We’ve been home three weeks and I am still faced with culture shock every day. What did I experience that accounts for the feeling of disorientation I have here? Here are a few things that I think result in the feeling of being a stanger in a strange land here in our own home.
1. Cooperation versus competition. In Ireland, Great Britain, and France we experienced cultures based largely on cooperation. Despite the spread of capitalism and its competitive nature, Europe’s old world culture survives among the people. Streets are narrow, stores are small and crowded, sidewalks are often non-existent, lines are long, and money is scarce for most Europeans, but they continue to cooperate to allow traffic to flow smoothly, get everyone served in the stores, let pedestrians walk in the street when necessary, and wait patiently in lines. Despite low wages and a general lack of funds, they find inventive and inexpensive ways to have fun. Such a way of living requires cooperation. Cooperation arises from a sense of community. We rented houses or apartments and “moved in” to the community. What we discovered were vibrant communities of people who entertained, cared for, and supported each other on a daily basis. In Ireland one of our friends found out we liked spuds and the next day we had 15 pounds of freshly dug potatoes on our door step when we got home. In France we were readily invited to join in community activities. Personal human interaction was the most common entertainment. The sense of community also extends into how people behave toward one another. The older person is almost always offered the seat. People greet each other with eye contact, a smile, and kind words even if it’s a casual encounter or a customer and shopkeeper. U.S. style individuality makes most of these behaviors quite rare. Everyone is intent on their own business. People generally don’t take the time to consider what others are doing or what would be best for the community. When was the last time you were backing out of a parking stall and someone waited for you to go before driving by to pull into a neighboring stall? How often are you offered a seat by a younger person? Roundabouts work on European roads because people cooperate. These are small signs of a sense of community. People recognizing and caring for others.
2. Natural sounds or silence versus constance noise. We got used to no TV, no radio, no iPod, etc. Except in Paris and London most often we heard birds chirping, neighbors conversing, streams babbling, roosters crowing, and church bells chiming. Even in the cities the background sounds of traffic, church bells, and children playing didn’t seem shrill. We saw few poeple with iPods plugged into their ears. Televisions were seldom on in homes we visited. In pubs and cafes TV was used for groups of people to gather to watch sports or other events of common interest. People talk softly in Europe, even in the cities. The Europeans we heard were rugby and soccer fans in Paris and London celebrating a good match. Everywhere I go here at home it seems very loud. People speak much louder than necessary to be heard by their audience. Our TV digital converter no longer works and at least for the present we have decided not to replace it. Life without television – try it! I recharged my unused iPod and turned it on once. The music that once seemed pleasant felt intrusive. Perhaps its best use is to drown out the loudness all around us. Is that why we have resorted to being “plugged in?”
3. Food. The French value fresh food. Markets (meaning outdoor vendors) abound for a good reason. The French demand it. Yes, Europe is smaller than North America so food can be shipped faster to local fresh markets. However, frozen food stores and prepared items have established themselves in grocery stores. The cultural conflict over fresh food is just beginning in Europe. It seems to have been lost in the U.S. Even the “fresh” food at the local co-op or Whole Foods (they are in London now) are usually days or weeks old, having been shipped thousands of miles. Fresh has a completely different meaning to us than it does the French. We could taste the difference.
So I am suffering from severe culture shock. Driving no longer terrifies me as it did the first few days, but I cannot get comfortable on roads filled with individuals intent only on their own need to get somewhere as fast as possible. Crowds in stores make me edgy because everyone seems to be pushy and determined to get ahead of everyone else. Our home is a relatively quiet oasis. I need to develop some armor for those times I must venture out into the loud land of competition and individuality.
I also need more personal human interaction – visits with friends or coffee in a quiet cafe where you are not pushed to “turn over the table” for the next customer. (Yes there are a few of those places in Seattle.) Let me know when you’re available for a cuppa at the local cafe or to get together for lunch or dinner. If you live too far from Seattle for getting together, drop me an e-mail or connect on Facebook. I would love to see and hear you.