Thursday, December 08, 2005

The shock of the familiar

I have been spending the week in Chicago helping my mother limp around after her (very successful) knee surgery. This is the first time I have been back to the US for an extended period since May, and has entailed more adjustment than I had anticipated.

The best thing about being back is that the fog of miscommunication that has dogged me across all of Europe has been magically lifted. Gone are the knot in the stomach and thickness of tongue that precede any attempt to communicate in a foreign tongue. Vanished also is the dull certainty that the more successful you are in saying your piece, the more likely it is that the response will turn out to be completely incomprehensible.

The second best thing is to be back in the land of “would you like fries with that”-style service. In Europe, every commercial interaction begins with your trying to create a good impression with the server so that they will deign to interact with you. In the Chicago, every interaction begins with an almost puppy-like enthusiasm on the part of the server to make your day.

At the same time, there are things I positively pine for after just a few days here. Curiously, the top of the list is missing hearing French spoken – the musical cadences, animated features of the speakers and the infinitely nuanced gestures that go along with it. I also miss the beauty of the Parisian architecture and am struck by the unrelieved ugliness of your average skyscraper.

Summary of things I miss about the US
· Showerheads that stay put
· Phone numbers that make sense
· Big smiles and optimism in general

Summary of things I don’t miss about the US
· The CostCo effect: the generalized willingness to trade-off quality for quantity
· Oversized food portions
· Cheerfully incompetent staff - give me frosty but knowledgeable help any day

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