the joys of audiobooks

One of the major counter-culture-shocks I experienced upon moving back to Texas from Scotland was the amount of driving I had to do. I had lived without a car for six years in the UK and managed both daily life and international travel without one. I took public transport, cycled, or walked. There was no need for a car.

Not so in Texas.

2017-07-01 - Highway 380

I may live only 2.6 miles away from where I teach, but the public transport that connects where I live and where I work takes 45 minutes for what is a 10 min drive; there are no bicycle lanes and Texas drivers don’t know how to drive around cyclists; nor are there footpaths/sidewalks between there and here; and also, it’s too hot for me to walk or cycle even if there were the appropriate lanes and paths for me to do so. The same problems apply for if I wanted to go to the grocery store, or anywhere else in my city.

Add to that: My best friends live in another city 30 miles away (approximately 45 minutes without traffic), my second job is in a different city also 30 miles away (40 minutes without traffic), and my church is in a third city (20 minutes without traffic). My health specialists are also scattered across the north DFW area and range from 35 min to an hour to get to, without traffic. Have you noticed a theme here? Without traffic. It seems like all of the major arteries in the metroplex have some amount of road construction, meaning that more often than not there is traffic.

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I haven’t mentioned yet that I hate driving. I get bored in the car. I find it stressful. I get tense even when the roads are relatively clear. I hate having to find parking. The first year or so back in the States I avoided driving as much as I could. I tried to use public transport. I tried cycling and walking. I didn’t go to weekly game nights at my friends’ house because I didn’t want to drive that far at rush hour. I didn’t have a church in my city. It was lonely.

That’s when K. handed me her copy of The Hobbit on audiobook. She hates driving, too, and also wanted me to come over more often. She promised that listening to audiobooks would make driving more bearable.

And it does.

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here, now: egg cups for expats

egg cups 2015

When I moved back to the U.S. about a year ago, one of the first instances of culture shock I experienced was the lack of egg cups. While in Europe, I had been introduced to eating soft-boiled eggs and adopted it into my usual breakfast. But in my parents’ house, there was nary an egg cup to be found! I used my ingenuity and used narrow-necked jars, but that was hardly ideal.

Fortunately, my friends rose to the challenge of providing me with egg cups! Pictured above are egg cups I have received from Kelly, Ros, and Lola — from Texas, England, and Poland. Not pictured here is a white egg cup my dad bought for me in New Zealand; it’s at my parents’ house to use when I visit them.

My sister also gave me a couple of perfect egg timers, so now I have a perfectly boiled egg every day for breakfast. Yes, I take my breakfast — however simple — seriously!

Now all I need are more egg spoons…

Photo: Five egg cups.

here, now: a snow day

On weekends I will post a “here, now” post that will feature where I live now. These posts might feature thoughts on repatriating to the U.S. (as this one does), or about teaching, what I’m reading, knitting, or life in general.

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Ever since I moved back to America, I have felt claustrophobic. I am always inside: inside my flat, my office, my classrooms, my car. There is nowhere I can go to see the unbroken horizon, to go where I can’t hear any cars or see any buildings. Even from my eleventh-storey office the horizon comprises buildings and interstate-highways.

In Scotland, I lived in a town by the sea. Sometimes I would walk home “the long way,” which meant along one of the beaches until I reached my street at the other end. The openness of the air, the unending sky, the regular hushing of the waves would calm and quiet my thoughts after a long day. Here, in Texas, I end up standing in the car park texting a friend also recently repatriated from Scotland, “Are there some days you just wish you could walk down the pier or East Sands?

Yes,” she answered. “All the time.”

It snowed this weekend, and I had to get out of the flat. I love snow; I’m used to snow; I needed to be outside in the snow. But not here, in my flat near the university, surrounded by buildings and car parks.

So I braved the icy, slushy roads and drove north, to a nature reserve outside of the city. I had only been there once before. My car was the only one in the lot; I had the entire park to myself. The park had been transformed: snow hid the brown grass, frosted the bare trees. I chose a path at random, across the plain and into the forest.

There, finally, I could stop and drink in the silence. Snow, gently tapping my jacket, the trees. A dove, a jay. The creaking of branches. A noisy quiet, the forest, with no human sound nearby except my own. A flash of red swooped across my path; if I had blinked, I’d have missed it. Another cardinal followed. Back across the plain, I watched a flock of swallows fly overhead, a contrast of black on the white sky. Out there in the cold, warm enough with all my layers, my face wet with melted snow, I felt a little less “out of place.” The cold, the falling snow, being outside, the smell of damp wool from my scarf–this is what is familiar. I was reluctant to return to my car and thus return to the city, with even more cars and streets and buildings. But, I didn’t want to drive back in the dark, and I did have to go back eventually.

My brief sojourn did center me, for a little while. In Scotland, I was out of doors daily and naturally because I did not have a car–I walked or cycled anywhere I had to go. Here, I have to be intentional about finding refuge outside of the city. I have the nature reserve for now and I hope to find other places like it, especially places with water, to fulfill my need for trees and the open air.

Photo: Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.

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:

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.