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postcard from home

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.) 
12/3/2022 11:55:43 pm

Thanks, great blog post


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


    March 2010



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