Sensory Overload

I’ve been back in the United States for a week now, and I’m still adjusting.

photo of travelers pulling suitcases at Adventures in Expat Land

Daughter and I are here for an extended period visiting family, beginning to check out universities, attending a pre-college program (her) while I hole myself up to work on some writing projects, and so on.

Oh, and eventually spending some time at the beach.

Having been away for two years means it’s taking some getting used to.

We’re definitely no longer accustomed to the high temperatures and humidity of mid-summer on the East Coast, especially when heat advisories are in place.

The Netherlands rarely edges up much above low 80s (Fahrenheit), and when it does the Dutch have already flocked to the water to cool off: beach, dunes, boats, lakes.

Living less than a mile from the western coast, we’re able to throw open windows and capture the North Sea breeze to cool things down.

Here? D@mn, it is hot.

One hundred six degrees Fahrenheit today. Heat so searing and humid that it hurts to breathe.

I know that eventually the heat wave will break, and 90s will start to feel comfortable. After all, we’ve grown up equating heat with summer, and summer it is.

But it’s not merely the heat that is causing sensory overload. It’s just about everything.

Hearing English, American English, everywhere is surprising.

Wow, another American family is moving into the neighborhood,’ I keep thinking. Except I’m not on little Ten Hovestraat, I’m back in the US.

That last sentence says it all. No one growing up in the US calls it America, except when referring to the good old US of A in the pledge of allegiance or singing patriotic songs. We use the word much more as an adjective, not a noun.

Yet elsewhere, most people refer to the United States as America. I’m usually asked if I’m English, something I’m sure most Brits would object to strenuously in light of my clearly American accent.

Three years on and that still always takes me by surprise. Then when I say (either in Dutch or English) that I’m from the United States, the response is always the same.

Oh, you’re from America?

Since we’ve been back, it’s been hard turning off my brain when it believes I need to translate virtually everything I’m about to say into English. Except that I don’t.

The result is a sort of stilted, English mush until I get going.

Headlines on newspapers and magazines are often unfamiliar, even if we’ve been keeping up with many of the issues under discussion. There are new television shows to check out, new artists and new songs on the radio, new lyrics to learn.

Wandering through the aisles of various grocery stores (no Albert Heijn here, alas), the abundance of choice is overwhelming. New products, new flavors, new foods, new drinks.

We make payment differently, and have to remember not to bag our own groceries unless we’re in the self-check out line as it’s part of someone’s job description. I’ve only tried to use my Dutch pin card twice, both times having the transaction denied, eliciting a ‘well, duh‘ reaction in my mind.

While it is in part the nature of our trip, we’ve already driven more in a week than I tend to drive in a month…or three. Then again, I’ve covered the equivalent of three countries in Europe and we still have far more to go.

Yet from an American perspective we’re staying in one geographic area: it’s not as if we’re driving into the heartland, or covering 3,000 miles and visiting the West Coast or further.

The things I’m seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching are familiar, yet often a little confusing. Just a bit off kilter.

We’re not repatriating, and it’s not a vacation. (Well, not until the time at the beach.) It’s living out of a suitcase, a series of visits to people we know and love intermingled with stops in places where we’re completely unknown, even if we’re familiar with the territory.

While visiting my parents, we went out to dinner one night to a favorite restaurant they’ve taken me to before. Housed in a typical American strip mall, this little Belgian gem run by a chef-husband and sommelier/hostess-wife serves up fabulous food.

When Isabeth came by our table, we chatted a bit in Dutch. Last time (two years ago) I felt awkward because I couldn’t quite understand her Brugges accent, even on some of the simpler conversational cues.

This time was only slightly better, and as we spoke I said something and then corrected myself, unsure whether I’d used the proper Dutch word order or not.

Then a surprising thing happened.

As Isabeth opened her mouth to give me the correct phrasing, a look of consternation flashed across her face. She started to say something, stopped, then began again.

Do you know, I’m not quite sure which is the right way to say that. I’ve forgotten…‘ she whispered to me in embarrassment. ‘I just don’t get much of a chance to speak Dutch very often.

Seeing her pained expression, I caught her eyes and gave her a knowing smile.

Oh, I get you Isabeth, I thought to myself. I truly do.

[Image credit: healingdream, portfolio 989, freedigitalphotos.net]


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