Feb-March 2014

Books read in February and March:

  1. The Dead and the Gone. Susan Pfeffer.
  2. The Encyclopedia of the Dog. Bruce Fogle.
  3. A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. Marie Brennan.
  4. Critters of Texas: Pocket Guide. Anne E. McCarthy.

I feel like this list is incomplete. Maybe because I still have two chapters left out of Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer, maybe because I’m half way through Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Maybe the list is shorter than expected because I had my PhD defense in mid-February, I moved from one continent to another in early March, and have been settling in since then. Maybe because I watched all five seasons of Fringe while knitting a throw blanket. Maybe because of a lot of different things.

But I have a library card for the public library here in San Antonio and I have a number of books checked out already. With a bit of patience and persistence, maybe my appetite for reading will grow again.

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On supermarkets

Here is a snapshot of reverse culture shock, a postcard if you will:

The setting is an H-E-B, the largest chain of supermarkets/grocery stores in Texas. This particular store is fairly large, even to Texan standards. The time is late afternoon.Enter: me. This is the first time since moving back to Texas that I’ve gone to H-E-B, and I’m doing it alone.

The last five years I have bought my groceries from Tesco Metro or Morrisons in a small town in Scotland. How small was our small town? Let’s just say that the surrounding villages didn’t even have grocery stores; they had to come “into town” to go to ours. I’m fairly certain the H-E-B I went to could have fit at least two Morrisons inside it, if not half a dozen Tesco Metros. I’m used to, oh, three or four fruits to choose from, five or so vegetables, and only one or two brands of everything else, with “everything else” being quite a limited selection.

Armed with my list, I went up and down the aisles and around and around the produce section and was successful at getting everything I needed. I asked for directions twice. I did have to compromise on some items. No Edam cheese, so I got Jarlsberg. No frozen raspberries, so I got frozen strawberries and peaches instead. There was only one size of baguette, so that’s the kind I got. When going to get a tins of kidney beans, I was faced with at least a dozen different brands to choose from, so I all but grabbed the first one that looked the cheapest and fled. Things like that.

One thing I got that wasn’t on my list was a bottle of cider. The whole experience in the store was overwhelming… and when I went to the alcohol section to get a bottle of gin to make a much-deserved G&T when I got home, there was none to be found. Apparently grocery stores in the U.S. are licensed to sell mostly only beer and wine? I never noticed before, having spent most of my drinking-age years abroad. I found the one brand of cider they sold, singly in bottles, and added one to my cart.

I drank that bottle of cider almost immediately after getting home. That wasn’t enough to recover from the H-E-B experience though, so later on I took a long hot soak with a cup of herbal tea, some chocolate, and a book.

It might seem silly or strange to anyone who has never spent a long time living and adapting to another culture. A supermarket is a supermarket, right? For the most part, yes — a supermarket will sell food in almost any country that has one — but what you find inside, what kinds of food, how the store is organised, the size and level of choice, that will vary from country to country, even from region to region within the same country. Even though this is my hometown and the H-E-B is one I’ve been to countless times before, I am still encountering a “new” culture. I have been away for half a decade; I have adapted and changed to a different culture which, right now, is more familiar to me than the one I grew up in. My tastes have changed dramatically from when I last lived in the U.S., so now I am left going up and down the aisles, looking for anything familiar, for food that I know that I like and will eat, and again, learning to adapt to what my new culture has to offer — this time in reverse.

Egg cups for expats

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I arrived back in Texas exactly a week ago. I would have posted earlier, but I got a (mild) concussion my first full day back in the U.S. and since then my friend and fellow reverse-expat Lola has been visiting. It’s been good to have her here while I adjust to being back in the U.S. Over the last week I have found myself missing the following:

  • E45 lotion (it’s very dry here in a semi-desert);
  • sparkling water;
  • £1 coins (or at least wishing $1 coins were more widely used);
  • egg cups.

Both my British and German/Austrian housemates got me into the habit of eating soft-boiled eggs. Not many Americans do this, at least, the only Americans I’ve met who have eaten soft-boiled eggs have had some European connection. Naturally, my parents’ kitchen does not have any egg cups. That is where improvisation comes in: a narrow jar serves nicely, until I can buy some egg cups of my own.

As for sparkling water, imagine my surprise and delight when at my parents’ favourite steak house the restaurant actually had San Pellegrino! Sparkling water never tasted so good.

We’ve been eating out a lot, so I am definitely getting my fill of Tex-Mex. Though, food here is a lot heavier than I am used to eating. I haven’t yet ventured out on my own to the grocery store to see what I can find — no driving yet, thanks to the concussion — but I hope that the wider options available to me in a big city supermarket will inspire me to get back into cooking.

It is warm here, though, and I am so glad to be able to wear a t-shirt and skirt and ballet flats instead of wearing at least three layers and then my wool winter coat just to go outside. And I saw a hummingbird at the hummingbird feeder — a hummingbird, for the first time in over five years! I wonder what else I will rediscover while I am here.

On accents

After an afternoon exploring part of Vienna, eating apple strudel and sampling schnapps after dinner, Elena, her partner Thor, and I stayed up talking late into the night. Thor, from Iceland, was fascinated by my accent. I ended up explaining that both of my parents moved around a bit, especially my mom; I have lived in four states; the city I grew up in had five active military bases and most of my friends were somehow affiliated with the military, and thus from all over the country. Not to mention the fact that I have lived the last five and a half years in a corner of Scotland, though my housemates and colleagues were mostly English, American, and German.

I have written before about how my accent confuses people. I have had strangers insist that I am Canadian (or if I wasn’t, my parents were), ask if I am Dutch, and comment that I had excellent English for being German (!). Usually people would guess accurately that I was from North America, though they couldn’t pinpoint from where. When learning that I am (mostly) from Texas, the inevitable response is: “Texas?! But you don’t sound like you’re from Texas!” At these moments, I feel frustrated, flabbergasted, flustered: my accent proved that I was not from here even though I had lived in the UK for years and was making it my home.

Inversely, I have had family members and friends claim that I “sound British”. I have had strangers stop me in bookstores in Texas and ask me where I am from. “From here…” I would say, to their surprise, and then explain that I lived overseas. At these times my accent was a source of pride as it so clearly demonstrated that I have travelled, that indicated that I am not quite as from here as I claimed.

But at the same time, it can leave me with a sense of homelessness. I don’t sound like my parents. I don’t sound like my friends. I don’t even hear my own accent — I just sound like myself. Even though I unconsciously mirror some of the pronunciation of whomever I am speaking with, I still don’t sound like them. Probably the only other people I sound like are North American ex-pats in the UK. My accent is a conglomeration of all the places I have been and the people I have talked to; it is, as I commented to Thor, lost somewhere over the Atlantic.

One good thing has come out of this confusion of accents, however. While losing a sense of my own accent, I have also become somewhat deaf to accents in general. As a result, I’m fairly good at understanding English regardless of the speaker’s native tongue. (Well, to be fair, the Fife accent still throws me for a loop from time to time.)

I know that some of my readers are also widely travelled, both within their home countries and without. Have you noticed your own accent changing? What do you make of it?

Time for healing

It’s the time for Lent already. Today is Ash Wednesday, and though I will try to catch a service while I swing through London today, I doubt I will start Lent in the traditional manner.

Apparently yesterday was “International Pancake Day” according to IHOP (International House of Pancakes), and I felt a mixture of emotions as a national chain capitalized on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. The reason many people eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday is because Lent is supposed to be a lean season. Thus, families needed to use up the extra lard and flour and eggs and that sort of thing before Lent began — and the easiest way to do that was to make pancakes. Loads of them. This is the same reasoning behind Mardi Gras — party now, because you won’t be able to party again until after Easter. Lent is a period of fasting, of spiritual discipline and reflection, a penitential season. Part of me is always bemused to find people celebrating Mardi Gras when they don’t recognize Lent. But then, people will take any excuse to party.

And yet, even I will not be observing Lent in the usual way. Those who know me know that it is far too easy for me to engage in self-flagellation, self-abnegation, regardless of the time of year. I have been prescribed rest and compassion for myself. I have had various people insist that I take the next few weeks, if not months, to be gentle with myself, to show myself kindness and grace. For me, this cannot be a time of fasting or self-denial. This needs to be a time of healing, of discovering the things that bring me comfort and embracing them.

So if I do not make it to an Ash Wednesday service, that is fine. I do not need to be reminded that I am dust; rather, I need reminding that out of the dust a seed is sprouting, growing, alive.