Living in Italy, amongst people speaking a language foreign to me and a cultural system which is peculiar as well, living here post Hurricane Katrina, after having my family and friends and community scattered, after having lost or given up all of my possessions, I find myself slipping in out of reality, or at least not quite sure of reality at times. There are times when I feel a limited sense of reality. I am aware of where I am and what I'm doing--I haven't lost my mind--but much of the time I feel numb to certain aspects of life. I do not fully absorb that I am in a foreign land, that I am alone, that I may be on the verge of physical or psychological crisis. My brain seems to be protecting me from absorbing my entire reality at once or at all, at least not until I can become accustomed to it.
When I lived in New Orleans, I felt comfort in knowing and understanding my community, I drew strength from it. I could drop myself into an easy chair at my favorite Starbucks and knew to a certain degree of accuracy, what to expect from each day, from others around me, from my milieu of reality. I not only knew the personal stories of many of the people who visited the coffee shop, but I also had a general sense of strangers I saw there. Most of the people were Americans of some sort, and therefore they and I knew the physical language of the country and the region. If a woman would come in looking confident, well dressed, and acting in certain ways, I would know something about her on sight and know what I could expect of her and in relation to others and me. She would most likely operate within a certain range of behavior. She might smile at everyone, because for her life was generally in her favor, and she would not be bitter towards others. If a man would come in wearing a polyester blend dress shirt and tie which may be a little too flashy, carrying a full-size black imitation leather notebook which zippers around three sides, and looks around with a pensive look at everyone in the shop, I wouldn't think he was going to rob the place or was a terrorist. I would assess him to be a salesman of sorts who is meeting a prospect and doesn't know what he looks like. I would assume many things about him and all based on probabilities and with a fair degree of accuracy.
In Italy, still being new to the country, everything is new and I have almost no probability matrix for people I see in coffee shops, at metro stations, or even people with whom I've become friends. I am never quite sure which way a conversation or an encounter will turn. I cannot be sure that I am correctly interpreting what people are saying to me, whether they understand me, me who is notorious for subtle comments and observations. I cannot even rely on the body language which I see in response to me. I'm not sure what street signs say, how various public machines work (e.g., vending machines for train tickets, telephones). I don't know what I am to do at certain moments (e.g., tipping at restaurants, complimenting a woman or a man on whatever). At first I didn't even know how to find the foods and other household staples that I relied upon. It has been difficult and frustrating.
Let me give one simple example: I drink about two quarts of iced tea a day: it's by far my favorite drink. Without it, I'm quite distraught. I can go days without tea, but eventually it becomes quite disconcerting to me. Iced tea is not served in restaurants at all here. It took me several weeks to find the elements necessary to make iced tea in my new apartment and many more to achieve the right balance, to make it like I had in the United States. I had difficulty finding a grocery store that sold granulated sugar in decent size bags and not single-serving sizes, as well as small lemons, which are juicier than the large ones. It took me two weeks to find a store with black tea--all I found instead for quite a while was herbal teas, which are of no use to me. Since the tap water was fairly awful, I lugged heavy bottles of water home from the grocery eight blocks away every few days for a couple of weeks before I realized that bottled water was sold across the street from my apartment at a bakery. I had to search several stores, maybe seven of them for a pitcher larger than a liter. I managed to find a large and very cheap pot for boiling water, but after a month I obtained a better small pot for boiling the water, allowing me to boil the water quicker. As for matches to light the stove, they took over two months to find them--in the interim I made use of a lighter and my used subway tickets to extend the flame away from my hand. It turns out that matches are taxed and government controlled and only sold at tobacco shops and since I don't smoke, I didn't think to look there. Somewhere along the way I landed on a large spoon for stirring the sugar into the pitcher. It took visits to well over a dozen stores to obtain a measuring cup, which was only in metric measurements and therefore required experimentation to get the amount of sugar just right--I could have done the mathematical conversion, but I was uncertain as to the exact size of my pitcher.
It may not seem like much to consider--doing without iced tea--but it is integral to my chemical balance, to my time at home alone, time I spend considering life and recuperating from life. Without it, it's just another thing to which my body and mind must adjust. Having to face life in isolation, separated from friends, family, familiar surroundings, and every degree of human language from words to grammar to body language, my existence in total, in its fullness is maddening. To this end, to this potential end, my brain protects my mind. It does this by disconnecting me from certain elements of my reality until they either become familiar and understood (e.g., the language), or until they can be resolved (e.g., iced tea in my home).
Numbness, in and of itself, is not easily detectable--I am numb, after all. However, it is not the numbness which draws my attention, but the moments when the numbness ceases, when the safeguards are lifted. This will occur when I'm writing an article, working intensely on my web site for an extended period of time. In the quiet of my apartment, I will feel quite normal--normal for me, that is--and my head will feel as though I had been in the pressurized cabin of an airplane, but now have landed. It will take a moment, but I will have to pull myself back and away from the computer and look about me to confirm that I am still in Italy. This will also happen if I somehow manage to get in a good night's sleep and wake up peacefully and without the aid of my alarm clock. I will lie there on my side with my head on the pillow and open one eye to obtain enough data to verify my location in the world. It doesn't take long, only a few seconds before the swirling of mental safeguards begin to spiral into their respective locking positions. I can feel the numbness closing in about me like the shutter of a camera lens, but with me choked ever so slightly in the center, all firmly, but staggeringly protected.