“America, we need to talk. I’ve been away for awhile and though I miss certain aspects of you, I really don’t miss others.”
This is the thought I’ve had multiple times over the last few months. Like I could have this crazy, analytical conversation with a whole country, or really just the stereotype of a country. And yes, I probably shouldn’t listen to stereotypes and some of you may be saying, “Who cares about stereotypes? We’re America!” But let’s look at the progress here folks- I can find fault in my home country and even more than that, I can point out things I am wary to return to. Progress!
When my mom has some constructive criticism, she says “May I just say…” And America, may I just say, we have a cell phone problem. I mean, we use them ALL THE TIME. And we don’t just use them in our cars or our homes or offices. We use them everywhere. I really noticed it in New York. I lived in New York for three years without a smart phone- just an old brick phone. For the entire time Josh and I dated in New York, I was using good old SMS texting. I had to look up places on a map before I left the previous place. When we visited New York, I physically ran into people multiple times because we were on our phones looking up where to go. This is a good thing that cell phones have done for us. But a lot of people are missing out on an amazing city and the ridiculous things that only happen there because they are looking down into a phone screen to see a virtual picture of what is in front of them.
But, before I sound like a crazy old person talking about the good old days, here’s what I really want to talk about. We are so, so very loud. I come from a loud family. In the past, I have been described as a loud person. But I love that people are quiet here. People speaking on phones in public is rare. I feel rude when I do it. On subways, trams and buses, you cannot hear other conversations very well. Unless they are British or American. Then you can hear it. And yes, I did wonder if it was just that I only really heard English conversations and could ignore French ones. So I did an experiment. Long story short, it is not about the language. It is about the volume.
Once in church, a former pastor and his family came back to visit. They were thanking the congregation for the things they had learned during their time at the church. The pastor’s wife said, “Thank you for teaching us to speak more quietly.” After they shared, the woman sitting in front of me turned and asked, “Did that resonate with you? The loud part? As an American?” Taking a deep breath, I chose to not be personally offended and instead shared my own realization that America is a loud place. And then realized my voice and volume have decreased significantly since moving here.
Another example: An American friend came to visit and we were explaining the honor system for public transportation. You buy tickets but it is rare to be checked. . My friend, in her normal tone of voice, asked, “So you didn’t pay for your tickets? You NEVER pay for your tickets?” We got a few looks that time. And yes, we do pay for our tickets especially now that you can pay via text message. And because if you get caught forgetting to buy them three times, you can be deported
But don’t feel too badly. All English speakers tend to be loud. Case in point: a few friends went skiing with us and to get to the slopes, we had to take a very long telepherique ride to the base of the resort. It usually takes five minutes. Since it was early in the day, the cabin was very full. Something happened two minutes in and the cable car stopped, swinging above the trees and valley below. Everyone was fine for the first few minutes and then the car moved a little and everyone got very quiet. Except a British guy (full disclosure: he may have been Australian) who narrated the entire twenty minute adventure on his phone. “Oh, sorry love, the car just dropped again. Yeah, everyone’s pretty nervous. Oh yeah, I mean, this whole thing could fall. People are really scared.” Everyone hated that guy.
One of the reasons I can be so much quieter here is that everyone I would talk to is asleep for the first half of the day (see previous post here). And I think that has taught me a valuable lesson about filling my time and ears. I have found I like quiet. In college, I studied in coffee shops because silence was so foreign to the Anderson in me. When your brother has a band that practices in the basement every day, a lack of noise indicates something is very wrong. Yes, I leave my phone on silent and miss a few calls but I also get to remember that there is something good about not always being in the loop and not always being available to everyone. It’s humbling to realize not everyone wants to hear you. And more than that, it’s polite to be quiet.
I’m not perfect in this regard. Get me around other Americans or get me upset about something and I can get loud. But we are drowning in noise. I cannot begin to describe how jarring it is to land at Dulles and hear everyone’s personal conversations as soon as the seatbelt sign is off. I don’t particularly care to hear everyone’s opinions about their meals or their flights or the latest problems they are having with their moms.
But, I wanted to make you aware of the not-so-far-off-base stereotype that is floating around out there. Maybe we can work on it. Until then, I am just enjoying the fact that there is another thing I like more about living in Europe. Progress!