Greetings from the US of A! Hard to believe it, but my 7 week visit home is more than halfway through. Time has flown. Everyone wants to know: how does it feel to be back? I think the best way to describe it is that it feels exactly the same as it did before. Like I hibernated and dreamed I lived in Spain for a year and then woke up back in the same life I left a year ago. That’s not a bad thing; I just mean to say that it really hasn’t been the shocking experience that some people seem to think it might be. My first few days back I was a little weirded out by being surrounded by English everywhere, and sometimes I still have reflexive “Spanish” moments, like saying “perdona” instead of “excuse me” when I bump into someone. Also, I’ve had a hard time with the American meal schedule (lunch at noon, dinner at 6:00.) I much prefer the late lunch (2:30ish) and much later dinner (10:00pm) that is the norm in Spain. I’ve done everything I can to push back my parents’ dinner time bit by bit as the weeks have gone on. The record so far is 7:00pm… :-\ But apart from these minor adjustments, it is business as usual here in ‘Merica.
That said, I’ve been pondering some US-Spain differences that I had never really thought of or realized were so significant before. This is my second time returning to the US after spending an extended period of time in Spain (the first being in 2010 when I studied abroad in Bilbao for 5 months) and I’ve noticed things this time that I didn’t before. Maybe because I was there twice as long, or maybe because I was more integrated into the culture in a lot of ways. I’m not sure. But here you have it, some ways the US differs from Spain:
Things that are completely out-of-control excessive in the US:
- Air conditioning. Turn it OFF, I am freezing! Very few homes, businesses, or buildings of any kind in Spain have A/C. And as you probably know, Spain isn’t a particularly chilly place. I spent the entire month of July living as an au pair in a big, beautiful and very modern home…with no A/C! On the days that the temps soared into the 90s, they just lowered the persianas (Persian blinds: very thick, interlocking blinds that block the outside heat, cold, light and noise) and the house stayed relatively cool. It may have been a few degrees warmer than “room temperature” inside, but it was hardly noticeable, and BONUS: you didn’t enter the preliminary stages of hypothermia from the 30+ degree temp drop upon entering the house after being outside. It seems that the approach in the US is the hotter it gets, the colder we make the insides of the buildings. The result? I have to wear a sweater out to dinner, even when it’s 95 degrees outside. Dumb. It’s no secret that European countries are much more energy-efficient than we are. I think that Persian blinds could single-handedly turn our energy crisis around. When I am a home-owner one day, they will be on every window.
- Product variety. I recently read an article that said that the number of products carried by the average US supermarket has more than tripled since 1980. In Spanish supermarkets, you usually only have a couple choices for basically identical products (other than the mysterious “digestive cookies” and yogurt, both of which often seem to have their own aisle…) At the Walmart in my home town, there are THIRTEEN varieties of Cheez-Its. How do you choose? I think the excessive product variety can be considered good in some ways but really bad in others. The main problem is that a vast majority of these products are complete junk and often very misleadingly marketed, contributing to the increasing obesity epidemic in the US. On that note:
- Portion sizes. This is a tired statement, I know. But I don’t think it has struck me as much as it has in the last month. Have they gotten bigger? I’m usually completely satisfied, if not totally stuffed, after eating less than half of a portion in a restaurant here. Luckily “to-go” boxes are a much more widely accepted thing here than they are in Spain 😉
Things that are fabulous in the US:
- Genuine friendliness. In Spain, strangers never* smile at each other as they pass. It doesn’t mean Spaniards are mean, bad people, it’s just a cultural thing. You make eye contact, you look away. If you smile, the stranger will be puzzled, thinking you recognize them. I’ve gotten really used to that, but I’ve really enjoyed the smiles and small talk I’ve gotten from genuinely nice, well-meaning strangers over this past month.
*I’ve found there are two exceptions to this rule: it is totally normal, expected even, to smile and/or greet strangers when hiking in Spain, or when you are entering or leaving your apartment building and encounter other tenants of your building.
- Things are open all the time. You can run errands aaaaall day long if you want, even on Sundays! Or for some things, in the middle of the night! Gosh, it’s so convenient! The Spanish practice of businesses being closed from 2p-5p (“siesta”) and all day on Sundays, while being a precious part of their culture and a reflection on their value of spending time with family and friends, is a common source of frustration for most expats.
- Wide open spaces. This is pretty Midwest specific I guess, but I’ve enjoyed the spaciousness that is my parents’ house, the streets I run on, the open roads I drive on. There’s a lot less chaos. Open space = peacefulness. I love the bustle of city life, but the break has been soothing.
Have any of you made observations of differences like these upon returning to the US after life as an expat? I’d love to hear if you share some of these or have made different ones.
As always, thanks for reading! 😀