Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.
This is the part of the vacation where you start to wish you’d brought different clothes. You say, “I hate this shirt. I have other shirts. Why did I bring this?” Decisions that once seemed straightforward and logical now seem just foolish. This is also the part where you really just want an onion bagel with veggie cream cheese, or a peanut butter and fluff sandwich, or a hot dog—familiar food that doesn’t mock you with inaccuracy and star-spangled wrapping like “Mike Mitchell’s Real American Cakes,” which are chocolate-chip muffins the size of teapots. The veneer is chipping away.
At times like this I play a game I like to call “This Is Why We Left” with American friends. Every frustration we have becomes an explanation for European immigration to America. “The dryer in our building has been broken for two months – this is why we left.” Of course, it’s wildly historically inaccurate, and indeed indicative of the impatient, self-absorbed attitude of which “Ammies” are typically accused, but some days enough is enough.
To be sure, many a hair-shirted American student playing expatriate in Western Europe would disagree with me. Perhaps I’m a philistine, incapable of reaping the cultural and life-affirming benefits of Europe, writ large, and all the cobblestones and shutters on the continent couldn’t keep my heart from skipping a beat at the mere mention of pancakes. Even the Bulgarian woman next to me on my flight had to explain to me, “In Europe, we know how to enjoy life.”
But really, she isn’t wrong. There is a distinctly relaxed way of life over here, and it’s something we’re not used to in the Colonies. It’s not even something we’re necessarily comfortable with. Stores open later and close earlier, and people think nothing of it. They’re not lazy per se, but they are more comfortable taking some time off. I think we in the US underestimate the lasting effect Puritanical Protestantism has had on our ability to relax.
I do think I’m getting the hang of it, though. Standing in the sun is a lesson about the shade, and there’s no sense in denying that each has its advantages. It’s all part of the process of adjusting to life away from your life—at first you really like it, then you don’t like it, then you do both and genuinely enjoy being where you are. And along the way sometimes you really, really just want a bagel.