So, where have I been?
That’s a bit of a loaded question, I admit. I let this blog go idle during the holiday season because my girlfriend and I took a nearly three-week trip to the U.S.A. to visit my family and friends. It was long overdue, considering the last time I had stepped foot on my native soil, approximately two-and-a-half years had passed. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time when you’re living in the moment, but it’s eye opening when you realize all that has changed while you’ve been away.
|Fortunately, some things remain the same.|
I hate to say “during my absence,” because with 21st century technology and social media, I feel like I still am able to keep some tenuous foothold in people’s lives an ocean and some spare change away. Via weekly Skype chats with my mom, I am kept up-to-date on local changes to road infrastructure, new construction projects, the latest Mexican restaurant or Casey’s gas station built in town, and things that used exist but have been torn down or renovated in the meantime. There’s always a new project on the horizon.
On a more personal level, I could see my niece beginning her swanlike transition into a young lady. You can see the pictures posted up on Facebook, but little can prepare you for it.
|Seen here being embarrassed by her two ridiculous uncles.|
Likewise, the last time I saw my friend Jeremy was when I was a groomsman at his wedding. His bride had a bun in the oven then. Now, a little two-year-old scampers around, reckless as a two-year-old should, mumbling out newly learned words, laughing and crying and living. Then I take a good look at my friend who’s a little lighter on top and a little heavier in the middle and I remember five years before when the faux-hawk was his hairstyle of choice then. But when we went out together for dinner and drinks and picked up our old wavelength with laughs and inside jokes, it’s as if I never went away.
The mirror offers surprises for me too. During our stay at my parent’s house, my girlfriend looked at every single yearbook photo of me from kindergarten through senior year of high school. There was the prototypical bowl haircut, the third grade mullet, teenage awkwardness and acne, and near the end, perhaps a glimpse of what I would become. The hair is thinner and grayer and the widow’s peaks keep climbing, but I have not yet acquired the regal horseshoe baldness my father has sported for as long as I can remember.
My acclimation to life in Europe has involved dietary changes (less fast food), a lack of an automobile, and henceforth much more walking. Consider this, when I first left for Prague in the summer of 2009, I weighed around 190lbs. I was fat and bloated on Busch beer. I didn’t need a belt when I wore jeans. The belt I did have stayed on the last and loosest notch. Today, all my old jeans make me feel like Jared from Subway, so I’ve scraped them in favor of new pairs. As the weight melted away, I progressively worked my way through the notches on my belt. Now I’m on the final notch and could use a replacement. When I stepped on a scale the day after our arrival, the number read 155. I guess blame baguettes and French cheese.
My mom surreptitiously informed me that my dad thought I looked a bit gaunt, as if I had dropped too much weight. Good parents want their kids round and plump and rosy-cheeked like Hansel & Gretel. I made an informal pledge that I would fatten up over Christmas, what with the overabundance of groceries my mom always buys, regular visits to restaurants of both quality and ill-repute, a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, fudge, cream cheese brownies, Rice Crispy treats, and a Christmas Eve smorgasbord of consisting of little smokies, shrimp, sushi, meatballs, chips and dips galore.
The following Christmas morning involved downing mini pancakes and breakfast pizza, seguing into a mid-afternoon traditional Christmas dinner with the works, followed by not only pumpkin pie, but also red velvet cake. Costco sized portions of everything. And let us not forget about the fast food, which included: not one but two trips to White Castle, two trips to Dairy Queen, two times to Taco Bell, and a trip apiece to Arby’s and Hardee’s. And my girlfriend just hadto try a McRib sandwich for the first time at the McDonald’s in O’Hare. Good God. By the end, it was just too much. But I was a man of my word. By the last day when I weighed myself again, the scale had jumped 13lbs up to 168. Not bad for a 3 week food bender.
Of courses, some changes are completely superficial and yet nevertheless become the source of a running joke. Quick background here: when I first came to Europe, I had a black Adidas backpack that served me very well for a long time. Well, after 3 years of use, it was starting to get a bit ragged, and I think it probably marked me as a foreigner because outside of school children, I don’t think backpacks are very common in Europe. So last summer, just before my girlfriend and I were to take a trip to Tunisia, I bought a new bag.
Fast forward to my father around Christmas: “So, I have to ask, but what the hell is up with the man purse?”
“Dad, it’s not a man purse. It’s a satchel.”
I forget the exact words of what followed, but here is an approximation.
“What the fuck is a satchel?”
“It’s like what Indiana Jones wears!”
“Well, whatever. I guess it’s a European thing. But if the guys at work saw me wearing that, though, I’d never live it down.”
A similar conversation took place regarding male usage of scarves. In France, practically everyone wears a scarf year-round. There are thinner scarves made from cotton and silk for spring and summer and the thicker, woolen scarves for winter. Before this Christmas, I had never seen my dad in a scarf, he being more the t-shirt, ball cap, and jeans type. Flannel shirts and Carhardtt when it’s real cold. He wears jean shorts without qualms and without irony, but the mere mention of trying on a scarf provoked the same “Everyone will laugh at me at work” reaction the satchel did.
Through my girlfriend’s gentle French touch, however, she did coax him into trying on my scarf and it didn’t look half bad! Still, I doubt there will be scarves in his future. Some bridges are too wide to cross after you reach a certain age, I guess.
One thing that I haven’t really touched on in this entry is the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. Yes, that’s a real thing. Culture shock is pretty self-explanatory. When you first leave the nest and fly far from home and experience a culture different from yours, it can be tough. As I’ll elucidate further in a forthcoming post, all the shit you take for granted like buying groceries or going to the post office is off the charts more challenging. Everyone around you speaks a language you do not understand. The food is different and the waitresses do not smile. It all adds up and can be very disorienting at first.
Those first few weeks are crucial. Either you like the new environment and begin to adapt to your surroundings or you hate it and leave. I’m reminded of a quote from a French film called L’auberge espagnol (“The Spanish Apartment”). Believe it or not, but I watched it several years before I ever went to France! Anyhow, the main character of that film, Xavier, goes to live in Barcelona, Spain. At one point he says,
“When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everything’s unknown, virgin. After you’ve lived here, walked these streets, you’ll know them inside out. You’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times . . . it’ll belong to you because you’ve lived there.”
I have a hard time imagining being completely immersed in another culture. Going to Europe is different than America, sure, but the similarities in appearance, values, and culture aren’t so very far apart.
|Seen here: Only in America. The Missouri Botanical Gardens.|
I have often compared it to looking at one of those convex or concave mirrors you see at funhouses – everything is slightly distorted, but recognizable. I imagine the culture shock to be much greater for your everyday American to go live in someplace in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Because there, you are the one who stands out. You’re the minority. In Europe, it’s easier to blend in and camouflage yourself.
Another aspect to consider is how insulated the expatriate life can be. Our social circle primarily consisted of other expats, Americans, Brits, Aussies, and the occasional Kiwi, all of who speak English. You meet the natives, go to the pub and hang out, have others who are friends, but again, they’re speaking English with you. Why? Because for them, we’re the real deal – we’re practice.
And but so, yeah, after a year in Prague, I made my way back home for the first time. I remember I flew from Prague to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Then, after a 4-hour layover in Minneapolis, there was just a quick jaunt down to St. Louis. The flight from Prague to Amsterdam was short and uneventful. Amsterdam to Minneapolis was the long haul. I sat next to a young man, I forget from where exactly, but certainly Slavic in origin. He told me he was going to Alaska for 6 months as part of an internship program. He didn’t seem daunted by this, so I assumed he had spent some time on the tundra before. Prior to landing, I helped him fill out his custom’s card.
After a close-eyed perusal of my passport, the custom’s official gave me a stamp and said, “Welcome back to the United States of America.” I carried my old Adidas backpack through the terminal and sat down near my gate. It was crowded. That’s when reverse culture shock hit me. Suddenly, I could understand again what everyone around me was saying again. I hadn’t watched TV in more than a year and now suddenly there’s the news flashing headlines and commercials flying past. It was like having headphones on and listening to three hundred different songs at once, a cacophony of perfectly understandable, completely banal noise. It was overwhelming.
I picked up my bag and searched for a secluded area in the terminal. There I sat next to an older American woman who these days lived in Israel, but was back home to visit family, like me. Later, I sat in an airport bar, shooting the breeze with a businessman, who bought me a beer and offered me his phone to call my parents to let them know I had arrived in the U.S. safe and sound. I told this gentleman about my experiences during my first year abroad, explaining about life in Prague and the delicious beer they have there.
Most responses I receive from people when they discover I live in Europe are a blend of admiration and envy. There is this tendency in folks, which seems especially pronounced in the Facebook era, to think everyone they know lives a wonderful, trouble free life, filled with romance, money, and adventure or what not. It’s all bullshit, of course. I can only guess what my friends think it’s really like here. There have been plenty of bad days filled with difficulties and challenges, plenty of crappy weather and bouts of homesickness and loneliness that can make even the most hardened man cry.
But then there are good days when I reallyopen my eyes and admire the world around me, and everything slows down and almost stops for a second, and I realize I love it both there and here (or is here there or what?). I may be a lucky man, but time is always ticking, and my advice to you is to make the world your oyster.