Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On Little Things and Books

Here's the thing about culture shock thus far--and I admit that it my be different for me, in that A) thus far I've been (relatively) fluent in the language of every country in which I've spent time and B) I'm picking up and moving every few days like a particularly capricious and whimsical tornado tromping its way through a trailer park: it's not necessarily what I expected. Speaking a different language? Not a problem (although the day where I traveled from London to Mainz with a stopover in Belgium and got 4 different languages in one day was more than a little exhausting and made my brain feel like lukewarm spaghetti). Different cultures? Groovy! What a great chance to learn! Restaurants that do things in a slightly different order than what I want? Kill me now.

It's the little things that are exhausting--the minutiae that govern every day, the rules you don't think about that are subtly, almost imperceptibly different that trip you up and make you feel like a crazy person. So, just for fun, here are a few of the little things that are perplexing in their differences because seriously why would these be different anywhere it's so eeeeaaaasssssyyy *screaming noises*:

-I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: neither bathrooms nor water are for free I can't get over this, and refuse to on general principle. And so I spend every day a dehydrated mess with a bladder teetering on the edge of a catastrophic, Old-Faithful-esque explosion.
-There's no standardization in restaurant protocol--when to sit down, when to pay, how to pay, where to pay. This doesn't seem to bug anyone else, but every time I eat out it's an exercise in floaty-dancing.
-Americans are spoiled rotten with street signs, in that we actually have them. Stop taking this for granted. Alternately, apparently Europeans have the kind of honed and preternatural senses of direction about which we can only dream.
-Rules of the road (or lack thereof): I have yet to fully understand traffic laws anywhere I go, and am convinced that it will be this lack of understanding, and not a pack of wild Russian dogs or an exotic illness or anything like that which will be the death of me out here. In London no one pays attention to the walk/don't walk signs except when they do, and every time I thought I figured out the pattern I'd casually almost get run over by a Vespa. In Germany people obey the walk/don't walk signs with wild-eyed dedication except when they don't and I could never quite get the rhythm down for that either. Point is, if you go overseas you'll probably get run over. Act accordingly.
-Cussing is taboo in the US, but just a fact of life here--just today I've seen at least two different billboards/ads that would make a Sunday school teacher scarping off into the hills.
-On that note--tragically, I never got a picture of the Dildo King billboards in Berlin, but they were everywhere. This is a city that is incredibly passionate about selling dildos (dildoes? What's the grammatically correct way to pluralize dildo? Dildae? Dils-do?).
-personal space. Again, Americans are spoiled rotten, in that over here it's *not* generally assumed that everyone will stay at least an armslength away. If you get a foot then today is a good day for you.
-Post offices--German bureaucracy is maddening and confusing, but German postal workers (at least from my limited sample of one office in Prenzlauer Berg) are delightful human beings. It may have taken me 40 minutes, but I got my package sent and the woman who helped me didn't even make e feel like an idiot while doing it.

I'm sure there are other examples--and they'll bug me the second I step out the door--but the point is this: it's not the big cultural differences that make you do a double take; it's the everyday occurrences that you suddenly  can't negotiate, and everyone around you can't comprehend why you don't know what's going on because who doesn't know that? It's wacky?

Parting note: I've decided during my trip to try and only read books that take place in or capture the spirit of the countries I'm visiting. I cheated a bit at the beginning and read At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, which is very much about Dublin, but is also very much about Ireland's relationship with the UK, so I allowed it. Why I decided to start with a 600 page historical epic is anyone's guess, but it meant I had to skip my Germany book. But now I'm in France--I read Perfume: Story of a Murderer on the train here, and, in a fit of woeful optimism, will start A Tale of Two Cities tonight. If I somehow plow through that, I've got The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer to tide me over (or, if it comes to it, to work as my Hungary book). And once I hit Italy am morally and legally obligated to read Andre Aciman's Call me by Your Name, which is arguably my favorite book and takes place in Italy. What I want/need, however, are suggestions for all the other countries. So, if you have a favorite book that takes places in or evokes (deep breath) Spain, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand, please do let me know! Save me time googling so I can spend more time doing what I really love--getting lost on European trains and then pretending I know exactly where I'm going.


  1. The Good Earth or The Small Woman - China
    The Tale of Genji, Japan

  2. Don Quixote, Spain
    A Time of Gifts, partly in Czech Republic, also in Germany and Austria
    Dr Zhivago, Anna Karenina -Russia

  3. Oo oo - I got this. It's old, but ... Lonely Planet's "The Travel Book" suggests...

    Spain: (ditto on "Don Quixote") or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (it's about the civil war -- even if it's Hemingway)

    Morocco: "Year of the Elephant" (Leila Abouzeid) / "Women of Marrakesh" (Lenora Peet) (a non-Muslim women's account of the Muslim women)

    The Czech Republic: "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" (Milan Kundera) -- absurdity of communist era + love/memory/music
    OR "Utz" (Bruce Chatwin) novella about porcelain and alchemy -- Jewish Prague

    Poland: "The Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland" (Norman Davies)

    Lithuania: "Balta drobule" (Antanas Skma) -- stream of consciousness literature

    Latvia: "Lacplesis (The Bear Slayer)"-- (by Andrejs Pumpurs ...) it's a national epic from folk tales.

    Russian federation: War and Peace (Tolstoy), if you're feeling brave.

    Mongolia: "The Secret History of the Mongols" (life + history of Genghis Khan)

    China: "The Search for Modern China (Jonathan D Spence) or, as mentioned before -- Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth" / "Imperial Woman"

    Japan: "Inside Japan" (Peter Tasker - culture/society/econ) ... "Kitchen" (Banana Yoshimoto) 'hauntingly beautiful story' set in Tokyo

    Hong Kong: "An Insular Posession" (Timothy Mo) - pre-colonial HK ... OR "Fragrant Harbour" (John Lanchester) - more recent

    Vietnam: "The Sorrow of War" (Bao Ninh) -- a cynical take on the Vietnam War. (it won at least one award in Vietnam)

    Cambodia: "The River of Time" (John Swain) - journalistic memoir of Khmer Rogue.... tragedy.

    Thailand: "Pan Ma Ba" (Mad Dog & Co) (by Chart Kobjitti) -- an account of the foreigner scene in Thailand ... or "Thai Food" (David Thompson) haha

    Seems like an interesting read! Let us know how it goes :D Thanks for the blog!