Katherine Poore is a Third Year English and French major, attending UVA Exchange: University of Edinburgh this semester.
Check out her blog, where this post can also be located!
Week one (plus a few days!) in my new city has finally come to a close. It was a blurry time-warp, populated by an enormous number of new faces (and accents), relentless Facebook-friending, and everyone’s favorite collection of small talk questions (that is: What’s your name? What year are you? Where are you from? What are you studying?). I’ve relived the first-year experience, attending Welcome Week events, waiting in line for a student ID, and struggling to decipher a new online interface for my student account (it’s beginning to seem to me that universities make these intentionally user-unfriendly, although I cannot for the life of me decide why).
It’s been quite a challenge for me to figure out what to write about now, after this first week abroad. I have, unsurprisingly, developed a laundry list of ideas, thoughts, and observations I’d like to share, ranging from the strangeness of my role as a third-year-first-year hybrid to the surprisingly visceral response I had to learning that Scots, apparently, don’t refrigerate their eggs (guys, I could write a whole blog on this). Of course, one’s first week in a new country usually entails an inundation of newness and, as a veteran overthinker, this makes picking one topic incredibly difficult.
So, where to begin?
I weighed my options, half-wrote and then abandoned a number of topics, and finally settled on the aspect of this experience that has, so far, presented the greatest form of culture shock I’ve experienced: grocery stores.
Many of us could probably agree that the U.K. and the states are not, in the simplest terms, that different; we speak the same language, we’re both shaped by primarily western cultural influences, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what seems to be a thriving coffee shop presence around Edinburgh (this gives me, perhaps, an alarming degree of comfort; nothing feels more like home than coffee).
But still—the differences here are slight, if you get beyond the obvious disparities, and it’s these differences that lead to feelings of displacement, that remind me I am elsewhere. I am not from here. I am not home.
Part of this, I suppose, is my being mentally prepared for the big differences. I knew tipping was not common practice, and that my accent would stick out more, and that the weather would be unpredictable and mostly cold. But I didn’t consider the minute differences, like the different clothes sizing system, or the extra charge for a plastic bag to carry your purchases at any given store. And the grocery store, I suppose, is where these minute differences come together in greater numbers, presenting themselves in a way I can’t ignore.
My favorite brands are absent. There’s no Chobani yogurt, or Jif peanut butter, and the Quaker oatmeal flavors are different. They sell milk in different sizes than we do. The nutrition labels don’t look the same. It’s fun, yes, to explore these new foods, to try something different, but this is also the place where I feel the least at home. The avocados are in the refrigerated section, and the fruit containers are different, too. Instead of plastic boxes, with those snap-shut tops, they’re covered with a plastic film. Even though it’s September, there’s no canned pumpkin anywhere.
The fact that these are the things that remind me over and over again that I’m a foreigner here speaks, perhaps, to how finely tuned my senses are to what feels like home. I can handle the weather just fine, or the currency shift, because I knew these were coming, and I’d considered them beforehand. But the absence of pre-minced garlic? That was jarring.
I could probably go on about how deeply food culture has an impact on national identity and how grocery stores themselves tend to be significant community establishments, but, to me, this experience has pointed toward a more personal realization. Home—for me, at least—is a far more detailed and specific concept than I’d thought. It has nuances, and parts of it seem incredibly shallow (the fraught search for baby carrots, for example, should not make me feel as out of place as it does). The micro aspects of daily life, I’ve realized, color my perceptions of place and belonging just as much as the macro ones.
The point of this whole drama, I suppose, is to say this: this place has a lot of resonances with what I’m used to at home. To say I feel like a fish totally out of water would be misleading—I’m getting along fairly comfortably, although I encounter new cultural gray areas each day, and it’s easy enough to conduct everyday life here relatively smoothly. But, because I’m in a place where my mind doesn’t have to be occupied by the big differences of lifestyle and culture, I’ve had more room to examine what—beyond the people—makes this place different, and unique, and unlike the country in which I grew up. I’ve started thinking about what makes home feel like home, and all the parameters of home we consider. There’s home as a sense of familiarity, or as a university, or as a structure. There are perceptions of home built solely on the foundation of friends and family, or there’s home as a nation, a state, or a town. We have homes that aren’t homes at all, that are places we rarely live—like, say, summer camp—to which we feel deep connections. Some homes bring out different parts of us and aid in our own self-discovery. Some homes, in both the very abstract and highly concrete uses of the term, challenge us more than others. There are countless ways to think of home, and there are countless ways we discover it wherever we are.
To me, it would seem grocery stores are a significant part of my perceptions of home. American accents signal home. Coffee, as I’ve said, feels like home.
So, in writing all this, I simply mean to be saying: this place will, as most places in which we invest ourselves do, become a sort of home. But what kind of home, I wonder, will it be, and what will make it different, and how will God use this home to help me grow in ways my other homes can’t? What parts of this city and this experience will become home, and what will stay foreign, or uncomfortable, or disconcerting? I, of course, can’t provide answers to any of these questions yet (although I certainly have hopes for what those answers might eventually be), but I’m glad I’m thinking about it now, before I’m pulled into the whirlwind of academics and weekend travel that I sense heading my way.
It is a gift to be here, in a new city and country, with new friends and new foods and new opportunities. It’s overwhelming at times, and exhausting, too, and questions of what I’m here to discover and who my friends will be often take away from the sense of peace I want so badly to have. But these are good questions, and productive questions, and Edinburgh, I suppose, is not such a bad place to be asking them.