Delayed re-entry shock

August 30, 2009 at 1:38 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In some ways, it feels like I was gone a long time.

I’ve been back a bit less than two weeks, and I’m still taken by surprise when I pass someone on the street and can overhear and understand their conversation.  When I’m going to need to ask a question–of a bus driver or a bank employee or the guy fixing the air-conditioner at work–I still rehearse in my head how to ask it in French, and mentally shuffle through the vocabulary I might need to negotiate the situation.  I still experience a moment of unexpected sweet relief when I walk into an air-conditioned building or room or T car.

But at no point have I felt so distant from my life in Paris than during a series of errands today.

I had deposited some money in my French bank account, and had to write myself a check in order to put the money into my American account.  The guy at HSBC in Paris had warned me that the check could only be written and deposited in France, and that he doubted I would be able to deposit it, but–with a shrug–“vous pouvez essayer” (you can try).  After spending a good 20 minutes at home trying to figure out the correct way to fill out a French check, I walked over to Bank of America, steeling myself for an argument or a request for some obscure piece of paperwork that I had left at home or that I had only copied in duplicate instead of quadruplicate, or the need to ask permission from a bank manager who was on a vacation or not at work since it was Saturday, or a simple “n’est pas possible” (it can’t be done).  Instead, the teller greeted me with a smile, took the check, told me to swipe my ATM card to complete the transaction, and, with a joke about the exchange rate finally working in someone’s favor, she told me that the funds would be in my account by Tuesday.  Done.   No paperwork, no questions, no request for ID, nothing. I walked out of the bank in shock.  I’m not sure whether it’s a difference in attitude, or the lack of a language barrier, or a less bureaucratic system in general, but I was feeling kinda happy–or at least at peace–with being back in the US.

Then I got to Stop & Shop, my local supermarket.  I had gone the day after I got back from Paris, but was in and out in five minutes, so hadn’t yet done a full comparative study of the intercultural differences.  And it was a sad comparison. The produce racks, instead of overflowing with seasonal produce–supermarket produce in France is not perfectly delicious and I usually avoided it, but it’s really not bad–there was a rack of rock-hard peaches with a caption proclaiming, “A taste of summer during the winter.”  Winter?  I am a fruit freak in general, but none of the fruits were remotely appealing to me.  The tomatoes were pale and cottony-looking.  Gross.  I didn’t even want to touch the plums to test their ripeness, envisioning the dry mealiness within.

The things that kept striking me were the distances that the foods had traveled (literally and figuratively) from their natural state.  I saw at least five products in five different sections calling themselves “creations” (deli creations, coffee creations, cheesy creations…).  Names of products like “snacksters” and “dillyz” that gave no clue as to the type of food contained within.  Aisles and aisles of soda (and no wine or even beer!).  I had been thinking about making caldo gallego, a kale-potato-and-chorizo soup that I ate a lot in Spain, but quickly found that the cured meats “section” of the supermarket consisted of sliced pepperoni alongside the “deli creations”–curiously enough, resting just outside the kosher section.  No saucisson secjamon bayonne, or rosette in sight.  Needless to say, this was all quite depressing–and don’t even get me started on the cheese section.  The other thing that struck me was the difference in quantity.  In most French supermarkets, the largest basket is about half the size of a laundry basket, with a retractable handle, and you drag it along behind you like you’re walking a dog.  As everyone played bumper-cars in the crowded produce section at Stop and Shop with the gigantic carts, filled to overflowing because everyone had a car in which to put their groceries after they bought them, I felt very aware of the cultural differences surrounding the practices of food procurement.

But then I got to the self-checkout (a concept which is unheard of in France), and the guy behind me in line happened to be a stocker for the produce section who had just finished a shift.  Each time I picked up something in my cart to put on the produce scale–ginger, cilantro, limes, garlic–he knew the product number and called it out to me to punch in, so I didn’t have to flip through the on-screen menus.  It was so unexpected and unnecessary–yes, he wanted me to finish so that he could pay for his soda and leave, but he was smiling and didn’t seem put out at all–and it had been awhile since I had experienced customer service like that. At the second store in a row!

And THEN I got to Trader Joe’s.  When I was checking out, I realized that I had forgotten to grind my coffee, and the guy at the register was like “Oh! Don’t worry! If you wait here, I can just go grind it for you!”  I didn’t take him up on the offer, but I couldn’t believe my ears.

So while in some ways it’s sad to be back–I have barely eaten bread or cheese since I’ve left Paris because it’s just too depressing–in other ways, it’s nice to know that there are things I genuinely enjoy coming home to.  Like the ability to pick up the phone and call family and friends whenever I want, or understanding what’s going on around me, or peanut butter, or a wonderful community here in Boston.

Also helping my transition is the CSA–community-supported agriculture–that I joined with my friend Robin.  Every week we pick up about 10 pounds of vegetables that are grown just miles from the pick-up spot–zucchini, eggplant, tomatillos, kale, edamame, carrots, basil, parsley.  This delicious, local, seasonal, peak-ripeness produce goes a long way towards easing my withdrawal from the gorgeous peppery little radishes and perfect haricots verts that I so quickly grew to take for granted in Paris.

I know now that I’ll be back in Paris in less than a year, so rather than pining for what I had to leave behind there, I’m just savoring the tastes of chocolat au fleur de sel, salted butter, and lentilles de Puy that I smuggled back, the nip in the air that signals an upcoming New England autumn, the convenience of being in the same time zone as most of my family and friends, the endearing sound of a Boston accent.  I’ll be back in Paris soon enough.

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