I grew up in the Netherlands and traveled to 20 countries between 2006 and 2016 but it’s been at least five years since I traveled to a place where I did not know the language. LocWorld40 takes me to the west coast of Portugal. Before heading to the conference center in Estoril I stay in Parede for a few days, a small town lodged between Lisbon and LocWorld. The Airbnb housecat is named Puski, which I’m pretty sure is funny in any language, and the Russian women in the room adjacent to mine hang their underwear to dry in the shared bathroom. The house on a dead-end street is a confusing mix of granite busts, antique oak beds and battery-powered strings of LED lights.
Just a few hours after getting off a plane and 30 hours after leaving my house, the rain stops and I go for an evening run. in Idaho it is early afternoon, so I don’t feel quite like a zombie. I run a few miles along the promenade. I then follow the railroad to the Parede station, dip through the tunnel and pop out in the shopping center. I decide to get some food at the store while I’m here. It’s the kind of store that makes me miss Europe — it has everything I need but is only a fraction of the size of an American store.
Quickly the produce department a/c and, well, having stopped running cools me down, I self-consciously undo my sweater from my waist to put it on. I feel painfully aware only because I know a proper European wouldn’t even be in this situation. They would have thought to get fully dressed before they walked into the grocery store. In fact, they would never be wearing their running clothes here in the first place. Running clothes are to be worn for one occasion only: running. You then go home, shower and put on your normal clothes to get a bag of lettuce. I awkwardly pull my Icebreaker over my head among the kiwis and bok choi. Two old ladies who stood chatting fall silent.
Pretending to be oblivious I stare sheepishly at Portuguese food labels, the sheep-effect of which is only enhanced by my not wearing my glasses.
The checkout lady says “Boa noite.”
I repeat it back as best I can only to be sized up from over her rims, followed with a blank stare and a cold “hee-ello”. Guess I didn’t quite get it right. Besides the running clothes, I now carry the confident swagger of an American, complete with near-permanent smile. I wish I could simply flip the switch and localize my body language back to Europe, but having been away for so long that is hard to do.
I need a bag to take all the things I got excited about (like the box of fresh olives for 78 cents). Portuguese quite often reads a lot like Spanish, but sometimes not at all. In pronunciation I’ve noticed the “s” and “c” become a prominent “sh” making the language sound less Latino and more Slavic. I imagine a bag might be bolsa and sound like bolshia. I give it a go. Another dead stare. I sweetly ask what the name for bag is and realize too late that I am only adding to the American stereotype. It’s “saca”. People in line begin to sigh. Bing translator later tells be “bolsa” was just fine.
I want them to know I am not an American. I want to look everyone in the eye and explain I grew up in the Netherlands and unabashedly beg for their approval — not because I an ashamed but because I am cursed to understand the feelings they have toward Americans. At the same time I ache to explain what an amazing place I live in, not a MAGA trailer park next to a gun range.
I want Europeans to understand there are pockets of amazing people who have gathered to live their unique subculture of passions. That we move about the country freely, mostly between age 18 and 35, to find a place that fits us best. This freedom paired with an inherited thirst for exploration creates an entire continent of people who localize themselves according to passion, age, heritage and belief.
Part of me wants to point out their silly superiority complex an how much they complain and ask why they don’t like it when people over 55 go dancing in a silly costume if they happen to feel like it. That bullying is not OK and catcalling is very 2006. That, maybe when they would look farther than the tips of their nose, they could develop a better understanding of what goes on across the big pond beyond what they see on Jersey Shore and The Apprentice. The average person does not make it onto television.
So here I find myself lost between two shores, as Neil Diamond put it. I will continue to talk about nuances in all cultures and how important it is to understand these. Europe is not a utopian place where everyone is gorgeous, gets along and all are accepted. In turn America is not a filthy bunch of trigger-happy hillbillies represented by one person in an oval office. When you straddle more than one culture you are able to see the subtleties of other ways of life.