Sophie in Santa Cruz
‘They’ve all come to look for America’ sing Simon and Garfunkel wistfully. This is a feeling I could definitely get on board with, in this case even literally as I climbed the steps of the airplane bound for San Francisco. This summer I wanted to understand this country that supposedly makes up half my origin. Armed with my American passport, a good friend, and a car I drove cross country from San Francisco to New York City to do just that.
Despite speaking the language already, there was still some cultural adjustment in store for me. I remember cringing as a teenager in Switzerland when my mother, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, tried to engage fellow passengers in the bus in conversation. I am used to sitting in silent ignorance of other passengers in busses and fighting to get the attention of sales staff in European stores. A true Central European would not dare to smile and enquire after your wellbeing if they don’t know you. The idea is ‘I don’t know you, so why would I put effort into being nice to you?’ Here, all the people I encounter in stores smile and ask me how I’m doing. Of course, this is a figure of speech and I doubt they care more about my wellbeing than European salespeople do. But the reigning rule of thumb is ‘It doesn’t hurt me to smile at you so I might as well make you feel comfortable.’ I am learning an entirely new way of communicating with strangers. It turns out my mother was not an alien from another planet sent to embarrass her daughter but a product of American etiquette stranded on a continent to straight forward to be polite even in a shallow way.