It’s Xmas time again, and I am on the second leg of my bi-yearly pilgrimage to the states. I’m in California after a brief visit to my brother’s place in Rhode Island, where he forgot me at the airport and already had three drinks in him when he finally answered his phone, 45 minutes after I landed. It took about 5 hours, but I made it to his place where, after a drug store shopping spree for all my brands of shampoo, makeup, vitamins, energy bars, toothpaste, eye drops and face creams that I can’t get in Spain (and for half the price of similar products), I stayed a few days before heading off to the West coast.
Here in California, it is a typical December-68 degrees under cloudless skies. I never tire of this, nor will I ever tire of the ability to purchase toilet paper, wine and ice cream at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I don’t tire of the customer service here either – there is no getting told off by bank tellers because you have too many questions, no getting yelled at that the supermarket is closed as you walk through 15 minutes before it actually does close, no failures to return from siesta–and of course no siesta in the middle of the afternoon to begin with–no asking for a restaurant check a second and third time before it finally is deposited, no getting hung up on by the telephone company…I could go on. What I don’t miss–ever–are the endless hours spent isolated in the car, the daily driving to the market, bank, friends, dinner, coffee, shopping, beach, even the dog park requires a drive. I’m over it after the first day. I skip events, don’t visit friends in other cities, pass up anything that requires more than a 30 minute drive (and here, that accounts for quite a bit). I find myself constantly thinking that in Spain, I would be riding my bike, walking or taking public transportation to the same type of appointment and would likely run into someone I knew on the way back, come across some interesting event, parade or market, or at the very least see something interesting while riding the city bikes home.
I know it’s not a fair comparison – my home town is a small, agricultural community that cannot be compared to a city like Barcelona. And probably I’m reminded too much of my isolated childhood here, how when I was growing up in this town there wasn’t even a coffee shop where solitary people could gather in public. But there is now, so at 7:30 my first Saturday morning here, I drive my jet lagged body off to Starbucks for some palatable coffee. I don’t even like Starbucks, but it is better than the sickening, flavored swill that passes for coffee at my father’s house.
I’ll sit here awhile, watching one solitary aging white man after another order a small coffee and nothing else, carry it to an empty table to sit for awhile, contemplating the many ways his life could have been different…or, more likely, how many 2x4s he needs to get from Home Depot to finish the garage shelves. I’ll stare at everyone who comes in, and forget to smile when eye contact is made, becoming startled every time someone returns my gaze and then breaks into an automatic “Oops we made eye contact, it’s OK I’m harmless” smile. I’m not accustomed to doing this anymore, and I finally experience the awkwardness I heard Europeans talk about for so many years about strangers smiling at you. I understand now that smiling connotes recognition, and that stranger smiling at you is not really a smile, it actually means something else. But Europeans don’t know this, so they call smiling at strangers disingenuous.
I am between cultures, not fully a part of either my native culture nor the culture I live in overseas. But I do have a community of expats where I live, a community that understands me and the world as I know it, even better than my culture of origin. So when I return to the place I now call home, they will nod while I swoon over the BBQ and Mexican food eaten, the visits to the beach a week before Xmas, and the fistfuls of people I met with their own reality show I’ve never heard of and will never see. I’ll recount friend’s auditions, interviews and/or fund searching for such reality shows. Then I’ll complain about the hours wasted in the car along with the other hours in the car avoided and how mini malls are destroying my state.
Later, I’ll walk my anonymous, reality TV show-less self into a coffee bar, where I’ll stare at strangers and when I am caught, I won’t smile apologetically–and no one will care in the slightest.