Torn between two cultures

I’m guessing that most people in the translation industry are used to this question: “Which do you like better…(insert the name of your native country) or (insert the name of your “adopted” country/ies)??” I often get asked “Which do you like better, the U.S. or Europe?” It’s not an easy question to answer, but having just spent the summer in Europe, I have a few thoughts. Mostly, I think that feeling torn between two cultures is a real joy in life: two choices of location, language, identity, you name it. But it has its complications too! Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!

In general, I am really happy in the US and in Europe, for different reasons. In the US, I love the “anyone can do it” spirit, the wide open spaces (at least where I live in Colorado!), the multiculturalism, the comparative lack of class-consciousness and the pervasive culture of hard work and optimism. In Europe, I love the slower pace of life, the sense of history, the value placed on arts and culture, and the fact that in less time than it takes to drive across Colorado, you can take the train from Geneva to Paris. Here are a few specifics that spring to mind.

When I’m in Europe, I miss:

  • Let’s start with an easy one: ice cubes. In Switzerland at least, there seems to be a national collective agreement that iced drinks are bad for one’s digestion, even if, or maybe especially if, it’s incredibly hot outside.
  • Small talk. I know this is classically American and kind of superficial, but I like a little idle chatter. It’s no coincidence that French doesn’t have a great expression for “How’s it going?” or the equivalent, and I kind of miss that. Particularly in Switzerland, it’s considered very invasive and inappropriate to strike up a conversation with a stranger, whereas  in Colorado, it’s almost considered rude *not* to make some kind of conversation with someone next to you on a bus, in a line, etc.
  • The non-smoking culture. The smoking situation in Europe has really improved since I first lived in France 20 years ago, but it’s still very different from the US. In general I think of Switzerland as being very health-conscious, but people smoke in lots of places that would be completely taboo in the US. For example when I was on a crowded platform in the Geneva train station (waiting for the TGV to Paris!), the person next to me lit up a cigarette and no one seemed to notice, much less say anything. We also saw people smoking in the non-smoking sections of cafes in Austria without being chastised by the staff. Compared to the almost nonexistent population of smokers here in Boulder, the smoking rate in Europe is very shocking.
  • American opening hours. I know, this is another lazy American thing, but it’s really hard to get into the mindset of planning the day around when the grocery store is open. In Switzerland, basically everything besides restaurants closes at 5 (including “essential” businesses like pharmacies and supermarkets) and in some of the parts of Italy we visited, the mid-day break lasted from noon to 4 PM with stores being open from about 8-12 and 4-7. Even in our city of 100,000 people in the US, there are at least three supermarkets that are open 24 hours a day. Not that I generally go grocery shopping at 3 in the morning, but having things open past 5 is very nice.

But then again, when I’m back in the US, I miss:

  • Being able to have an actual conversation with someone who’s not texting or e-mailing or answering their phone while we’re talking. While I was in Europe this summer I went to a financial translation conference in Paris. Financial translation; people who presumably care a lot and think a lot about money. And the conference was during the week, when the attendees would presumably have been getting calls and texts and e-mails from clients. But during the breaks, guess what most people did: go out in the mingling room and talk to each other. Seriously. Americans should give this a try sometime and see how it works.
  • That touch of European class. Coffee in a china cup, with a napkin and a little chocolate so that you don’t have coffee breath. Real food made with real ingredients, even if you’re in a hurry. Train attendants in pressed uniforms. Pastries wrapped up in fancy paper and sealed with a fancy sticker, even if you’re going to eat them right away. The absence of sweat pants and sneakers outside the gym. The absence of dollar stores.
  • Public transportation that goes everywhere. I know, the US is too vast for a European solution to this one. But it’s just such a huge difference. The town where we lived in Switzerland (clinging to the side of a mountain above Lake Geneva) would be considered un-servable by public transportation in the US. Here in Colorado, the equivalent mountain towns are lucky if a public minivan makes a run up there once a day. Of all the ski resorts in Colorado, only one is served by public transportation. But our Swiss town has had a cog railway for a hundred years, and it runs once an hour from 6 AM until 11 PM. Seriously. And we could get from that town to another small town halfway across Switzerland in two or three hours. Of all the things that bug me about the US when I come back from Europe, it’s the car culture that bugs me the most!

I’ve been formulating this post for a while and I know it’s a bit rambling, but I trust you translators and interpreters to get it. And please feel free to add your own “torn between two cultures” thoughts too!!

21 Responses to “Torn between two cultures”
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