Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An American in Europe

Before moving to Europe this year, the sum total of my time on this continent was 3 weeks. If that was dipping my toe in the water, this year could only be described as jumping into the deep end of Euro-life. In 2014, I have spent only 40 days in the US.

As my time over here this year winds down and I become increasingly homesick, I’ve thought about all that I will and won’t miss from this side of the pond. I made a list of everything that is quintessentially American—seemingly insignificant facets of the country I grew up in, but that I find myself missing now.

It is likely no surprise that the thing I miss most from the homeland is food. Not just American food, but food in America. Want Thai food at 6pm? Got a sudden hankering for pancakes in the afternoon? Can’t decide if you want Italian, Mexican, Chinese, or juicy steak? In America, you just find a strip-mall with all of the above restaurants at whatever time the mood strikes and go for it.

I have dozens of incredible Italian restaurants just a short walk from my apartment. I could eat myself into a pizza-and-pasta coma (but only after 7pm) any day of the week without visiting the same place twice. It doesn’t matter what I’m in the mood for, I’m having Italian for dinner. Variety is the spice of life, but the spice rack over here has just basil and oregano. Thankfully, mercifully, the supermarket has a few racks of imported foods that give me a taste of home. Of course the prices are premium, but BBQ sauce and Thai sweet chili sauce go a long way when it comes to sanity. Side note: Italian grocery stores have pasta AISLES. Plural.

Speaking of, I will never understand Europe’s widespread avoidance of condiments. It only seems logical that your sandwich of awesome bread, great meat, and tasty cheese would be well-complemented by some spicy chipotle sauce, but maybe that’s just my typical American decadence speaking?

Just because the supermarket has imported foods, though, doesn’t mean they’ll be good. I have left the Mexican rack alone--I can’t even see the expiration dates on the salsa because they’re so dust-covered. Maybe I’ll crack in another week, though.

I celebrated the end of my season with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (they actually have it, and it only costs as much as a pizza!), which is how I learned not to buy American ice cream in Italy. It’s been sitting there so long that it crystallized from so many thaw/freeze cycles of being moved from freezer to freezer while awaiting a particularly homesick bike racer.

Say you’re going out for dinner in Europe. You can sit inside, but it’s a lovely fall evening and the weather is fantastic. Of course you’d like to dine outside, and why shouldn’t you? Oh, right, because your dinner might be ruined by the smoky intermingling of cigarettes and two-stroke scooter exhaust.
I miss America, where cigarette smokers are the rightfully vilified minority (I may be a bit biased on this topic, as their disgusting habit is why I must preempt any judgment on my Dad’s cancer with the oft-repeated “no, he never smoked”), rather than the behind-the-times majority who can’t be bothered to account for the wind’s direction or the sensibilities of other humans. Side note: I hate few things in life as much as somebody having a smoke upwind of me while watching me warm up for a time trial. It happens way too often.

In America, your dinner is accompanied by unlimited free water in a glass that is filled to the brim with ice cubes, even though the AC in the restaurant is cranked to ‘Arctic’. You finish dinner and drive to your hotel in your big SUV that would lose its mirrors driving through any of the small villages around Italy, and lay in your oversized hotel bed while flipping through the myriad TV channels, all of which feature the original audio track rather than the dubbed-over versions that dominate European media. Your phone is charging while you watch How To Train Your Dragon for the third time (because you only caught the second half the first two times), because you don’t have to choose between recharging your phone and watching TV, as the hotel room has 37 outlets to meet your electricity needs from any location. The movie finishes and it only takes 2 seconds to check your email because the internet in America moves faster than a door-busting shopper on Black Friday. Caught up on email, you feel like taking a shower before bed.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, but I really miss American showers. Showers that make sense. American showers are big enough to bend down and shave my legs without banging my head into the door or bumping into the handle and turning the water to freezing cold. European showers that actually have a door are just small vertical tubes that Americans who find themselves on the right side of the waist-size bell curve would vehemently protest.

Odds are, however, that the shower is one of the open-air bathtubs with the plastic divider as a half-hearted attempt at keeping the water in the tub. If the shower head is actually high enough to stand under without bending over, it’s assuredly one of those adjustable-height numbers that is worn out and constantly slides down while rotating to spray the wall instead. The lukewarm water, in the short time that it sprays you before returning to the wall, fails to combat the cold air attacking you from all sides, as the absence of a door or shower curtain allows any warming water vapor to escape. 

Dissatisfying shower completed, you go to step out, but realize that you forgot the floormat on the other side of the bathroom. Now you nearly bust your head because every European shower is a foot (that’s right, an American measurement) above the floor, so you must awkwardly step down onto a surface covered in water because that little plastic divider works about as well as a mesh umbrella.

And that’s just the AVERAGE European shower. I’ve seen some truly baffling ones this year. At our altitude camp in the French alps, I spent 3 weeks trying to figure out how I was supposed to use the shower. I have an engineering degree and was confounded by a shower. The plastic divider reached no further beyond the slanted back of the tub, with the faucet at the other end, where the mount for the shower head was at waist height. I found that if I took my showers sitting down while holding the shower head with the water barely flowing, I could limit spillage to just what the towel could absorb.

In America, you can go out in public without considering your future restroom needs, as nobody is going to charge you for a visit to the Water Closet. I have never paid to use a toilet out of principle--my American pride would rather suffer a bladder fit to burst than pay for the privilege of using a public toilet!

I hope you enjoyed my tirade. I really do enjoy Europe and its culture, and my litany of trivial gripes will be quickly forgotten after an evening of watching real football while eating a big juicy burger at home. I’m counting down the days!