(I think everything is going to be out of sequence for a while — since I still have things to post from our *last* UK trip back in September, everything is obviously out of order — so, for now, back to Christmas!)
There are some insights you just can’t have about your own culture until you’ve stepped outside of it. Being home for Christmas was wonderful. Spending the holiday with family and getting to see a few friends was incredibly special. I was so happy to be home.
But, it’s also uncomfortable to feel like a stranger in my own country, to feel awkward and out of place in my hometown (especially because I spend all of my time in my new culture feeling awkward and out of place, too). But that’s the reality. I’ve forgotten how to do things in the US. Grocery shopping feels weird. I can’t exist normally in a coffee shop (I glare at the other patrons and feel compelled to greet and say farewell to the employees . . . at least I don’t do it in German) and I didn’t even attempt to drive. I look like I should fit, it seems like I should fit, but I just don’t. It’s ok — it comes with the territory.
This feeling extended to my social interactions — even those with my closest friends. On one occasion, I was making plans with a friend for a playdate. Our plans were coming together at the last minute — late on Saturday evening for early Sunday morning. As we finalized everything, I asked if I could bring anything along the next day, and when she responded, “Something cinnamony”, I panicked a little. I panicked because I was still in an Austrian mentality — and my first instinct was that since it was late on a Saturday and we didn’t have anything “cinnamony” in the house, that I wouldn’t be able to acquire anything. I instantly started thinking of what I could cobble together. I’m so accustomed to the Austrian shopping schedule, where the shops close at 6 on Saturday and don’t open until Monday morning. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to accommodate such a specific request.
After realizing that I was in the US, and that the shops are open all the time, I realized that getting something “cinnamony” (or anything else) would be a simple task. Regardless of how specific the request was, I’d probably have been able to manage it.
But then I started to wonder what I should get. What the right “cinnamony” thing would be. Whether this or that particular confection would be the best choice. And I started to freak out again, because the pressure of getting it right started to mount immediately. And although I *know* that it’s silly — this is one of my best and oldest friends, and I know that her enjoyment of our visit would have absolutely nothing to do with whether I brought the *right* thing to breakfast — I went from 0 to perfectionism in about 1 minute.
Because, since basically all the stores are open, all the time, there comes a kind of obligation. Since the stores ARE open, and since I COULD get just the right thing . . . shouldn’t I? Isn’t that the “right” thing to do? I felt a near-immediate return to so many of my perfectionist tendencies that I’ve worked so hard to let go of.
In Austria, things work differently. Because the availability of commerce is more limited (shops close down by 6 in the evening, and are closed on Sundays . . . some have very limited hours on Saturdays, too) the pressure to purchase the “right” thing is so much less, at least in part because it might not be possible. If I was going to a Sunday morning playdate, and my host requested “something cinnamony”, I’d either have something like that already in my house, or I wouldn’t. And if I did, it would likely be a partial package of cinnamon graham crackers, which I would happily bring along. And that would be completely ok.
But in the US, the opportunity to find just the right thing leads, I think, to an obligation to find just the right thing. Because the stores are open, we can use them, and therefore we should. And I think it creates a higher expectation all around.
The truth is, I’m sure my friend couldn’t have cared less. Just as I couldn’t have cared less whether she would have coffee for us when we arrived. But, just as I instantly snapped into a sense of perfectionism and obligation, I wondered (and worried) that she might, too. Since we were coming over, did they feel obligated to run out to the store (at 9:00 on a Saturday night) to make sure they had the things in the house that we might like to have when we arrived on Sunday morning? I certainly hoped they didn’t. It hadn’t been at all my intention to create any sense of pressure or obligation, but I knew, since I had just experienced it myself, that it might.
The interesting thing to me is that I’m not sure I would ever have had the awareness of the pressure I felt to provide the perfect thing if I had never lived without it. Or, at least, I never would have questioned it. Living in a culture with fewer hours of access to shopping inevitably lowers the bar when it comes to these kinds of expectations — sometimes the “perfect” thing isn’t available, so you have to make do with what’s convenient, and that’s completely acceptable. While in the States, I feel like I existed in a space where the availability of resources created an obligation to use them . . . and I wasn’t even aware of it.
I started thinking about other ways that this pressure exists in the US. Since the gym is always open, don’t we feel like we have no excuse if we don’t work out? Since the mall is open late and on the weekends, don’t we feel an obligation to purchase a perfect gift? Since the activities for the kids run all evening and all weekend, don’t we feel obligated to take advantage of them? I don’t think the availability of shopping creates this pressure on its own . . . the incredibly long store hours may instead be a reflection of the cultural requirement to have the perfect thing and to fit ALL THE STUFF into every 24 hours. I wonder if we haven’t convenienced ourselves into insanity.
What I know is that this pressure does not exist here. The feelings of “good enough” instead of “perfect”, of “making do” instead of “making it right”, are much more comfortable to me. Thinking of things in the “you CAN so you MUST” way makes me go a little crazy. I like that I can see it, because it allows me to opt out. I hope I can hold onto this perspective — it’s something I’d like to carry with me when we come home again.
(As it turns out, we stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for cinnamon donuts to take to my friend’s house . . . and chocolate donuts . . . and coffee . . . all at 8:00 in the morning, which was pretty fantastic.)