11/28/2005

Old World Charm [NOVEMBER 27, 2005]

Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone and for all of us Americans away from home, expats and travelers alike, thoughts inevitably flock back across the Atlantic. Sure, we make do with what we have here in our newly adopted countries, but some stuff will always just seem strange to us. During the holidays, above and beyond all other times of the year, these differences seem to shine the brightest. Holidays or not though, it’s plain and simple. No matter how long you stay in a foreign land and adapt, certain things will always appear to be exactly as that land’s moniker had promised when you initially set off – foreign.

It’s the small things that first come to mind. Such simple objects as the can openers and milk cartons that they’ve got over here are still as perplexing as particle physics to me. I have no idea how my girlfriend manages to successfully extract those juicy mushrooms from inside that cold heartless tin she just bought at the supermarket without requiring a Band-Aid or tetanus shot afterwards. And don’t even get me started on the milk cartons they’ve got over here. I always stare in amazement as she delicately tears open the top corner of the box without spilling its content all over the kitchen table. Keep in mind, these oddities aren’t just Spanish phenomena, but are commonplace all over the continent. They’ve been a nightmare for me from Athens to Prague to Madrid.


You expect me to open that milk and use that can opener?

Another one of the small things that, as an American in Europe, I’ve had to get used to is ...(How else to put it?)... how small things actually are. Everything is smaller here in the Old World. From the cars to the swimsuits to the streets to the female waistline, nothing is as large as its American counterpart. The word "supersize" hasn’t entered the lexicon over here yet. That inevitably means that everything that was normal in America back in the day is still normal here. Most people still buy a 330ml (10oz) can of Coke as opposed to the Big Gulp or liter of soda most people back home do. Cafés still sell coffee in one size or, if you’re lucky, in the good ol’ variant of small, medium, or large. There’s none of that Yuppie tall, grande, or venti crap over here. And if you’re looking to get a jumbo Party Pack of potato chips at the corner store, sorry but you’re out of luck. There’s only one size here – small. You need to buy two bags or go for a single and throw in a pack of nuts. A little variety never killed anyone.

But it’s not only the food that’s smaller. All the systems of measurement are too. Now I know that the US is practically the only country on the planet to use the antiquated Customary Unit system, but I still can’t get used to this whole Metric thing and I’ve been trying for over four years now. Every time I step on the scale, I’m surprised at how light I am (2.2 pounds is equal to 1 kilogram) and every time I go to the doctor and he scribbles down my height, I’m surprised at how short I am (1 meter is equal to 3.28 feet). Nowadays, when a European asks me how tall I am or how much I weigh, I usually just reply, "Normal," because if I get into the entire Metric conversion thing, I’d probably end up telling him I have as many kilograms as a grizzly bear and as many meters as that Chinese guy who plays basketball for the Houston Rockets.


Now THAT is a compact car!

The thing that really confuses me when it comes to the Metric system, though, is the temperature. I don’t care how many times someone tells me 44C is stiflingly hot, it still sounds like 44F to me and, in my book, that’s cold. I never know whether to take my coat with me or a light windbreaker when I step outdoors. And the fact that it’s usually so unseasonably warm down here in Cádiz doesn't help either. I used to just stick my hand out the window and try to figure out the temperature that way but it doesn’t really work that well in our current apartment. So, I’ve recently resorted to just going to the front door, popping it open and sticking my head out. If it ain’t cold and the sun’s a-shinin’, then that winter coat is staying right where it is.

Then there’s the appliances. That’s one thing I really do miss about home and it really became evident over the holiday. We tried to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving and shove it into our oven but it didn’t fit. Of course, like everything else here, our baking machine was too small. Granted, we only own a toaster oven but my girlfriend and I are still better off than a lot of Spaniards we know. For some reason, a lot of people here don’t believe in ovens. Anyway, we had to make do with a chicken this year but it still came out deliciously, although the carving (You ever try to carve a chicken into presentable slices?) left a little to be desired.


My TV and oven competing for the "Biggest Appliance of the Apartment" trophy

Another appliance that is lacking all over the continent, at least as far as I can tell, is the dryer. I always used to think that the term "washer & dryer" went hand in hand but apparently not so here. Who needs a dryer, the local wisdom goes, when you have a perfectly good roof or window to hang damp clothes out of? And while you’re waiting for your clean underwear to dry out the window and watching TV on that small set that’s as big as your oven well... Don’t even get me started on how much I miss that big screen back in Philly.


Who needs a dryer when you've got a window?

But it isn’t all that bad I suppose. When you stop and consider it, there are a lot of advantages to having smaller things, like they do here in Europe, as opposed to the luxury large editions we have in the States. I hardly ever see any SUVs hogging the road and the small cars here are both fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. The fact that appliances are smaller here and therefore consume less electricity means that the bills are never too high and, again, help guarantee a less polluted environment. Now that I think of it, although I’m stuck in a foreign land with Thanksgiving behind me and Christmas right around the corner, there must be all kinds of advantages to doing things the way the Europeans do. Far too many to mention here...

17 comments:

Franje said...

Excellent article. As was your article on re-visiting the Czech Republic.

I would love to read an article written by you that deals with your observations (and/or experiences) on the European women.

Great pic with which you ended the article!

Angie said...

Oh man... fat lady in a thong... my eyes! And you were tramautized by my photo of "Laura from Texas"!?

But seriously, excellent post, and I know exactly what you mean about everything being smaller in Europe! When I showed my Spanish family photos of my house, my car, even my brother (who is 6'3"), their reaction was always the same -- "Que grande!"

And we won't even talk about my trying to comfortably fit my 5'7" self in my madre's tiny Toyota hatchback, which was perfect for her 5' self and miniature kids. Now they tell me they've gone and bought a Mini Cooper! Perfect. :)

ViVi said...

I must be the luckiest American in Europe, because my husband had both a clothes dryer and a big tv before we were married. The only thing I wanted to supersize was the fridge - we went from a dorm-sized fridge to about a 6' tall one. Still not American-sized but at least I can put a week's worth of groceries in it!

PS Thanks for commenting on my blog - I'm so glad it lead me to yours, because it's my new favorite, and I'm gonna link you very soon (ie when I get off my lazy fat American ass to do it ;) ).

Can't sit still.... said...

I'm totally with you...especially on the milk thing. I usually cut off the end with scissors and then poke a hole in the top (with same scissors) so it flows a little better. But, with the dryers (or lack thereof)...I'm so fed up with wearing ultra-wrinkled, lint-covered clothes! bleh!!

Lori said...

You know that's funny you bring that up....because I was just talking to my Sister in law....that lives in England....and she was complaining about everything being smaller....She kept saying you just don't understand how small things are over here....So thanks for bringing that up!!!

Have a great day!!!

neil said...

Re: Fat lady in the thong - I've seen a couple of larger versions of the same picture and it's quite obviously in Britain.....

J.Doe said...

The clothes sizes are different too. 3 years ago my aunt in the US asked me what size shirt my husband in Italy usually wears. She had never met him or even saw a picture of him.I answered "Extra-large." She visited Italy the following year and brought him a shirt, sized Extra-large that could probably fit 2 of him. It looks like a small tent.
When we go to the US he fits into size Medium.
A very good post. I can really relate to the problems with milk and strange looking canopeners.
P.S. I like the picture at the end of the post. HAHA

Expat Traveler said...

Lovely article - I've visited your site for the first time and I'll have to read a bit more. I think I can mention a few more things about Europe, but they are out of my head now. Yuck - that last pic says it all.

christina said...

Hey, thanks for visting my blog.

I have been blessed (and very whiney)and have a dryer AND a real can opener! In the 15 years I've lived in Germany they must have changed the milk cartons about 5 times. They used to be the tear-off corner kind (scissors!!), but now we have snazzy twist-off plastic thingies with a reclosabel lid. Talk about progress.

You should have seen the first time my husband tried to open a Canadian milk carton. Total mess.

GC PHILO said...

My girlfriend has apparently ordered me a T-shirt for Christmas from www.tshirthell.com and she was trying to keep it a secret, but when she read your post J.DOE she panicked and thought the sizes would be all screwed up because the web company is in the US. Fortunately, she wrote them back in time and managed to change her order from an XL shirt to a Medium. Unfortunately, the surprise was a little ruined, but I at least still don't know what shirt she got me!

And NEIL, as for whether the picture is in Britain or not, I don't really consider Britain "Europe" even though it is geographically part of the continent. In fact, most Brits don't even consider themselves "European." I can't tell you how many times I've heard them say "I'm going to the Continent for summer" or "That's the way they do it on the Continent" as if the "Continent of Europe" and the British Isles were worlds apart. Besides, there are "big girls" everywhere, even here. It's just that there are more of them back home...

J.Doe said...

gc philo,

OOPS! I'm sorry I ruined your girlfriend's and your surprise, but, well, if a XL US sized tshirt arrived and you are not fat it would have really been a surprise!
I thought if I washed the shirt my aunt gave my husband it might shrink, but evidently it is a shrink resistent indestructable cotton/polyester mix.

Sal DeTraglia said...

OK, Mr. Philo. I need your help.

I want to put a link to your blog on my sidebar, but...and you know what's coming next...we need to agree on a title (for purposes of my sidebar only) that's downgraded from NC-17 to R.

Any suggestions? "Large Udders and Felines?" "GC Philo's Investment Hour?" "500 Ways to Prepare Meatless Meatloaf?" You tell me.

Sal

GC PHILO said...

Hey Sal,
Use whichever you want. I love all your suggestions! Either way, thanks for the sidebar add!

Sal DeTraglia said...

OK, it's done. I've re-christened it "GC Philo's Blog" and added a helpful suggestion that readers probably shouldn't click on the link if they're on their employer's server. Many companies have software that targets employees who surf sites containing naughty language. George Carlin would be outraged, but that's the reality.

Keep up the good work. And BTW...I always buy milk with screw-on caps (Austriana brand).

Sal

Janette said...

The "big girl" looks like about 50% of the female customers I saw in Wal-Mart the last time I was there. It's one of the reaons I avoid the place as much as possible. I fear of someday fitting in with the "herd".

Indigo Bubbles said...

Great article! I loved this line: "From the cars to the swimsuits to the streets to the female waistline, nothing is as large as its American counterpart"

I'm in Philly and I can assure you that waistlines are not shrinking in these parts! I went to FL recently and was amazed at how lithe and healthy people were. I think having better weather year round helps (plus running from hurricanes).

However, you had great point about the portions. Even the size of sushi is bigger in the US too. I remember a French friend just being shocked at the coffee sizes when he arrived. But, by the time he left, he was drinking the larger ones too.

Anyway, now I'm craving a nice small cup of European coffee with warm milk. :-(

By the way, loved the photographs on your site

Chiri said...

I'm from that part of the world, and am enjoying your blog and your take on things. I read this entry, which reminded me of the other side of the coin, in my blog:
www.dr1.com/blogs/entry.php?u=Chiri&e_id=905