Three months spent back in the United States. And it took me three months to get around to publishing this blog post. Or any blog post for that matter.
So, what the hell did I do during this time, you ask? Well, I lived my best Minnesota summer life with friends and family, attended the ultimate Latino wedding in Miami, ate my way around Texas and Colorado, and even found time to pick up a few new freelancing clients along the way. Oh, and I somehow managed to break my nose in a bike accident and recover before returning back to Europe now. PHEW.
Coming back stateside, people kept asking me if I missed it. Of course I didn’t miss everything, but the truth is that it took experiencing new cultures in Europe to give me a new appreciation for my own.
I realized I took random tidbits of American culture for granted once I realized that they didn’t really exist elsewhere. So before I Segway into U.S. travel content, here are the things I missed most about the U.S. while in Europe.
1. Peanut butter
I will take it crunchy. I will take it smooth. But I will NEVER take it for granted ever again.
Let it be known that peanut butter is the glue to American culture. You don’t recognize it until you realize that your emotional breakdown is missing something: a large spoonful of Jiffy.
There might be 5 different brands of Nutella on every market shelf in Europe, yet there will usually only be ONE type of peanut butter. And it’s the usually the “natural” kind that comes in a glass jar with a thick 1-inch layer of oil on top.
Being back in the states, I actually didn’t have peanut butter that often. But I found comfort in just the mere thought that it is always there whenever I need it.
2. Mexican food
The hardest part about living abroad for me was my long distance relationship…with Mexican food. No, I’m not talking about Taco Bell and Chipotle.I’m talking Ceviche, Nopale tacos with fresh cilantro, and enchiladas.
“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having a clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.” – Anthony Bourdain
This is the case in Europe, where most Mexican food is a heap of bland salsa, rice, and gut-wrenching disappointment.
Growing up, black beans, corn tortillas, and Cholula hot sauce were staple items found in our fridge at all times. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that actually explored the cuisine beyond the hot dishes of white, mid-western suburbia.
It was until I was abroad that I realized how luck I was to grow up in the Twin Cities with an abundance of not only incredible Mexican food, but a hub of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Thai, and beyond.
In college, my closest friends were from Mexico and throughout Latin America. Finding the best taco joints in Chicago and indulging in home cooked meals became a weekend routine that forever altered my taste buds.
When my family picked me up from the airport in Minneapolis, they surprised me by taking me to a local family owned Mexican restaurant. I’ve since taken up an interest in perfecting making my own corn tortillas, tacos and ceviche over the past few months. I’ve also found a deep interest in learning more about the history of many Mexican and Latin American communities in the cities I’ve visited.
But it wasn’t until I left the country that I realized how easy it is to take the Mexican and Latin American community for granted when you don’t have it abroad. Not just for their food, but for the communities that have become such an integral part of American culture.
3. Bottles of Ibuprofen and 24-7 pharmacies
There is nothing worse than when you have cramps at 11 pm, and realize that you are out of Ibuprofen. And all of the closest pharmacies aren’t open for another 10 hours.
I’m pretty sure the concept of a pharmaceutical candy shop, AKA Walgreens and CVS, only exists in America. At least in Europe, an actual pharmacy and a drug store with makeup and toiletries are separate. The worst part is that they will only sell Advil, Claritin, Ibuprofen, in packs of no more than 24 usually.
As soon as I came back, I walked into the blinding florescent lights of Walgreens like I just walked through the gates of heaven. I stocked up on Tide to Go pens, those 2 for 1 specials on Fish Oil pills, and of course, my beloved bottle of Ibuprofen.
4. Customer service
There’s nothing that says America quite like free water and having your waiter check in on you 5 times throughout your meal. In contrast, customer service is quite different in Europe, or maybe non-existent in the eyes of some.
In the restaurant industry, it’s different of course since waiters are actually paid a living wage and so they are not working solely for tips. Yes, I’ve found excellent service at many places throughout the continent, but usually find myself feeling like a burden to the waiter. You often really have to flag them down or get their attention.
It’s not just in the restaurant industry, but also in many retail shops as well. The concept of “the customer is always right” is not quite existent in Europe either. Don’t be surprised if you ask to speak to the manager or make a complaint and the staff’s response is, “Go ahead! I f*cking dare you!”
I seriously took advantage of changing my drink when I didn’t like it or asking for 10 percent off when a shirt had a few threads coming loose. Because I knew as the customer I’m always right in America.
5. Infinite options at the grocery store
At 25, I’d say I am a half-decent cook. But as soon as I moved to Europe, my skills were really put to the test. I was forced learn to make pesto, Thai peanut sauce, and vegetable stock from scratch. Talk about first-world problems.
This is simply because there just aren’t as many of the ready-made sauces and ingredients in many places in Europe (especially Croatia).
For example, Domeniko and I made a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving last November. Without Pumpkin puree sold conveniently in a can, we had to go find a lady in the village that sold pumpkins, cut it into slices, bake it, then blend it, then bake it again within our homemade pie crust. The whole process took about 5 hours, just for reference.
The entire process of grocery shopping within itself is much more of a chore to me in Europe. The convenience of going and getting everything you need (and also a lamp and new pair of shoes 60% off) at Target is not a thing. In Croatia I get my produce at Konzum (unfortunately) or the farmers market. But I go to DM or Mueller for specialty items like tofu, gluten free flour, almond milk, etc.
I’m also used to having a choice between kale, spinach, romaine, and several different types of chard. Avocados are seemingly always in season, despite the price difference in America.
In Croatia, the grocery stores mainly carry only what is in season. This means that there is a distinction between the summer and winter diet. We also eat a lot from our garden, or freshly caught fish that Domeniko’s family catches.
Limited options due to seasonality has actually taught me to eat more sustainably, which is perhaps something big grocery stores in America could learn from.
6. Central air conditioning
“Just think Alex, in less than 24 hours you’ll be back at home comfortably caressed by central air conditioning and this will all feel like I dream.” This is what I told myself on a 10-hour bus ride from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, packed with people and no air conditioning in 90 degree F heat.
Throughout all my travels in Europe, I can safely say that central air conditioning rarely exists. It can sometimes be hard to find air conditioning in general, depending on where you go. And I still just can’t understand how one small air conditioner plugged into the wall is suppose to keep the whole house cool.
Growing up in Minnesota, cold winters and cold summers (inside) from central AC have literally conditioned my body. But in Croatia and in many places along the Mediterranean, AC is basically considered the devil.
My boyfriend’s mom gets mad at me when I sit in front of a fan or air conditioner, because she doesn’t want me to get sick (bless her heart). My boyfriend himself claims that sleeping with a fan blowing on him is the culprit for his back pain. And our Croatian friends always take his side.
So although I realized that the overuse of air conditioning in the U.S. is actually unsustainable, I did enjoy soaking up the cold air on a hot day without being judged.
7. The secondhand market
Let’s face it: America is basically consumerism on steroids. I don’t care what your minimalist podcast told you, actively avoiding buying crap you don’t need is damn near impossible.
I honestly don’t spend much money on things in Europe, but more on experiences and travel. Not having Amazon prime helps with this.
But when I DO need to buy something, especially household items, I always try to buy it used. And without America’s secondhand market, I’m forced to buy it new and it ends up being insanely expensive.
It took me helping decorate our apartment he just built to realize this. It’s so much harder to find decent used furniture like couches, chairs, bed frames, and wardrobes. We actually found one really nice couch and were willing to cover the cost of shipping it, plus an extra 100 euros, and the guy said no. It was too much work for him.
I also really missed thrifting and secondhand shopping. I found a few amazing places in London, but otherwise it’s been pretty difficult. This summer I took advantage of Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads, and Poshmark. Unfortunately a used couch didn’t fit in my checked bag.
8. The “American” spirit
Now, I’m not talking about the cigarette brand “American Spirit” when I say this. And no, I haven’t taken up smoking yet either in Europe.
But most importantly, I want to talk about how my perception of my country has changed since living abroad. The last time I was in the country, Obama was still president. And it sure has been interesting watching current events unfold from afar.
It’s no secret that America is extremely divided right now. Not just on policy, but also just what it means to be an American, and what it means to show patriotism.
From my experience, us Americans deeply value standing up for our beliefs. We might not all agree on what changes should be made, but we believe that change is possible if we work hard enough for it.
I really don’t want to make a vast generalization about all of Europe. But believe me when I say that you won’t see folks advocating for their values in this same way over here.
The sense of apathy I’ve seen in Ireland and Croatia and other countries alike is disheartening. So many people truly believe that change is impossible. From a small scale, like trying to change a policy at work that everyone hates, to a large scale, like trying to organize a protest to make change.
I’ve found it really difficult to try to get behind local efforts for progressive change, or any positive change at all abroad. In Croatia, people laugh in my face when I suggest trying to make change through community organizing. To many of them, it is simply not possible to demand change and I’m just an idealistic American for suggesting so.
I don’t think people realize actually how “American” it is to advocate and organize for change on a widespread level. And it is a privilege. Our country was literally founded upon fighting for change and progress. Yep, from the Tea Party protest, to Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Labor Rights, every quintessential moment of American history was founded upon by community organizing.
So when I see Americans protesting and advocating for change, even if I don’t fully agree, I see that as the highest form of patriotism. I see this as people caring enough about their country and community that they want to make it the best place possible.