fruteria

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One of the things I miss about Europe is the small shops, the fruterias and the bakeries. The photo above is a fruteria somewhere in Italy, but when I lived in Spain, I would often step inside one to buy a couple of nectarines to eat as a snack while I walked around the city.  Going to the fruteria inserts you firmly into the community, disallowing you from taking refuge in the anonymity of the supermarket chains. The owners or shopkeepers are less likely to speak English, which forces you to practice your language skills. There aren’t any automated check-out lanes, and so you must interact with others in the store. Not only that, but the fruit and veg seem more colourful and fresh when bought from one of these shops than from one of the larger, chain supermarkets.

And the bakeries! How I miss popping into one to buy a baguette to eat with cheese and fruit for lunch, or soft wheaten roll to eat with my soup, or the miniature chocolate croissants to treat myself after work. You can be guaranteed that the bread and pastries are baked fresh, from scratch. You needn’t worry about what preservatives or other strange chemicals you might be putting in your body than you would if you got pre-made pastries at the supermarket.

The U.S. might have more amenities and convenience with its 24-hr supermarkets, with large selections and variety of prices, but I prefer the microcosm, the local community, that the European fruterias and bakeries offer. These small shops grant access to a community that values not convenience, but good food, good people, and a good life.

Photo: A fruteria in Italy.

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Re-entry shock (9 months later)

Some would say, “Chera, you’ve been back in the U.S. for nine months now. Get over yourself and this reverse-culture shock thing.” Or at least, I think some people might say that.

Reverse culture shock, or re-entry, is simply a common reaction to returning home from [being] abroad. It is an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to your initial adjustment to living abroad. Symptoms can range from feeling like no one understands you or how you’ve changed to feeling panicked that you will lose part of your identity if you don’t have an outlet to pursue new interests that were sparked abroad.

(definition provided by Marquette University.)

I left the UK at the end of February of this year. I travelled a little bit, then returned to the U.S. in March. Between May and July I travelled again, visiting five countries in a two-month period (six if you include the U.S.). I wasn’t in “one place” until September, when I finally was able to move into my flat in North Texas, where I have lived for the last three or so months.

I still get really confused in a supermarket. I still have to call one of my best friends and ask, “Where would I find ___?” and have her answer be a section where I wouldn’t have even thought to look. Sometimes I just leave the supermarket without getting some of the items on my list because I was overwhelmed by choice. I still automatically veer to the left side of the road when I first get on my bike. (Thank heaven I never drove a car in the UK.) In the kitchen, I still automatically reach for the right-hand tap for hot water, because the house I lived in for three and a half years in the UK had the taps switched around.

And other problems add to the confusion, the frustration. Long-time readers of this blog will remember my Recipe Tuesdays; I used to be a good cook, but now I burn, over- or under-spice, over- or under-cook, drop on the floor, spill over the stove, you name it, pretty much anything I try to cook that is beyond boiling an egg or making porridge in the microwave (and I still don’t get the egg right two-thirds of the time). I’m clumsy. I forget what I was doing. I’m not used to an electric stove. I can’t handle a recipe that has more than two or three steps to it — and those have to be simple steps.

When typing, I find myself making strange typos. Not misspellings of words or simply hitting the wrong keys, but different words altogether. Typing “was” when I meant to type “what”, or “prophetic” for “option”. I have to proofread what I write more carefully than I have had to do before. It feels, a bit, like my brain is short-circuiting. Things I used to be good at, that I could do with ease, now spin sideways when I touch them. I have to take more care with what I do; everything takes more time than usual.

A lot of this confusion and disorientation, I was relieved to find, is still reverse culture shock. I have the other symptoms: I miss the UK desperately, especially Scotland. I hate that my main form of transportation here is driving; that I live in a town of concrete and hanging wires, in a land that is so flat and featureless that I partly feel agoraphobic when driving on the state highway. I hate that I haven’t found a park or somewhere that has trees and dirt and wildlife. I hate the consumerism, the materialistic mindset, the polarized politics, and the sense of entitlement the society I am in seems to have. I hate that my accent is changing. I could go on.

It makes sense that the longer you were out of the country, the longer it will take to readjust to being in your “home” country (especially if it hadn’t been “home” in a long while). Coming back from my seven-month study abroad in 2006 was hard enough, made more difficult with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis; it took me, what, almost a year to adjust to being back? Two years? Now I have come back from five-and-a-half years of having lived overseas. I came back reluctantly, not in the best of emotional circumstances, and entered a situation of uncertain employment and financial instability. I have a job now, yes, but despite having the equivalent to a full-time teaching load, I’m not being paid enough to live on. I’m applying for, and being rejected from, job after job after job and I have no idea where I am going to be living come July 2015. Sorry folks, my reverse culture shock is going to last longer than nine months. According to some accounts, it might even last years. After all, it wasn’t until my third year in St Andrews that I really started to feel at home there.

So yes, I am frustrated with life. Yes, I am probably irritable and withdrawn. Yes, I am tired and exhausted, confused and disorientated, clumsy and absentminded. To those, if any, who would expect me to be “over it” by now: I’m not. Be patient with me, as I try to be patient with myself, too.

Additional reading about reverse counter shock, or re-entry shock:

Bonfire Night

Autumn, Part 2: Bonfire Night, or, Guy Fawkes

Friends and long-time readers of this blog will know that Halloween is one of my favourite holidays. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to celebrate Halloween this past IMG_1329October because I had choir rehearsal from 7-9 PM — right when I would have hosted a Halloween gathering. To make up for it, and in homesickness for the UK, I decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes the following week instead.

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes was a seventeenth-century terrorist who was part of a plot to assassinate King James I. He is best known for his failure to blow up Parliament on the 5th of November, 1605. Naturally, they named a holiday after him. Why not? His effigy is traditionally burned on a bonfire on November 5th — but really, it’s kind of an excuse to have a giant bonfire, lots of food, and fireworks, on what would be a rather wintry night in Britain.

November 5th was on a Wednesday this year, so I had my small gathering on November 7th. We made a fire and roasted marshmallows. I attempted to make toffee for dipping apples in (keyword: attempted). And while we didn’t have full-scale fireworks, we did have sparklers.

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I think this might become an annual tradition.

Tune in tomorrow for Autumn, Part 3.

Leaving

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I am leaving St Andrews today, and the UK tomorrow. I don’t know when I will be back. My time here was, of course, too short – but it is better to leave a place wishing you had stayed longer rather than feeling that you stayed too long. Someday, St Andrews, I will be back. Even though I have lived here for nearly six years, I know that I have yet to discover in this Kingdom of Fife. There are hills I’ve yet to walk, paths I’ve yet to cycle, castles I have yet to visit, cafés I have yet to sample, people I have yet to catch up with, moods of the North Sea I have yet to learn. I am going to miss this auld toun by the sea.

True voyage is return. I will come back someday.

Until then, farewell.

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?