."

Always, that is, until I traveled 7,700 miles in 7 days. Turns out wanting to stick with what's known and comfortable isn't such a bad idea after all.

Just to get this out of the way, I never disparaged people who needed to be close to their families because they were caretakers or had other such responsibilities. I did, however, get into tense "conversations" about grad school choices with a lab-mate who was as far in the stay-home direction as I was in the take-wing direction. He thought I was looking for something impossible, I think, and I thought he was restricting his options blindly. If the last month has taught me anything, it's that the right answer isn't quite so obvious.

My long trip exhausted me, and the hours in cramped airplane cabins drove home how inconvenient it would be to return to the familiar. There was nothing wrong with the far-away places I visited, as far as I could tell. It's just that the nearby places felt easier to deal with. It might be a matter of each program's personality---I certainly didn't feel uniformly good about each nearby school, or uniformly bad about far-away ones---but I can't help wondering if culture and lifestyle had some kind of hidden, yet pervasive, influence.

I'm no longer so disdainful about the idea of staying close to home for the sake of being home. I've had my fun moving to new places for a few months at a time, but the thought of setting up somewhere new for five or six years, needing to put down roots while navigating an unknown culture, is very draining. Maybe I'm growing old; I'm certainly growing less judgmental. But I understand better now what my lab-mate and others have said. I want to stay close to home, too.

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