Over the last week, Diane has been in Boston visiting her elderly aunt (shhh, no one tell her I called her that!). Modern air travel being what it is, she was taken from a tropical, island lifestyle and plopped back into her ‘old world’ in a matter of a few hours. Having made a few similar trips over the past few months for my work, I understand the immediate shift that is required to get ‘up to speed’ and in tune with a big city in the United States. It is not easy, even though it is automatic.
Fortunately, our Global Entry has spared us from the long lines at immigration leading up to the gruff, unpleasant “ICE Box”, so we have a somewhat delayed immersion into modern America.
As I am walking through the airport on the way out, the most amusing thing to me is that I can read all of the signs! Regardless of where we travel, I can always read SOME of the signs…struggling to pick out words that make sense and cobble them together into a meaningful message… In America, I can read them ALL! At first it is even a bit overwhelming as I have to turn down the level of thought required just to get out of the airport.
By the time I get to the rental car location, I have typically spoken to 2-3 people in English – and they have understood everything I say! Living in countries where English is not the most common language forces you to tailor the way you speak to be more fundamental, using the simplest words to covey meaning… and hoping it translates well through body language and even wild gestures! As with reading the signs, I have found myself having to consciously adjust my language back to a more ‘normal’ usage.
Even walking onto the rental car lot forces me to adjust my perspective on life. The cars are HUGE! In Europe and Asia, what Americans consider a ‘small’ car is fairly luxurious and a ‘compact’ is typical. I am amazed at how much space we ‘need’ in our cars in America! Placing all of those huge cars onto a highway makes for some mental gymnastics just to estimate the physics of it all!
Dropping in to my old world from Mexico also has another added transition: seatbelts. As we have been staying on a small island where it is difficult to get a vehicle above 30 MPH, seatbelts are not always used (I don’t even think my Vocho has them. If it does, I have never seen them!). “Remember David, wear your seatbelt!” pops into my head every time I sit down in the car!
Of course, driving at all is a concept ‘foreign’ to me. As a kid who grew up in Dallas – the place that invented suburban sprawl, combined with lack of public transportation – I automatically think I should drive in America. Elsewhere in the world, taxis are the most common form of local transport for me and trains and busses for long haul.
Given my preference for public transportation outside of the United States, one experience is extremely familiar and yet extremely odd at the same time: getting gas. Prior to leaving the United States, I am quite certain that I have filled up a car with gas hundreds of thousands of times (yes, I did the math, averaged it out and then made a guess!) These days, having to buy gas seems to be one of the most bizarre activities I do in the United States.
Filling up a car may SEEM the same on the outside, but it is not. Sure, I drive a Vocho in Mexico, but pulling into a PEMEX is a TOTALLY different experience than a typical US filling station! Uniformed attendants giving you full service every time harkens back to a wonderful time in my youth, right before the advent of credit card machines and automated gas pumps. Even in Australia, if you are paying cash, they let you fill it up BEFORE you pay. That level of trust, implicit in the Aussie culture, is sorely lacking in current day America.
Walking through the aisles at an American grocery store can be positively overwhelming. This is perhaps the most subtle, yet powerful reminder of where I am. The shelves are full. Not only are they full, but they are full of diverse products, all screaming for attention. I once found myself standing in the middle of the organic something or other section at Whole Foods, talking to Diane on the phone. I was looking for one product she had requested, but I could not find it in the midst of all of the American consumerist opulence. I don’t consider myself emotional or stupid, so when I had to literally stop in the middle of the grocery store and mentally regroup… it was a sign that I might not be ‘home’ any more.
Dining out also makes you stop and take notice. The portions are MASSIVE! As a child growing up in the ‘clean your plate’ culture, I often find myself struggling to force the last bit of mashed potatoes down. More than once, Diane has reminded me that I do not have to eat it all. Of course, this only makes me think of how much the meal cost in terms of how much some of my non-American friends make working manual labor jobs and my hunger is replaced with guilt.
More and more, I find myself not wanting to live the way that I grew up. I find myself rejecting the norms of American life. I don’t NEED a car. I don’t NEED a huge portion of food. I don’t NEED air conditioning.
This is not a call for some sort of neo-Luddite reaction to modern American consumerist culture. It is my personal acceptance of the simpler forms of living that I see around the world. I am fortunate enough in life to be allowed to choose the parts I take and leave the parts I don’t want… as soon as I get on an airplane bound for somewhere.. out there.