Sometimes, often in fact, I forget that I’m American. I am surrounded by elegant, thoughtful, and fluently-English-speaking Europeans so often that I just assume I am one of them. The truth is that I am not.
Sure sometimes strange words, and customs alienate me, but mostly I can understand those. My strange American hugs throw some people off at first, but generally they learn to accept them laughingly in the end. Living in a multi-national, multi-cultural group of friends makes us all fairly good at understanding and accepting various different customs. There are some gaps, however, that alienate more than customs, some cultural differences we must learn to see, even if we can’t understand them.
These almost invisible gaps don’t show up very often, but when they do, I walk into them in our the way birds fly into glass windows in Windex commercials, which is to say face first and with intense impact. One of these almost invisible divides is with education. I didn’t grow up in a country with free, or practically free education. While I worked in college it was to stave off debt, Europeans worked during their educational years to gain meaningful experiences and spending money. People stay in school much longer here since it is so cheap, and so many people my age are just finishing their studies, while I am celebrating my 5-year college reunion.
Another gap my friends and I seem to be constantly falling into is travel. My European friends seem baffled by my infrequent travels, and I likewise have no idea how they seem to manage trips all over Europe every other weekend. While logically I know that it take me 20+ hours of travel to see my parents, instead of the 3 or four hours it takes them, I am constantly confused by their constant vacations. We can’t quite seem to adequately explain to each other the differences in our traveling lives.
The list goes on, beliefs I never knew I held about separation of church and state, and the right to bear arms pop up like bizarre jack-in-the-boxes. Attempts to explain my life in crime heavy neighborhoods simply don’t make sense here. While I could compare the superficial differences between Europeans and Americans for hours without much thought or impact, these deep underlying cultural fissures cause Barrier-reef-sized estrangements. These gaps, that are nearly invisible on the surface, are the ones that simultaneously make me feel the most American and the most alien.