America is a foreign place. This shouldn’t be so. I’m American. I was born here. I’ve lived most of my life here. But five years ago I left and moved to Belgium. Five eventful years of economic recession and political dysfunction and environmental catastrophe. Now I’m back in the same city, same neighborhood, even same street where I last lived. But nothing is quite the same.
When my husband got a transfer to Brussels and we packed up the family, I was scared but also excited. I found a job involving European Union public policy and started a fascinating new career. Our living costs declined and quality of life rose. (We found we were spending a third less than we used to, thanks largely to free education and cheap healthcare.) But our daughter’s English started to slip. She lost touch with American culture. Fearing she’d never feel at home in America if we didn’t go back, we left Brussels and returned to our previous home city of Chicago.
I expected the transition to be difficult, but I didn’t expect America to feel so foreign. These days, when looking at my neighborhood, I sometimes feel as if I’m surveying damage after a storm. “For Rent” signs are as numerous as “For Sale” signs used to be. My hairdresser says she’s “hanging in there” but has abandoned her dream of opening a shoe store. My dentist is still in business, but his office is now staffed by family. The gourmet food shop is gone, as is the pretentious French restaurant. Now there’s a weekly farmers market that accepts food stamps. Neighbors grow vegetables on their front lawn and keep chickens in the back. Cocky confidence has been replaced by a quiet hunkering down.
Only my daughter’s pediatrician seems to be prospering, but my impression may be due to the size of the staff her practice employs. “What on earth do all these people do?” I thought when I took my daughter there recently. One answer: make mistakes in the billing–mistakes that take additional time and staffers to undo. I was quickly knee-deep in health insurance red tape. In Belgium, which has a mixed public and private system, our doctor worked alone out of a simple home office. We paid her cash.
Minutes after my phone was installed, I received the first of a string of automated “welcoming” phone calls from companies, followed by an avalanche of personalized letters selling home security systems, duct cleaning, satellite TV, car insurance, restaurants, and food delivery services. Our phone would ring with scam calls about credit cards I don’t have, calls asking for donations to police officer funds, calls for credit repair services. I wanted to be a good citizen–the sort of person who has a neighborhood map, list of community activities, and instructions for proper recycling on the fridge. But I felt like my country just wanted me to be a good consumer.
When I actually am a consumer, I’m treated like a friend. Gone is “Hello, may I help you?” Now it’s “How are you?” At first, I wondered why these strangers cared and was too surprised to respond. After it happened numerous times, I asked store clerks why they were greeting me this way. The answer: “customer service training.” Waiters introduce themselves by their first names, break into conversations to ask how I’m doing, and sometimes comment on what I’ve left on my plate. Even my family isn’t that intrusive.
It’s not just customer service that’s strangely intimate. People I’ve never met before pepper me with so many questions I feel like I’m being frisked. How did my parents feel about our living in Europe? What do I do for a living? What does my husband do? Where does my daughter go to school? What’s my house like? I’ve wondered if I used to be this way, too. We go deep in our conversations, but without emotional investment. It’s like a conversational one-night stand. Now I understand what foreigners mean when they complain about that American who seemed so interested in learning all about them and then was never heard from again.
Maybe one reason for the rise of personal questions is that the range of neutral conversational topics has become so narrow. It’s as if certain subjects have turned into landmines that I obliviously trip off. When I’m asked what I miss most about Belgium and answer “free, high-quality healthcare and education,” some people take it as a political statement, as if I’m a socialist crusader. Or I’ll mention that I don’t plan to get a car, a statement that provokes, at best, incredulity. In Brussels, you felt guilty if your child went to school by car. At my daughter’s school in Chicago, administrators gave me a parking permit and couldn’t answer any questions about public transportation.
Mostly, though, everyone just seems tired and in need of a good rest. Even on Sundays, people are busy working or consuming: getting haircuts, buying electronics, carting around groceries. We’re a religious country, but we don’t pay much heed to the Sabbath. I’d gotten used to everything being closed on Sunday. We’d just relax and spend time with family and friends. Now, when I wake up Sunday morning, I pretend everything is closed.
I don’t mean to bellyache and find fault with everything. I love our superior public libraries. I love our public radio and television stations. I love our free public water fountains and restrooms. I love wandering around in grocery stores filled with giddy glee as I rediscover the foods of my childhood. Ooh, peanut butter! Wow, graham crackers! Yippee, marshmallows! And most of all I love seeing family and friends.
But I’m still bewildered, still trying to figure out how much America has changed, and how much I’ve changed. Sometimes, I feel like telling my friends to cut me a little slack. If I do something rude, it’s not on purpose. I’ve just forgotten how things work. And my thoughts, I admit, are often about how to hold onto some qualities of the life we had while overseas–the calm, the sense of community. Can any of those things become part of American life, too? The rest of the world has things to teach us, if we’ll let it. I don’t entirely remember what sort of American I was before I left, but perhaps that doesn’t matter so much. The real question is what sort of American I will be now.
Article first appeared on Zocalo Public Square on November 20, 2011.
Photo: Janice Thomson