Friday, October 14, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

It's been over six weeks since I have returned from my year in Paris and I can honestly say that the re-adjustment to my American life is still sorting itself out in many ways both expected and unexpected.

For starters, I had to retrain myself not to greet my fellow Americans with a, "Bonjour," and not to leave them with a, "Merci, au revoir." This took about three days. Yet, even though I am no longer feeling the impulse to speak French, I cannot shake the urge to say an immediate, "Hello," upon entering a place of business. I admit, this does feel a bit strange when I enter Target because usually the security guard is busy looking at the floor with his hands in his pockets and I fear that I've startled him with my Frenchie politeness.

Within hours of landing at SFO, Soren and I shifted into high-gear in order to complete a few important pieces of business: buy Soren a car and eat Mexican food, Zachary's Pizza, and BBQ. We set out on these missions and found ourselves at a cookie cutter strip mall in the East Bay between test drives ordering BBQ and requesting salad dressing on the side without so much as a raised eyebrow from the counter clerk. All the while I was lamenting the fact that my American life is not set up to operate easily as a one-car (let alone no-car) family. Nevertheless, as we ate our ribs with knife and fork (French dining habits die hard), I still fantasized about walking all over Walnut Creek to complete my weekly errands. I do not kid myself that Bart can ever replace Paris' Metro in my fantasy.

My daydreaming was interrupted when Soren and I noticed something- a boob job. She walked by, tanned, bleached blonde, and porn-star perky when suddenly, the plasticity of it all brought forth giggles from us both. Her unnatural aesthetic was a shock to my system simply because my eyes had not seen (obvious) cosmetic surgery on any French woman for an entire year. Heck, I can't go a whole day in my community without seeing an obvious mommy makeover or a female face frozen from one too many injectables.

Shocking still was the fact that at this moment a waitress approached our table to ask if everything was to our liking (what, the boob job or the BBQ ribs?) She also commented on the weather and asked if we needed a doggie-bag, a term we had forgotten even exists. We really appreciated this attentiveness at a restaurant; we had grown accustomed to going without so much as a water refill when dining out in France. Better yet, lunch cost us only $15. For the same price in Paris, only one of us could have enjoyed the BBQ.

After gorging on our ribs we began making our way to our parked car- which we purposefully parked far away from our intended restaurant so as to maximize our pedestrianism in my attempt to infuse walking into my suburban life as much as possible- when a driver in an approaching car actually slowed down and stopped to allow us to cross, even without the presence of a crosswalk! He had no clue as to why our thank-you for his kindness was so effusive. During the remainder of our long walk to our car, we began noting the barrage of culture shocks we had just encountered in this brief period of time. Little did I know that more were to come.

We finally found a car to buy and as we were completing the financial piece of the transaction, my bladder let me know that it could no longer hold the water and wine that I had consumed with my ribs  (wine with lunch; another Frenchie habit that I intend to keep) and it was so nice to have access to a readily available restroom in a retail establishment. I didn't even have to buy a cup of coffee to gain access- only a car!

As if all of these weren't enough to shock my system, I realized that after spending the day driving approximately 120 miles round trip from the East to the South Bay and back, we didn't pay a single toll. Had we driven this same distance in France, we would have been at least $25 poorer. Although the condition of our American roads reflect this difference in tollbooth norms, it felt nice to be able to exclaim, "Everything is so cheap in America!" This feeling has since worn off, darn it.

Not wanting to let go of our lunching out habit just yet, Soren and I ventured to downtown Walnut Creek one afternoon and parked in a metered space (begrudgingly, we drove, but only because Soren wanted to break in his new car). Approaching the meter, we discovered that Soren had no change on him and my wallet was still filled with mostly euro coins. After digging around in my wallet, I managed to scrounge enough American change to feed the meter which provided us with 48 minutes for parking. Soren and I turned to each other and remarked, "That's not enough time for a Parisian lunch, but it's plenty for an American one!" During our half-mile drive back home (my Parisian mind now realizes this is such a walkable distance!) I realized that we had failed to recalibrate ourselves to the requirements of American dining because we neglected to remember that, on this side of the Atlantic, leaving a tip is standard practice. Oops.

On one of my first days back home, while I was grocery shopping in order to re-stock our cupboards and fridge with food, I ran into a woman I know who was shopping with her husband who, she explained, had just returned from living in Mongolia for two years. When he learned that I had just returned from living in Paris he stated, "You were still living in the Western world, I was in Mongolia, now that's culture shock." While I admit that varying degrees of culture shock occur depending on one's geographical location (my two weeks spent traveling in India allow me to know this for a fact), little did her husband know that, for me, shopping at Trader Joe's where I could read every single word on the labels, ask a store clerk for something without having to first silently translate my request in my head- let alone dig for the courage to do so-, buy bottled salad dressing, tortilla chips, frozen waffles, organic peanut butter, choose from a selection of salsas that made my head spin, and stand at the checkout while somebody else bags my groceries, is, what I would call culture shock.

Last week I was lunching at a downtown eatery when I heard the voice of my longtime friend call out to me from another table. As I turned to greet her with a big hug (alas, not a double cheek kiss) I realized that she was wearing workout clothes and sitting at a large table with a group of similarly clad women in exercise pants, tennis shoes, baseball caps, and racer-back jogging tops. This very Californian scenario struck me in an amusing way because I never saw anyone dine in a Parisian restaurant in workout clothes nor did I ever see large groups of Parisian women enjoying a meal together.

It occurred to me then that since moving back home, I have yet to venture out into my community without a shower and "a look" (as Tim Gunn from 'Project Runway' would say). I quickly learned that the Parisian norm is to be presentable at all times, even for something as mundane as taking out the garbage. Shortly after arriving in Paris I sent my velour Juicy sweatsuit home with Soren when he departed for one of his business trips and I instructed him to return with more slacks, skirts, and dresses; my fancy overpriced suburban sweats were less than chic outside the U.S. border.  I instinctively retrained my brain for what passed as acceptable Parisienne errand-running and lunching attire.

It seems counterintuitive, actually, when I break it down. I had built-in anonymity in Paris where it was virtually impossible for me to be 'caught' looking less than pulled together by anyone that I know. Why should I care what strangers think of me anyway (here or in Paris)? After all, I was forced to grow a thick skin and learn how to ignore the cool stares of Parisian Metro passengers as I commuted with my girls to their school in my workout clothes. But I never dared run errands, enter a restaurant, or take out the garbage without first showering and donning acceptable duds. I guess it was my 'When in Rome' mentality, but something about the mindset has stuck with me upon returning home to my casual California community. I admit, my neighbors have since seen me taking out the garbage in my sweats (even my grubby, non-Juicy ones), but I continue to wear my best duds for the security guard at Target.

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