The tinny sound of jazz comes from a transistor radio, filling the humid air as my friends prepare a five-course French meal for which I typed the menu. It almost feels as though I never left Paris. The emphasis on fine ingredients, indulgence, and conviviality is ever-present, and the organized kitchen chaos is strangely comforting. This is not to say, however, that the past couple weeks back in Chicago have been smooth sailing.

The first thing I noticed when I strolled the streets of France was the crossing signal– the person in motion was significantly more petite than the one my eyes were accustomed to seeing in the States. Au contraire, the first thing I noticed when my plane landed in Chicago was the large number of overweight people, and the fact that almost everyone was wearing clothes that Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public : sweats, t-shirts, sneakers, and gym shorts. What was this foreign land, and how did I manage to spend twenty-one years of my life partaking in this peculiar culture ?

The next day was Mother’s Day. I arrived at the local grocery store to pick up a white cod for some good old fashioned quenelles, Lyon style. As I walked through the immense parking lot and entered the incredibly wide automatic sliding doors, I noticed that I was overdressed. Apparently, a scarf, makeup, and tights are unnecessary to keep up public appearances here. The clerks and the customers were smiling at me, and I couldn’t understand why. I had never met these people before, so why were they bothering to make eye contact with me ? As I left the yogurt aisle, I wondered aloud why every single brand was fat-free and contained corn starch and food coloring. Had I grown up eating impure yogurt ?

Being accustomed to the low murmurs of the Parisian metro, my first trip on the El (Chicago’s metro) was disturbing. Reading a book was out of the question — I could barely hear my own thoughts over the yells of obnoxious Cubs fans in my train car. After I got off the train, I used a public restroom and drank from a water fountain, all for free. What a generous and wasteful country to come back to !

The other night, I went to Northwestern University campus for a “festival” called Dillo Day during which many people drink themselves into oblivion and listen to commercial music all day long. As I left the show, I looked back at a girl laughing while she puffed on a joint and flipped her hair. I realized I was no better than the people in this crowd, and certainly no less ignorant. My all-nighters at the Rex in Paris are over, and no outdoor pop-electro act could ever replace them.

I spent two hours wandering the winding campus paths looking for my car, to no avail. At that moment more than ever before in my life, I wished that Evanston had a better metro system. With no signposts or storefronts to guide my way, I was utterly lost in American culture with no way out. I walked to the corner store and bought some sour candy to match my mood while waiting for my ride to pick me up. These streets weren’t dangerous, and there were no discoveries around the corner. I was stranded in suburbia, but my situation was way less comical than the one in Dude, Where’s My Car ?

The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind ?” is more like it. America is more new and bizarre to me now than ever before. With every outing and cultural faux pas, I’m peeling back the layers of this country to reveal its core. Whether rotten, fresh, or somewhere in between, it’s definitely worth the dig.


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