An alien at the grocery store

I love how innately friendly Americans are. Our ability to make a complete stranger feel like a long lost pal is our most well-known trait. Ask a foreigner to describe the average American and the first thing they’ll say is “friendly.”

The first American I encountered as a I left Scandinavia a few weeks back confirmed this, although he also made me realize how much I’ve changed. As I settled in on the plane, preparing for the eight-and-a-half hour flight, the man across the aisle addressed me. Over the din of the airplane engine I wasn’t sure what he said but my immediate reaction was to become defensive: “Don’t worry, my son is really well-behaved on airplanes.” I hadn’t been in Europe long before I realized that striking up a conversation with a complete stranger is uncommon and typically done when asking someone to get out of your way or to tell your child to, well, stop behaving like a child. That’s why I was surprised when the man continued the conversation but as soon as I heard his American accent I softened up – and rightly so. It turns out that Dave (for, of course, proper introductions followed) was simply commenting that since my husband, son and I had four empty seats all to ourselves, perhaps we might get some sleep. How kind of him to say so.

By the time the stewardess was serving dinner I had gotten my groove back. I learned that Dave was from Connecticut where he has a wife and three kids, and that he had been traveling overseas for work. I shared a bit about myself and by the time we were in the immigration line at Dulles Airport, I had talked him into reading a Benjamin Franklin biography.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life.

Our journey home was smooth. As the plane descended and the pilot made his final announcements in Norwegian (before switching to English), I breathed a little sigh of relief that for the next few weeks I would understand all of the words I heard around me.

My first few days home were a blur. Jet lag takes a longer to overcome when you have a toddler so I was awake at odd hours and hungry at all the wrong times. But I didn’t care. My brother-in-law had stocked up on my favorite American comfort foods and even though on the first night my son woke me up at 3am for breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier watching him hungrily stuff Eggo Waffles in his mouth.

The next day a quick trip to the grocery store made me realize exactly how much my day-to-day habits have changed. Sitting in a car felt strange and boring. We don’t have a car in Norway, nor do we need one. Oslo, like most European cities, is built so that you can walk or hop on a train to get just about everywhere.

Walking up and down the grocery store aisles I suddenly felt a pang of jealousy of how much is available in the US, while I am sitting up at the North Pole fantasizing about ready-made rice pudding pots and buying pancake mix at a regular grocery store (rather than at an expensive specialty shop in Oslo). The sheer volume and variety was, for the very first time, overwhelming. I spent 10 minutes examining the yogurt shelf only to come home without any because I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

A simple exchange at the cash register suddenly felt complicated. In Norway, sales tax is built into the advertised price of an item, allowing you to have exact change ready to hand over. But in the US the measly 6 or 7% tax is factored in at the register, which put extra pressure on my already pathetic math skills as I count pennies and nickles, which are inevitably mixed in with various European currencies no matter how hard I try to keep them separate. I keep getting flustered and just hand the cashier a large bill and then end up with more useless change than I started with.

Even the reason why I am determined to use change is European. Coins come in large denominations there which means a palmful of coppers can add up to the price of a meal.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life. When I visit I notice trivial, humdrum things that I took for granted and wonder when they will once again be part of my routine. I find that with each trip home my yearning to move back to America is slowly increasing while my sense for adventure is gradually lessening. (Extra emphasis on the words “slowly” and “gradually.”)

I think my burgeoning desire to be back in the US largely has to do with a need for familiarity. When I moved from England to Norway I went further from America geographically and culturally. Living in a consumerist society where TV ads include commercials for antidepressants and eating fruits and vegetables that have been pumped with so many chemicals that they are three times the size than they’re supposed to be is what I consider “normal.” This version of normal is what I have sorely missed and plan to enjoy while I’m on vacation.

A giant American onion.

A giant American onion.

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12 thoughts on “An alien at the grocery store

    • When I first moved to the UK I used to get frustrated that I couldn’t find a lot of things at me grocery store, but I realized that Sainsburys and Waitrose had most things, just packaged differently or in places I didn’t expect them to be. Or I found something even better – like M&S strawberry scones!

  1. There’s a happy medium somewhere between the two worlds, isn’t there? American grocery stores are certainly overwhelming — cereal aisles now frighten me a bit with their endless choices — but many things that are “normal” in the US don’t seem right to me anymore like the enormous fruit and veg you mention. Plus, that stuff tastes like crap (or cardboard at best), so is it really an improvement?

    • The giant fruits and veg aren’t an improvement by any means, and will likely be something I’ll complain about when I move back to the US, but its just that all of these things – the good and the bad – are familiar to me. And even though the cereal aisle is truly overwhelming in the US, I much prefer it to the one in Norway – there are literally about 6 cereals to choose from.

  2. Your experiences are very similar to my own. I have lived in Finland for 13 years and I am always surprised the first time I go out to eat that the waiter/waitress is so friendly, talkative and accomodating. I shouldn’t be surprised, I did grow up in the US, but I still am! The grocery stores have so much selection…it is interesting to walk the aisles and see the current food trends. Enjoy your trip!

    • I was really surprised that I found such everyday things so notable. I didn’t feel it so much when I lived in the UK, but perhaps since I moved to Norway and I visit less, or because I’ve been gone so long, I’m noticing more and more.

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us had the opportunity to see how others live and see how others live their daily lives? We would all be much more tolerant, I hope

  4. It is so odd for me to read about people moving to the country I’ve worked so hard to get away from, and I love reading about “my” culture from your POV! I am not sure I agree with you when you say Norway is further from England culturally though, as I have found it to be quite the opposite. Norway is far more “America friendly” than the UK as in my experience, but that might just be the area I grew up in. We had country music, American street names, replicated American houses, we were taught American english in school, Red Hots and Kool Aid was the bees knees and Full House was my favourite show! I have yet to meet a Brit who knows what Full House is, or one that can name a single country song for that matter… Luckily American diner food is kicking off in the UK!
    (NOW, count how many times I wrote American, haha!)

    XOX Ingy

    • I guess I can see how Norwegians have picked up a lot of American culture. I guess British culture has never felt that alien to me since my parents lived there and I’m such an anglophile when it comes to music and literature.

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