Happy Anniversary to Us, America!
Living in a foreign country is a lot like marriage. You enter with high expectations. You go through a honeymoon period when everything is magical. Then you begin to notice the little adorable differences. At first you embrace them, proud to be so tolerant, until you realize they are neither little nor adorable, at which point you either figure it out or you pack up and go back to your parents. Twelve years (and one divorce) later, I am still here. This was the first year I forgot my anniversary with America. Real marriage, I hear you say.
Back in Slovakia, I graduated with a Master degree in biotechnology. With two offers for PhD programs, I considered my options carefully before telling my parents I was off to the United States as a nanny. New York! Here I come! Having watched too many episodes of "Friends" and "Sex And the City" I imagined myself strutting down the Park Avenue all classy and chic, my (deeply) hidden talents for directing a play or designing a spaceship suddenly revealed, and my single status crushed with a number of smart and witty men fighting for my attention. (And hot. They were obviously all hot.)
I arrived to the United States through an au-pair agency. I was told that au-pair program was a cultural exchange experience through childcare. My first cultural experience is now known as a "toiletgate." The au-pair training school was located on the St. John's University campus in Oakdale, Long Island. We stayed in typical college dorm rooms, which meant shared bathrooms. After I got over the fact that the gaps between stalls were so large I could watch the person do her business, I noticed that the water level in the toilet bowl was dangerously high. Ugh, I thought, clogged. Great. I moved on to the next one. Same thing. Again, and again, and again. Jet-lagged, tired and grumpy, I mustered the courage to complain.
"Excuse me, but all the toilets are clogged. It's rather disgusting." I told the au-pair agency representative. She was horrified. She ran out and came back a minute later with a smile that is usually reserved for idiots.
"They are not clogged," she said. "This is the way American toilets look like."
While still in the au-pair training school, we took a trip to the city. After a guided tour of Manhattan we were set free to explore. I followed a group of girls to a pizza deli. Every one of them ordered like it was not a big deal. I was staring at the menu in panic, wondering how was I ever going to survive if a slice of pizza cost $2.75. Plus tax. Don't forget the damn tax. I came to the US with $100. This was an absurd amount of money for me at the time. I walked to the counter with my chin raised and my knees trembling and ordered.
"What do you want to drink?" the man behind the counter barked.
"Oh," I was caught off-guard. "I'll have soda."
"What kind?" the man barked again.
"Um...the sparkly kind?" I said and he looked annoyed. What is going on? I just want sparkling water. Because in Slovakia, we call sparkling water soda.
"Which soda do you want?" the man was clearly running out of patience.
I stared at him blankly.
"Coke? Sprite? Dr. Pepper?" he rattled off.
"I'd like...soda?" I tried one more time and then seeing his eyes narrowing quickly added: "Coke. I'll take Coke."
Europeans love to make fun of Americans labeling everything with instructions and warnings. "Your freshly brewed cup of coffee that is steaming up your glasses may be hot." Or: "Open box before eating pizza." However, when presented with a box of Pop Tarts by a 12-year-old, I learned to appreciate the instructions for stupid. Pop Tarts? What on Earth is that? To my astonishment, there were several ways how to serve them. I would have never guessed that you can eat them cold or hot. I would have never guessed that you can microwave them or put them in the toaster. I would most definitely never guessed that these can be called "pastry." What I also didn't guess was that one piece equaled 200 calories. I ate them throughout the day, hot or cold, toasted or microwaved, and then wondered why I gained 20 pounds in the first two months.
Pop Tarts became my addiction mainly because of lack of decent candy in American supermarkets. Go ahead, call me a snob. I am a chocoholic and I carry that title proudly. The first week of my stay with the host family I found a Hershey's chocolate bar in the fridge. I was surprised it was in the fridge rather than in the pantry with all the other candy, but as soon as I saw it I had to have it. I took a bite and couldn't tell if I threw up in my mouth a little, or if that was the natural flavor of the chocolate. There was only one logical explanation - it was expired. I didn't know that such thing could happen, but we learn something new every day. I drove to the nearest supermarket and diligently picked a fresh XXL bar. I took a bite. There it was again, the aftertaste of a 24-hour stomach bug.
Of course, one never forgets their first visit to Starbucks. There I was, unable to recognize what a normal cup of coffee was called. After hesitating for 15 minutes, I finally walked to the counter and ordered Americano. To my great disappointment, I got a regular sized paper cup with a spit of coffee at the bottom. I took a sip. I dragged myself back to the counter and explained. The barista smiled and handed me a tall coffee. I asked him how much I owed him.
"Oh, don't worry about it, that's fine."
Um...what? I looked around for a hidden camera. Surely I couldn't just walk away without paying. Surely no customer service representative would ever let me do that, without yelling at me for messing up the order, without rolling his eyes about the extra work, without loudly telling his coworker about the stupid cow that didn't even know what she wanted to drink! I was moved to tears.
There were many other things that left me speechless. The ability to read a magazine while drinking a cup of tea in a bookstore (in Slovakia you were not allowed to even look through a magazine unless you paid for it first). Driving a car that was for my use only, knuckles white and my stomach turning noticing the sign with a minimum speed limit of 40mph. Do they want me to die? How can I ever drive that fast? Houses built out of wood instead of brick, people smiling at me all the time, low fat or no fat yogurts only, and so many more differences. Little and adorable. Big and scary. We have been through a lot together, haven't we? Happy 12th anniversary to us, America!