Culture Shock

When people travel to other countries, they often speak of culture shock. I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. But I think culture shock, in general, has an unwarranted bad reputation.

Many people think that culture shock is something to be avoided. They use it as an excuse to remain in their comfort zones and not explore the wider world. Culture shock may be a bit uncomfortable, but I believe that just as a defibrillator can get your heart beating again, a culture shock can get your brain working and nourish your very soul.

Whenever I experience culture shock, I learn something about myself and the society in which I live. It makes me realize that there are certain things that I take for granted that other people do not. It makes me look at myself differently. It makes me appreciate what I have. It makes me wonder about the things that I lack. It causes me to think about the fact that there are many different ways to live, and my way may not necessarily be the best way.

Culture shock can be something very simple, such as going into a McDonalds in the Netherlands and discovering that they ask if you’d like mayonnaise with your fries rather than ketchup. (To this day, I prefer mayonnaise. I cannot remember the last time I put ketchup on anything.)

Or it can be something huge, such as not being allowed to rent a car in Turkey until I could show the agency that I could actually drive it around the block. (I then realized that I was seeing very few women behind the wheel there. It made me really appreciate my feminist freedoms.)

It can be rather jolting, such as going from Mexico, where I was the tallest person in any room, and where their extremely close concept of personal space made me uncomfortable, and then going to the Netherlands, where I was the shortest person in any room, and where their extremely distant concept of personal space made me uncomfortable.

I always thought I was a nice person until I went to Canada, where everyone is really, really, really nice. I always feel 1,000 times fatter when I go to Europe. In Croatia, I realized that I really should take the time to relax more. Spain made me appreciate a good nap. The Bahamas made me truly get how terrifying the thought of sea level rise can be. Turkey reminded me that all of civilization is built upon past history. Hungary taught me that some past history can be rather terrifying.

I have never, ever traveled to another country without learning a great deal about myself and my place in the wider world. I genuinely believe that if more Americans traveled, they’d be a lot more open minded. This trend toward rigid, “America first” inflexibility is scary and extremely detrimental.

It breaks my heart that because of COVID-19, we’re all forced to stay closer to home. I suspect I won’t leave the country again until a vaccine is developed, and that’s frustrating because the older I get, the more I realize how little time I have left. I need the occasional culture shock to appreciate being alive.

Dear reader, my wish for you is that, in healthier times, you get a chance to be shocked by the wider world.

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Finding Your Unsafe Place

Everybody has a comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. Unless.

If you go through life without ever being challenged, you will never grow. If you don’t experience new things, you will never learn. If you don’t seize opportunities when they present themselves, you may never fully live.

Growing and learning and living can be quite terrifying. You might have to force yourself along that path. But I guarantee you that the very best times in your life will be those where you start off not feeling particularly safe. It’s important to find your unsafe place.

I’m not talking about wandering dangerous neighborhoods alone at night. I’m not urging you to enter a lion’s den wearing a T-bone steak necklace. Don’t go rob a bank.

But take leaps of faith. Take risks. Allow yourself to fail spectacularly. Experiment. Carpe that diem. Do something you never thought you would do.

Open yourself up to the possibility that your comfort zone can be expanded. Explore those unsafe places. Make them your own.

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Bridge Break In

So, I came to work the other day to a sheet of plywood covering one of our windows. It seems that some drug addict scaled the bridge to the upper floor and tried to bash the window in with a 2×4. I don’t know what they were hoping to get. There’s nothing much worth stealing in here, especially if you then have to carry it back down to ground level. But ours is not to reason why.

The thing is, the fool tried to do this right at the beginning of the shift, so a coworker caught him in the act and called 911. He bolted, but by some miracle the police caught him right down the street. My coworker identified him, for what it’s worth, but I’m betting he’s walking free again even as I write this.

It’s amazing how much an evil outside force can alter your worldview. I used to feel safe here. Now I keep seeing movement outside the window out of the corner of my eye. And I also wonder what would have happened if the idiot had gained entry, and whoever came to work didn’t notice the broken window, unlocked the sidewalk door, came up the stairs, and was face to face with a drug addict wielding a block of wood. What would have come next?

A friend pointed out that there’s no point in playing the “what if” game. You can’t live your life in constant fear. At least, you shouldn’t do so. And to a certain extent I agree. But it never hurts to have a contingency plan.

From now on, I plan to drive by and take a look at that window before parking. When I unlock the door, I’m going to pause to see if I hear anything, such as the kind of noises one would only hear from an open window. (Or some disembodied voice saying “Redrum,” or something.) I bet the guy didn’t smell very good, either, and I have the nose of a dog. So there’s that.

What I resent most, though, is that my sense of security has been shattered. Take all the stuff you want, but leave my comfort zone alone.

I’m sure I’ll relax again eventually, but until then, I wouldn’t advise you to sneak up on me. You could be in for a nasty surprise.

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Culture Shock Light

Having travelled to 22 countries, I have come to expect a certain amount of culture shock. In fact, I kind of look forward to it. It’s half the fun. I enjoy having my perspectives challenged, and it’s exciting to see how I’ll react to being thrust out of my comfort zone.

As strange as this may sound, I tend to struggle most with this when visiting our neighbor to to the north: Canada. I spent a great deal of time pondering this as I drove up to Vancouver from Seattle recently.

Of all the countries in the world, I tend to assume that Canada is the most like the US.  And we do have a lot in common. But there are some extraordinary differences as well, and because we are so similar, those differences are all the more jarring to me.

Even the sights are “same same, but different.” They have Starbucks and IKEA and Safeway and all those familiar brands you come to expect. But interspersed with those things are these other places that I’m never sure about. What do they sell? I dunno.

And then there are those unexpected turns of phrase that suddenly make you feel like you’re speaking two different languages.

“That’s me done.”

“Huh?”

“That’s. Me. Done. With lunch. I can’t eat any more.”

“Oh.”

Many of the traffic signs are identical to ours, except when they aren’t. And what’s with the flashing green lights at some intersections, but not others? I actually had to Google that so as not to get myself killed. Apparently it means something different, depending upon which province you are in. That would never fly in the US.

The people in Canada seem to have held on to a certain courtesy, dignity, tolerance, cooperation and decorum that Americans have shed as if it were dead skin. We must seem like the crazy relatives that you only subject yourself to at weddings and major holidays. The rest of the time, you just shake your head and sigh.

(And before you mention this in the comments, I realize that in order to even write this post I have to make some sweeping generalizations. I get that no two people are alike. But I think this is an interesting path of inquiry, however unscientific it may be.)

The biggest difference between our two countries, I think, is one of awareness. I’d be willing to bet that most Americans can go years, decades, without giving Canada a thought. I wonder how many of us can even find Canada on a map. (I bet I could get an answer via Google, but I’d be too ashamed, I suspect, of the results.)

On the other hand, Canadians are painfully aware of us. They read our media. They watch PBS. The ravings of our current president impact them quite a bit. Most Canadians think about us every single day. So there’s that.

The impression that I get is that Americans assume they are envied by everybody, including Canadians. But in fact, from talking to the people I’ve met, most Canadians are befuddled by our pride in our military might, our rampant patriotism, our greed, and our distrust of our own government.

Canadians have a great deal more social support, and don’t seem to question the importance of it. They would be shocked if they had to pay a doctor. They are confident in their single payer system, and really don’t understand why we struggle with this concept.

I absolutely love visiting Canada, but I think I need to stop being surprised when I’m reminded I’m not home. I need to let Canada be Canada, and stop trying to force it into my little American box. Because let’s face it: At this time in our history, why on earth would they want to be there in the first place?

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Letting People Be

Now that I’m residing in the wild and whacky world that is Seattle, I’m surrounded by diversity the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. I’m not just talking about different races and cultures. I’m talking about different lifestyles. On any given day, I can cross paths with a man with bright purple dreadlocks down to his ankles, a woman wearing a witch hat, cross dressers of every stripe, people who will only eat raw vegetables and call you a murderer if you don’t follow their lead, free love activists, and couples who host cuddle parties.

I love this diversity. I revel in it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I have to be honest. There is a tiny little part of me that feels awkward in these situations. It’s way out of my comfort zone. These are encounters I would never have had in the conservative cultural backwater of ignorance that is Northeast Florida.

I had no idea how sheltered I was until I came to Seattle. Actually, “sheltered” is not the right word. That implies that I was being protected from bad people. It’s more like I was closed off. Shut away. I now totally understand why Florida is such a red state. They don’t know any better. It’s hard to have an open mind when you spend all your time in a tiny little room with no windows, culturally speaking.

Here in Seattle, I seem to be growing up. I’m learning to relax that Florida muscle that instinctively tries to force people into neatly ordered cubby holes. I’m learning to let people be. I have no idea why that should be so hard, but a lot of people have trouble with it.

So, yeah, all this is new to me. And there’s a little squirmy feeling I get inside sometimes because of it. But you know what? Bring it on! I welcome the squirm if it means I get to see the wider world in all its exciting variations.

I feel like I’m seeing the universe in color for the very first time. A little scary. A little unexpected. But oh, how beautiful it is!

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[Image credit: NASA.gov]

How Do Men Do It?

At the risk of setting the women’s movement back 50 years, I have to say there are certain characteristics that are more traditionally male that I’d much rather not take on. Having recently thrown my hat into the dating ring, I’ve been trying to make the first move a lot more than I ever had to in my younger days. This goes against all my instincts. I’m so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see it from here. But my current philosophy is nothing ventured, nothing gained, and therefore I’ve been putting myself out there. Or at least I’ve been trying. So far all this has gotten me is a boatload of rejection.

Men may not like rejection, but they’re more used to it. Life is really a numbers game, and they have been made to understand this since early childhood. I, on the other hand, have had the luxury of sitting back and letting relationships come to me up to this point. And I had no idea what a luxury that was. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s giving me blisters.

There is other man stuff I would never be able to incorporate into my character. I am totally cool with asking directions. I can’t imagine my default position being that I should act as though I know what I’m talking about even when I’m not sure. That would close me off from all the many fonts of information that come in the form of friends, family, and coworkers. I’d feel completely isolated if my only brain trust were my own brain, as formidable as it may be.

I’m also not particularly competitive. I’m happy when others win. I’m surprised when others resent it when I win.

Despite the fact that I deal with discrimination everywhere from the workplace to the used car lot, I have to say I’m really glad I’m not a man. It’s just not in me.

'You two need to get over yourselves and just ask for directions.'

Best Laid Plans

‘Twas a rainy Seattle morning, and I was looking forward to a nice quiet shift on the bridge. Most boaters would not be out in this muck. I planned to drink my green tea, write my blog, and just relax.

Then a maintenance crew showed up. I had forgotten they were coming. No big deal. They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing. They need very little help from me. I just need to ensure that I don’t open the bridge while they’re hip-deep in machinery. Easy enough. We have safety procedures in place.

Then I heard the skidding of brakes. That sound instantly puts me on edge. I looked out the window, and there’s a bicyclist lying unconscious in the middle of the street. Not good. In fact, very, very bad. A crowd is already gathering. Traffic is backing up. I call 911. The first responders arrive with lightning speed. Then I call traffic control to let them know the road is blocked. Then the paperwork begins.

All told, the situation lasted less than an hour, but I’m still rattled. Why is that? The woman is going to be all right, but from the looks of her, she won’t be eating soup for quite some time. She landed face first on the grating.

I’m sure part of my feeling is the aftermath of an adrenaline dump. That’s never fun. But there’s also this feeling of being uprooted. I expected to be in one place (a nice quiet control tower, with my green tea and my blog) and was instead thrust headlong into another (your basic SNAFU). I almost felt as though I’d been abducted.

In addition, my ability to plan and organize was ripped from me. I had no time to prepare. These are comfort zones that I dislike having to depart from.

I didn’t panic. Everything went as smoothly as it could, given the circumstances. And while I wish this hadn’t happened to that poor woman, if it had to, it went as well as it could.

And yet I’m still rattled. But I still have my green tea and my blog.

I think I need a hug.

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Telling My Story

There’s a group here in Seattle called Fresh Ground Stories that meets once a month. I’ve been dying to attend one of their events ever since I heard about it, but unfortunately they always seem to meet on a night when I work. That seems to be the case with all the cool groups in town.

This is a storytelling group, and each month they have a theme. This month’s theme was, “Who do you think you are? Stories that define you.” Well, honestly, after the year I’ve had and all the changes I’ve been through, how could I possibly resist?

So I wrote out a speech and I refined it and rehearsed it for weeks. I was a nervous wreck. 150 people were expected to attend. This would definitely be out of my comfort zone, but I arranged to take the night off anyway.

The more I rehearsed, the more I thought of this experience as closure. It felt as though telling my story would put a period at the end of the sentence, and I could say to myself, okay, now I’m here, in Seattle. This is home. What’s next?

As introverted as I am, even walking into a crowded venue all by myself is a scary proposition, but it turns out that Roy Street Coffee and Tea is a very comfortable place to be. The host of this event, Paul Currington, was a reassuring presence as well, and did a quick outline of the rules so that no one was left floundering. And then he told of a delightful tradition that he has. He says it takes guts for newbies to step on stage and tell their stories, so he always gives the first newbie of the night one of Roy Street’s delicious pastries, which he calls “The Scone of Courage”. But tonight they were out of scones, so he was giving out “The Banana Bread of Bravado”. I was charmed.

The first speaker stood and told a wonderful story, and it was quite clear that she had done this before, because she was quite good. Then to my utter shock, my name was called next. Hooo. I was shaking from head to toe. I had to plant my feet solidly in order to even remain upright. And then I began to tell my story.

Something that hadn’t happened in the million times I rehearsed it was my getting really emotional halfway through. I actually choked up a bit. I thought, “If you start crying right now, you’re going to completely lose it.” It took a lot for me to keep it together. Later, Paul told me that there was a collective gasp in the audience when I got to that part of the story. I didn’t hear it. I was so scared I couldn’t hear anything.

Well, actually, that’s not true. I did hear people laugh in all the right places. What a freakin’ rush! Now I know why people become performers! I want that feeling again. Soon. And often.

Before I knew it, I had made it through my story. I think I skipped a paragraph, but hey, that’s not too bad, considering. And nobody knew but me. The next thing I knew, I was being handed The Banana Bread of Bravado, and banana bread has never tasted so good.

Afterward a lot of people approached me and thanked me for telling my story, which made me feel great, and I think, I hope, we’ll see, I made a friend or two. I know I gave out my e-mail address to a bunch of wonderful people, and I really hope they will be in touch.

So what follows is the speech I gave, more or less. Don’t cringe when you see all the sentence fragments. It was meant to be spoken, not read. Paul also records these stories, and he sent me the mp3 of my speech, so I put it on line. If you’d like to hear it, go here. I think it’s much better with the audience feedback and the sound of the espresso machine in the background!

Who do I think I am? That’s a really good question. In the past year I’ve been so many things…

But let me start back in 2010 when I met Chuck, the absolute love of my life. He was a gorgeous force of nature. When I found out that he had spent weeks in a heavy black gorilla suit in a Florida July to promote his family’s start up business, I thought, “This is a man who will do anything, including making a fool of himself, for the people he loves. This is the man for me.” My life with him was full of passion and laughter and fun. The best years of my life. So far.

We did have our share of challenges, but we had each other’s backs. That’s all that mattered.

Then, about a year ago I went to Connecticut to visit my favorite Aunt. Chuck stayed home in Florida and worked and took care the dogs.

While I was up there, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. It turned out to be the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, calling to tell me that they had found Chuck, dead in his pick up truck, clutching his asthma inhaler in the pharmacy parking lot two blocks from our home.

Yeah. So that was that.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life was picking myself up off that hotel room floor.

Boy, did I feel sorry for the total stranger who was sitting next to me on that plane trip home. I was blubbering the whole way, and he was looking at me like I might be a suicide bomber or something. And I was in no mood to explain.

Since Chuck and I weren’t married, all I have left of that four year relationship is two of his t-shirts, a stuffed animal, some pictures and a lot of memories.

And then I got kicked out of our home when I couldn’t keep up with the rent alone. Good times.

So I was talking to a coworker one day, saying, “Man, I have got to get out of this town!” I never liked Jacksonville. It’s an ignorant,  cultural backwater, but now that I had to drive past that pharmacy parking lot every day on the way to work, I hated it.

Well, he told me about a job opening in Seattle, and I thought, “Hmm. Never been to Seattle, but what have I got to lose that I haven’t already lost?” So I applied for it.

To my utter shock, they interviewed me over the phone, and hired me sight unseen. You see, I had been opening drawbridges in Florida for 13 years, and now I open them in Seattle. Yep. I’m that girl who makes you late to work, but at least I’m doing it for twice as much money and actual benefits for a change!

I borrowed a fortune from my sister and got a lot of help from friends and total strangers through an indiegogo fundraising campaign, and I drove myself and my dogs and all my stuff out here 9 months ago, But that’s a story all its own.

And I love it here. I love where I live. I love my job. I love this city! My God, do I love this city. It’s so nice to no longer feel like the only liberal turd in a conservative punchbowl! It’s so refreshing!

The downside is that with my weird work schedule I’ve yet to make any friends. (I actually had to take the night off to come here, and I work every weekend) There are times when I’m so lonely it’s physically painful.

So I’ve been a lover, a griever, an adapter, a mover, a risk taker, an adventurer, and an explorer. Who do I think I am now? I’m a survivor, but I’m also a work in progress. I’m learning to accept my own vulnerability and my own flaws. I have torn myself down to the very foundations, and at the age of 50 I’m slowly but surely building myself back up. Starting over at 50 isn’t for sissies, let me tell you.

I had a dream the other night. I was talking to Chuck and I said, “If you were alive, I wouldn’t be here. But I love it here. I hate that you’re gone, but I like where I’m going. How does that work?” He didn’t say anything. But I feel like he’s with me and he’s proud of me. And that means everything to me.

So one last thing: I have enjoyed exploring this city and this state alone, but it sure would be nice to have a friend or two to do stuff with. So if you have room in your heart for a Floridian who has been through the swamps and battled some gators, here I am, y’all.

Here I am.

Fresh Ground Stories

Nope, that’s not me up there. This is a picture from a past story event that I pulled off Flickr.  This is exactly the set up, though.

My Favorite Things

When I was a child I used to drink Hawaiian Punch and Tang by the 50 gallon drum. Now I can’t stand the stuff. I also used to eat Cap’n Crunch straight out of the box as a snack. Ugh, the thought of that much sugar makes me feel slightly ill now.

No one is surprised when one’s tastes change from childhood, but until very recently it actually never occurred to me that my tastes could change as an adult as well. I had been clinging to my favorite things out of habit rather than preference. A change in perspective can change many things indeed.

For instance, my favorite fruit has always been the pomegranate. I used to wait for them to come in season with great anticipation. But then about a month ago I bought two and they are still sitting in the refrigerator. Pomegranates are messy and they take effort, and I find I just can’t be bothered. I actually think I prefer oranges these days.

I also have noticed I’m more drawn to the color red than to lilac, my lifelong default color. I don’t know which came first, the change in color or my change in personality, but there you have it. Red is now my favorite color.

Once it dawned on me that I could have new favorites, transformations have been cropping up left and right. I no longer like so much mustard on my hot dogs. I’m growing impatient with some types of music. I am much more in tune with my cravings.

It’s so easy to get into a rut or hibernate in a comfort zone. Take some time to question your choices. Listen to that inner voice. (Not the psychopathic one. The other one.) Shake things up. It’s actually quite liberating once you get the hang of it.

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Comfort Zones

As much as I love to travel and explore and experience new things, I have to admit that I thrive on routine. I like to know what’s coming next. I enjoy just going through the motions without having to think or plan. There’s a reason it’s called a comfort zone. It’s quite comfortable indeed.

I’m currently in a unique position where I don’t have any routine established. It doesn’t help that my work schedule is so varied and insane right now that it would be hard to create one. But when I get the chance I will be making a routine from scratch. What an opportunity!

I have already decided that whenever the weather is nice I’ll spend as much time as possible outdoors, because nice weather is rather rare in this neck of the woods, so I should enjoy it while I can. On those days when I get off work in the early afternoon I have been eating my dinner in the back yard while watching the dogs play. More of that, please.

And I’m trying to eat healthier, and now that I have a tub I plan to take long baths regularly. I sort of look at these things as gifts that I give to myself. I’ve earned that much.

I got myself a hummingbird feeder in the hopes that they would establish a routine as well, but the little guys have yet to discover it. New routines apparently take time to take hold, even in nature. But they sure do feel good when they’re in place.

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