On a hot and steamy Monday three weeks ago, my husband and I decided spontaneously to buy tickets to Spain and visit my parents in Marbella for two weeks. Since we didn't have the mental lead time to get into the European mindset, arriving there on the following Saturday almost seemed like a surprise.
When Paco picked us up and drove us through the incredible landscape we still hadn't reprogrammed our brains to adjust to a different pace and etiquette.
You might say that reprogramming is an exaggeration -- and maybe it is -- but being from Germany myself and my husband hailing from England, we find ourselves having to adjust to the American way of doing things. Before I moved to New York I was taught that talking about politics, work and money is inappropriate at the dinner table (and the last two subjects are somewhat taboo at all times).
Today, I am perfectly adjusted to expect upon a first meeting for the first question to be about work followed by leading questions that are a thinly veiled attempt to categorize me insofar as living circumstances and social connections are concerned. A conversation might go like this:
"Hi nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too."
"So what do you do in New York?"
Followed by: "Do you live uptown or downtown?" "What school does your son go to?" "Do you go to the Hamptons in the summer?" "Do you rent or do you own a house out there?" Within a few moments of meeting my new acquaintance, they can sum up all the answers and be able to surmise whether I can:
• Be of any use business-wise
• Fit within the social circle of his current social status (which today seems to be determined not by how well read you are or how interesting you might be but more by the answers to aforementioned questions)
• Whether I might even be of help in the endless race of social advancements here
• And, finally, whether it's worth continuing the conversation or if perhaps the neighbor to his or her other side might prove more interesting.
I remember distinctly being heavily pregnant and at very fancy and beautiful birthday party uptown that had a semi-seated arrangement -- meaning you were assigned a table but once there it was free seating. Since I was moving slowly through the crowds I got there relatively late and found only one seat left next to the mother of a girl I know. She looked at me in horror when I planted myself next to her and although she acknowledged that we did in fact know each other. She suggested I move to a neighboring table since that would be "more fun." In other words, I clearly did not satisfy points A through D on the criteria list.
But I digress. Back to my husband and my impromptu holiday in Spain -- upon arriving at the house, I immediately set to work making a "schedule" for the trip: gym, swimming lessons for my son, hiking, dinners, lunches, tennis, one hour nap, set the alarm, etc. My mother just looked over at me and shook her head, knowing that we simply needed to get the New York pace out of our systems.
For the first two days of the trip we stuck to a strict 7 am wake-up followed by extreme -- and I believe, unhealthy -- amounts of sporting activities, followed by a quick lunch and runs to the beach. But suddenly it happened -- on day three the mental clouds parted and we started skipping scheduled activities, feeling free to forgo the flurried activity and just lounge about, doing nothing at all.
We realized how ingrained this New York state of mind was when European friends of ours who also lived in the city joined us at my parents' in Marbella and announced they were moving back to Sweden. While, admittedly, Sweden may not tempt me as much as other places in Europe, the simple action of deciding to extract themselves from New York City's rat race induced a strange anxiety in me. "Surely you can't just leave?!" (asked the hamster in the wheel). Yet they seemed oddly relieved and already had that relaxed European glow about them.
So the rest of the week was spent discussing the benefits of Europe vs. the U.S. As the trip came to an end we concluded that, while the jury is still out, it must be possible to export some of the European outlook on life, which doesn't depend on what and how much you have, but rather on a state-of-mind which allows you to simply enjoy. Enjoy dinners, enjoy your surroundings, enjoy a book and enjoy anything you do without thinking about the next thing you have to enjoy after that.
My brother always said to me that in New York time passes by faster than other places in the world. After my little vacation I will try to at least slow it down, at least a little.