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  • Bill and Nancy

Winter 2006

The sun was shining when our plane landed in San Francisco in mid-January. Exiting the airport, we didn't need to wrap up in coats, hats and scarves as we did the day before in the colder climate of France.

In the cab riding home from the airport, we saw signs along the freeway that we didn't understand. We asked the cab driver what they meant. Asking what something means is not an unusual occurrence for us, but it was amusing to have it happen on this continent. Being confused by signs along the highway was also our first clue that things had changed while we were away. Some were San Francisco changes, but many of these changes had happened in our own heads.

The old saying, "you can't go home again" speaks to the fact that we are not the first people to stay away from their hometown long enough to have a bit of culture shock when they return.

One morning we were at our dentist's office in a 1930's sky scrapper in downtown San Francisco. This is a place where, ever since we were kids, entering the building has made us think of earthquakes, and about how we would rather be anywhere else when the "big one" happens. We had been there awhile when a women entered and sat down across from us in the waiting room. She didn't greet us with a polite, "good morning", or even acknowledge us with a slight nod of the head. It felt strange, and we felt uncomfortable. It took us a moment to realize that greeting everyone as you enter a waiting room is normal in France, but not expected behavior in California. We were Californians thinking French thoughts.

That got us thinking about other difference between our American home and our French home, aside from the fact that one of them is a boat.

Having become accustomed to supermarket checkers in France who sit down while ringing up your purchases, we wonder why American supermarkets haven't made this change. In France, the job of the checker is also made easier by having the customer bag their own groceries. This is sometimes stressful as the food comes at you pretty quickly. The latest French measure meant to help the environment, is that markets no longer provide bags. Customers must bring their own reusable bags or pay a few cents for bags at the check stand.

It took us a few shopping trips to relearn the American way. At first, we felt strange letting the groceries pass us by without bagging them ourselves. We tried to help, but everyone gave us odd looks, so we learned to stand back and watch someone else do our job. But we couldn't help thinking how much more sensible the French system seems. At home, after putting away the groceries, we wondered what to do with all of the plastic and paper bags.

The French also have a better system for keeping the shopping carts under control. They don't need to hire anyone to round up the carts in the parking lot because the customers always return the carts to their barn. They do this because they had to put in a coin in a slot on the cart in order to release it, and that coin is then returned when the cart is pushed back in line with all of the others.

Some Americans we know who bought a home in France didn't understand how the shopping carts worked when they first arrived. They complained about having to pay to take a shopping cart, and they refused to return the cart that they felt they have been overcharged to rent. On their first few shopping trips, they left the cart next to their car and drove off complaining to each other about this French rip off. They had to laugh at themselves when they realized that French kids were probably rejoicing when they returned their carts and retrieved the one euro coin that they left behind.

San Francisco is known for its great restaurants, and we enjoyed many fabulous meals. Everything was delicious, and we found the lively and sometimes loud atmosphere of the restaurants a charming change from the subdued French style of dining. We could hear conversations taking place a neighboring tables, and sometimes that was very interesting. The French are much better at keeping their conversations private, and the fact that we are still struggling to understand "argotique" exchanges between friends, helps them keep their secrets from us. In fact, we had to laugh at the fact that being able to understand everything that was said for the first time in years only pointed out to us how banal most conversations actually are. We know that is true in France also, it is just that everything sounds more interesting in a foreign language.

Six years in France has also changed our dining habits. We adjusted easily to leisurely restaurant lunches or dinners, meals where when you reserve a table, it is yours for the whole afternoon or evening. We have become accustomed to small artfully arranged dishes that are presented, one at a time, with long relaxing conversational breaks between courses. Some people find this an annoying cultural difference when they first arrive here, and trying to get the waiter's attention to bring the check after a meal drives most newcomers crazy, but after a small adjustment period, the slower pace of meals in France becomes a preference, and it is quite shocking to return to speed eating in the U.S.A.

Dining again in the States, we often found a waiter's hand on our plates while we were distracted by a conversation with friends, and we would have to reach out and retrieve the meal that we were still enjoying, explaining sometime twice to the same waiter that we did not want him to take away our plate until we were finished. Keeping the waiter from taking our meal away from us was something that we don't ever remember happening before we moved to Europe. We don't know whether life in the United States has speeded up since we left, or whether our life on this side of the world has slowed us down.

As we have been learning to bag our own groceries, eat slowly, and speak French, we have also been learning to write our numbers, and to indicate numbers with our fingers in the French way. This unconscious, and seemingly small change became apparent when we went back to our gym in California. In one room with treadmills, steppers and bikes facing 5 different big screen TV's, we were instructed to hold up fingers to ask people already exercising and listening to the programs with earphones, which television they were watching before we changed the channel on one of the screens. Starting by gesturing with our hand to ask if anyone was watching screen number one, we got no response. In fact we got some odd looks. It took a minute to realize that in holding up just a thumb, as we would in France to indicate the number one, it looked more like a "thumbs up" "good job" "way to go" gesture back in the States. That mistake reminded us that friends who were visiting us one summer couldn't understand why they got two orders of fries when they held up an index finger in the little cafe across from where we were moored to ask in sign language for the one order of fries that they wanted to share. Because the French start counting with their thumb, the index finger is interpreted as asking for two of something.

And, in a related cultural number difference, another friend could not get over being charged 70 euros for two glasses of wine while dining in a restaurant. He was convinced that the waiter was just ripping off American tourists until he returned home and saw his credit card bill. The European #1 is written very much like an American seven. Our friends didn't realize that Europeans cross their sevens to avoid any 1 and 7 confusion, and they laughed with relief when they discoved that the wine was only 10 Euros and that they had made a simple cultural mistake.

We knew when we moved over to this side of the world that it would be an educational experience. We understood that our lives would change in simple but dramatic ways, and we knew that we should expect a pretty severe culture shock when we finally return to our California home. We just didn't realize how much we would notice these changes in our way of looking at the world when we returned to California for a short visit.

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