Thursday, June 19, 2014

When In Rome (Tirana Or Mons........)

Its a phrase I've heard expressed by fellow Americans over and over again; why can't life in other countries be more like life in America. I heard it while living in Albania, I'm hearing it now that we are in Belgium and I've even heard it from Americans traveling in other countries. There is comfort in the predictable and the known and it seems as though many people, and Americans in particular, want this level of comfort regardless of where they are in the world. But for me, it begs the question of why are we overseas if what we really want is our American lives. If we are tourists in foreign cities why would we want to eat the same meal that we can get at our local Hard Rock Cafe or McDonald's at home?

It is a little more complex for those of us who are actually living overseas. For some of us, the move may have been a family decision that was discussed and agreed upon by everyone involved.  But for others, the move to a new country may have been a work driven decision where everyone in the family isn't on board. We may not like change, the unexpected, or "foreign" ways of doing things. Regardless of the circumstances, however, I honestly don't think we as Americans should have any expectation of the locals changing their ways and the way they live to accommodate us. After all, would we do the same for foreign visitors in our country?

Having lived overseas for three years in two separate and very different countries, I completely understand the frustrations of longing for the comforts and familiarity of home. There are days that I would love to be able to go to the grocery store and immediately recognize the labels on the products lining the shelves. And convenience stores? How wonderful would it be to be able to pop into a store to pick up a single item late at night.  A one stop store similar to a CVS where you can fill prescriptions and buy a bottle of shampoo at the same time. Nope, not an option here either (although it is wonderful to go to a pharmacy without a prescription and walk out with the medicine you need). But alas, these really aren't options for me in Belgium and I don't expect Belgians to build these stores simply to appease my desire for American conveniences.

I personally love food and am open to trying new foods whenever the opportunity arises. I realize that many people don't share this philosophy and that is fine. But just because a food is foreign to you doesn't give you license to insult it and the people who enjoy it. Just because it isn't eaten in America doesn't mean it is bad or inedible. Believe it or not, there are people who don't relish the idea of eating bacon, barbecue ribs or a Big Mac. The legal age for drinking alcohol is lower in Europe than it is in the United States but does that mean that Europe needs to change their laws to accommodate what Americans are accustomed to and comfortable with? I think not. As Americans we may be accustomed to a certain level of customer service in stores, a rapid response from the police when a crime occurs, and a give and take relationship with our children's teachers. But as Americans abroad we need to adjust our ways and expectations to what is the local norm. After all, nothing perpetuates the ugly American personae than expecting everyone else to change their ways to make us comfortable.

So when in Rome, Tirana, Mons or whichever foreign city I find myself in, I continually remind myself that I am merely a guest in the country. I may find some practices odd or simply different than what I am used to, but I will do my best to assimilate to and learn from the local culture. I certainly won't insult it because their way of doing something is new to me. When I return home I may savor (maybe) the conveniences and comforts that are unique to America. But in the meantime I'm going to try to live like a local, however different that may be from what I am used to.

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