“The thrill of take off: the burn of reentry.”
Or it could be less of a burn: a mild irritation, perhaps. But if you’ve returned from overseas back to your place of birth after enough time to settle into a daily routine in a foreign country, chances are you’ve experienced reverse culture shock.
What was normal back home before our departure now stands in contrast. That cup of coffee just isn’t the same when you’re not on the edge of a bustling Italian piazza. You may now have to pump your own gas again, not like in Japan where you are fastidiously greeted at the gas station by bowing attendants. Gone too are the washcloths they cheerfully give you to wipe down the dashboard. Or you may complain about the sorry state of public transportation.
Either way, these fruits of cultural passage cause you to pause and reflect on the previously invisible strings that have guided your life to date. Some of it may be good, and some bad.
As Kristi and I integrated back to Seattle after nearly a year in Paris, there were certainly a couple cultural frictions that slapped us back to reality.
If you live in any urban center in Europe, you spend a lot of time walking. If you want groceries, you walk. If you want to go to the local bar, you walk. Gotta go a bit further than your legs can take you? Take a bike, jump on a bus or subway, and then walk. After ten months without a car, I found myself a bit depressed when two errands in Seattle required driving in a triangle, five miles to a side. This relates to the states of public transportation (see next).
The state of public transportation.
Very few people drive in Paris; everyone takes advantage of the widespread Metro system. And, outside New York, practically no one in the United States considers buses or trains as a viable form of transportation.
“It takes too much time” or “it just isn’t safe” are frequent laments.
True, taking the bus does take more time than driving. But the same can be said about getting to and from nearly any location in Paris. Everyone takes the Metro so that’s the widely accepted time it takes to travel between locations. Metros don’t have to compete with cars to get people from Point A to Point B the fastest.
As for public transit in the U.S. not being the safest means of transportation … yeah, well, it’s hard to refute that when your first bus ride home involved a drunken disorderly, assault with a pantomimed weapon, verbal assault, and imported liquid contraband. On our return home from seeing my grandmother, no less.
Fighting resistance to wear scarves.
You better sit down for this one: Parisian men dress better than most Americans do. I had a tough time with the social faux pas of wearing shorts in summer, even when the temperature approached 100 degrees. A salesman almost created an international incident when he scolded me for daring to fight heat exhaustion by baring my legs on an especially hot and muggy afternoon.
But when the weather got a bit cold, the scarf was a sartorial bandwagon I jumped on with alacrity. As a man, I have few opportunities to accessorize and yes, they make me feel pretty. So I bought one. Then I bought eight more. Turns out that was the easy part—finding the appropriate social situation in which to wear them back in Seattle has proven to be a challenge.
Different types of milk.
At our local grocery store in Paris, I thankfully had access to rice milk as an alternative to my “lactose unpleasantness.” But when we returned to the cavernous halls of our American supermarket, I was surprised to find a load of new organisms that had apparently sprouted milk-producing teats: hemp, super grains, almonds, soy, oats…
Talking about a trip to Provence … without sounding like a conceited dillweed.
If you are at a dinner party, and someone mentions something—like a favorite cheese or a recent road trip—and it reminds you of your recent experience abroad…
Is your story about a recent weekend in the south of France going to put a cork in the conversation? First, look for the proverbial record player in the corner. If nothing is liable to come to a screeching halt, proceed carefully and, for the love of god, please restrict yourself to the American pronunciation of place names. You can easily suck the wind out of a room as you draw out the last syllable of Provence (proh-VAHN-s-s-s-s-s-s-s) and let it hang in the air like the bubbly applause of a freshly poured glass of Dom Perignon.
Oh, us? Yeah, we went there. I tell you about it the next time I see you.
Portion Sizes: Big, or for multiple people.
I lost weight in Europe despite already sporting a svelte (read: atrophied) physique before we left. Sure, walking everywhere helped. But having average food portion sizes no bigger than a human thumb certainly trimmed the waistline. I tried to reverse this trend with baguettes—copious in both quantity and girth—and calorically-augmented foods like Andoillette (pork intestine sausage), but to no avail. It’s a “losing” battle considering American portion sizes dwarf their European counterparts, 2-to-1 (minus Germany).
Not having to tip.
Aside from baguettes, food is generally more expensive in Paris—that is a fact. But you don’t tip in French restaurants. Take 20% off the top of the price of your French meal, and this price discrepancy starts to melt like the cheese on top of a croque monsieur. This relates to my next point.
Receiving decent service at restaurants.
If there was an advantage to paying waiters and waitresses pennies on the dollar (which I don’t support), it would be that tips help incentivize exemplary service. This was a welcome change when we sat down to our first meal on this side of the pond. Service in French restaurants is very good, even better when you consider that they have to endure two Americans vomiting out their normally beautiful language in fits and spurts. But the expediency with which American wait staff fill your water and meet your every need is unmatched.
That being said, when all you want to do is sit on a terrace and mull over your glass of Sancerre, it is nice to be removed from a food industry that is focused on flipping tables.
Walking into a store without being seen.
French courtesy dictates that as soon as you walk into a store, you announce your presence with an enthusiastic “bonjour,” and an “au revoir” as you leave. Sometimes, you just want to enter a store anonymously, especially when these are the only two phrases you can say. You’ll find this anonymity in most American stores where employees aren’t paid on commission.
Weekend trips will never be the same.
Sorry, I just have to say it. Weekend trips just aren’t the same once you live in Europe where there are so many interesting locations so close to each other. Leavenworth, a.k.a. “Little Bavaria” of Washington State, unfortunately doesn’t hold a candle to, um, actual Bavaria. Suck it up. Make the most of it, and—for god’s sakes—don’t confess this fact to your friends. You’ll sound like a conceited dillweed again, and you have yet to tell them about your trip to Provence.
Driving slow in the fast lane.
Like the adrenaline rush of a sedan aggressively flashing their high beams behind you at 70mph? Drive in the far left lane in France. The left lane is the fast lane, and it is only to be used to pass slower traffic. It doesn’t matter if you are going over the speed limit, someone behind you will want to go faster. And chances are they are approaching, quickly. You better get out of the way.
After executing my first triangular errand run after my return to Seattle—half of which included Interstate 5—I found myself behind a blue minivan that had the audacity to drive the speed limit in the fast lane, with a finger hovering over my high beam lever.
A drought of draught.
The French are known for their wines but, if you like beer, expect only a handful of options, namely Kronenburg, Grimbergen, and Leffe. If you find a bar with a wider selection, you’ve found a special place; return often to reward their entrepreneurial spirit.
Needless to day, my eyes moistened like a cold tap handle when they scanned the plump beer lists on menus back in Seattle. Turns out, the lack of variety in Paris may have influenced my aforementioned weight loss.
Ordering French wines without sounding like that frickin’ guy.
So they don’t have much beer in France, you better take advantage of the incredible selection of wines. Try as many as you can. Take notes. Find your favorites and even bring a couple bottles home to impress your friends. Remember the names of those favorite bottles when you next go out to dinner, but be prepared to sound like “that frickin’ couple” who just took a Frommer’s guide to Europe.
Then be prepared to spend more money on said bottle.
Then be sure to tell your waiter about your recent trip to Provenc-s-s-s-s-s-s-s…