Stranger in a Familiar Land

March 6, 2005 (Washington, D.C.)

I’m never quite prepared for the culture shock of traveling from West Kerry to Washington, D.C.  Because I know D.C. so well, arriving here and settling in feels automatic.  I know where to go and what to do.  I have friends here. I know the metro system, the neighborhoods, the museums, the movie theatres and the restaurants.  But it’s not really possible to make a seamless transition from rural Ireland to big-city America with no mental hitches.

First there’s the friendliness.  Americans are friendly.  I ask someone at the gym what the next class is and they not only tell me, they talk about its strengths and weaknesses, and how they feel about it. A man behind me in line at the grocery store offers to swipe his store card on my order, saving me a few bucks.  A man I stop to ask about neighborhood ATMs points one out to me, walks away a few steps, then hails me back to point out a few more. 

This is not to say that West Kerryites are unfriendly.  They just do not go beyond what is needed in a given transaction with a stranger. So after 7 years in West Kerry, that’s what I’m used to.  I have to adjust to Americans again.

Second, there’s the technology.  There is always something, small or large, that isn’t done the way it was done when I last visited.  So I suddenly find myself wearing that puzzled foreigner expression, invariably holding up a line, while someone patiently explains how to negotiate the latest innovation in checkout technology, movie ticket-buying technology, gas-buying technology or security technology.  It’s how George Bush senior must have felt when he saw the wonders of the bar code checkout system for the first time.

Third, there’s speed.  Lines move.  The call of "next customer" rings out clearly and rythmically as checkout people and ticket takers speed customers through. One minute you’re strolling up to a line and the next minute you’re hustled out, bagged items in hand, awkwardly stuffing change and receipts in your wallet. In West Kerry, lines are for chillin’.  I read the notice board items.  I chat with fellow line-waiters and friends who pass by.  I look at the newspaper headlines.  I inspect each impulse item carefully put in my way as I slowly approach the checkout.  Well, sure, it’s not like I’m in a hurry, am I? 

Fourth, is the array of goods available.  In the grocery store, there is an aisle solely for condiments.  I find myself giggling as I contemplate which of what seems like several hundred brands of mustard to buy.  Other shoppers carefully avoid me. There is an aisle solely for cheese.  And one for cleaning products.  There is too, too much choice.

And there are shops for every desire.  I have to subdue the mad consumer impulse that hits me as soon as I step off the plane.  I’ve done without these things for years, but now I must have them.  Because I only have a short time.  And won’t it be cool to have the cool stuff back where you can’t get the cool stuff?  I want the stuff.  Usually this wears off in about a week, since I really hate shopping, don’t feel like carting a lot of things back with me, and would rather be exploring museums, films and parks than malls (except The Mall, which is always worth exploring).

Last, there’s the sun.  Beautiful, blue-sky, cloudless days sun.  The default in Washington, D.C. is sunny.  We had a blizzard on Tuesday morning, and it was sparklingly sunny on Tuesday afternoon.  Other than the blizzard morning, it’s been sunny every day I’ve been here.

In West Kerry, there is the myth of sun.  Or rather, the myth of childhood summer sun.  Apparently, summers were sunnier and warmer when everyone was a child.  Unfortunately for me, I was not a child there, so do not have this memory on which to rely when facing the misty, gray reality.  Oh, and there’s also the mythical "summer of 1995," where it was supposedly sunny for three months, and "blazing hot" (note: in the west of Ireland, 20c, or 68 degrees, would be considered blazing hot).  Either that, or it was sunny for about 10 consecutive days in July.  Sources are unclear. 

1995.  Ten years ago.  Hmmmm.  I’d say we’re due for another bout of sun.  I’d best get back there before I miss it.

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