“I just want a bagel,” the British guy in front of me at Noah’s lamented one fine San Francisco day. After making his way to the front of the line the sad exchange began.
“I’d like a bagel, please.” Eye roll immediately followed.
“What kind?” Slightly befuddled expression right behind it.
“Regular.” And so on until, after being offered cinnamon raisin, egg, poppy seed, sourdough, potato, onion, blueberry, sun-dried tomato, whole grain, seven grain, garlic, pumpernickel and low-carb, the guy turned around, looked at me nearly in tears and pleaded for help. As they say in the UK, I helped get him happily “sorted out” with a plain bagel until the game started all over again.
“What flavor shmear?” (Cream cheese)
As tourists overseas and even in different parts of the United States we face such scenarios played out with amusing regularity. A Seattle resident in Charlotte on business might have heard of grits but that doesn’t stop the What-Am-I-Supposed-To-Do-With-Those look on the face when they’re served with a stick of butter melting in the middle. Likewise visitors to Texas from England are routinely amazed that we still wear Stetson hats and boots.
As a child of the military my life was one of constant adjustment, whether relocating to the Midwest, the South or back across the sea to Germany. After one such repatriation to the States my sisters and I insisted our first stop outside of customs was a 7-11 to knock off a three-year itch for a Slurpee. When we returned to Germany a few years later we made a beeline to the local candy store for Haribo Gummy Bears!
More than food, we had to learn social customs in different parts of the world, how to greet someone, when to use formal versus informal language and what acceptable hand gestures back home could open up a world of trouble somewhere else. Our own rhythms adjusted from Germany where walking and public transportation got most things done to life back home in the suburbs. Suddenly one family car wasn’t enough to support work schedules, after school activities or simply going to the movies.
We had an advantage. Military bases overseas are microcosms of the United States only with extremely blended neighborhoods. We never lost touch with our Americanisms but regularly enjoyed travel within, shopping, dining and socializing with our German hosts and other countries nearby.
For my family it was simply a part of life. Unlike foreign volunteer work which can last a month or a lifetime, the impact on our lives of routinely living overseas and in different parts of the country evolved over time. We learned that most Americans did not vacation in Europe and that most Europeans, whatever their nationality, when they consider the United States often only see a single largely homogenous culture like they enjoy themselves. My favorite question of all time is “What is it like to live in America?”
My poor British friend at the bagel shop nearly walked out when the equally exasperated counterman asked if he wanted his regular bagel toasted. I smiled wickedly over the thought of taking him shopping for shampoo or pasta sauce.