Archive for the ‘Re-pat’s culture shock’ Category

Expensive espresso

June 25th, 2011
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An espresso at a European café or even a restaurant is likely to cost €2. Maybe, €2.50. If the restaurant is upscale, it could go for as much as €3.50. But paying more than that for a shot of espresso happens only at the brazenly overpriced locations, such as Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

The other night, we are in Brooklyn, at some Russian-owned café in Bay Ridge, for a concert of one of our favorite Russian singer-songwriters. At some point before the concert starts, Natasha decides that she wants to have an espresso. After all, we just came back from Europe, jet lag is still an issue, she wants some caffeine.

The girl behind the bar makes her a very proper cup. Natasha holds ready several singles, expecting the price to be possibly $4. When the girl tells her, “It’s $7”, she is flabbergasted.

Exchange rates what they are today, we are still talking €5 for an espresso. At some nowhere hole in Brooklyn. That’s just wrong!

Natasha later remarked that it was a very good shot of espresso indeed.

Re-pat's culture shock

$4 gallon of gas

April 10th, 2011

In the middle of the night, needing to put gas in my car, I ended up paying over $4 per gallon for the first time that I can recall. I was unpleasantly bothered by that fact.

Rewind a few years back, and I used to pay nearly £5 per gallon while living in the UK. During the height of the exchange rate imbalance, that translated to roughly $10 per gallon. Furthermore, expressed as a percentage of my salary, every £5 gallon of gas took roughly twice as much a bite out of my earnings than every $4 gallon I’m buying now.

And yet, I do not recall being bothered by high fuel prices in my three years in Europe.

I wonder why. What is so different in my mindset now, compared to then, that a relatively smaller outlay bothers me so much more?

Re-pat's culture shock

On store hours

April 12th, 2010
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One of the things that we always liked the least in Europe is the intent of people in the service sector to have lives outside of their shops. What do you mean, you are closed for three hours in the middle of the day? Are you so dumb as to lose potential customers by madly waving your hands at them and shouting J’ai fermé! at 4:58pm on a perfectly good Monday1? Used to – spoiled by it! – having places of commerce in America stay open late into the night and practically never “enjoying” days off2, we were constantly rubbed the wrong way by shops closing early on a weekday or never opening on a Sunday in most of the places that we’ve been to3.

Contrast that with a run-of-the-mill experience in our neck of woods.

We need to buy some stuff at a local Home Depot. For one reason or another, we are only able to get to the store around 9pm on a weekday night. 9:03, to be precise. The store schedule posted at the door suggests that the place closes at 9pm, but the doors slide open, a couple of cash registers are operating, and a store worker does not exhibit any displeasure with late walk-ins asking for assistance in finding whatever it is that they are looking to get. There are probably no more than a dozen shoppers all together in the huge store at this hour, and I have no clue whether their combined spend that evening covers the expense of staff wages and electricity to keep the store open, but, at the very least, there is little doubt that each one of those late customers will come back and spend at this store again and again.

For all of my natural inclination to European lifestyle, I am perpetually baffled why this notion of doing something extra for the customer so that they keep bringing back their business remains a largely foreign concept in the good old Europe.

1 True story – happened to us at a random shoe store in Avignon.

2 Northern Jersey’s Bergen County has inane local regulations that keep shopping centers closed on Sundays. I am pretty sure similar examples elsewhere in this big country do exist, but they are mostly exceptions, in my experience.

3 Prime tourist locations normally operate in more American-like way. Shops on Champs-Elysées stay open pretty late into the evening. But step a few blocks away, and Paris – or any other top destination in Europe – is not much different from the rest of the Old World: Closing early, staying shut on Sundays, etc.

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Same drivers, old problems

January 19th, 2010

Having spent a large portion of the long weekend behind the wheel of a car, I am reminded of an old problem I have with American drivers. (I reflected on it in passing in this post.)

Left lane is for passing, not for cruising. I don’t care that your speed is marginally faster than that of the car to your right – if nobody is in front of you and you do not pass that car within seconds, then you have no business being in the faster lane. And if there are no cars to pass and you persist in staying in the left lane, then you’re a dick. Yes, I can break two laws at once – pass on the right while exceeding speed limit – to get around you, but you won’t be any less of a dick as a result of that.

Somehow, this never feels like a problem when driving in Europe. People exceed speed limits all the time, of course, so you might come up behind someone already going pretty fast in the fast lane. But if they see in the rear mirror that another car is gaining on them, they’d move to a slower lane as soon as they find an appropriate gap between vehicles. If they don’t, while no longer passing cars in slower lanes, a couple of headlight flashes will remind them of what is considered common courtesy on Euro roads, and they’ll comply.

Try flashing your headlights to a car that drives at around speed limit in the left lane on an American freeway. It will likely decrease speed and the driver will either completely ignore your hint or gesticulate his confusion at your apparent intrusion into his driving reverie. Finishing with a bird.

Man, I hate stupid drivers!

Re-pat's culture shock

Speed limits

December 18th, 2009

How the perspective changes with just a bit of time…

Precisely two years ago, while describing my preparations for the driving test for a UK license, I noted my annoyance with the speed limits treatment in England. The absence of clearly posted limits on any road where the “national speed limit” was in effect required constant mental calculations of what the appropriate speed might be. Single-lane country road? 60. Built-up area with lamp-posts? 30. And so on.

And seemingly as soon as you’d figure out the right speed, you’d come up to a sign demanding that you’d progress much slower on this particular stretch of the road…

After a few months re-acquainting myself with driving in New Jersey, I suddenly recall the “national speed limit” approach with some fondness.

That is because it feels as if the speed limits around where I live are the outcome of some random game of chance. No rhyme, reason, consistency, or common sense about them.

My parents live a few miles away from us, across a fairly densely populated suburban area. There is a school along the way, a Main Street of one of the villages, several mini-malls, a small business center or two. But most of the route is fronted by private housing, set well back from the road, with pockets of green spaces here or there. The road “type” changes in only three places: By the school, through that one village “center”, and it narrows to one lane from two at some point. Yet, by my estimation, the speed limit changes roughly every half of the mile. 35, 45, 40, 25 (school), 40, 45, 35, 30 (town), etc. A slight uphill? Speed limit goes down. An ever so gently wide curve? Down. A few hundred yards of woods? Ok, we’ll add 5 extra miles to the limit, but you can see the next after sign with the lower number even before you registered the presence of this one.

How there are not more accidents among the already less than stellar New Jersey drivers with the constant need to switch gears is a miracle.

I suppose I’m jaded enough to suspect that all these varying limits are artificially created by local councils to fill up the municipal purses in times of need via speeding fines. I just can’t imagine a sensible person finding any sort of justification for changing the speed limit 5 miles up and down that often.

England seemingly does it better, from my current perspective. I no longer have a feeling that I saw so many arbitrary speed limit changes everywhere.

And no, I did not get ticketed recently. This is simply an idle observation that percolated on my “future topics” list for a while.

Re-pat's culture shock

B[b]otH interview: Kimmy

December 17th, 2009 finally got around to interviewing the youngest member of the family on her impressions and feelings regarding Europe and coming back to America.

In the practically unedited words of a 9-year-old…

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: Are you happy to be back in America?

Kimmy: Kind of… I miss London, but I’m also happy to be back in America.

B[b]otH: What do you miss about London?

K: I miss my friends. I miss the parks that we went to. And I miss my school…

B[b]otH: You miss the school? I didn’t think you liked your school in London…

K: I mean… I miss one of my teachers. Miss Coton. She was my teacher in year 3.

B[b]otH: But last year you had a different teacher, right?

K: Yeah, Miss Sheehan. She yelled at me all the time. I didn’t really hate her, but she was mean to me…

B[b]otH: Ok, forget her. Which friends to you miss?

K: I miss Grace, I miss Gabriella, and I miss Marina… And I also miss Leona, but she was sometimes mean to me too…

B[b]otH: So, you don’t have good friends here in America?

K: I have, like, 30 friends now! And I am a little happier here because I have a lot of friends, I’m quite popular and everybody thinks I’m pretty cool.

B[b]otH: In England, nobody thought you were pretty cool?

K: I was a bit happy there, but a lot of people were really mean to me.

B[b]otH: But you still miss it?

K: Mm, kind of…

B[b]otH: You mentioned you liked the parks – which parks?

K: Mostly, Greenwich Park, and the park down the street with a big field and a playground… and the teeny little park where you go down to the pond… [Ed.: Kimmy means The Tarn, featured here]

B[b]otH: Did you like traveling to all of the different countries?

K: That was my favorite part! I loved that!!

B[b]otH: Which countries do you remember?

K: I remember Spain, France, Italy… I remember Germany… I remember Switzerland… I remember Belgium… I remember we went to a lot of cities…

B[b]otH: Where is Budapest?

K: Is that in… Cracow?

B[b]otH: No, Cracow is another city that we went to. Budapest is in Hungary.

K: Oh, yeah… Hungary!

B[b]otH: Ok, now that you’re back in America, what do you like the most about America?

K: My best friends live here… Tessa, Sammy… I made new best friends… And we have this beautiful, wonderful house, and I think this is the best house that anyone could ever have.

B[b]otH: How about the house we lived at in England?

K: Yeah, it was ok, but it was kind of tiny…

B[b]otH: Is there something you did not like about England?

K: Miss Sheehan… And I did not like the kitchen in England. It was so small… And I did not really like the bathrooms…

B[b]otH: I’m not asking about the house. I’m talking overall, in England, living there, was there something else besides miss Sheehan that you did not like?

K: People weren’t being nice to me…

B[b]otH: Which people?

K: One time, Leona, because a glue-stick broke and I wouldn’t let her use it, she was mean to me all day long… She made me cry all day. And she got me in trouble with the teachers… Usually you get called by name for lunch, and she told me my name was called, and it did not, and I got yelled at because of that… Miss Sheehan yelled at me really loudly, so all the school could hear…

B[b]otH: This type of thing does not happen in America?

K: Not really…

B[b]otH: That’s all you did not like in England?

K: Yeah, my friends were occasionally mean to me, I did not like that.

B[b]otH: But you still miss them, you said?

K: Grace was my best friend and she was never mean to me. And, sometimes, I don’t make sense! [laughs]

B[b]otH: Got it! Ok… If you had a chance to go and live in Europe again, would you go?

K: That is a very complicated question, ’cause I kinda wanna stay here and I kinda wanna go there… I wanna visit but I don’t want to live there… I want to visit my friends and stuff, but I don’t want to live there again… [pause]… unless we get a really big house!

B[b]otH: Unless we get a really big house? [laughs]

K: No, actually, no. I love my best friends here, I don’t want to leave.

B[b]otH: So, you have better friends here in America?

K: Yes!

B[b]otH: Ok, is school harder or easier in England?

K: Harder.

B[b]otH: Why? You didn’t even have homework during the week in England…

K: Oh, American homework is so easy, I can do it in, like, fifteen minutes… In math, we did really complicated things in England… and sometimes, we did not even go over it before getting it for homework [Ed.: weekends only], so we had to figure it out by ourselves… there was this big 4-sheet thing that I usually got on weekends, with so many problems and things to do… and I like it here more, because we don’t get any homework on the weekend… because weekend is to relax, not to work…

B[b]otH: [long laugh] Brilliant! So… What is your favorite place in Europe?

K: I really like… Spain, France and Italy.

B[b]otH: All three of them?

K: Yes… Well, Italy is my favorite… because it’s got all of my favorite food…

B[b]otH: Which is?

K: Pasta, pizza and bruschetta! Of course!

B[b]otH: Excellent!

K: And also chocolate lava cake!

B[b]otH: Chocolate lava cake – is that also Italian?

K: Yep!

B[b]otH: Very good, then. Thank you very much for your time, young lady.

K: No problemo!

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

You can’t have it all

November 16th, 2009

Today’s post was penned by my lovely wife. Hers in the next entry in a small feature of everyone in the family discussing their feelings on having lived in England and returning to the States. The previous post in the series can be found here.

Travel was number one on our list of the reasons to move to Europe. Growing up in a big but closed country, I could never imagine that one day I would be able to stroll along the Seine or ski in Alps or swim on the coast of the Mediterranean. I was living my dream for the last three years.


You see, I’m a social butterfly: I need to be around people who know and love me, who understand my desire to sing karaoke or spend an evening with a guitar. I want to simply call one of my friends – or, sometimes, relatives – and get together just because. Remember the theme song from Cheers?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

That was the main reason for coming back. That and the size of my refrigerator!

I miss my fruit and vegetable markets where you know your vendor and he knows your favorites; plus, almost everything is one pound sterling a bowl. Those specialty markets (German, French, Spanish, Italian) which were only 10-15 minutes away by foot, with everything on sale from herbs to shoes, were sometimes the highlights of the weekend. The Borough Market is an event on its own – you can have breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner by simply moving from stand to stand and tasting cheeses (not me!), sausages, bread, sweets, and even a glass of something sparkly.

I used to swim three times a week at the local pool for a mere price of £2 for a session – or £20 for unlimited swimming for a month! Here in the States, it is hard to find a sport club with a membership less than $50 a month with initial payment and a contract. I cannot wait till summer weather to use my own pool for a bit of exercising.

One of my other hobbies is badminton, which I became quite proficient at during my years in London (even won a tournament). Sadly, the few badminton clubs in New Jersey are about 30-50 minutes away from our house and I feel I will never be able to go there on a regular basis. Oh well, there is always that hula-hoop!

Free or low-cost concerts or exhibitions are widely available in London area; all you had to do was open the local magazine and choose where to go. I’m sure in New York City such things exist as well – and they do offer walks and adventure clubs in nearby parks – but it is not the same, somehow… Simply dropping by the National Gallery to see of the Monet’s masterpieces was kind of cool…

If you ask me whether I would do it again knowing what I do know now, I’d say – definitely! No question about it! Did we come back too soon and could have seen and done more? Probably. But I think now we can appreciate our unbelievable adventure even more, and we look forward to greeting family and friends at our house with a glass of Bordeaux in hand to tell them stories of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to enjoy romantic Paris.

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Americans abroad

November 7th, 2009

A person decides to go for a week-long trip to Paris with her teenage daughter. Neither of them have travelled much before, especially to Europe, and they’ve never been to France. Neither of them is much interested in history, art or architecture. They picked Paris as a holiday destination because, well, it is one of the first foreign non-resort destinations that come to mind; plus, a chance acquaintance at the ice rink where the girl regularly skates lived in Europe for a few years and gives Paris very high marks all around.

The woman does not do any pre-trip research. She grills that chance acquaintance on the must-see sights and asks her for various advice, but otherwise departs on her trip with very little idea of what she and her daughter would be doing in Paris.

They end up skipping several major points of interest while in the French capital. Since they are not museum types, they make a cursory visit to the Louvre and pass up all other great art museums. They climb the Eiffel Tower, but skip Ste-Chapelle. They don’t visit Latin Quarter or Monmartre. They do not like walking around much, so they run out of things to do, once they are done with all of the different routes of the hop-on/hop-off tour-bus. Paris bores them. Their best activity ends up a day-long guided tour of Bruges, in Belgium, – regimented schedule, constant English-language narration, no need to improvise in order to keep themselves occupied.

Since they do not speak any French, they tend to have their meals in touristy establishments, where the prices are higher and the portions look fancier but are decidedly smaller. They certainly come away from that not liking the food and bemoaning the cost.

When they are back in America, they tell all of their friends and acquaintances that they don’t understand what’s the big deal about Paris. They could not find anything to do there, they saw almost nothing that impressed them, they had to spend so much money for bad food and cramped lodgings…

Any of my American readers recognize themselves in this portrait?

I sincerely hope not.

You might have guessed from the beginning that the “chance acquaintance” was no one else but my lovely wife. And the person described here is one of the moms that she regularly sees at the rink where Becky and Kimmy have recently resumed their skating. Natasha tried to help the woman before the trip, but the attitude was all wrong; it was as if the woman was expecting to arrive at an all-inclusive resort/amusement park and book additional activities as needed. And her lack of interest in art and culture pretty much doomed the entire endeavor from the very beginning.

No wonder Americans do not travel much beyond “standard” destinations of Disney parks, Florida shores and Caribbean islands. You start off as a narrow-minded highlights-reel-seeker and you make no attempt to experience what a foreign destination have to offer – you probably will lose any cursory interest you may have had after just one attempt…

Present company excluded, of course.

Re-pat's culture shock

B[b]otH interview: Becky

October 22nd, 2009

It took me a while to follow up on Geo’s excellent suggestion, but I finally started to sit down with members of my family to get their thoughts on living in England and being back in America.

First up, the teen.

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: So, what did you like the most about England?

Becky: Public transportation, definitely. I also liked the fact that people there are more accepting of differences, say, in personal style. I liked the British music a lot. And the food.

B[b]otH: Food?

B: Oh, I don’t mean the English food. But there is definitely more variety there, of all of the different types of food from all over the world.

B[b]otH: Anything you did not like?

B: The weather is kinda boring there – pretty much one season all year long. It was very annoying that shops closed at 5pm… I can’t think of anything else… At some point I disliked the school uniforms – I think they’re nice now. At some point I did not like how the school system worked – I don’t mind it now…

B[b]otH: All right. Now you’re back in America. What do you like most about being back?

B: Seeing my family and friends again… No uniforms in school… I think the school is actually a bit easier, because we have the same subjects every day… Weather is nicer in general – or more “changing”…

B[b]otH: And what do you not like?

B: It’s far away from all the nice countries that you can visit! And there is no public transport, so you people have to drive me everywhere.

B[b]otH: Three years living in England – good or bad?

B: There were some good things and some not so good ones, but it was a good experience.

B[b]otH: If you could do it again, would you?

B: Yeah! [enthusiastically nods]

B[b]otH: When you grow up, will you go and live in Europe again?

B: Most definitely!

B[b]otH: Which country?

B: I’ll put them all in a hat… put the pieces of paper with the names in a hat and pull one out… and if I don’t like that one, I’ll pick up a different one.

B[b]otH: Say, you come up with Albania…

B: I don’t think so. It would be a country like Italy, maybe England, maybe Spain, but I do not like Spanish anymore…

B[b]otH: Ok, your old friends, do they show any interest in the fact that you lived in England for several years? Do they ask about it?

B: Yes, they find it very interesting, and so do all my new friends. My “accent” starts up many conversations on its own.

B[b]otH: You view it as a positive or are you annoyed?

B: It’s a great positive! “Hello” – “Hello” – “Oh my goodness! You’re British!!!”.

B[b]otH: [laughs] What’s your most vivid experience of the years that you lived in England?

B: Probably, all the school trips that I went to… You know, China, Iceland, France a few times, Switzerland… It was all good!

B[b]otH: Not the trips with the family?

B: The family trips too, but there is something special about going with your friends, with only teachers being there… You can’t really ignore your parents the way you can ignore teachers!

On that interesting thought, we adjourned to watch the latest recorded episode of Lie to Me.

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Weekend notes, 08/24/09

August 24th, 2009

Our weekends have gotten back to what we consider “normal” for us very quickly upon repatriation. A dinner outing with parents. An idle get-together with friends by the pool. A mixed kids-and-adults party in celebration of some occasion. We have not had a single Saturday or Sunday in the last month where we were not occupied with one of such pleasantries.

I suppose I’ll be repeating myself if I point out that this was one of the key reasons for our return from faraway lands.

No long-distance travel (although 40 miles to North Jersey may be construed as a fair amount of travel) or sightseeing is involved, though. I’m wondering how soon I’ll start missing international travel.

There’s always Canada, a friend reminded me today.

Anyhow, we had a mishap with our dinner reservation on Saturday. We decided to go to a place that we knew well and loved, and Natasha called ahead to reserve a table. When we arrived in time for our meal, we realized that the restaurant has changed its name and type of cuisine (while obviously keeping the same phone number), and was no longer a place where we desired to have a meal at. Things do not stay the same, it turns out. From this point on, I guess, our first question when making a reservation should be “Are you still the same place that we knew 3 years ago?”

The latest pool get-together was enabled by my favorite Hacker-Pschorr Weisse. It always surprised me to no end that I could not find that particular brand of Bavarian beer anywhere in Europe (except Bavaria, of course), but can quite easily find it in most NJ liquor stores.

Natasha made another observation of the “they do it differently in Europe” kind.

Drive into a supermarket parking lot on an average busy day and there is a good chance that you’ll find abandoned shopping carts all over the place, often blocking the few available parking spots. People rarely worry about putting the carts into designated bays after they transfer their purchases into the car trunks. A new arrival would often have to get out of the car and clear up the space before being able to pull in. Not mentioning the possibility of returning to your car and finding a fresh ding courtesy of someone pushing away a no-longer-wanted cart with enviable velocity.

At a European supermarket, you most likely need to insert a coin, one pound sterling or one euro, into a slot in the cart handle to disengage it from a row of carts that are locked together. You get your coin back when you return the cart to that same holding area to lock it again. At first, I thought that it was a deterrent from rampant cart-jacking, but we later came to realize that the corollary effect was that of people making an effort to bring the carts where they belonged once they were no longer in use.

Never gonna work in America… First of all, American public will never accept such an infringement on its freedom to abandon carts wherever they please. Second, lots of people would work up a lather over a prospect of having access to a shopping cart dependent on carrying a specific denomination of coin in their pockets. Furthermore, there is no coin of high enough denomination in wide circulation in the US to make this scheme workable – would many people care to get their quarter back, anyway? And finally, there are a few minimum-wage positions of “cart gatherer” at any given large parking lot; probably, unionized, too.

What’s a few dings and scratches when you can reduce unemployment.

Chronicles, Re-pat's culture shock

TV commercials

August 19th, 2009

A quick observation that I cannot properly quantify: We’ve been struck over the last few days how much more commercial time there is on American TV as compared to the channels we watched in England. It feels as if every 6-7 minutes there is a 3-4 minute commercial break. Our recollections of the British TV somehow suggest considerably longer intervals of content between commercial breaks.

That’s as enlightening as I have the luxury of being today.

Re-pat's culture shock

Quick notes on costs

August 17th, 2009

For a casual cell-phone user, the cost of the service in Britain is a proven expense that is considerably lower than here in the US.

The difference is in the treatment of incoming minutes. In UK, they are free. On a pay-as-you-go scheme, one conceivably can have zero balance on their account, yet use their phone extensively, provided other people initiate calls to their mobile. In America, you would still be spending your minutes, regardless of who calls whom.

So, our expenditure on two pay-as-you-go phones rarely exceeded £30 a month. Fast-forward to today, pay-as-you-go makes little sense when you will be shedding minutes for receiving calls. So we got on a family plan with two lines, minimum number of included minutes (albeit with unlimited texting and unlimited in-network mobile-to-mobile use), and the monthly bill comes to $125 when all fees, surcharges and taxes are factored in. We’ll do our darnedest best to use up as many of the minutes as we can, but the difference in monthly expense is quite noticeable.

I’ve been told by friends that the situation could be in reverse for those whose whole life revolves around cell phones. Yet, OECD just listed the US as the most expensive for light/medium cell phone use among its members and in bottom five for heavy users. Britain is mid-table for non-heavy users, and very close to the top for heavy ones. (I’m almost surprised that my personal observations are so easily corroborated by the official stats…)

On the other end of the spectrum are the fuel costs. Full tank of gas seems to run us under $45 these days. In England, at the best of times, we were looking at roughly £60, at worse ones – £80. Do your own exchange rates calculations, if you will.

Costs, Re-pat's culture shock

Road works

August 7th, 2009

What is more expensive: Paying two guys minimum salary to stand at each end of the roadwork area and coordinate alternating two-way traffic over one open lane, or put two electric generators with portable traffic lights in each position instead?

I don’t know the answer, but the “people” solution definitely reduces unemployment.

This is one of the stray “hey, they do it differently in England” observations that pop into our heads with regularity nowadays. In England, where road construction is ubiquitous, you practically never see one-lane traffic management in the hands of people. Not all European countries uniformly do likewise, but we retained a general impression of those portable traffic lights being everywhere where half a road is closed.

Now in New Jersey, Natasha is approaching a stretch of the county road with some sort of digging going on, and here he is, the hard-working stop-sign holder, intently listening to his walkie-talkie for the roger to let the queue of cars through.

Gotta be the cheaper option.

Re-pat's culture shock