Friday, October 28, 2011

It Creeps In

The other day while walking in an American mall a guy trying to offer me a free sample of hair gel asked me if I was European.  When I inquired as to why this guy thought I was from the Eurozone, without skipping a beat he said I just had a European look to me and that my clothes and style just reeked of Europe. A scam?  Maybe.  A guy wanting me to buy hair gel?  Most definitely.  Still, what I found ironic about this 20 second exchange is that no European would ever make me for a European.  When in Europe, I reek American and as I have just discovered that the opposite is true now across the pond.    

Apparently I stick out like a sore thumb where ever I go. 

The past week I traveled alone to the US, for a family wedding and then spent a few days with a very close friend.  I think the last time I traveled alone in the US, purely for vacation was when I was single.  While I certainly missed having my family with me, I don't think I would have contemplated some of these things if I wasn't alone.  I bummed around, I shopped, I lunched, I had cocktails without having to worry about relieving a babysitter or cooking, making lunch or dinner.  I tried to sleep in (but alas that is gone, some changes that parenthood brings about just don't come back).  

It was great having a break, having no one to answer to except myself but more often than not I yearned for Maya's familiar pattering around the house, for our family mornings lazing around in bed and for talking with my husband.  It sounds lame but normally one of our favorite places to eat when we are in the US is at PF Chang's and I was rubbing it in before I left that I was going to eat there a bunch of times but in the end, didn't end up going there at all.  It just didn't feel right to go there without Leo, he loves it so much, I just couldn't go there and enjoy that without him.  

When you live abroad you always feel the pull of two homes.  One is the country you were born in, where everything makes sense, seems familiar, where you just fit, where there are no cultural or linguistic barriers, where you get the jokes, the references and just are a part of the rhythm of the place.  The other, your adopted home, where you live your life, where your family and the people that mean the most to you in the world live.  It's full of different languages and references, a different culture, one where you often feel on display, you don't get the jokes, you stick out as the immigrant, the different one, the one that doesn't get it, the one after the small talk at parties is done, you invariably find yourself being truly a stranger in a strange land.  A person that understands at best 80% of the world you inhabit. 

This year marks my 15th year of living abroad.  What can I say, it gets easier and it doesn't get easier.  I have lived in two countries, learned two languages (or at least learned to butcher two other languages).  And I can say that even after 15 years, 20% of my life is in kind of a grey area.  Whether it is sitting in a meeting, translating in my head and making sure that anything I say doesn't sound stupid or just feeling slightly on the outside in many conversations.  It's a strange feeling. 

While I certainly feel at home in the Netherlands and despite my protests my Dutch is good enough to deal with any situation (honorable mention must go to me dealing with Maya's school and therapy in Dutch), I am always pulled across the pond, in everything.  My family always makes a little fun of me since I am always on Facebook.  But it's true, Facebook keeps me connected and from feeling isolated.  It makes living abroad much more bearable, because I can come home and have a familiar dialogue, share a couple of jokes or whatever.  Certainly it is not the same as flesh and blood contact but it does keep that 20% manageable for me.  

It's interesting to me that over the years that those very things about Dutch society that make me want to scream (the lack of service, the mediocrity), when in the presence of their polar opposite in America, I find that some of those things are now irritating to me.  One thing which really bugged the crap out of me this time was the invariable 5 minute interrogation you have to go through before you buy something in the US.  It's absolutely astounding the amount of questions they ask you.  It goes like this:

Sales person:  Did you find everything okay today?
Moi:  Yes, thank you.
Sales person:  Are you going to put this on your 'Name of store' charge card today?
Moi:  No, that's okay.
Sales person:  Do you have a 'Name of store' charge card?  If you apply you can save an extra 15% on your purchase today.
Moi:  No (and if I am feeling chatty I interject that I live in Europe and cannot)
Sales Person:  Can I have a local phone number (or zip code)
Moi:  Again, I live in Europe and don't have a local phone number or zip code
Sales Person:  Can I get your email address?
Moi:  No, if I want emails from you daily then I will sign up via your website

And all this is before they ring up one thing.  And now this happens at each and every store you visit.  It used to be just the department stores but with the exception of Target and CVS every store I visited put me through a similar routine.  I've had job interviews that didn't last this long.  Next time I go to the US I am going to laminate a placard and just hold it out.  

This is something which has changed in me over time.  My first 5-10 years of living abroad always saw trips home as an oasis, a place where everything made sense, where I just understood everything.  I was enchanted, enamored by the larger variety of things, from clothes, shoes, little gadgets, restaurants.  And I do still like all those things.  

I think the thing that gets to me the most is the excess.  I constantly rail over here about the lack of convenience here, that most stores on most days close at 6.00 PM, that there isn't a wide variety of things and if your kid needs a protractor and doesn't tell you this before 9.00 on a weeknight you are totally screwed.  Take out food is woefully 20 years behind over here (still mostly burgers, pizza).  But when I am over there I see things on the menu like "Deep Friend Macaroni and Cheese" and on the one hand wonder why the hell does the world need that?  If this were 15 years ago, I still would never order it but it wouldn't be a what's-wrong-with-American-society-moment either.  

After 15 years of living abroad I have started to realize that I am becoming a hybrid.  A mix of capitalism and socialism, of here and there and that although I spend a fair amount of time clinging to being an American that without even trying, I am a little bit of a Euro too.  


  1. I can spot Europeans a mile away b/c of their clothes. And shoes. Shoes are so different! Frankly, I don't know what I will do if we move to Germany, b/c I am not a fan of the fashion there...ha. It's hard for me to imagine becoming a hybrid. I feel like I am as American as they will be interesting to see when (if) we end up moving across the pond. You are a good wife, though, putting of PF Changs ; )

  2. I can so relate to this post! Although I do feel more Israeli than you probably feel Dutch, so it's easier for me, perhaps. It's been 12.5 years since I moved to Israel, and I feel more Israeli than American at most times. I haven't been back to the States in 5 years, mostly b/c I can't deal with the idea of international travel very well, and especially not with kids.

    I used to want to return to do some "normal" shopping, but now find that ebay gives me most of what I'd want to buy anyway. I'd love to see my friends and family in the States, but not much else impels me to want to even visit these days.

    I'm sure when the kids are older I'll want to go to Disney World with them, but that's about it.

  3. I think you have just done a better job integrating than I have. I think I enjoy clinging to my different-ness. I do think one huge difference is that you and your spouse speak the mother tongue of your country, somehow you and other couples I know both in IL and in Holland, doing that somehow facilitates the integration process.