The first time I tried to wash my hands in Ireland there were separate hot and cold taps and I, a person who has been washing their own hands for 30 years, didn’t know what to do. Washing your hands with cold water seems unsanitary, but burning yourself doesn’t seem advisable either. What about trying to make a little cup with your hands and mixing the water together? Ineffectual.When you’re confronted with something silly and mundane like this in another country you feel small and strange. Luckily, a few days later someone posted on Facebook about being confused at the separate hot and cold water taps in Ireland and the UK and some of my anxiety eased. What about landing in Europe and wondering if that sign that shows a man running into what is clearly a wall and not a door is the exit? The absolute terror I feel at eating in front of other people over here because I hold my fork in my right hand. After years of beating myself up and wondering if other Canadians know how to eat properly (mostly, no) I felt some palpable relief at reading an article on some silly aggregation website about cultural differences. A European person wondered why Americans never hold their fork in the correct hand and avoid using a knife at all costs. Phew, I thought. It’s not just me, it’s my whole continent. For the record I have devised a sort of awkward fork and knife method and now just let people believe I’m left handed. There’s the obvious culture shocks like the seasons, or their absence. Constant rain is tiring and sitting by a fire, inside in July seems wrong somehow. How can I drink a festive autumn drink when it’s the same weather it has been all year? Where are the crunchy leaves and cardigans and pumpkins? There’s my pet peeve, the fact that there are some European people that disparage “the colonies” like we are still in the 18th century, boldly refusing to take blame for any of the evils that Europe has inflicted upon the world during colonial times. The times I argued with Spanish people who insist that the whole world recognises the greatness of Spanish culture while referring to all of North, Central and South America as “America”. Yes, I recognise that that is the correct way in Spanish and I’m not arguing on a linguistic level, but refusing to see two (or three) whole continents as unique, as having their own recognisable cultures and histories is confusing and strange. Of course this is not everyone but it’s not no one either. The sense of propriety here, at least in rural places such as where we live now, is stressful to me. The need to always look young and be perfectly dressed in designer clothes, your house a spotless temple filled with expensive or expensive looking things bewilders me. Sure, Canadians are vain too but in an entirely different way. Rather than attempt to look perfect all the time we dress up to make a statement. Going out without make up can say, “I don’t care what you think of me” or “my life is too busy and wonderful to put it on”. In general we don’t want everything to be too perfect or look like we put in too much effort. A designer bag or scarf is good but you might be wearing gloves from the dollar store or shoes from the charity shop.
But mostly the things that are different are delightful and entertaining. Having the washing machine in the kitchen is as logical as sequestering it away in it’s own room like a naughty child you keep out of sight. Leaving your shoes on in other people’s houses is good for everyone, you don’t have to take off your shoes and they don’t have to worry that they spilled something on the floor and didn’t properly clean it and your feet will stick to it. The nutrition information being listed on everything as per 100 grams, forcing you to either have to do some math or grossly under or overestimate how much you can eat of say, a Galaxy chocolate bar. There’s hearing an Irish name and hoping you never have to repeat it or worse, spell it. What about the great bacon debate? I firmly fall on the side of North American bacon, it’s delicious when it’s crispy or soft and you can eat it cold, hot or reheat it and it will still taste the same and it always has that smokey flavour. Of course, I wouldn’t dare say that here where I show my reverence for their bacon like my life depends on it. On the other hand, Ireland invented the breakfast roll which is a bunch of meat stuffed into a baguette and if that isn’t something that was invented by a hungover person I don’t know what is. Naturally the belief that everything from one’s own country is the best is not limited to Ireland. On social media I constantly see Canadians lining up or rather, queuing up for Tim Hortons even though McDonald’s Canada has better take away coffee and I will defend that position. It’s these small, confusing, wonderful things that make living abroad an exciting and terrifying prospect.
When you move abroad there’s an expectation that it will all be fun and easy and exciting. Even though I have spent most of my twenties moving about I still feel that when I get to the next place it will be the most exciting, that day to day life will be thrilling just because I am in a new country. That the coffee shop on the corner will be as exciting as the Eiffel Tower. And sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s frustrating, boring, plain. Sometimes you fantasise about running to the airport like you’re in a 90’s sitcom and you’ve made a terrible mistake and have to get home immediately. But sometimes you feel that you are home, that you belong and that you’ve done something right to end up where you are. And if you aren’t oscillating between these two emotions constantly, then, well, you aren’t living abroad.