Friday, April 15, 2005

The story of a friend.

Aansluitend op gisteren kreeg ik vandaag dit verhaal in mijn mailbox, met een lach en een traan heb ik het gelezen, zo herkenbaar.
Thank You Inge, for sharing this!

Can I help you?

When I was a child, one of my favorite things to do was grocery shopping.
I looked at the large variety of foods with big eyes and hoped my mother would put all of this in her shopping cart.

Later on in life, when I lived by myself, grocery shopping became less thrilling.
I realized that most things in life, when you have to do it over and over again, become a chore, one more thing on your "to do list". Living in the same place for years also limits your creative thinking. (I didn’t realize that until later.)
I wanted to get out of my predictable, boring life and challenge myself again. That was the main reason for me to move to the US. I desperately needed new experiences in my life.

So, on my second day of living on another planet, that’s the way it felt,
I planned a trip to the local grocery store. I wanted to start with one challenge at a time. This would be an easy one to start with, I thought.

The store was not that big and quite empty when I stepped in. A clerk looked up, saw my unfamiliar face, but unfazed he said "Hello, how are you doing today?" Any local would have smiled and said something friendly back. I was mortified, didn’t know what to do or to say. I looked behind me but there was no one but me. I looked the other way, made a very stern face and hoped that would discourage him from doing any more talking. I’m sure this guy took me for somebody else. I had never I my entire life met any store clerk or owner who had greeted me upon entering a store. In my country, some clerks might make some mumbled remark about the weather, an equivalent of "Hello" in Belgium. More likely, they wouldn’t even look up when someone walks in. They certainly would never have the audacity to ask someone how they were doing. Was I supposed to tell this stanger my life story?

I started looking around and forgot my distress for a while. All the multi colored, strange looking foods looked very intriguing. I had never seen such a huge assortment of cereals.There was even a cereal with candy in it. I was trying to imagine the kind of mother who would give this to their kids. Cereal was a serious food in Belgium, not a fun food!

A few more customers walked in and I noticed that they chatted animated with the store clerk.I was sure they were good friends of his. One of the female customers was shopping in the produce section, like I was. In a typical Belgian manner, I acted like I was totally unaware of her. But she was an American and looked at me and smiled. I couldn’t figure out what all these smiling, friendly people wanted from me. Only my best Belgian friends would smile at me upon meeting me in a grocery store. Maybe my doctor or dentist would too, if they happened to be in a good mood. I smiled back in a very unnatural way and left all the exotic looking fruits and vegetables to her.

I marched over to the drugs area. At least there was no one there. I was amazed at all the different medicines that were for sale without a prescription needed. We have to have a prescription for any kind of drug in Belgium. Even for Aspirine. Of course health care is much cheaper and is available to everybody.
A guy walks up to me and starts telling me, like I’m his long time buddy, about a chemical that is in the cold medicine he’s about to buy. According to him it could give you a fabulous high. Anyone talking to a stranger in Belgium about getting high, or actually just about anything else, is considered insane. And that’s exactly what I thought was wrong with this guy. Maybe he was one of those homeless, crazy people I was warned about.

I moved quickly into an other aisle and bumped into another store clerk. ”Are you finding everything ok?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and ignored him.
I was perfectly capable of shopping by myself, thank you! I had never asked for any help ever, from any Belgian store clerk. We look for the things we need until we find them. If we don’t, then we won’t buy it. It’s that simple.

My pleasure for shopping was fading quickly. I felt nervous and a little paranoid. I didn’t know Americans were so unnervingly chatty. I was used to the introvert Belgians, living inside their heads most of the time.
I did want to buy something before I would flee the scene. I walked over to the cookie aisle and put a few boxes of eye opening orange, pink and black cookies in my cart. Anything pink or orange that I had seen before was definitely not meant for consumption. I wasn’t going to eat them of course, I just bought them for the sheer weirdness of them.

I headed towards the cash register, fully engulfed in my own thoughts, like usual. "Did you find everything you need?" the clerk asked and smiled at me.
I hardly heard him. A register clerk who talks? Who would have expected this. Belgian clerks are mute and look very bored.
Again I didn’t respond and just gave another one of my forced smiles. "Paper or plastic?" another guy asked. Totally unprepared for this next comment and absolutely not knowing what to answer, I hesitantly answered, "Plastic?" I truly hoped that was the right answer. But even before the guy could pack my bag I had already done it myself. I was totally unaware of this service. In Belgium you learn to be quick in packing your stuff or your groceries might roll off the belt and onto the floor. This time it was the clerk, not me, who looked puzzled.

Feeling very dazed and confused, I went back home. I hadn’t only gotten a quick lesson in what American grocery stores have to offer, but I had also learned a great deal about the social behavior of the American people. I was sure that would take me a lot longer to get used to than their need for a big variety of choices.

Ten years later, and I’m still here, living in Southern California.
By now I am used to the “shocking“ behavior of my fellow Angelenos. Every time I go back home, to Belgium, and visit my old grocery store, I find it hard to control myself and behave like a good Belgian. I want to dance and sing and say "hi" to everybody, smile at the cashier and ask her how she is doing. I’m desperate to show them what I learned from living in a much more open, friendly culture. But I haven’t found the guts yet. Maybe in another ten years.