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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Culture Shock Hits

In the U.S.

I spent most of last week at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, which, as some of you may know, is my favorite conference of the year.  Smart and fun people, lots of friends, interesting discussions to all hours, lots of sleep deprivation--you know, the usual mark of a good time. :-)  Because it was in Fort Worth (yes, Texas), I had a marathon 25-hour trip with 3 flights to get there, although I was really lucky to be able to use the second half of the business-class round-trip ticket to get there.

That being said, Texas looked SOOOOOOOOOOO weird to me when I got there.  And, yes, I realize that it is obligatory for a Californian to slam Texas--and I'm perfectly happy to indulge in one of the many pastimes of my homeland--but the things that struck me as weird were petty ubiquitously American.

1.  I don't think I've been to any European airport that isn't a cement and glass monstrosity, and sad to say, Helsinki is no different.  My personal favorite is that there aren't seats in front of many of the gates--something that cracked me up--although there are lots of bars and coffee shops.  Then I get into the US.  Even Philly, which is a notorious dump, has carpeted floors, tons of well-labeled shops, restrooms, newsstands, and then when I hit Dallas ... !!!  The funny part to me is that it just seemed excessive and wasteful.  I mean, it's not like I'm partying in the airport.  I just want to get somewhere fast and on time.

2.  Riding in the taxi from the airport, I was struck by how flat the architecture was, that is, except for the signature, ├╝berphallic skyscrapers of Dallas.  Sure, there were trees but not that many, and all the buildings everywhere seemed the same size, even when you got downtown.

3.  And are all the shopping malls designed by the same guy who specializes in a cross between southwestern and Craftsman styles?  Come on, you know what I'm talking about: c. 3 stories painted in some medium beige stucco with white accents!  They all seem to have obligatory tower that looks like a rounded, mission bell tower except the clarion is "Buy lots of stuff here.  And if you can't find it here, don't worry; there's an identical mall 25 miles away."  Don't get me wrong; I'm as happy as any Californian to go malling, but the uniformity of the look was striking.

4.  Since I have a one-day lag between the flight and the conference I scheduled a spa day at a lovely place that I found on the internet.  (It was highly rated and deserved to be.)  Let's just say Texas spas are not like Helsinki ones.  This place was either much more formal (the masseuse didn't stay in the room while you changed) or much less formal (it was in the lower level of a strip mall and let's just say ambiance wasn't its strong suit; not to mention, I felt a bit weird wandering through the spa in my towel with both men and women passing me by).  I'd either like the cheap and effective but no ambiance experience of massages in the Collegium or the fancy European day spa of Hotel Kamp.

5.  Damn, food is cheap in Texas, and, man, the portions are HUGE.

6.  Not a problem but a shock.  I hit the hotel bar my second night there and order a glass of wine (chosen by the tried-and-true method of liking the name, I might add.  I mean, how can a historian pass up a wine called Amadeus).  It was $10 a glass, and I laughed because, after just a few months in Helsinki, that didn't even phase me.  (Remember, Helsinki's the home of the 8 Euro beer.)  Then the glass arrived.  They must've poured 1/3 of the bottle into that glass!  Everything really is bigger in Texas--yippee!  Actually the funny part was that the white wine was a normal sized portion.  My friends saw mine, and some switched to red wine!

7.  I must admit that great culture shock was the HUMONGOUS room with a feather bed, feather pillows, and 32" flat screen TV.  After TV on a Macbook for these months, I could've curled up in TV and watched trashy movies for days and, boy, do I miss those feather pillows!

I'm sure there were other things, but I  can't remember them right now.  I just remember spending most of the time there thinking the place looked odd, the people behaved unusually (save for my friends, of course; we're accustomed to our own unusualness :-)  ), and most of the rooms, etc. were just oversized.  I mean, I expect reverse culture shock when I come back next summer; I just didn't expect it so soon!

So I came back to Helsinki where I had a fascinating conversation with a Palestinian taxi driver about learning Finnish, caught up with my Canadian friends, crashed with Ted, and found out that the fellow EURIAS fellow who'd passed out in the sauna was completely okay.  Now I just have to unpack the suitcase full of tortillas, masa harena, Hatch chilis, green mole, Abulita hot chocolate, and corn husks.  The plan is Mexican food for 8 for Thanksgiving!

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