After my nine month stint abroad in France, I’ve returned home to Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s been about two weeks and I’ve had time to reacquaint myself with the ins-and-outs of everyday life in the United States. Who would have thought that after just nine months, I would need time to readjust to a country that I have called my home for my entire life. The way the human brain adapts to environments is endlessly interesting. Here are just a few of the things that surprised me upon returning to the US, besides being able to understand everyone around me 100% of the time of course.
1. Cars/Driving Habits
Living in a small city in France without a car for the last nine months had what I would consider a positive effect on my lifestyle. I relied on my bike and my own two feet to get me from point A to point B. It was good for my health, good for the environment, and good for my wallet.
Growing up in suburban America, the old me would have never considered walking around my neighborhood to run errands. Even though there is a commercial area about a 15 minute walk away from my parents’ home with a post office, bank, multiple grocery stores, casual restaurants, pharmacy etc., American culture dictates driving. Our roads are wide, the cars are big, and businesses always have parking lots, especially out West.
On one of my first days back, I needed to pick up some stuff at the pharmacy and post office. So, I set out on foot. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the walk that I realized that in the 4 years I lived in this neighborhood during high school and the 5 years after when I would regularly visit my parents on weekends, I had never walked to the post office. The normality of driving everywhere–even to a store just a 10 minute walk away–became all the more apparent when I realized that the only things I encountered on the way to the post office were the swish of cars passing by and a lone road biker out for an afternoon ride. I was the only person using the sidewalk. And it’s not like I live out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a suburb with a population of over 90,000.
After my stop at the post office, I walked over to the pharmacy on the other side of the commercial zone. As I crossed three parking lots, there were noticeably no humans on foot. There were just cars that encircled me as I traversed asphalt. It was about at this point that I realized that I was definitively back in suburbia and just how bizarre and slightly sterile of a concept the American suburb is.
I realize that even within the United States, there is a large array of fashion. While living in the US, I’ve noticed differences in fashion when I travel from Utah to California to Washington, D.C. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Utah’s own special brand of fashion which often falls into two camps, Mormon missionary chic or outdoorsy mountain mod.
Regional quirks aside, something I will say about the US in general is that we seem to be very casual when it comes to everyday clothing. I’m not talking about professionals who stop into a restaurant downtown during the lunch hour. I’m talking about the everyday, weekend, going to the grocery store look. We go about town in pajama bottoms, yoga pants, gym shorts, tank tops, hoodies, t-shirts with school logos etc. even if we’re not planning on going to the gym.
This isn’t a judgement. I have no room to judge. I notoriously rocked my Chacos (athletic sandals) around Europe anytime it was warm enough. It’s just an observation. Here in the US, we leave the house in lounge wear or athletic wear. We wear bright neons and patterns. We prioritize comfort. When I first disembarked the plane at Salt Lake City International, it took me a second to remember that.
3. The Utah “Accent”
After spending much of the last school year telling French people that there isn’t an accent in Utah, I quickly realized that I was wrong upon returning. I’ll admit, the particularities of the Utah way of speaking isn’t quite as pronounced as a southern accent. And because I am not a linguist or speech pathologist, I have difficulties defining the Utah “accent” in technical terms.
To be fair, I only really notice the “accent” on certain words, especially words ending in the letter L. For example, the word deal might be pronounced DILL. The same for real and RILL. Sometimes the word cool becomes KULL.
Utah Accent: You spent a year in France? KULL! That’s such a big DILL! Was it just totally un-RILL?
Translation: You spent a year in France? Cool! That’s such a big deal! Was it just totally unreal?
Don’t forget to throw in extra dose of enthusiasm as well. I never really noticed this before I left, but people in Utah seem to be very enthusiastic and animated when they talk. It’s funny how you hear the nuances of your own language differently after being away for a while.
4. Store Hours
While in France I got very accustomed to getting my shopping done right after work or during the day on Saturdays. There are very few things open on Sundays in France and stores close very early by American standards during the week. That’s saying a lot from someone who comes from Utah. Really, grocery stores close around noon on Sundays and 8PM on weekdays. Malls, boutiques, and stores are typically not open on Sundays and close around 7PM on weekdays. There are the occasional Sundays when the mall in town would be open for “special” sales. If that was the case there would be advertisements to let customers know.
True story, yesterday I went on a late night run to the neighborhood grocery store with my dad around 10PM and my unadjusted brain was convinced that it would be closed. We went in and I thought we needed to rush to get our items. After walking around the store for a bit, the lights started dimming and I was sure it was time to go. I literally had to ask a staff member to confirm that the store was indeed open 24-hours a day. They just turn off the lights at night to reduce energy consumption. My dad laughed at me and asked me if I was actually an American.
Welcome back to capitalist America I guess.
5. Processed Foods
Last year was the first time in a long time that I found myself completely on my own for food. While I was at university, I started out with a meal plan and even when I went off of it, there were still quick options all around campus. I was always surrounded by “convenient” food options. Pizza at free events is a veritable food group of university students, am I right?
I’m no dietician, but I am tempted to argue that our American love affair with convenience has led to diets filled with salts, sugars, and preservatives. When I first got to France, I actually noticed a difference in how much less salty and sweet things like canned pasta sauces, potato chips, and drinks were. It took me a while to get used to this, but in the end I’m glad that I did.
Don’t even get me started on how nice French school cafeterias are. We had one hour for lunch and ate a multi-course meal on real plates, with real silverware, and real glasses for water (no soda or snack machines in sight). All this for 2.95 euros a meal. My students were always complaining about the food at the cafeteria. I balked at this. They should see what public school lunches in the US are like.
6. Restaurant Service
And of course, more about food. Some other culinary differences that I somehow managed to forget about in 9 months is the restaurant going experience. To be fair, there is one thing that I missed about American restaurants. Free water. And lots of it.
While I was able to adjust to many things in France, one of the things that I couldn’t get over was the lack of free iced water at restaurants. You can usually ask for a pitcher of free tap water in France (unlike Germany where you pay for any beverage), but you have to actively ask for it. When you run out of water, the server usually will not stop by and refill the pitcher unless you ask.
On one of my first restaurant experiences back in the States, I was so happy when the server brought us our giant glasses of water, filled to the brim with ice. That’s another thing, you get approximately 5 cubes of ice in your drink in France. None of this glass-half-filled with ice business.
I also forgot about is how attentive (some may say too attentive) American wait staff can be. They stop by every 10 minutes or so to ask you if you need anything. And I get it, this probably comes from our tipping culture, where servers have to rely on tips for a fair wage. In France, taxes and tip are usually included in the bill. If you want to leave an additional euro or two it’s appreciated, but not required.
In general, what I miss the most is just sitting at the table for 2 hours or so, eating slowly and enjoying the company.
Like I said, it’s pretty interesting to see how quickly our brains adapt. These are just some of the immediate things that jumped out at me in the first couple of days back. And while I can only hope that I am able to hold on to the wonderful experiences that I had in France, I’m pretty convinced that it will be really easy to slip back into the American lifestyle. I’ll let you know how it’s all going in another couple of weeks.