Friends, food, and plentiful beer: one week back in America

It’s been a week since I returned from my annual trip home to America, and I need to say something: it was wonderfully surreal. Never mind the fact that one week is often assumed to be too short-that duration is fine enough. Each year I jump between two distinct worlds within a short time span, and it is a treat to do so. The surreal part comes when I realize that I’m actually back in America and thus have to deal with some reverse culture shock. On the one hand, it does attest to how well I’ve adapted to Russia, but on the other hand it feels like I’m in between worlds. Or now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best that I’m not there longer lest I run the risk of feeling stuck in no man’s land. Anyways, here’s the longer-than-anticipated recap!

First of all, I spent 24 hours getting home. Yeah, that’s long, but over the past four years (2015-18), the trip times were 24, 18, 10, and 24 hours respectively, so it’s not out of the ordinary. I went from Moscow-Madrid-New York-DC this time round, but honestly the only thing that was a killer was overcoming a six and a half hour layover at 4 in the morning in Madrid. (That wasn’t bad, especially due to the two mainstays: fantastic internet connection and wine bars open.) Maybe it wasn’t the best time of day to experience the airport, but I did think that Madrid–Barajas Airport was actually nice. I mean, there were quite a few places to sit down at, and having that early arrival time meant I got to stretch out. Another key component was the presence of dining options, so I was able to have a proper breakfast. My flight to New York went by without a hitch, given that there was absolutely no crying babies this time!!! Sure, the counterargument is that the inflight entertainment didn’t exist, but I’ll take the serenity over that any day. American Airlines providing beer further advanced this flight in my ranks of “All-time best flights back home”, therefore I was in a jolly mood upon touching down on hallowed ground. Having a two hour layover in La Guardia passed by in the blink of an eye, as well. Being back with my fellow countrymen and women was weird, to be honest. What’s this? I hear English all around me? Having to figure out sales tax again? All the junk food I just realized I missed? Whoa. Unfortunately, the inclement weather that plagued the East Coast that week meant my flight to DC was delayed for an hour, but no worries. By that point I was such in a tranquil state of mind that nothing was able to throw me off.

My response to people of what I missed the most is said semi-jokingly, but never underestimate having a nice, firm, real bed to sleep on. Literally, in the almost four full years I’ve been living in Russia, I’ve only slept on sofa beds. Despite having long since acclimated to this situation, my back was desperately pining for something soft to lie on. Aside from this, having more space is something I really enjoy. Not that I don’t like Moscow and my apartment, but being able to stretch out in a spacious room every so often is a treat. Oh yeah, one noticeable trait that never fails to smack me in the face is how much in a hurry people are in America; this could be just because I shuttle back and forth between capital cities every year, but I feel like it’s pretty obvious. Life in the D.C. area seems unnecessarily frantic-people are in a hurry. Heck, I feel like the city and the suburbs are permanently on fire given how fast people are moving. One would imagine that living in the capital of the Russian Federation would bring some semblance of urgency, but it’s rare to see people here scramble to get to their next destinations.

But seriously though, seeing friends and family is the highlight, bar none, of my trips home. It is incredible catching up after a year (or more), which singlehandedly does more to recharge my batteries than anything else! In this case, I got to meet with good friends from college; it’s hard to beat seeing friends and reminiscing about the good ol’ days of no parents around and the miscellaneous (mis)adventures. With social media and even Skype, you can remain in contact, but sometimes when you live abroad, you crave that human interaction. That, in my opinion, is one of the biggest things you’re deprived of as an expat. Which makes it all the better when you finally meet up!

Speaking of family, I had an interesting experience with that of my friend’s. See, her family lives in my hometown (small world eh?) and so she asked me to act as a courier service. I was more than happy to oblige, as I know it is super handy to have someone going to your specific destination. What I wasn’t counting on was enjoying almost three hours of incredible Sudanese hospitality! At first, I thought I’d simply drop off the World Cup souvenirs and the caviar but then her parents told me to make myself comfortable. The moment they asked me if I wanted a beer was when I knew that resistance was futile, not that was a bad thing. Honestly, I felt overwhelmed at how far they bent over to treat me, because lord knows they didn’t have to do what they did! Okay, my friend told me that I’d love them, and there was nothing to dispel that notion. To recap: they plied me with several beers, snacks, wings, and even Sudanese soup! And did I mention that we were jumping back and forth between English and Russian? Festivities could have gone on forever, but I legitimately had to leave due to an eye appointment early the next day. I don’t think I can come close to showing thanks for that night! Shukran!

In general it’s hard to pack in all that you want to do in such a short time, but the order of the week’s business was to visit as many breweries as possible. Thankfully, I’m from the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is home to quite a few. Over the course of two (non-back-to-back; I’m not an alcoholic) days, I had a blast with the aforementioned pals. My Wednesday started out by driving two and a half hours to Crozet for lunch at the excellent Smoked Kitchen. American style barbeque is nonexistent in Moscow, so I was chomping at the bit to get reacquainted with it. I’m happy to report that the smoked reuben sandwich I had was an experience! Complementing this fine taste was the homemade sauces, so not matter what you get, you’re in for a real treat! So, if you’re in the Charlottesville area, you couldn’t go astray stopping by here. Nursing a food hangover, my friend and I drove over to the local Starr Hill Brewery, which was rather aesthetically unassuming from the outside. Don’t worry, there’s absolutely no correlation between that and the quality of beers! The beer there is fantastic, plus the interior is rather cozy. Can’t make up your mind with all the great looking choices? No worries, the barman can point out what you might prefer. Some beers were exclusive only to the brewery, whereas others were ones they ship out all over the state and elsewhere. However, what I personally enjoyed was being amble to try the sampler platter of 5 for $10! Mix and match to your heart’s content, because that price enables you to go to town! This probably is preaching to the crowd, but the thing I love about craft breweries is the fact that they feel absolutely free to take risks. Nothing embodied this more than a jalapeno flavored beer, which gave me the world’s biggest craving for nachos! Unfortunately the name eludes me, but trust me when I say it was my favorite one out of the many splendid ones I sampled! After this, our next stop was the Pro Re Nata brewery. Blink and you’ll miss it, because it’s right by the side of the road (with a killer view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to boot!) and is fairly subtle. You’re not going to want to miss it though! Picture a very new, large converted garage and you’ll get a feel for the place. A recurring theme is the fact that all of these breweries don’t have a lot on the menu, but what’s there is really, really good! Bonus goes to PRN for having witty names, including my favorite: Pavlov’s Bell-gian White Ale. I couldn’t help notice that the bargirl was chatting with familiar customers, because that shows high levels of loyalty. Had we not had more on our schedule, I for sure believe we would’ve stuck around even longer. A food truck parked right next to the brewery did do its best to keep us there; the huge platter of nachos we shared was valiantly subdued. After our cravings were satisfied, it was time to head over to nearby Afton for the cozy Blue Mountain Brewery in nearby Afton. The drive to there from Crozet was a bit longer, but it was a fitting finale. There was plentiful outdoor seating, with a killer view of the mountains behind it and the hops growing adjacent. Once again, the menu wasn’t super big, but excellence was a given. When my friend and I were there, we had plenty of company as lots of families/couples decided to crack open a few Wednesday cold ones. Hey, the more the merrier in one of Western Virginia’s better known breweries! When all is said and done, you absolutely can’t beat fantastic beer with a good friend with a nice chocolate cake with a terrific background! In the end, it was getting late and I had to drive two and a half hours home, so upon conclusion of our last beers, it was time to cap off the day. Without a doubt, that day was the highlight of my week back home!

The last big thing I did was on Saturday, and maintaining the overall theme of the trip it involved more alcohol. Ever have moments when you find out there’s a brewery pretty much in your backyard? When life hands you craft beer ten minutes away, you can’t say no. With the company of a college friend, we set out to experience it for ourselves; in this case, my friend had already tasted some of the beers, although she’d never been inside the brewery itself. Before I begin, I’d like to throw out the fact that some merchandise was awesome-gotta love “Brew Tang” shirts! So, what about the place itself? Despite being located near to an industrial area it was cozy. A lot of other bars I’ve visited were a bit small, but Fair Winds was perfect. Lots of families and couples were there, which led to some fascinating conversations. This was best highlighted with running into a guy who works at the State Department (who is persona non grata in Russia, as it turns out) and his girlfriend who works for the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, as well as a Marine and his parents. Never underestimate who you’ll meet while drinking, eh? The only thing that managed to put a damper on our time there was the fact that a brief storm forced us to retreat inside. That was it. Everybody else carried on with the festivities like rain and strong wind was normal, and that’s a crowd I like to be part of. Stopping by Fair Winds truly was the last big thing I did at home, and it was very fitting to end on that note. Spending quality time with friends and family, especially with drinks, halfway across the world is how I life life. Cheers, ya’ll, you made my time what it was!

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