So after a year and seven months living in South America, I am finally back home on (United States of) American soil–except I feel like a foreigner all over again. I arrived to Washington, D.C. last Sunday afternoon, and spent the week there visiting friends and attending my five-year college reunion. Although I grew up outside of Boston, and my parents currently live north of Chicago, D.C. is the city I know best in the U.S. It is, after all, where I called home for the last seven years of my adult life before I moved abroad. But it turns out, a year and a half abroad is enough to make you feel like a tourist/foreigner/alien from another planet even when returning to a city you thought you knew so well before.
After allowing myself a day to just not do anything at all, my first day unleashed in the American wilds did not go so successfully.
It started with a random decision to try to eat some of the city’s best mac and cheese, which I hadn’t eaten since mid-2009, and that’s a helluva long time to go without. I found a listing by the Washington Post, citing a place called Levi’s Port Cafe on 8th Street SE, on their list of the city’s top places for mac and cheese. It looked like a greasy, down-home, barbecue joint that didn’t pretend to be anything more… i.e. just the type of place I was looking for. I was trying for some real Amurrican culture.
And that I did… sort of. If mediocre artery-hardening food isn’t the way to welcome myself back to the U.S., I don’t know what is. I’m sorry to say, the food at Levi’s Port Cafe did not make me want to go back. The sweet yams and mac ‘n cheese were pre-made, slopped onto the plate from a buffet bar by the server–thanks guy. The Carolina BBQ pulled pork sandwich I ordered was also soggy; the bun should have been toasted. And even though I may not be a connoisseur of the Carolina BBQ, I do know the pulled pork was missing the sweet, smoky, savory taste of finger-lickin’ BBQ. (I used a napkin to wipe my hands.) I was also convinced by the owner to try their sweet tea, which turned out to taste like liquid candy, and, worried I would walk out of there with either diabetes or at least new cavities, I had to ask for a glass of water to dilute the sweetness. I could not help but wonder if Levi’s patrons–Southerners?–actually enjoy this much sugar in their sweet tea?
My mouth also dropped at the extraordinary size of the cup! (Which as I’ve discovered after going to other restaurants, is actually only slightly larger than the standard-sized American cup.) I ordered the “regular,” which is the smallest they had, and it was enormous. Ohhhh, gigantic American portions. (Although interestingly enough, the portions of the food were quite modest.) In Brazil they use these teeny itty bitty cups, smaller even than your average tea cup. They’re actually hilariously small. But also probably much healthier than the Big Gulp-sized drinks Americans are used to.
And the worst thing of all: that Washington Post-touted mac ‘n cheese? Mushy and bland. Boo.
The next surprise of the day was that I realized I had forgotten all about how the Metro works in D.C. The sector of my brain dedicated to public transportation knowledge has been filled with Rio’s various bus lines, so much so that I found myself staring at the Metro map for several long minutes trying to figure out how much to pay (peak hours, sort of peak hours, and regular fare? whaaa?), and where I was going. I felt a little embarrassed among the D.C. residents rushing through the Metro like it ain’t no thang. I also felt like an ass having to ask the bus driver (I had taken a bus to get down to Levi’s Port Cafe–taking a bus down to Southeast D.C. is a trip, lemme tell ya) how the transfers work and where to get off. (Though not as much because I felt bad asking as because he was pretty rude and exasperated in answering.) I even had to ask someone how to get to the right platform when I transferred trains at one station. You would never know I had lived there for seven-plus years. I officially knew nothing about how to get around D.C. But, it turns out, all you need is a few days to get acclimated. I was starting to get the hang of things by the end of that week. I’d be riding the rails and buses like a veteran after a couple weeks–I think.
Final little culture shock moment was actually a pretty funny one. My brother, who now lives in D.C., and I were crossing the street–at a pedestrian crosswalk no less–and I high-tailed it across the road in a half-sprint, as any good carioca would. I’d become so accustomed to having to watch out for cars speeding at me in Rio that it’d become automatic. In Brazil, pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. Several times after I first got to Rio, I unknowingly crossed the street, thinking I had the right of way when the crosswalk signal turned green, and very nearly got run over by cars and buses turning onto the street I was on. My brother had to remind me that here, in America, (as if I were an immigrant) drivers don’t have a personal vendetta against pedestrians on the road, and do in fact brake to allow people to cross. “Take it easy. They’re not gonna run you over.” I was actually shocked.
But in general, life back in the States has been really normal. I am almost unnerved by how easy, breezy everything has been–as if I wasn’t really gone for more than a year and a half. I haven’t really experienced any reverse culture shock, although I really do wish I could still be hearing and speaking Portuguese every day. English is alright I guess. I miss the beach. I miss being surrounded by beautiful, tan, extremely friendly people. (Ha, half-joke, but… actually sort of true.) Unfortunately, the next step is finding a job, which should be a hoot.