Tuesday Night, Belgrade, World-Weary

Ah, long trips always bring about this moment.  The moment after sitting between two chain smokers all day, the moment after driving through a dusty, littered countryside, the moment after the “evils of America” are told to me in hugely flawed detail by people who still send their children there for an education.

The moment I ask why I bother to do any of this.  The moment I ask, “Why do I care when they don’t.”

I used to just go to bed and wake up in the morning and tell myself, “I care because it’s what I do.”  We’ll see what I say tomorrow.

The Czech Sasquatch – In His Underwear

Just one final impression of Prague for you during my last hours in the Czech Republic.  What I’m about to tell you is a phenomenon that is highly Czech from all accounts.  Nevertheless, I’ve only ever heard about it and read about it from friends or on other expat blogs.  You know, kind of like the Sasquatch.

There’s the thing about being an expat, the surprises never stop.

Now, to the story.  I was driving down one of Prague’s busiest streets (Evropska), the street that carries all the traffic to and from the airport.  It’s a 4 laner and busy.  However, on this particular morning, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of white and yellow and did a double take.  It revealed a bald guy, 50’s, in his tighty-whities and yellow Crocks.  Standing there.  In front of his yard.  Traffic speeding by.  4 lanes.  Tighty-whities.  Crocs.  Wha?

Apparently this is regular practice here.  Folks go out to do yard work and instead of dirtying a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, they just go in their skivvies.  I guess its kind of logical but no less shocking when seen in person.

But for me, it really hammers home one point.  Culture shock is real.  And it’s going to hit me HARD.  I’ve been out of America a looong time.

Before I got this job, I remember seeing the guys that worked in Prague when they came back to Washington for consultations.  They always looked really lost and a bit out of place.  Now, I know why.  They were.

Seriously, how does one transision from what I just saw to the Pentagon City Mall?  I’ll soon find out.

Freedom Looks Like Too Many Choices

food aisle“In New York freedom looks like too many choices.”

The above line appears in U2’s song about New York City, aptly titled “New York.”  While I don’t expect to be setting foot in New York next week, I think the sentiment about “too many choices” will apply to my experience returning to America, even for a brief stay.  See, I moved to Prague about five years ago with the intent of experiencing Europe.  With the help of my wife, I’ve done it.  I’ve traveled and seen more places than I ever knew existed.  In order to accomplish that, I’ve had to build up an acceptance of the unfamiliar.  Even my daily commute is a barrage of things that I don’t understand.  I don’t speak Czech (I know few expats who actually do) and therefore everything I experience outside of my home and office is in a language I don’t understand.  Yes, I know, that’s my fault but that’s not the point here.  The point is, that’s what I’m used to.  So, when I go home to Washington, DC next week, I expect to have some serious culture shock.

The last time I was there I experienced what I could compare a deaf man suddenly being able to hear.  While in America, I can say “excuse me” and be understood, I can order a sandwich with extra mayo, I can ask, “What aisle is the deodorant in?”  It’s shocking after not being able to do that for over a year.  As for the choice, that’s another thing entirely.

I recently talked to one of my buddies that lived abroad about his experiences returning home.  We both agreed that the number of choices is the hardest thing to adjust to.  It’s overwhelming.  He actually admitted to turning around and walking out of US stores upon his return in America because it was just an overload to the senses.  As Americans, we sometimes forget that all of that choice is not a worldwide standard – it’s particularly American.

I’m not condemning it.  Not by a long shot.  I’m excited to see and experience it.  I’m excited to experience it in stores, in restaurants – everywhere.  I’m going to go to the grocery store just to look around for goodness sake.  But I know it’s going to be a shock.

In preparation, I’m going through blogs and food sites making a mental list of places to eat before my trip ends.  There are just not enough hours in the day to eat all that I want to while I’m there.  But rest assured, I’ll post about my impressions with the giddiness of a small child after each meal.  I can’t wait for my senses to short circuit, short circuit in America.  Heck,  we’ve got new circuits in aisle 11.  Sure beats Grunt for dinner.

Euro-Trash

Before my European friends get all spun up about the title of this post, I’m not talking about human beings.  I’m talking about trash.  In Europe.  Lots of it.

All over on our travels through Europe garbage is omnipresent.  I first experienced it over 15 years ago during “huelgas de basura” (garbage strikes) in Madrid.  For weeks at a time sanitation workers would go on strike and garbage would pile up in the subways and the rats and mice would grow too fat to scurry away from cigarette butt flinging commuters.  Piles of garbage as high as my head piled in some corners of the metro.

More recently, while vacationing in Crete, I decided to go snorkeling on one of the famous “black beaches.”  What did I see at the bottom?  Tires, typewriters, bottles, cans and debris of gosh knows what else.  I spent about 60 seconds in that water.

Graffiti adorns every block of historical Prague.  Churches, museums, even the castle is not immune.  I’m not talking the Lennon wall here either, folks.

Everyone in Europe talks green but my personal experience is that most of it is out of ignorance or plain old bluster.  To put it to the test, I tried to recycle some electronics one Saturday last year and found myself taking a 40 minute drive to the other side of town to the only sanctioned junk yard only to be told that they wouldn’t accept and old stereo.  They didn’t like my Czech ID and told me no.  I eventually forced it on them.  No wonder people leave so much crap on the side of the road.

When my generation grew up in America, we were repeatedly bludgeoned over the head with “don’t litter” campaigns, Woodsie the Owl saying, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute,” and even some ill fated kangaroo that tried reverse psychology in personal responsibility by proclaiming, “Let George do it!”  However, it worked.  I don’t do it.  Not even a tapa napkin.  On the other hand it’s quite obvious that Europeans have had none of that in their daily lives.  Or, if so, they didn’t pay attention.

I can go on about European hypocrisy.  They say the American lifestyle is unhealthy?  OK, compare them to infamous European smokers – not only the French.  Americans are fat?  Have one look at an Italian beach and you’ll believe that all American tourists have traveled to Italy,  are tanned and speak Italian while gesturing wildly.  Loud, ugly Americans?  Have you ever been in a beerhall in any of these countries?  Obnoxious?  Have you ever stood next to an unshowered French smoker?  Pushy?  Have you ever stood in a Czech excuse for a “line?”  Rude?  Have you experienced what passes for customer service in Europe?  Vulgar?  Ever seen a British stag party?

Having lived here over five years tends to strip away a portion of the romanticism of the idealized Europe.  Don’t get me wrong, living here is still great.  I just don’t think the Europeans have a leg to stand on when the claim superiority in so many different ways.  I’m not saying that America isn’t without problems of its own.  I’m just saying we’re not the only ones.