Home Away From Home

July 30, 2011

I recently left home to trek to the Middle East for my work teaching the Actor’s EDGE™.  I work with business leaders all over the world helping them share their message with passion using acting techniques. Last year, I was invited to speak in Oman, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. It was a fascinating trip filled with cultural surprises and visits to places many people don’t get to see.  


But while traveling alone I was struck by how much of home can be found far away from home.  When I arrived in Beirut in the early hours of the morning, bleary-eyed and tired, I couldn’t help but smile at the billboards for suburban tract houses and the huge revolving Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket in front of the airport.  Or going to a mall in Oman to look for an ATM and finding the familiar colors of Kodak on a kiosk.

Some would say this is Western hegemony at its worst, but somehow those familiar signs, provided comfort and made the world a little smaller.  And yet, while some of the familiar brands were evident, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was traveling to countries that are completely different from home.  Running along the esplanade in Beirut, while passing the Hard Rock Café sign, I could see that this country had seen its share of misery as I spied the bullet holes along the walls.  Or walking in the outdoor mall in the same city and realizing a few years ago there were no shops filled with Nine West shoes and Tommy Hilfiger shirts, because this mall didn’t exist because of the raging civil war.  

While the coffee tasted the same, it did not feel like home to sit in the Starbucks in Riyadh wearing an Abaya (provided by my hosts). We were in the family section of the store with the glass clouded over so no one could look inside and see the women drinking coffee.   It was definitely different to sit at a beach restaurant in Jeddah, covered in black from head to toe and sweltering in the heat in that same black Abaya. It was equally odd to not enjoy a beer or a glass of wine with the view. I found myself shopping in a mall in Riyadh one afternoon filled with American brands like the GAP or Saks Fifth Avenue, but there were no women sales associates or even women’s fitting rooms because it would be unseemly to try on clothes in a store.  Of course, later that same day, I lounged by the pool in a bathing suit with a group of ex-pats, inside a walled compound that looked eerily like Ft. Lauderdale. While it felt more like home, I could still see that wall.

And it wasn’t just the familiar brands or places that reminded me of home while traveling.  Meeting people connected to home gave me comfort as well. Like my Lebanese friends from Rochester who connected me to their sister who was the manager of a hotel in Beirut.  I met people who had gone to school in Toledo, my own alma mater in D.C., and who had lived in Utica. Everywhere I went I proudly told them I lived in Rochester and I was always surprised that people knew where it was and what we were known for.  For a small city in the United States we have a wide reach. “Ahh, Kodak,” some said. Others acknowledged Xerox or Bausch + Lomb.


But I was instantly brought “home” by the most surprising connection of all, when I met a couple who were thrilled to hear I was from Rochester.  They started hugging me like I was family. But it turned out their excitement didn’t come from a family connection. When they stopped hugging me like a long-lost sister, they actually exclaimed, “Oh my goodness you are so lucky to live in Rochester, because…you have Wegmans.” I smiled, proudly, and said, “Of course, it’s my home away from home.”      

As seen in the USA Today Network, Garnett Newspapers and the Democrat & Chronicle.