My friend Theron Tingstad (see the Just So Stories entry) has encouraged me to write more. He says that it will allow people to follow along with my experiences here in Mexico and to understand why I’m here.
People at home “not understanding” is in fact is one of the big frustrations when you spend time in another country. My exchange in Switzerland was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, but when I returned to Michigan, the new ideas and ways of living that the trip generated just didn’t seem to interest my friends and family very much.
C.S. Lewis once wrote to a small girl who had asked how to write:
… instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful, make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”
—From “Letter of 26 June 1956” The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume lll: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963.
So, let me show you what I mean by “friends and family weren’t interested.”
I loved the European way of socializing. In Switzerland it seemed that a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine could trigger hours of truly stimulating conversation—one of those core events when you seem to set foot on a higher plane of life, if only for a moment and you feel—this is what life is about, being here, now, with these people and communicating. These conversations are like when you read a truly good book and lose all sense of time, and when you finish it you feel like someone waking from a dream or splashing up from underwater.
In any case I became very fond of the tiny, tiny coffee cups, saucers, and spoons and the intimate ceremony of making coffee in an italian macchina di caffè with the burner on low, snatching the coffee away just as the water boils, and, each time the same way, pouring in the spoonful of sugar and watching it dissolve, it that hypnotic way, as the conversation slowly warmed up to speed.
So I purchased an Italian coffee machine and a set of tiny, tiny coffee cups, saucers, and spoons, and tried to replicate the experience with my friends in Houghton, MI. My attempt to reproduce the “european feeling” in the US was a complete failure. To start off, my friends good-naturedly ribbed me about the dainty tableware. Americans are practical and use cups to drink from, not to create atmosphere. I realized that in the US we are incapable of that lavish, decadent use of time which the Europeans have down pat. My friends stood and watched while I prepared the coffee machine, checked their watches as the water heated, and once the coffee was poured, downed it in two big gulps and dashed off to do their homework. I was left in the kitchen with a coffee pot to clean and an unsatisfied desire to just have a really good talk with someone, anyone.
Then there was the christening party of our house in Houghton. I came back from Switzerland and moved directly in with four dear friends from the dormitories, so we were excited to invite everyone over to appreciate our new pad. I looked forward to sitting down with everyone and, civilly, pulling the cork on a bottle of wine and finding out their hopes, dreams, and the like. That was la mode in Switzerland, and I really enjoyed it. But Americans are raised in a very different “tradition.”
Since drinking is not legal until the citizen turns twenty-one, our social lives typically begin in fugitive style, drunken binges in the woods or in a house temporarily vacated by vacationing parents. Only in the most progressive of families would the parents introduce the children to alcohol or chaperone parties with alcohol, since providing drinks to minors is quite illegal and severely persecuted.
So I, after a year of comparatively civilized drinking in Lausanne, was shocked back into American reality when the guests to our party pooled, like children at an 8th grade dance, into separate groups of males and females, until, after half an hour of rapid imbibing, the social lubrication of the alcohol roared into effect and awkward silence was replaced by shouts, roars, keg-stands, and inevitably, vomiting. By one thirty everyone had stumbled off to bed. Conversation did not figure a major role in the evening.
So to come to a point (of which the lack of, in my stories, is frequently criticized), hopefully you, dear reader, can appreciate that things are different in foreign countries, and when you spend time abroad you grow to love those differences, and then, upon your return, you miss them, and it is quite hard to communicate what exactly it is that you miss, or why. That causes a lonely feeling which only time can dispel. I doubt my ability as a writer to communicate these cultural differences, but I have always wanted to give it a try.