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postcard from home

I wasn't planning on posting 3 posts in one day, but I couldn't help myself today.  AdAge today had an article about a recent advertising campaign Ogilvy did in Greece for Lacta, a Greek chocolate bar.  The campaign made headlines because the ad, which actually turned out to be a 27 minute short movie, was entirely crowdsourced (the short definition, outsourcing your business needs to the crowd). 

Now, there are several things about this ad campaign that just got me completely wired today. 

1) the idea of crowdsourcing being completely amazing

2) how well done the film was and how well it actually portrays so many of the aspects I adore of Greek culture (specifically the importance of Greek food which can be seen in a few places throughout the movie, the old Greek village and what it means to go back 'home' to your village, and the pathos of Greeks)

3) as a result of 2) I am even more inspired than I already was to make a home in a Greek horio surrounded by olive and fig trees (oh and ideally avocado trees since I just found out Greece exports avocados!) a reality


4) what this all means about globalization, and how while the world is getting flatter (as Thomas Friedman's book suggests), it is also getting more interesting. The possibilities for collaboration and linkages being formed across peoples, cultures, and generations (and that's just the tip of the iceberg) are just endless!
While there are alot of things that make me smile with delight (see previous post), there are just as many things which if I pause and and think seriously about them, will get me pretty depressed. 

I just can't take most rap songs seriously anymore.  I guess in college when we danced to Nelly and Luda out on the dancefloor, the words didn't make me think twice.  I was more interested in dancing to the beats than listening to the words.  

Now that those days are behind me (and I'd rather not think about just how long behind me), I find myself listening to the lyrics in most rap songs (at least hte ones on the radio) and having to switch the radio station.  The lyrics are just so absurd that I can't listen to even one whole verse without bursting out laughing.  And if I think about it seriously and the fact that millions of teenagers listen to this stuff everyday and what this says about our culture, well I just can't go there or worry about the larger societal picture . Instead, I choose to just laugh and shake my head. 

The particular song that I heard the other day that prompted this post was Luda's remix of Robin Thicke's Sex Therapy.  And the line that just had me guffawing (I love that word) in a rather childish manner to be honest was, "Got the banana. Now let me split you."  Now, the whole song is full of these.  And every other rap song (and most R&B songs) I've listened to in the car since then are no different. 

This begs the question, why am I listening to the radio.  And my only reply to that is, it's still a novelty to me and since it's my first or second time hearing these songs, my hand doesn't have the auto switch to switch over to NPR or my iPod just yet.  I'll give it a few more days before I am just sick of the same 10 songs that the US radio stations play over and over and over again and make me feel like I'm in the twilight zone. 

For your listening pleasure. I'm warning you if you let yourself think any deeper about the societal implications, your listening experience will be anything but pleasurable. 
Having just returned  to the Washington DC area after living in Lisbon, Portugal for the last 15 months, I can say that the reverse culture shock moments are still in full effect.  I usually experience some form of this shock when I return to the US after an extended stay abroad.  However, this time around, I wouldn't exactly call what I'm going through a state of shock.  Rather, every day that I've been back I have had these moments of either utter bewilderment, one that usually causes me to laugh at some American-ism that I didn't notice before.  Or it's a moment that causes me to shudder at the American-ism that I had quickly and rather painlessly wiped away from my immediate consciousness while away.  Or, and probably my favorite one, it's a moment where a goofy smile,  part in awe at the American-ism that I forgot about while abroad immersed in a new culture, and part relishing in the same American-ism that makes the US such a unique and wonderful place.  

I have had these moments before over the course of the last 15 or so years since I have been cognizant of my hyphenated identity.  So, while some of these moments are reminders, others I think I appreciate even more now because this is the first time I have lived in Europe for such an extended period of time.  I really tried to embrace my time in Portugal and immerse myself in the culture and the people.  I really enjoyed being  out of my comfort zone, and it's actually a state I probably feel more comfortable in largely because of my hyphenated identity.   I have realized however that being away from home  is when I really learn more about home.  Because now that I'm back I feel like I not only learned about a new culture, but learned even more about what it means to be an American as well.  Home is a complicated word for me.  When I think of home, I have a melange of images that melt together in my mind.. my cozy home in Washington DC, floating in the Aegean sea with the sun beating on my face and riding my bike through the cobblestone streets of Holland along the canal.  So, where I feel very lucky, is that I get to have this learning experience each time I return back from or go to one of my homes.. And if it sounds complicated, that's because it is. 

So, today was one of those days where I experienced the latter of three moments (the goofy smile).  I was at a workshop for a good part of the day today and I was again reminded of how friendly and infectiously upbeat Americans are.  I think it is easy to interpret this, especially coming from Europe, as fake, but to me at least, it isn't.  I guess a better example of this was during my layover at the Frankfurt airport a few weeks ago.  I was having lunch at this little cafe and there was a table of loud Americans sitting near me.   I realize that loud Americans is a bit of a stereotype, but then I realized that I was sitting next to a table of Spaniards and they were being just as loud.  And I'm sure if a table of Italians or Greeks were sitting next to me they would be just as loud as well.    Frankfurt airport experience. 

The fact that the Americans were being a bit loud was actually a good thing in my case, because I was able to overhear their conversation.  What struck me in particular was a moment when the waiter came by with the check and the Americans struck up a casual conversation with the waiter.  They were interested in finding out where the waiter was from and how he spoke with such a perfect American accent.  The waiter was taken a bit aback at the forwardness, but replied that he was German.  This wasn't satisfactory to the Americans and they made this clear by their incredulous faces.  The waiter was dark haired and a bit dark skinned and I guess this didn't fit with the Arian profile the Americans probably had in mind. The waiter paused for a moment and then continued to say that his parents were originally from Turkey and that he learned all of his English from CNN.  The Americans faces lit up. 'That's why! You sound like a CNN journalist!'  I mention this story because there was such a stark contrast between the friendly jolly Americans and the rest of the cafe, which was just being, well European for lack of a better word.  The rest of the cafe (minus the Spaniards) were quietly and contently sipping on a German lager, gazing outside at the airport runway.   

While I was in Portugal, I constantly felt myself craving these short pleasant conversations that I have with perfect strangers all the time here in the US.  At the grocery store, waiting in line.  Maybe its because I didn't know the Portuguese language that well, but I just didn't see it happening all that often around me.  Even the cashier tellers barely made eye contact with me.  I know Americans in Europe get a bad rap for being ignorant in comparison with the cultured Europeans, and to some extent I guess I have to agree.  But, I do have to admit, I didn't realize how much I  missed the 'how y'all doin today' pleasantries that in fact, do make a difference throughout the day.

In a way, it also relates to another moment I had today about the American economy.  The US still is in my opinion still the best place to do business, or to just get things done.  Things are much more transparent and there just aren't as high barriers to the flow of information.  Europe is still working through unifying its 29 member states and many times this causes information garbles not only across EU states but even within.  Of course, I think this is part of what keeps Europe in a slower-frame of mind (in all aspects food, culture, family, leisure time) as opposed to the life on speed that we're used to here in the US s at the end of the day it's a trade off.

But I think this transparency can also be seen not just in the economy, but with American people as well.   Take the Greeks for example.  You can't really take anything a Greek says at face value and you basically have to interpret every sentence.  All one has to do is listen to any Greek song and have someone translate the lyrics of course, to understand what I mean. Of course, this also makes the Greek language very rich and full of poetic metaphors.  So again, it's a trade off.  Americans, by comparison, are direct, but not as direct as the Dutch, who seem to have no filter sometimes.

(And just a note.  I don't mean to overgeneralize or playing into cultural stereotypes, but these are just general observations that I at least find to be partially true.) 
So I've already tested the effects of the cubicle life on my own life and the results aren't pretty.  Chronic back problems to start with.  And now that I've been away from that life, for one reason or another, since the beginning of 2007, I'm really concerned about what it will be like to go back, if I do go back.  Then I came across this article in the NYT by way of this blog, and the idea of a cubicle freaked me out even more.  I agree with what Mark says, we aren't designed to be in chairs all day and we have designed them to fit our anatomy. 

The alternative as I see it however, still involves sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day.  Whether you decide to make your money as an entrepreneur or even day trading, no one can get away from sitting in front of a computer attached to the internet for at least several hour stretches a day.  That is, unless you decide to become a farmer or a tour guide or something like that. 

But working from home or at least having a flexible work situation seems like the best (and only) alternative to me.  One where I can take extended breaks, go for a walk outside, take my time making lunch and at least spend my day moving around.  At the very least I can make my workspace fit my needs, and stand as much as I can as the article suggests.  Taking my 2 minute break for coffee every two hours doesn't exactly qualify for me!
Now that I've had a few days for the reverse culture shock to set in, I thought I'd jot down some of my first impressions back home.  I realize that my tone might sound like I'm complaining, but it's more about the strong impression some of these thoughts have left on me, coming back from Europe after having lived there for a year and a half.  

Fast forward.  Everything feels like it's on speed here.  I don't know if it's a combination of efficiency  and capitalism at work, the Protestant influence of productivity is king, the lousy economy making people nervous or a combination of all three.  This life on speed brings with it the lack of presence.  I was sadly joking with a friend over brunch this weekend about this.  She was telling me that everytime she goes to dinner with friends everyone is texting on their blackberry's and iphones. She literally announces to the table that she is goign to the bar to get a drink and will return when people are ready to converse with her and not their phones.  Even when people are where they want to be, they're too busy doing something else. 

I felt this again when we took a walk on the Potomac river after brunch.  It was a Sunday, a day that historically should be one of rest and leisure.  I understand that for many this involves exercising.  But I really felt like everyone was on a mission to exercise.  My friend and I were walking at a leisurely place, catching up after not having seen each other for over a year and a half and we both laughed at each other at the commotion surrounding us.  Literally every two seconds someone would yell, "To your left" or "To your right" indicating that they were about to zoom by, and please please don't get in their way and ruin their triathlon timed pace.          

Choice.  The amount of choice is mind boggling.  I have been to the grocery store a handful of times already and the mall twice and my nervous system is still on overdrive.  There are at least 20 different brands of cereal in a milieu of rainbow colors expertly arranged.  I remember walking through the mall a few days ago and passing a candy store that literally had me standing there for a few seconds in amazement.  I should have taken a picture of it. All I saw in front of me were neon colors of the rainbow and all I could think of was  the mountains of sugar that one little store could make with all that candy and the little obese kids with ADHD running around high on all this stuff.  Well, nowadays they're just plopped in front of their Playstation playing Guitar Hero.  

Not to mention the overpowering effect of advertising that literally has all my senses on overdrive.  I'm in the car listening to the radio, and I can't get away from the loud garble of advertising that I hear every other song.  It used to annoy me and irritate me even sometimes, but now I just won't even stand for it.  It just turns me off completely.  All I can listen to now is NPR (the national public radio station) and WPFW (a non-commercial radio station).  That being said, NPR and WPFW do have some excellent programs and music.   I realize I run the risk of sounding like a grumpy old lady here , but I really much prefer the lack of commercials but literally the soothing voices of the radio broadcasters as well.  Of course, people nowadays listen to their iPods in the car or satellite radio and avoid commercials all together juI guess getting away from it all made me more in tune with just what an assault all this was to my body and the effect it has.    

Bone structure.  Everyone knows that the average American is fat. And each time I come back from Europe it always strikes me just how fat Americans are.  But this time around, what struck me not only the layers of extra fat everyone has but that the bone structure of teenagers here is proportionately larger than in Europe.  I know it's been said that it must be from all that hormone happy milk and hamburgers, but its still something that struck me.  The girls here either look unhealthily skinny (either from too much exercise) or seem to be in a body that's a few sizes to big for them.  I had a hilarious conversation with this Lithuanian woman at my Bikram yoga class the other day.  She was saying how all the woman here have thunder thighs and she and her friends think its from the birth control that every one is on here.  I seem to agree with her.  

Lack of personal style.  First day of spring! Bring out the flipflops and cargo shorts. Walking through Georgetown (the posh part of DC) the other day  I was surrounded by guys in flipflops and cargo shorts and girls in yoga pants and white sneakers.  If the girls were wearing normal clothes (which many of them were for their Sunday brunch outing), I could have just as easily have walked onto a JCrew or Gap photo shoot.  What struck me is the lack of personal style.  Clothes that weren't tailored, they just seemed to be a one size fits all.  And god forbid the gym clothes! I guess I really got used to the fact that in Europe gym clothes are well, for the gym! Of course, maybe's its also a bit the area of the country that I'm living in.  If I were to go to New york city for example, I'd see a bit more diversity and personal style.    

Wide open spaces.  Everything is so big. The roads are big (thankfully the cars are getting a bit smaller. I hardly see as many Hummers on the road), there's wide areas of green manicured grass everywhere.  It's kind of a peaceful feeling actually, and liberating.   

Accessible. For the most part, things are much more accessible here than in Europe. Of course, what you lose with that is the quaintness of European cities.  When I was in Lisbon I enjoyed just strolling in the city, discovering a new cafe or a new boutique shop that sold only perfumes that I never knew about before.     

Waste & consumption.    The American economy is driven by consumer spending, which is fueled by the incessant advertising messages that your brain and eyes are bombarded with daily.  It is seriously exhausting and my nervous system feels like it's been through a hurricane every time I come back home. And with this consumption culture, comes a tremendous amount of waste.  I really enjoy buying just what I need for the week instead of 200 rolls of toilet paper at Costco (the discount warehouse superstore in my neighborhood).  Of course, I'm single and don't lead a hectic life and I  have the luxury to leisurely stop by the grocery store every few days.  But why should this be considered a luxury?     
Automation. I understand why companies are going this route, I get it. It saves money.  The self check out lines, the automated operator everytime I call pretty much any company.  But, is it really saving money when all its doing is frusterating me the customer and wasting more of my time?  Not to mention how impersonal the whole experience is.  I just feel like my daily life is slowly becoming more robotic and less freestyle.  I know things are changing slowly in Europe too, but there is a certain authenticity to your daily life there, even if your life is hectic. 
I've always felt hyphenated, caught between two worlds, and sometimes more than two.  I've stolen the term Growing up Hyphenated from a professor of mine in college, Peter Fulton who was interested in the second generation experience of youth in America.  Ever since I heard the term however, I connected with what it meant for me.  I would say that I don't have one hyphen and its always been difficult for me to define exactly what that hyphen is.  Greek-Dutch-American. European American. Just American? (since to be an American means to be a melting pot, but then so does being European if you go back far enough). 

When people ask me where I'm from, I have a hard time answering.  My good friend Rita who I met while in Portugal always introduces me as her cocktail friend and it always makes me laugh.    Yes, I grew up in America, yes I am an American.  In my house however there were at one point or another the following languages being spoken: Greek, Dutch, Spanish and English.  In my house, it felt like Little Greece or Little Amsterdam, things were totally different than what I saw on TV.  It's hard to explain how, but it doesn't only include minute details like  the music and television programs we listened to and watched or the food we ate.  It was even just the way my parents and I interacted and the things we spoke about (or didn't speak about).  I visited Holland and Greece often, yet my cousins and aunts largely felt like strangers to me. 

I felt early on that I was caught in between multiple worlds but didn't really belong to any of them.  I still feel this way to this day, but I guess the difference is that now I am starting to appreciate the richness of my experiences living in this hyphenated world.  Well all this hyphenation I grew up feeling and experiencing, it didn't really fit with the majority of my classmates experiences.  But, fortunately, I went to a public middle school in the Washington DC suburbs, which was definitely more diverse than let's say a middle school in Des Moines, North Dakota and I could find other people who were like me, that I could relate to.  My friends in middle school were other second-generation Americans, which at Cabin John meant I was hanging out with Chinese, Indians and South Koreans. Many of us were technically even first-generation but had moved away from our home countries at an early enough age where the distinction between first and second isn't really that important to make.   In high school, my closest friends were a Persian-American and a girl who had lived in I think 5 different countries before returning to the US.  Of course, its only natural that I connected with others who were like me and had the same issues with their immigrant parents as I did. 

Butnow, as I enter my 27th year of life in a few months, I feel in many ways even more confused by my identity and in many ways, even more alienated.  I just came back to the DC area after spending the last fifteen months living Lisbon, Portugal. 8 days ago to be exact.  Back being, back home to my parents house in the DC suburbs.  I'm back to figure out what's next after just completing my masters degree and also to get myself back in shape both physically and mentally.  I have to feel good first before I'm going to get out there and do good things!

However, this time back home has also been the impetus for me to create a space where I can finally get these internal conversations I've been having with myself down in written form.  I'm titling this blog Across the Pond because that's exactly what these conversations are about.  I am constantly fluctuating mentally, spiritually and physically between America and Europe. Where in Europe is a separate conversation all together.  And although I don't think I will ever feel 100% at home living 100% either in Europe or in the US, I do hope to be able to find a balance for myself some day..


    Reflections on living a double life, one foot in America, and one foot in Europe.


    March 2010



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