NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
LIANE HANSEN, host:
And I'm Liane Hansen. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Today many Americans are home for the holiday, some for the first time in years. Home conjures images of comfort and familiarity, maybe nostalgia. It's the place where we reunite with old friends, maybe take a ride over to that old hangout. But returning home after a long absence sometimes doesn't live up to expectations. Maybe that hangout is no longer there; you're old bedroom is now a den, and even the dog doesn't recognize you. Today we're talking about coming home and those times when we were surprised that home was not the place we hoped it would be. We'll hear from one storyteller who went home to take care of his father's ashes and about a writer's visit to her distant relatives in Jordan.
CONAN: If you have a story about when you were surprised when you returned home, give us a phone call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Later in the program we'll hear how a member of the foreign service is celebrating Thanksgiving in El Salvador.
HANSEN: But, first, homecoming. After reporting abroad in the Middle East and England for The Boston Globe for eight years, Charlie Sennott returned to Boston as a Neiman fellow with Harvard University, and he's with us by phone from Sherborn, Massachusetts, where his family is celebrating Thanksgiving.
Thanks for taking the time to be with us on your holiday today, Charlie.
Mr. CHARLIE SENNOTT (Harvard University): Sure. Happy Thanksgiving. You did pull me away from the football game.
HANSEN: Oh, all right.
CONAN: It's over, Charlie. It's over.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SENNOTT: No, our football's much more important. Our ...(unintelligible) games.
HANSEN: Oh, the home football--oh, all right. All right.
CONAN: Your ankles will thank us.
Mr. SENNOTT: Yes, and my knee.
HANSEN: ...for you, Charlie, I mean, when you were coming home, it wasn't just a matter of coming to your hometown but coming home to the United States. So after eight years, what changes did you notice when you returned?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, I mean, I think we've been noticing them as we go. I think some of the most profound changes are kind of the obvious ones we all know. After 9/11, the country was--it just feels so much--there's this perception of insecurity that I think is expressing itself in a lot of different ways. And I think one of the ways I've noticed that it's expressed itself a lot is a feeling--two feelings I hear from my family: One is that people are more aware that the world is mad as hell at us these days; and a second one that I think's interesting and the one I probably sense the most myself is that the country, you know, which has always been religious, is much more emotive and expressive about faith these days. I hear it more in dialogue.
I think that's a pronounced difference in kind of the language and conversation of our country from--if you go back to 1997, when we left, which feels like a completely different era--it was a different era--to 2005, that would be my--the area that I sense the greatest change and the area that I'm most interested in researching and trying to find out about.
HANSEN: Hmm. What about some other cultural differences? I mean, you mentioned obviously the polarization that you've noticed. But what about some, you know, physical, cultural changes in the eight years you've been away?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, I mean, you know, I guess the wonderful thing is some things never change, the annual traditions of football. One little change is--my mom was just remarking that she used to really roll her eyes at organic foods. And, you know, her daughters-in-law would always try to get some angle of the Thanksgiving--Christmas to be--Thanksgiving meal to be organic. And this year we actually have done a generational shift in cooking. We have an organic turkey. I think that's an interesting dietary change sort of that happened in our family, not a major change.
I think coming back and seeing America as a changed place--for me, one place I really feel it is in the gas stations. I noticed, after being away for a long time, that gas stations have become the new community center, the place where people gather. And I never in my life, at least in my memory, remember them having so many American flags. And I know the American flag became a very important public expression of solidarity for America post-9/11, but now, you know, four years after 9/11, it seems like the gas stations are just festooned with American flags and yellow ribbons.
And it struck me that this place, the gasoline stations, where much of our interests in the Middle East are focused and where we are certainly paying much more at the pumps than we did when we left--that struck me as interesting, the change in the American gas station and how--what it sort of symbolizes now.
CONAN: It's the novelist, Charlie, who said, you know, `You can't go home again,' and, of course, it's your mother who says, `Well, you darn well better.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SENNOTT: That's exactly right. And I'm also thrilled to be home. I mean, that's the other big thing--is that despite all the changes, the deep political divisions in the country, the difficulty, I think, we have in conversations sometimes, getting around those divides, the religious expressions--as I told you, some of our family has gotten more religious, and some of it maybe never was as religious. But in the end of the day, it's really--for everyone, I guess, it's always about your family and your friends, and that we feel very fortunate to be home for. And that is really the big picture for us on Thanksgiving--is just being back with everyone and seeing everyone. And everyone has informed me, especially my brothers, that despite all the things I've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan and everything, they tell me, `You haven't changed at all. You're still our little brother.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Now you and your wife have four sons.
Mr. SENNOTT: Yes.
HANSEN: And two of your sons have never lived in the United States. What observations do they have about this country?
Mr. SENNOTT: They can't believe how much Americans eat. You know, they just think it's--they can't believe the amounts of food. It surprised them. And there was one vignette that I love of my son, Will, our oldest son. When we came back, he--you know, we lived in England, and so we had the BBC. And there wasn't very much--there is no commercial radio on the BBC. You don't have commercials, like NPR. So this summer when we came home and when we weren't listening to NPR--it's hard with four boys under the age of eight to keep it glued to NPR...
CONAN: Yeah, `Do we have to listen to that?'
Mr. SENNOTT: So we had to put on some rock 'n' roll occasionally for everyone involved on the long rides to the cape. And during that time, my son wanted to know, `Who is that guy in America who's trying to sell everything?'--as if it were one voice talking about `APR financing at 5 percent.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SENNOTT: And I thought--it just struck me as so funny that he--in his mind, it was just one man doing the hard sell all over America, all over the radio.
HANSEN: Yeah. Well, Charlie, we want to wish you a happy Thanksgiving and let you get back to your football game.
Charlie Sennott is back in the United States after reporting abroad for The Boston Globe for several years. He's currently a Neiman fellow with Harvard University. He's also the author of "The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land at the Turn of a New Millennium: A Reporter's Journey." And he joined us by phone from his hometown in Sherborn, Massachusetts.
Again, Charlie, thanks a lot. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
Mr. SENNOTT: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Jonathan Hubbard(ph): `Upon my return from Vietnam on 22nd December, 1968, I paid a courtesy call on our local VFW to confirm another safe arrival. Instead of sticking around and swapping war stories, I went to the local Kroger's store, bought two dozen eggs, gallon of milk, biscuit mix, bacon and a pound of coffee. I fried, poached, scrambled and boiled a half a dozen eggs at a time with commensurate portions of biscuits, bacon, milk and coffee. I spent 24 hours by myself in the kitchen eating, catnapping and reading the local papers. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was my method of decompressing from combat.'
HANSEN: We have another e-mail from Melinda(ph) in Buffalo, New York: `My most memorable homecoming experience was when I came home from study abroad in London in the year 2000. Of course, I had envisioned a glamorous arrival with flowers and balloons and `welcome home' signs. Before landing, I spent 20 minutes in the tiny airplane bathroom fixing my hair and makeup to look perfect when I stepped off the plane. When we landed, it was late evening, one of the last flights of the night. I stepped off the plane, and there were signs and flowers and balloons, but they weren't for me. I looked around, and no one I knew was there. When I finally got ahold of my family, they were stuck in traffic, and they were going to be an hour late. On top of that, the airline lost my luggage, so months of clothes and gifts were stranded in another city. Needless to say, when my family pulled up hours later, I was waiting on the curb outside of the airport, a much-less-glamorous arrival than I had imagined.'
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Dan; Dan calling us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.
DAN (Caller): Yes, I had moved away for a few years, and when I came back to my folks' house in Livonia, Michigan, I found out that my folks had remodeled what was my bedroom, which was a good-sized bedroom. It had nice red and blue. It was perfect for a boy. I came back. That was now my mom's room: floral prints, pastels. I ended up having to sleep for about six months in what was the small, spare bedroom with the couple of cats that I had acquired while I was away.
CONAN: What did she do with your Bobby Orr poster?
DAN: Oh, there was no Bobby Orr, but all the Zeppelin posters and Beatles posters and Cindy Crawford posters had gone by the wayside.
HANSEN: Oh, sometimes you can't go home again, can you?
DAN: No, you just can't.
HANSEN: Do you think it was a hint for your mother about how long you were supposed to stay there?
DAN: You know, I think it was just--she got tired of hearing my dad snore, so she moved into my old room.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Dan, there are things we don't want to know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much. Happy Thanksgiving.
DAN: You, too. Take care.
CONAN: The genre of homecoming stories is rooted in tales as old as Homer's "Odyssey" and continues in contemporary media with movies like "Cold Mountain." Joining us now to talk about some examples of homecoming stories is Jon Spelman, a storyteller from Washington, DC, from this area. And he joins us now from Berkeley Springs in West Virginia.
Happy Thanksgiving. Nice to talk to you.
Mr. JON SPELMAN (Storyteller): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. I know you talk about there are three story templates. What are they, and where does the homecoming story fit in?
Mr. SPELMAN: Yes, I've heard that there are three different kinds of stories or three stories that include all other stories. One is somebody falls in love; secondly, somebody takes a journey; and, thirdly, a stranger comes to town. And it certainly seems to me that at least two of those, the last two, are included in homecoming stories.
CONAN: This is an age-old story, as we're referencing Homer's there. Why is it so powerful, do you think?
Mr. SPELMAN: Because of that--because of that urge, I think, to get back and find out who we are or who we were or where we came from, not only physically but, of course, emotionally and mentally and familially. And what Odysseus wants to do, of course, is get home. He wants to get back to his family, back to what he feels rooted in.
CONAN: It also gives an opportunity for, I guess, that earliest of literary devices, the flashback.
Mr. SPELMAN: Yes, yes, absolutely, and for a venture. I mean, you know, basic conflict in stories, right? He has to get home, but things get in his way. So it takes a long time to get there.
CONAN: We're talking with Jon Spelman, who's a storyteller. He's joining us from Berkeley Springs in West Virginia. If you have a story of homecoming, give us a call, (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back after the break. I'm Neal Conan.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And Liane Hansen of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" is with us this week.
HANSEN: And today is Thanksgiving Day, and we're talking about homecoming. You're invited to share your stories about coming home. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK; that's (800) 989-8255. And our e-mail address is email@example.com.
CONAN: Our guest is Jon Spelman, a storyteller, who's with us from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
And I wanted to read you this e-mail that we got from Amy Jones in Utah: `My husband returned from a year-and-a-half military deployment this past spring. During that time it was just me and two cats in the house. I longed for him to return, so the house wouldn't seem so empty, and thought all the briefings about readjustment just wouldn't apply to us. I moved to a new place during his absence and had the pleasure of putting everywhere exactly where I wanted it. Turns out when he got home, I was very set in my ways of doing things and where things belonged and soon longed for a little peace and quiet. It took a little longer to get adjusted again, longer than when we moved in together at first. Despite our period of readjustment, with a few little tiffs, we are so thankful that we were reunited once more.'
And that's a homecoming story--it's a homecoming story of self-discovery in a way.
Mr. SPELMAN: Yes. Yeah, finding out you've changed, but you could also change back to be with someone you care for.
HANSEN: Yeah. I understand, Jon, that you have your own homecoming story. You want to share that with us?
Mr. SPELMAN: Yeah, I do. It's a--it really comes from, in a way, a different kind of family, which was scattered geographically and emotionally and vocationally all over the country. But it's a Massachusetts homecoming story, to go with Charlie.
My last boyhood home, the place I left home from, was Plymouth, Massachusetts, which calls itself `America's hometown.' But I hadn't been back to America's hometown for a number of years, until my mother died at Thanksgiving some years ago. And we went back to bury my mother, and it was actually a pretty good time because I think she was happy to be gone. She'd had a tough final couple years. And then 10 years after that I went back at another Thanksgiving to bury my dad, and that was harder because he'd had a hard illness that he fought. And it was difficult for his children, and it was difficult for his children to deal with a stepmother who was less than perfect.
But we buried him, and my wife flew on back home. And the other people from around the country--in fact, around the world who'd been there went back home. And I decided to stay with two of my brothers, and we would go to the house of one of them. It was only about 100 miles away in Massachusetts. And on the way we took a little detour to go through a wooded area my dad had loved, and the wooded area was gone. A housing development had taken its place. And down the road was a little strip mall, and as we drove past we saw a little temporary sign, one of those signs with wheels, out in front, and it said, `Shop Center Stop.' My brother stopped.
We looked around, and we discovered that the anchor store in this little strip mall was a hot tub emporium with three very large hot tubs. And we looked at each other, and we thought, `What a great idea after a funeral, a hot tub.' We rented our own hot tub room, and we ran in. And we were like little boys again. We stripped down and jumped into the hot tub. It was a wonderful hot tub, huge, big enough for eight. I'm a tall man; I could lie just stretched out. And I guess for an hour, hour and a quarter we lay there talking about the funeral and about our lives and gossiping and complaining and consoling. We had a great time.
But after quite some time in the water, I started to feel a little woozy, and I thought, `I'm not sure how long you're supposed to be in a hot tub, but I'll just sit up on the edge.' And I sat up on the edge, and then I felt dizzy. But over in the corner I saw that this place had its own private shower, too, so I went over to take a shower. Turned on the water to get just as cold as I could, looked up into the shower head, and it turned into a black hole and I lost consciousness.
And when I came to, I was naked on a gurney being pushed through the parking lot of the Shop Center Stop. And one of my brothers was hopping along behind pulling on his pants and saying, `Where are you taking him?' They said, `To the hospital, the hospital.' Well, they called it a hospital. It was actually a little health clinic at the edge of America's hometown, Plymouth, and they took me into what they called the emergency room, which--a room about 20 feet square. And half of it had been divided into emergency cubicles, with green medical drapes that hung down from the ceiling, not all the way to the floor. They pushed me into the middle, where they left me there to fall in and out of consciousness till such time as I should recovery completely.
And I guess I was out for extended periods of time because, unbeknownst to me--I didn't find this out till later--another man on another gurney was pushed into the emergency cubicle next to mine, and he died--copious amounts of blood. He'd been in an automobile accident. I didn't know that.
So, finally, I woke up. I felt fully awake. I knew who I was and where I was, and I was lying on a gurney. And I could even hear somebody talking; seemed to be a man on the phone. And I raised my head, and down between my bare feet I could see a rent in the green curtains, and there was a man in a doctor coat with his back to me finishing up a conversation. And he was saying, `Yes, yes, yes, I know that. But don't you understand the man has died, and we can't find his family?'
CONAN: Oh, no.
Mr. SPELMAN: And he left the room. And I thought, `The man has died?' I put my hand on my abdomen. It was--went up and down when I breathed. I pinched my chest; it hurt. And I could even move. I sat up slowly and slid down to the edge of the gurney and hung my feet over the edge. And I looked down to my right, and there was blood all over the floor, and I looked back and there was blood on that side of the gurney up close to where my head had been. `Oh, my gosh, I've bled to death. How?' And I felt for the holes on my body, but finding only the usual ones, I was encouraged.
And so I slid off the end of the gurney onto the dry linoleum on the other side, stepped gingerly through the curtains into that public area, where the phone was, but nobody was there. I saw the door the doctor had used; I had to find out my conditions. I opened the door. It was a waiting room: chairs, carpet, magazines. But nobody was there, except at the far end was a woman with her back to me sitting and typing. `She does data entry. She'll know.' So I walk slowly across the silent carpet, stand behind the woman. She doesn't see me. Even when she reached for a piece of paper to her right, she didn't see me. I had to find out.
I clasped her on the shoulder. She screamed and turned around and screamed again. And, `Oh, my God,' I said, `it's true. I'm dead.' `No,' she said, `you're not dead. You're naked.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPELMAN: And that was my last time home.
HANSEN: I always wondered if you could ever go home again after that one, Jon.
CONAN: Jon Spelman, thank you so much for that.
Mr. SPELMAN: Thank you, Liane. Nice to be here.
HANSEN: Oh, great talking to you.
CONAN: Jon Spelman is a storyteller, and he joined us on the phone from Berkeley Springs in West Virginia.
Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Sandy(ph); Sandy calling us from Anchorage in Alaska.
SANDY (Caller): Hi.
SANDY: Thanks for taking my call.
SANDY: In--at Christmastime in 1978, I was attending college at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and I was a freshman. And my family lived in the suburbs of Chicago, so I was going to ride the Amtrak home. My father had informed me that he and Mom had bought an artificial tree and had put it up already. And I was incensed about that because we always had a real tree, and I love the smell of it. So I decided that I wasn't going to accept that. So I was one of the last people out of our dorm. We had a 6' Christmas tree in our dorm lounge, and I undressed the tree, and with some help from couple other friends who were late getting out of there, we wrapped this tree in a couple of sheets and stapled the sheets together, wrapped it up real tight and loaded it into a little car, got me to the Amtrak station, and part of my luggage was this very large, white bundle. The conductor said, `Young lady, what is in that bag?' And I said, `My laundry.' And he said, `Well, that doesn't smell like laundry.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
SANDY: I said, `Well, it is.' So he said, `All right. Well, you're going to have to put your laundry in the vestibule between the cars.' So we loaded up, got in the train, and the cars on either side of this--vestibule between the cars proceeded to smell like a Christmas tree. And people were looking around thinking, `What on earth is that?' And I just kind of had my little smirky smile on my face. Rode six hours on the train back to Chicago, and my father came to pick me up at the train station. And I got off the train, and the bundle that I was carrying--I came running down the platform with this bouncy 6'-long, white bondel on my shoulder. And he knew exactly what it was, and he was shaking his head. And he said, `You know, you always do something.' And so we took the train--we crammed the tree into my dad's car, and we took it home and took down the artificial tree, which promptly went in the garbage, and my father never bought an artificial tree after that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SANDY: And it was a funny homecoming, the look on his face. And I was bound and determined we weren't going to have an artificial tree.
CONAN: You might have described it as a Paul Bunyan's air freshener.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SANDY: It sure did smell good on that train. And, I tell you, everybody's spirits went way up. It was very neat.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Sandy. Happy Thanksgiving.
SANDY: And you, too. It's snowing like crazy up here.
CONAN: Oh, well, have a good time then.
HANSEN: For those who left New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, returning home for the holidays is difficult. Many have to choose between staying and rebuilding their homes or moving and rebuilding their lives in a new place. Michael Tisserand is former editor of New Orleans Gambit Weekly. He returned home to the Big Easy a few weeks ago, and he's joining us now by phone from a friend's house in uptown New Orleans, where he's having Thanksgiving with his family.
Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for being with us today, Michael.
Mr. MICHAEL TISSERAND (Former Editor, New Orleans Gambit Weekly): Happy Thanksgiving to you.
HANSEN: So you live in uptown New Orleans. The water damage was less than other parts of the city. What's your house like? Is it OK?
Mr. TISSERAND: My house is fine. Yeah, we're part of the 20 percent of the city that didn't really get flooded. The floodwaters actually stopped about a block or two from my house. And everyone up and down the street has some kind of damage: roof damage or a ceiling caved in or something like that. But at this point, compared to the rest of the city, of course, we all feel like it's very minor damage.
HANSEN: So what did you see when you came home that you didn't expect?
Mr. TISSERAND: Well, the first time I came back, it was--I've been in and out as a journalist, but for the first time with my kids, I had no idea what the reaction that they would have would be. So driving through the city--they wanted to go see our old neighborhood. We'd moved about a year ago from a house that got completely flooded. And Miles, my four-year-old, looked out the window and said, you know, `New Orleans is crazy.' And we walked around the neighborhood. Those early days you had to walk down the middle of the road because the sidewalks were filled with couches and refrigerators and piles of all the remnants of people's former lives.
So we walked down the middle of the street, and there would be search and rescue markings along the sidewalk and painted on the sides of the houses by teams that came through to sweep the neighborhoods to find out if there were animals or bodies actually. And I guess that's the thing I was most unsure about--is how the kids would react.
HANSEN: Yeah. It must be hard for them. How old are they?
Mr. TISSERAND: I have a four-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter.
Mr. TISSERAND: And now that we're here, it's still fascinating to watch this through their eyes. And, of course, you're always really careful to try to explain things but not explain things too much or give them more information than they need. But my preschooler, my four-year-old, makes pages and pages of art that he calls rainbow floods, and it's just always colors sort of swirled together. And I--they're out on the playground, there's a bunch of three- and four- and five-year-olds, and I realized they were playing superheroes beating up the hurricane.
HANSEN: Oh. Oh. Are they reconnecting with--I mean, I understand they were part of a chess club.
Mr. TISSERAND: Yeah. My daughter's in a chess club. She's seven years old. The chess coach--I found out his cell phone number and called him a few weeks ago, and he was driving through the South with two changes of clothes in his automobile, and he made it back here. And we had a two-member chess club the first week, and we had a six-member chess club the second week. And there is something--you know, it's very, very hard right now, and I can't overstate the pain and the stress that everyone's gone through because everyone in New Orleans has lost something precious to them. And the chance to see familiar faces back together again is--it means so much. So even seeing the chess coach and my daughter working through a move together again was exhilarating.
CONAN: We're talking about homecoming right now with Michael Tisserand, the former editor of the Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
HANSEN: What are you observing, Charlie, about your neighbors there? I mean, in what positive ways are they dealing with the situation?
Mr. TISSERAND: I'm sorry?
HANSEN: What are you observing about your friends and neighbors there? Are there positive ways that people are dealing with the situation they're in there?
Mr. TISSERAND: Right. Well, I mean, everyone is just really paying attention to each other. It's--you know, you can't go to a restaurant right now without it being filled with people going from table to table, seeing each other for the first time in months. You know, we went from--our neighborhood is all sort of based around a public school that's a block away from my house. And we had that first week of classes, and then the hurricane came, and everyone scattered across the country, and now some of us are back. And when we might be normally sitting around talking about a movie we'd seen or something like that, people are now finding out how people are doing, asking how their houses are and what can they do to help. You know, we have the hot water in our house, so we have people coming in and out, taking hot showers who don't have hot water in their houses. Other friends of ours that are better with plumbing and electricity than I am are coming in and helping me connect things.
So it's--I've never lived anywhere like this right now, obviously, but it's an incredibly intense feeling among friends. Both our kids' friends and all the adults, we just are coming together and holding on to each other, many knowing that, you know, some of us are moving on, and others are staying. And we're all worried about the future of our city.
HANSEN: Michael Tisserand is the former editor of the New Orleans Gambit Weekly. He returned to his home in New Orleans two weeks ago and joins us today from a friend's house in uptown New Orleans.
Michael, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us, and happy Thanksgiving to you. Good luck.
Mr. TISSERAND: Happy Thanksgiving to you. Thank you much.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Thor(ph) joins us. Thor calling from Pueblo, Colorado.
THOR (Caller): Hi. How are you?
THOR: Oh, good. Happy Thanksgiving. And...
CONAN: You, too.
THOR: ...loving the show. Thanks for doing it today.
CONAN: No problem. Our pleasure, really.
THOR: When I was growing up, my older sister ran away from home many times, and there was a lot of anger and hurt feelings and I got to see what was left behind when she ran away, you know? But when she came home, my mother would greet her the same way, always. She would have tears in her eyes, and would open her arms for--waiting for her daughter to come to her. And what that taught me, as a small child, was that to be a member of my family means that you can always come home again. No matter what. And that's really important to me because I now have a daughter and I don't know--she's a child now. She's only nine. But I don't know what heartache is in store for us but knowing us as a family, there's going to be problems in the future. But my mother paved the way for me. I know that no matter what, she can come home 'cause that's what being a part of my family is.
CONAN: Thor, thank you so much for that.
THOR: Happy Thanksgiving.
CONAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you.
HANSEN: And to you.
CONAN: Thor joined us on the phone from Pueblo, Colorado. We're going to take a short break and hear more stories of homecoming after we get back. I'm Neal Conan.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
HANSEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Liane Hansen in Washington.
CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan.
HANSEN: Tomorrow it's "Talk of the Nation/Science Friday." Join Ira Flatow and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss in a conversation about our fascination with infinity, extra dimensions and alternate universes. That's tomorrow on "Talk of the Nation/Science Friday."
Today we're talking about coming home, and in a few moments we'll be hearing from Jordanian American novelist Diana Abu-Jaber about returning home to her ancestral people. Join the conversation. Call us at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONAN: And here's an e-mail we got from Meg in Wyoming. `I moved back to our small hometown 10 years ago and it's everything I wanted it to be with one exception. When my sisters come home to visit, they get to stay at my mother's house and experience home late at night, early in the morning, and all day long. Because I have my own home and my own family, I no longer get to share this intense time with my mother, a bittersweet exchange for getting in to see bits and pieces of her all week long.'
HANSEN: We also want to take a call now and we're going to Randall and, Randall, I understand you're on the freeway in California?
RANDALL (Caller): Yeah, actually, yeah, I just pulled over here to a truck stop here.
HANSEN: Thanks. So you're on your way home?
RANDALL: Yes, yes. First time in four years I've been home for a holiday.
HANSEN: So--really? Where's home for you?
RANDALL: Los Angeles, California.
HANSEN: And where have you been?
RANDALL: I was in--I just got back from Katrina relief with the United States Coast Guard. I'm in Coast Guard now. And I returned a few weeks ago and just coming home--it just seems like I've seen so much and realized how much I really have to be thankful for coming back home.
HANSEN: But you haven't been home in--for the first time, it's been four years? What do you expect? Do you expect it to be the same?
RANDALL: You know, I really don't know. I really don't know what it's gonna look like back home. But I know I've definitely changed quite a bit. I'm 25. I left when I was 21 and, you know, stuff you're seeing, the devastation of Katrina, and the spirit of the people of New Orleans, I just realize how much I have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
HANSEN: Well, I bet home will be glad to get you back, Randall, and I appreciate your call. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.
RANDALL: Happy Thanksgiving. Take care.
HANSEN: OK. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of "The Language of Baklava: A Memoir." In 1989 as a young woman she planned a visit to Jordan to visit her father's relatives. This was her second visit in 20 years, and she found it markedly different from how she remembered it. She joins us now from her sister's house in New York.
Happy Thanksgiving, and nice to have you on the program.
Ms. DIANA ABU-JABER (Author, "The Language of Baklava"): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: You're a Jordanian American and took a trip back to a small bedouin village near Amman, the capital of Jordan. So what happened?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, it was very shocking because I hadn't been back in about 20 years, and I had this completely Norman Rockwellized idea of the Jordanian bedouins. You know, I expected them to stay in a kind of time capsule for me. And I had very vivid memories of them living in their goat-hair tents and cooking their food in big stone ovens and baking their bread over rocks. It was completely idyllic. And then when I went back 20 years later, many things were still the same, but they had Jeeps and they had CB radios and they even had canned food, which was just shocking to me--that modernity had actually reared its head in the bedouin encampment. So it was something that I had been completely unprepared for.
And I guess the most striking difference was that they had television, and they questioned me about things like Michael Jackson, which I couldn't believe I was hearing about Michael Jackson in the middle of the Jordanian desert. But an old bedouin man came up to me and he had been watching "Baywatch," and was very involved with "Baywatch," and he wanted me to explain to him why the women dressed the way they did--or didn't dress the way they did. And he kept saying, `Don't they have mothers?' You know? How can they let them go out like that? So in many ways the values stay the same, but certain accoutrements of modernity made their way in as well.
CONAN: What did your father say about all of this when you got back home and told him about it?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, it was something that my father had always warned us about when we were growing up because he himself had grown up in the village and it was his grandfather and his father's generation who made the transition from really nomadic bedouins to more of a settled village life, and he used to say, `It's going to disappear. We're going to lose it. It's changing in my lifetime,' you know. He would say, `Within your lifetime I don't think we'll see anymore of the old real bedouins.' So he was not surprised at all, and he feels very ambivalent because, on the one hand, he recognizes that we're losing a really beautiful ancient lifestyle but a very hard one.
Ms. ABU-JABER: And so you want them to have luxury as well.
CONAN: Yeah, given the choice it's nice to have a little canned food there in the pantry just in case.
Ms. ABU-JABER: Exactly. Round things out. That's right.
Ms. ABU-JABER: It's not always easy to cook everything over an open oven, so...
CONAN: So have you been back to see--What?--cell phones and plasma screens?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Oh, boy. The last time I was in Amman--this was in the city--I saw a bedouin woman with a tattooed chin and heavy jewelry walking down the street talking on her Nokia cell phone and I just knew--that's--it's a completely new place. Yeah.
CONAN: And you're having Thanksgiving today in Syracuse, New York.
Ms. ABU-JABER: That's right.
CONAN: Well, have--is it snowing there too?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Oh, boy. It's really coming down. It's--we live in Miami, so this is a little shocking for us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ABU-JABER: We're really cold.
CONAN: And this is just the beginning for Syracuse. Well, have a great holiday.
Ms. ABU-JABER: Thank you, Neal. You too.
Ms. ABU-JABER: Bye-bye.
CONAN: Author Diana Abu-Jaber is Jordanian American, as you just heard. Her most recent book is "The Language of Baklava: A Memoir," and she joined us from her snowy sister's house in Syracuse, New York.
HANSEN: We'd like to take a call now. We're going to go to David in Portland, Oregon. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. Hello. Thanks for taking my call.
HANSEN: You bet.
DAVID: I just wanted to share an experience about--you know, I'd lived overseas for a number of years in Japan and Thailand, and upon coming home, nobody expressed any interest in my international experience. I expected to be, you know, sat down, talked to about life in rural Thailand, life in Japan, and beyond people casting out a few stereotypes of how they imagined those countries to be, nobody was interested.
HANSEN: So nobody wanted to hear any of the stories that you had to tell, right?
DAVID: No, not at all, and--so I had prepared myself. You know, while I was there, like, I became trained in Thai massage and I learned how to make sushi and all these things I wanted to introduce my family and friends to, and really nobody asked. And I kind of liken it to the experience of--you know, my sister recently had a child and if nobody were to ask her about her baby or no one were to comment and ooh and aah over a baby, how kind of empty that would feel for her, and kind of the same way. You have a major experience and it's very different and nobody talks about it.
CONAN: So you told 'em you'd been to Thailand and all they wanted to know was if you met Yul Brynner.
DAVID: Pretty much. Pretty much.
HANSEN: Did they tell you...
DAVID: Did I see cockroaches? Did I see the Long Neck Tribe? That's about it.
HANSEN: And did they completely and always say to you, `Oh, my, you've changed'?
DAVID: Well, no, but I did find out yesterday that apparently for the first three weeks I was back I smelled really badly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVID: And now that I don't smell, apparently they're comfortable telling me that.
HANSEN: All right. Well, David, have a happy Thanksgiving and I hope you get a chance to tell at least some of your stories this year.
DAVID: There--all right. Thanks for listening. Have a good Thanksgiving.
HANSEN: All right. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And let's talk now with Renee. Renee, calling us from Tucson, Arizona.
RENEE (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
RENEE: I wanted to tell you a story about my youngest son who's a soldier in Iraq, and he came home for two weeks' R&R in September. And they were on a plane--it's a chartered flight that the soldiers take from Kuwait, and they land in Dallas, Texas. And when he and his fellow soldiers got off the plane in Dallas, Texas, they were bowled over by over a hundred people of all ages and walks of life who had gathered there at Dallas Airport just to welcome them home. And all of these people--he was hugged, he was kissed, old veterans were shaking his hand, and he had no idea that this was going to happen. He was completely bowled over and really--well, it was wonderful for us to hear the story, too, that he was welcomed so warmly and his fellow soldiers were welcomed so warmly on their way home. They dispersed from Dallas Airport to their, you know, home flights to their hometowns, and apparently the good people of Dallas do this quite often. They find out when these planes are coming in, and then college age kids, elementary schoolchildren, the older vets--families--they come down to greet our sons and daughters, and it's really wonderful for--you know, for all of us that they undertake this little job and do this for them. So I just wanted to share that, is what a--you know, they're--what a wonderful homecoming that gesture is for so many of our service people over there.
CONAN: That's a great story, Renee, and you just wish that more people would do that in more cities around the country.
RENEE: Yes. Yes. And maybe they will now.
CONAN: And maybe they will now. Thanks...
CONAN: ...very much, and have a happy Thanksgiving.
RENEE: Thank you. You too. Bye-bye.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.