Last week I attended a social function for the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group I belong to here in Austin.  There was a good showing of about 20 or so, people of all ages and backgrounds and ethnicities who have served in countries all over the world.  Some of them had literally just returned home from their service a few weeks earlier (with glazed eyes and reverse culture shock); some, like me, had been back for many years.  At one point, I sat down at a table next to another young woman and three young men to chat with them, and learned it was the young woman’s birthday.  After a few minutes, the man directly across the table from her asked her “so, how old are you today?”

You would think that the old-fashioned adage which dictates men should never ask a woman her age had gone the way of the eight-track tape long ago in this age of straightforwardness, but even this young millennial looked at the guy asking her this with more than a little surprise on her face.  She acquiesced though with a flirty laugh and said “Ok I’ll tell you guys how old I am, but it means everyone here also has to say how old they are.  I’m 28 today.”  

Now at this point I began to get a little uncomfortable.  I could tell that all four of them were significantly younger than me.  Was I really going to have to tell them my age?  I pictured the shocked looks that would appear on their faces and perhaps even receiving sad but comforting pats on my ancient hand as I revealed a number that surely their youthful group would consider prehistoric.

One of the guys across the table then said “Oh god, 28…it’s been the worst year of my life so far, I’m 28 too right now.”  And then his friend sitting next to him nodded knowingly in miserable affirmation and said he was 28 too.  Finally the third guy broke the curse and said he was…wait for it…29.  I think they all started talking about this horrible, miserable time in their lives but honestly I didn’t hear any of that…I was too busy thinking of what I was going to say in the next few seconds when it was my turn to answer.

And then suddenly I thought of a clever quip, a way out of having to tell them my age at all but at the same time acknowledging my um, advanced wisdom (yeah that’s it) in a humorous and self-deprecating kind of way.  “What a coincidence, I was 28 when I left to join the Peace Corps!” was on the tip of my tongue as I waited for it to be my turn to complete the round.

Except that moment never arrived.  Which was confusing, because it was my turn, with the briefest of pauses in the conversation, and I think a few eyes even glanced my way for a fleeting moment in fearful apprehension…but then the subject was changed and I was passed over.  Literally.  The subject turned to something else entirely.  I really don’t think they meant anything malicious or mean by it, and I guess I should have been grateful for the reprieve, but the feeling I actually got from the rest of the group was “don’t worry, we know you’re obviously way older than us, so no need to even answer the question.”

But should I have been grateful?  The more I thought about it, the more it gnawed at me.  I’ve never shied away from telling someone my age in the past, so why had I been intimidated at that moment?  Why shouldn’t I have felt at ease with telling them my age, and why shouldn’t they have felt at ease hearing it?  Why did I feel dismissed when I didn’t get the chance to answer the question?

I’m really not sure.  Maybe it was the way the rest of them were talking and laughing and flirting in their loosely-choreographed dance of young life, and I felt somehow excluded from that even though I was right next to them.  It was maybe the first time I’ve actually and tangibly felt what it’s like to be stranded by the proverbial generation gap – but from the older side this time, the one that’s just slightly over the other side of the hill. 

What I wish I’d had the chance to say, now that I’ve thought about it, is this:  I’m 43 years old – which doesn’t make me ancient, it just makes me experienced, and that’s a good thing.  Yes I like Pat Benatar,  Journey and The Go-Go’s, so sue me (I took their cassettes with me all the way to Africa by the way).  No we didn’t have cell phones and laptops and tablets when I did Peace Corps – we were truly unplugged before that was even a catchword, and were lucky to have one (landline) 10-minute phone call every 3 weeks with our families, which cost them a small fortune.  There was no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat…there were only long-awaited letters in plain white envelopes with red and blue borders, and they were our addiction.  When it got dark at night, we didn’t log on, we lit up – our lanterns, that is, so that we could read dog-eared paperbacks by lamp light and listen to BBC on the radio.

It’s been 15 years already since I left to join Peace Corps, so 28 was actually a very memorable and good year for me, because as I mentioned above, that’s how old I was when I left to go serve.  I’m glad I waited until I’d finished grad school and was older to serve – for me personally, it was just the right time in my life to go.  And I’m not sure why the 28th year now apparently has such a bad reputation amongst those presently living it, but all I can say to them is just wait until you’re 43, or 53, or 63, and you’ll appreciate 28 much more than you do now.   Just let it be good.  (Does that make me sound like a crotchety old woman?)

Actually years 28 and 43 have been amazingly similar in my life.  They were both years in which I made huge life-changing decisions and took leaps of faith to start new ventures.  Both were years in which I made (or will make) voyages to the other side of the globe to pursue adventure and change.  Both were years in which I contemplated new directions and committed myself to self-study on things important to me.  Both have been categorized by determination and resiliency.  Now that I think of it, the ages of 28 and 43 have been two of, if not the most, important years of my life so far.

So maybe those youngsters at that table did me a favor after all…they’ve helped me remember and reflect on times that were pivotal in my life.  I’m grateful for that.  Maybe as a thank you I should take them to a Pat Benatar concert.  Or at least give them one of her cassette tapes…

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À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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