One of the great pleasures of being an expat is going “home”.
You get to be a tourist in the place you are from.
A big trip back is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, eat all the foods you miss, and (re)introduce your kids to the things you love. My daughter was 4 when we left the states, so she thinks she remembers living in the midwest, but she probably just remembers the stories we’ve told her. It’s important to me that she keep contact with her American roots, so it’s wonderful to reconnect over summer break. It’s also a terrific opportunity for me to appreciate where we come from and see it with new eyes.
Fresh Off the Plane
It takes me three airplanes to get “home”. I put it in quotations, because when I land in Kentucky it’s nearly obvious that I’m not from around here. In the south of France, I may be the most bluegrass-y person around, but when I’m around these parts, I tend to stand out in my style of dress, of speech, and of attitudes. Plus, I just don’t know the local places anymore.
Nonetheless, one thing never fails to choke me up. (This, coming from the woman who doesn’t cry at movies or books or such.) What gets me is passport control. Truly. Entering the US in DC, they have a big line for passport control. First there are self-serve kiosks for checking in; you enter your info and have a photo taken and print out a slip. Then you continue in the queue to wait for the next officer, which takes forever because you can barely stand up after the long flights and time change and the kids are cranky. Finally, he looks through it all, asks a few questions, and then…as he hands back your passport…he says, “Welcome home!” Gets me every time. For some reason, this daily gesture of the passport control officer is deeply meaningful to me. Even just talking about it chokes me up.
Out of the airport and on to the highway…It’s been three years since my last visit in the USA and the first thing that jumps out at me is the cars–they are BIG! In Provence, my Ford Fusion is too big for me. It sits too low and is too long and isn’t the right tool for the job. Here, that same model looks fairly average. Small, even. There are SUVs and Jeeps and great big pickup trucks and luxuriously large autos everywhere. And nearly each one of them is transporting just one person.
Big Big Big!
With all those big cars, the roads also need to be BIG! Long, straight, flat, endless. The lanes are wiiiiiide, with extra shoulders on both sides and maybe even a bike lane. And streets are well-marked, which is handy. In Provence, driving two hours can feel like a strenuous sport–it’s made up of exhausting twisty turny roads going up and down big hills with nary a street sign or guard rail. It takes all your attention. Here in the midwest, you nearly don’t have to think. Smoooooth.
And the parking spots are BIG! And the lanes in the parking lots are BIG! No wonder all those shiny large cars are not yet scratched up–there is plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Even the little cars in France are generally dinged and scratched and scuffed. Not here. All shiny and new and, well, you guessed it–BIG!
Besides the transportation differences, eating out is the other big area of differences that I am noticing this trip. It is quite a different experience from dining out in Provence.
First, you can walk in anywhere at anytime and eat anything. Almost literally. Where we are in France, there are limited hours of serving and usually only a limited selection of dishes on the menu each day. In the US, the menus are large and larger, and international flavors abound. Every town has a Chinese buffet, sushi bar, and Tex-Mex sit-down. Want breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon? Then IHOP is for you. Or Bob Evans; even in this seemingly unusual request you have a choice.
Running Hot and Cold
It’s hard to say what you’ll notice as the next difference–the warm welcome or the cold atmosphere? There will be someone stationed at the front door whose sole purpose is to greet you and take your reservation and lead you to your table with menus in hand. Invariably, this greeter is a young lady with a smile and some kind of computer screen in front of her. In France, one is often left waiting about awkwardly, wondering if you should just grab a table or try to flag down the busy waiter. Hoping to not be shunned for not having a reservation. Or is that just me?
Either the big smile or the cold blast will hit you first. Yes, no one does climate control quite like the Americans. There may even be a pressure difference between indoor and outdoor that will make opening the door a Herculean feat. Then the arctic blast hits you. I didn’t pack nearly enough jackets and sweaters for a summer trip home. It takes the breath away. Breath you can see in the meat-locker like conditions.
Once seated and holding a multi-page menu that you are barely given enough time to read, you may notice feeling a bit overwhelmed. The music piping through the restaurant is loud. You kind of have to shout over it to converse at the table. That is, if you can get the attention of your table mates–they are more distracted by one of the fifteen television screens within immediate view, each with a different channel playing. And each one with the volume up.
The food comes quickly, there is that to be said for the American experience. You won’t go hungry and you won’t wait long for it. The dishes are BIG too, but not necessarily of the same quality one might expect in France. There are less than Michelin-starred restaurants in France, of course, but even that is above an average American quick-serve fast-casual restaurant. I recently had a tasty salad with buffalo chicken on top. Can’t get that in France–particularly when you consider that the lettuce was frozen. Crunchy ice frozen. Amazing. How is that even possible? Maybe it was sitting next to the air conditioner.
Here’s a Tip for You
Before you’ve finished eating, the bill is dropped off at the table. No long after-dinner conversation, no flagging down the server. And this leads to my final painful difference.
I have forgotten how to tip. I mean, I remember the function and that I’m supposed to, but the whole mechanism is rusty. They bring the check, I look at it. I put my card in the tray or pleather folder. Then they walk. Away. With my credit card. This didn’t used to be so strange. But now that I am used to the credit machine coming to the table side, it feels really weird. Where are you going with that? Shopping?!
They return with a plethora of paper slips. One is for you to keep, one is for the restaurant. I have signed the wrong one three times already. Now, time for some higher math. How much? 10%? 20%? 25%? In Europe, waitstaff get a living wage and healthcare and benefits and can actually survive on what they make. Not so in the US. I had to convince my Irish and French colleagues that the minimum wage for a waiter or waitress is actually $2.13, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is a complete shame. No wonder that there are restaurants changing this model and they seem to be succeeding wildly. Thus, in France we don’t tip as much. It isn’t as obligatory as it is in the US. And I am obviously out of practice at filling out the papers and doing the math.
Welcome home! What are your favorite and least favorite things about returning to your home country as an expat?