Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part I

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The distance from Paris to Little Rock can be covered in about 14 hours of hard flying: my knees were jammed into the back of the reclined coach seat even before take-off, and I passed the time slipping through semi-sleep, watching four movies and three sitcoms, and tucking my elbow in as the attendants trundled their carts and passed out pretzel packs, drinks, and barely edible microwave box meals—not that it’s the flight attendants’ fault.

From the moment we hit the concourse in Atlanta, there was no mistaking the fact that we were back in the U.S. Despite being an international airport, I didn’t even have to hear people speak. Differences in style were plainly evident. There was just a different look in Atlanta that stood out after visiting Iceland and Norway, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, and living eight weeks in London. For the most part, gone were the clean, sleek, simple lines of clothes tailored to fit. The classy European look was replaced with baggy sweat shirts and hoodies, usually promoting a college. The skinny jeans and narrowly cut sports coats were replaced by the faded jeans and khakis and blazers of the Southern business traveler. Rather than the short skirts and tights favored by women in London, younger American women tended toward stretch pants, jeans with rips and tears, and sweats, while older women wore slacks and loud print blouses. Even though there weren’t smokers in every doorway (it being an airport), it struck me just how many people chewed gum, their jaws never stopping while they waited on the next flight. The further west we flew from Paris, the more ball caps and boots came out, and by the time we got to Arkansas, camouflage was in full blossom.

European Fashion 1

European Fashion 1

Arkansas Fashion 1

Arkansas Fashion 1

European Fashion 2

European Fashion 2

Arkansas Fashion 2

Arkansas Fashion 2

European Fashion 3

European Fashion 3

Arkansas Fashion 3

Arkansas Fashion 3

Once outside the airport in Little Rock, I was overwhelmed by the predominance of giant SUVs and, not just pickup trucks, but those “country boy loaded” three-quarter ton, dual cab, four wheel drive monsters that appear on your tailgate and blind you with eye-high headlights. Other than Iceland, where SUVs that had been converted into “Super Jeeps” served a practical purpose, I saw few cars bigger than a Camry, though there were lots of smaller crossovers that were somewhere between a station wagon and a small SUV. At most, I saw no more than one, possibly two, pickup trucks in three months abroad in Europe. Driving home from the airport the unrelenting string of strip malls, car dealerships, metal buildings, trailer parks, junkyards, and crapped up individual homes that radiate out from Little Rock to Cabot, mile after mile of a landscape filled with clutter. Even in the country houses, small metal businesses, and farm buildings dotted the land in a shotgun pellet pattern, and each building seemed to be decorated with a ring of stuff—tools and equipment, like tractors; junk, like old car bodies and rusting parts; outright trash piles; and multiple inflatable pools, trampolines, deer stands, and equipment sheds. The highway was strewn with trash thrown out windows or kited from the beds of pickups.

On our week in Iceland we had covered five or six hundred miles by van and super jeep; From London we took buses, trains, and boats to Stonehenge, Salisbury, Bath, Oxford, Dover, Canterbury, Stratford–upon-Avon, Greenwich, the Lake District and York. We rode a bus from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, and from Edinburgh to Belfast, Northern Ireland (after a ferry) and south to Dublin and Galway. I had spent a three day weekend in Stavanger, Norway, where we toured the fjords by boat and were enchanted by idyllic fishing villages nestled right down to the water. I had driven by car from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Bruges and Bastogne in Belgium, across Luxembourg, and all the way to Paris, and in the whole trip, I kept wondering, where are the smoking cars held together with duct tape and slathered with bumper stickers, where are the house trailers and shotgun shacks and private junkyards I take for granted when I drive through towns and between towns where I live in the United States. I never saw anything like that in Europe, and I was looking.

To be fair, the shock of returning to Arkansas was offset by the sight of one of my longest friends, leaning against a pillar in the baggage claim area, ready to take my family the hour drive home. I nearly cried when I was overwhelmed by my Australian Shepherd, the only thing about Arkansas I really missed. I cultivated the affection of the cat who I expected most missed me, though it took a couple of days for Lucinda to fully forgive me and resume her pattern of following me from room to room, waiting outside the bathroom door, and curling in my lap whenever I settle into a chair. It felt good to jump start my old Chevy Blazer, a car I love to drive despite its squeaks, despite the passenger door that can never be trusted as fully and securely shut, despite the fourth year without a working air conditioner or a second gear. Whatever I left behind I Paris and London, Belgium and the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, and Norway, that evening I was home, for better or worse.

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