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12 Things I Think Will Be Weird About the USA

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the past week, I’ve found myself thinking about my former life in the US, and, out of nowhere, imagining my childhood home in detail.   As I picture the place I will return to on December 23, more and more things have occurred to me that seem strange to me now about life in (my little sector of) Gringolandia.

My beloved water-heater

see the toilet paper in the trash can?

12 Things I Think Will Be Weird About the USA

  1. Hot water makes no sound.  Here in the Foundation house/office, we upgraded to a fancy water-heater in September.  The previous model, like most houses in Palena, had to be lit every time you want hot water; but  our model was old and got worse, to the point that I bathed out of a pot with water heated in an electric kettle in August (which I also didn’t think was that bad — it was the perfect temperature!).  Anyway, the new model still lights up when the hot water tap is open, and when we ran out of gas last week (easily replaced the next day), the first sign that something was wrong was the silence — no flame — rather than the cold.
  2. I have brown hair.  Here, I am universally considered blond.
  3. I am not a minor celebrity.  Here, I get greeted by name everywhere I go.   My favorite is by younger children or students from the rural schools (who I don’t see often), especially when they first whisper to their mother, “Look, it’s Miss Margaret!”
  4. In the bathroom, you don’t have to bring your own toilet paper, and you flush it down.  Also, the bathroom is the same temperature as the house.  Here, like in Mexico, toilet paper is a bonus, not a given.  Gas stations, mediocre restaurants, universities — even the teacher’s bathroom here in Palena — do not have toilet paper.  This isn’t a big deal once you get used to bringing your own.  Neither is putting your (yes, used) toilet paper in the trash can — it becomes a habit that is then hard to reverse back in gringolandia!  I mentioned to someone here that bathrooms in the US are the same temperature as the house, because of central heating, and they were shocked — here the bathroom is icy in the winter, because the door is closed, and no heat generated inside.
  5. Dogs and cats are well-fed pets that live inside with designated owners.  Chickens, cows and horses are on farms, not roaming the streets or sniffing around your clothsline.  It is news-worthy when a cow or pig was roams the streets in Palena, but chickens and loose, aggressive (i.e. hungry) dogs are the norm.  Roosters and dog or cat fights routinely wake me up in the night here in the zona urbana (downtown Palena), and I’ve spent significant weekend time around goats, horses, cows and pigs.
  6. When you arrive in a house, it’s warm.  You don’t have to chop or bring in wood.  When the sun starts to set, you don’t automatically check to see if you’ve got enough wood for the night.  I have dreams I would categorize as nightmares that I am wandering through my childhood home in Ipswich, looking for the stove.  I’m not joking when I say this fire thing has gotten into me.  As much as it is a huge huevo, it’s also real.  Winter is cold, and it’s cold until you do something about it.  And here that “do” is visible, tangible, part of every day and every hour.
  7. When you meet someone or say hi, you don’t touch.  The kiss-cheeking greeting (for women, man-man is a hearty handshake) has become very, very normal.  When I meet an occasional gringo (tourists that come to visit the Foundation), we exchange an awkward, frozen hello or half-hug.  It feels cold, bordering on hostile.  When I explain to people here that when I great my best friend, unless I haven’t seen her in a long time, we don’t touch.  So strange!
  8. Homemade white bread and mate are not staples of my diet.  Even though I probably consume 70% less bread then most people in Palena, I’ve come to expect warm bread whenever I go to someone’s house, along with the mate.  My god I love mate.
  9. My friends and family know less about animals, serving mate, making fire, chopping kindling, and speaking Spanish than I do.  Here, I am the constant novice.
  10. People understand 100% of what I say in English.  Well, maybe 95% if you ask my mother (I get pretty fast when I get excited!), but the point is, in the US, you can’t say things on the side to yourself in front of children, or use English as a secret code with your co-teacher.
  11. The big, social, cooking-worthy meal is dinner.  Here, it is almuerzo, at 1:00 PM or later, that is an institution.  In the afternoon/night, it could be once (bread, etc.) could be cena (dinner, later), but there is no universally agreed upon hour.  It is sad to think that someone would almorzar (yup, lunch is also a verb) alone, but tomar once?  No big deal — you know, just grab some bread and cheese or whatever.  Reverse of the US.
  12. The water flushes the other way, and the moon waxes and wanes opposite, as well.  High on my to-do list for my last days in Palena (I leave Friday at 8:00 AM) is to take good note of these two things, so I can notice the difference back in the US.

Melissa & goat (#9)

Tito & the fire (#9)

Also on my to-do list: packing.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate permalink
    Tuesday, December 13, 2011 11:24 am

    Not to be flippant, but there are also hot tubs waiting for you at home!

  2. Tuesday, December 13, 2011 12:12 pm

    Yes, I know. See you there!

  3. m p r permalink
    Tuesday, December 13, 2011 1:55 pm

    On the other end of the spectrum, I am brown-haired in Japan, and black-haired in America. LOVE YOU SEE YOU SOON WE’LL TALK WHEN MY LIFE SLOWS BACK DOWN TO PERSON SPEEDS

  4. Tuesday, December 13, 2011 5:41 pm

    On the other side of the Pacific, you mean. Can’t wait to see you too!

  5. Jane Woodman permalink
    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 12:10 pm

    Home is here and waiting… the heat will be on, the fridge stocked, and hearts ready to help you in any way we can with re-entry. Whole Foods – already overwhelming to me – will feel obscene. LOVE, you know who.

  6. Wednesday, December 14, 2011 7:15 pm

    Thanks, Mommy!

  7. Sally Johnson permalink
    Friday, December 16, 2011 11:22 am

    Margaret,
    not sure when you will see this,but bon Voyage to Palena. A rollercoaster of emotions, I am sure. Can’t wait to see you in our annual Christmas Family exchange, or early January, for sure. Hope your travels homeward are easy. Hugs,
    Sally

  8. Julie W. permalink
    Monday, December 19, 2011 10:16 pm

    Numbers 4 and 5 have been big for me since I’ve gotten back. When I flew into Miami for my layover I went to the bathroom as soon as I got off the plane. When I walked into the restroom my eyes had to adjust from all the bright white clean surfaces (which I would have previously considered really unclean), and when I stepped into a stall I actually broke out in laughter– there was toilet paper. Right there! For me to use all that I wanted. Furthermore, they expected me to put it into the toilet when I was done. What kind of nonsense is that!? Other things like hot water and traffic laws are high on my list of things that I forget about and now seem like novelties. Best of luck with your transition!

  9. Tuesday, December 20, 2011 8:52 am

    Julie, it’s fun to hear you are dealing with some of the same things! I hope you are doing well back in the US these days.

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