The past few weeks have taken me from the West coast of the US to the Midwest, and from there to Sweden, only to eventually end up in Spain. It’s been an interesting journey because while all these places subscribe to the same general western culture, there are some noticeable differences in how life is lived. One of the beauties of visiting a new place is observing the unfolding of daily life — its quirks and specificities, its similarities and differences compared to what you’re used to at home. Of course, adapting to daily life in a new place can also be one of the hardest things to do, especially when relocating for an extended period of time — what is a charming novelty in the short run isn’t necessarily so charming in the longer term.

How we approach trying to fit in in our new environment is an interesting part of the equation when traveling/moving abroad. Everything from ordering food to figuring out how the bus fare should be paid, to renting an apartment and understanding the local school system can be a mystery when in a new place, and if you don’t speak the language the challenge is even greater. Acquiring the knowledge and insights to “move about freely” — both physically and intellectually — is the goal for most of us, I believe.

Maria Shriver wrote in her weekly newsletter about people’s desire to fit in. Her article sprung from the recent words of President Trump who’s been urging several elected US officials to “go back to where you came from” (all but one of them were born in the US). Maria writes “… underneath those words is the implication that one doesn’t belong, and not belonging cuts to the core of what we desire and need to survive as human beings.”

I think that sentiment is why one of my favorite things to do when in a new environment is to people watch (with the occasional eavesdrop to boot) — it gives me a chance to understand the world around me, bit by bit. I loved the early mornings in Spain with the locals sitting at sidewalk cafes, facing the street, talking to friends or reading the paper while having their favorite coffee drink and perhaps smoking a cigarette. The contrast to my everyday is real — you’d have to look long and hard to find a scene like that in California, that’s for sure. 

Also in Spain this summer: topless sunbathing. Women of all ages and shapes had put away their bikini tops — locals and tourists alike it appeared. My teenage daughter and her friend were intrigued and a little shocked. You’d never see this in the US. As a matter of fact, my mom recently reminded me of the time, long ago, when I reprimanded her for changing into her bathing suit on the beach in Florida (under a towel, which is how it’s done in Sweden). I had only been in the US for about a year at that time and I desperately wanted to fit in.

When asking my daughter what differences she has noticed during our travels she had lots to say. I already knew that she doesn’t feel like she can wear her usual daily uniform of leggings and a t-shirt while in Europe — she says that people wear this strictly for exercising here. Her sense is that, unlike where we live, where the dress code is notoriously laid back, people tend to dress according to their social status to a much higher degree. If you have money you show it with your clothes and your accessories.

She also pointed out that people don’t queue the same way in Europe — it’s much more erratic when people line up, and not infrequently, the whole scene is a bit rude. One thing she has noticed that everyone seems to be doing, regardless of location: zipping down the street on an electric scooter. Rental scooters are everywhere, whether in Indianapolis, Gothenburg or Palma.

Belonging does not mean being the same or subscribing to all the same ideas. Belonging has to do with understanding what it is that makes a certain society tick and then making your own way within that framework. Belonging means accepting that people, and places, are different.

By: Felicia Shermis

Overcoming the Back-to-Reality-Blues
Different Cultures, Different Relationships to Time