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[Today a Month Ago] All The Ways to Feel a Stranger

December 12, 2014

(We didn’t really do anything this day, after arriving in Cyan’s home late the night before. Just sleeping and eating and a bit of laundry and reading and, in my case, a bit of blogging. So no adventures to report in this post….)

I want to preface this by saying that Cyan has been a wonderful host, and did everything she could to make me feel at home in the Bay Area. But when you’re this far from home, there are so many things that are different, some of them expected and some of them completely surprising.

There are things you are prepared for when you go travelling.

You expect to be surrounded by a language that is not your own – but, given that the language was English, that wasn’t a problem for me.

You expect to be confused by the money – which is something I’m probably a lot less used to than older generations of Europeans, since in pre-Euro times, I was too young to travel on my own (and perfectly content to let my parents handle the money when I travelled with my family.)

You expect public transport to work differently, when you grow up with the way of buying tickets differing from one transport company to the next.

You expect the food to be different, and (apart from my struggles with ordering food because I simply hardly ever eat out, and my body was being very peculiar about what I could eat without feeling nauseous), I didn’t just eat things I hadn’t eaten before, like dim sum or persimmons, I ate things I hadn’t even heard about before.

This was one of those things that emphasised the feeling of “I’m very far from home”, and one of the things I hadn’t anticipated: vegetables that I couldn’t identify by name or appearance or taste.

Which ties into another thing I probably should have expected, but didn’t: how many plants there would be that I didn’t know. It already started in DC. There was still some overlap with Austria, but especially among the shrubs and trees, there were plenty I didn’t know.

But once I got to the Bay Area… it was so disconcerting for me, being surrounded by so many plants I didn’t know. There were still some I did know, many of them plants you can only grow in pots here in Austria, like oleanders and bougainvillea, and so much plumbago sprawling along the freeways, and a few that grow even here, but also so much I had never seen, never read about, never considered might exist… but that is something I’ll get back to when I write about the botanical garden.

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The view from Cyan’s window is a perfect example of the botanical strangeness… a palm tree of some sort, certainly not hardy in Austria, side by side with a birch tree, so common here, and some other tree I simply don’t know.

But even this is a bigger thing, something I should have expected. What I really wanted to talk about was the tiny things I didn’t anticipate at all. The things you take for granted until they are different.

Like bird voices. It’s not like I know bird voices as in being able to tell what bird it is that I hear, in most cases (crows and pigeons, yes, cuckoos and gulls, magpies and lapwing, but most birds, I don’t recognize by their voice). But still, bird voices were always a familiar backdrop of sound… and suddenly, they weren’t, suddenly, they were such alien sounds. And standing by the window, looking out at those trees, and suddenly thinking, wait, was that a hummingbird just now? Another thing I hadn’t considered I might encounter… from childhood on, hummingbirds had been something faraway and exotic, and suddenly they were real.

Or the way the air smells. That was the first thing, arriving in San Francisco, taking a first deep breath after too many hours of airports and planes, and the air smelling so strange. I don’t know what it smelled of, but it was the first thing that made me think, “yes, I’m very far from home.”

Or the way the water tastes. In DC, it tasted like a swimming pool, unpleasant but familiar from many summers in Italy. I’m used to water tasting a little different everywhere, it’s not even the same between here and Vienna (and it’s always so nice, that first glass of water at home), but nowhere I’ve been in Europe has the water tasted as different as in Baychester. Not bad, just very strange…

How can you help feeling a stranger when even the elements, like air and water, remind you that you are?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2014 10:15

    I really like this post. I’m glad to finally read about your adventures in the Bay Area, but more importantly, your impressions of the West Coast are very interesting for me. I hope you didn’t feel like a stranger the whole time. But I really like what you wrote about the air smelling different, and the water tasting different, and the birds sounding different, and many of the plants being unidentifiable. You were indeed a very long way from home.

    • December 13, 2014 10:26

      It wasn’t a constant thing, feeling like a stranger (and as I said, Cyan did everything she could to make me feel at home), but it hit me at completely unexpected moments sometimes.

  2. December 18, 2014 03:47

    It sounds like you had such a wonderful trip to the states. It’s super fun to hear your accounts of it. Also, for the record, I’d never confuse Austria and Australia, haha!

    • December 19, 2014 21:23

      I had such a great time!
      And I wouldn’t expect you to to get them confused – because the people I know are all smart people. 🙂

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