Returning to America after four years in Europe

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

American as a Second Language

For the last two years, I lived with a native speaker of the Queen's English. Now that I'm back home in the U.S., I'm baffling friends with words like spanner and skip.

It's not that I'm trying to be cute or even Euro by saying shag instead of... well, you know. Or trash instead of bin. Or car park instead of parking lot. Or bank holiday instead of national holiday. Or petrol instead of gas.

I use these words because I've grown accustomed to what Americans would describe as British English and Britons refer to - naturally - as English. The Real English. After all, this is the language all continental Europeans are taught in school. Dutch friends have told me they are marked down by teachers when they speak "American English."

So in order for me to communicate with virtually all Europeans in English (as an American, it is genetically impossible for me to gain fluency in a real second language), I had to speak English. I also wrote for many English publications so I had to learn to reverse E's and R's (i.e. centre instead of center) and replace Z's with S's (realise instead of realize).

So far, my less than fluent American has caused some uncomfortable moments - like the other day when I just could not remember the American word for spanner. It's wrench, for those of you who are wondering. And I confused the hell out of my friends at dinner the other night when I kept banging on (talking a lot) about a skip (dumpster).

But it could get worse. Next week, I start an editing job where I will be unleashed with a red pen.

Thankfully, raced-based discrimination is illegal in this country.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Fighting the war against…

I’m up and down a lot these days. One minute I’ll be loving life in Southern California and the next I find myself wondering whether I made the right decision to come back. The moments of doubt are fewer than the periods of joy. But I still have this sense that it will take some time to get re-adjusted.

My dreams are telling me. I left Holland three weeks ago but I am still having anxiety dreams about making sure that everything is moved out of my old apartment. A psychiatrist friend once told me that there are many ways to interpret dreams but the one that matters most is your own interpretation. My self diagnosis, then, is that the empty apartment, or lack thereof, is a symbol of how close or far I am to closing that chapter of my life. There are still pieces sitting around that need to be brought along, stored or tossed completely.

New items appear all the time, like opening a closet only to discover an old drum set that had slipped my mind. It may be obvious to most but I’m realizing I’m only able to open one closet at a time and consider each piece individually. Some of what I am finding is pleasantly surprising while other things are so painful I want to pretend I didn’t notice them sitting there.

I had a great conversation with my wise and insightful friend Jason yesterday. He told me about a quote he recently heard from the era of the American Revolution. It goes something like this: We can’t control whether we win the war but we can control whether we deserve to.

Perhaps we all have wars we are fighting, maybe even several. I am waging a battle for myself and suddenly I find myself facing the question: Do I deserve to win?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Stories you know

Garrison Keillor, one of my favorite writers, was at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend. At the end of his show, he talked about returning to the storied Lake Wobegon, a place filled with “people who know the stories you know.”

The words struck deep and my eyes welled with tears. In a few eloquent words, Keillor summarized why I have come home.

Two nights earlier, I attended the 30th birthday party dinner for my friend Steve. (It was my second 30th birthday party in a week.) Steve is a friend from USC and most of the people at the dinner were also friends from school, good friends I’ve known since freshman year and who have lasted through many jobs, relationships, apartments and personal evolutions.

Despite all the many changes in each of our lives, there is a great fondness between us. And it was alive that night. We laughed about the parties we used to throw – and the drinks we used to invent. We remembered crazy neighbors and silly trips. And, as the evening progressed, we talked the way we used to – about the things we wanted to do and the ideas we have.

As we were leaving, my friend Jon said, “That’s exactly the kind of night I needed. Just shooting the shit."

Just being with the people who know the stories you know.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Sat on my ass

In America, you don’t have to move your ass. Seriously. So many aspects of life are remarkably easy here.

Buy groceries and someone puts them in bags for you – they even ask if you want paper or plastic bags. And the bags are free!

Valet parking at many restaurants is not only an option, it’s sometimes required. You want to park your car yourself and walk the 30, instead of 5, steps inside? Sorry, you have to valet.

At movie theatres, you don’t even have to queue to buy snacks anymore. You put your order into an ATM-looking machine and get a number. When order is ready, they call your number and you pick it up then.

While recently buying a new pair of shoes at Nordstroms, I tried on about 10 pairs before I made my selection. It was astonishing to me that they continued to smile and bring more shoes as I rejected pair after pair. Sitting in a comfy chair after trying all those pairs of shoes, the sales assistant offered to ring it all up for me and bring the bill to me in the chair.

What a country – you don’t even have to stand up to buy a pair of shoes!

Immediately after, Dad and I went for dinner at the always-packed Cheesecake Factory. It is a new addition to the popular Grove shopping center and occupies two floors. To save diners from having to actually climb the stairs to the dining area, they installed an escalator.

But we’re already paying the price for our laziness. America is the fattest nation on earth and we’re getting fatter. There was a recent report that restaurant chains like Chili’s are buying larger tables and chairs to accommodate their larger customers.

This is part of the problem – we Americans are so comforted and coddled, we are becoming wimpy. I don’t exclude myself from this. I could stand to lose a few pounds and, hey, I didn’t even take the 10 steps to the cash register at Nordstroms.