Buying toothpaste never seemed like it had the potential to be a horrendously overwhelming experience. That is, until I tried doing it fewer than twenty-four hours after coming back from a semester in London. I know how ridiculous that sounds because . . . toothpaste? So bear with me as I explain.
After studying abroad in London for almost half a year, everything in the US, which has been familiar for my whole life, now seems ever-so-slightly different. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's definitely noticeable as soon as you get off that airplane.
I've been outside of this country before, but never for more than two weeks or so. And I'd never really lived in another country before; I'd only ever been a brief visitor. Coming home from a vacation abroad versus coming home from a semester abroad are like night and day experiences. Previously, when I've landed back on US soil, I've viewed American behavior, food, clothing, etc. in the frame of "That's interesting, that's not how they did it back in [insert country name here]"; since I've been home from England, however, it's been more like "Oh, that's interesting! That's not how we did it back in London."
Spending five months in London is long enough that it can become totally your own. It's long enough that when you come back to the US, you can see things here through the eyes of a Brit, not just through the eyes of someone who has been to Great Britain.
With that in mind, going to the biggest Target in the Greater Boston area within a day of being stateside again was probably a horrible position to put myself in. I mean, you could probably fit all of Great Britain inside this store. By American standards, it's a pretty average size, but it doesn't compare to anything in England in any way—in size, in ability to be a one-stop-shop, or in the sheer scope of offerings. Which brings us to toothpaste.
I grew accustomed to seeing toothpaste pretty exclusively at the chemist (which is what you would call a drug store or pharmacy in England) where it's only surrounded by other like products, and where there are maybe ten to twenty options at most. Now I stood in front of a behemoth of choices—an entire aisle full—in the middle of swim suits, furniture, hardware, and anything else you might ever want or need. I literally froze in awe and slight terror. And then I took some pictures because I didn't know what else to do.
On the left are just the Crest options, on the right are just Colgate. This picture doesn't even include all the weird off-brands that were also in this aisle.
There were specific offerings for whitening, or plaque removal, or protection against bad breathe, protection again cavities, something with extra fluoride in it, something that looked a lot like the other whitening one only this one had a green label, and even one with no explanation, just the word "Scope" on the package (who knows what that means). I just stood there thinking "WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE AMONG ALL THESE?! I JUST WANT WHATEVER WILL CLEAN MY TEETH!" So I stuck my hand out randomly, grabbed whatever box I first came in contact with, and tried to leave the store as quickly as possible.
Previous homecomings from foreign adventures have definitely caused me to stop and notice that this country does indeed provide us with a huge number of product choices, but it's never been to the point of minor catatonia.
The point of this story is obviously to first advise staying far away from all super stores, particularly ones with "mart" in the title or anything with a bull's-eye logo, for at least a week after returning home from an extended time abroad. But the second point is more nuanced: My unexpectedly extreme yet completely involuntary reaction to something so distinct of my home culture shows how deeply one can adapt to a foreign culture and become more or less one with it. Although this embarrassingly manifested in me being debilitated in the face of something as unimpressive and harmless as toothpaste, I also think it's really amazing how just five months away could trick my brain into experiencing that moment in Target as a confused outsider, like the past twenty and a half years of unremarkably being exposed to excess and America's distinct type of consumerism just hadn't happened or something.
It's been a month since I've been home, and I'm proud to report that I haven't had any trouble buying things at Target since then! But I think it'll probably take years for some of these other internal changes to wear off (although I admittedly don't want a lot of them to). One of the things I'd like to hold on to is the manner in which I grew accustomed to drinking tea. I actually did drink a whole lot of it before leaving, so I wouldn't say anything as drastic as "I wasn't a tea person, but now I am!" It's more that I no longer view it as just a hot thing to drink that is more or less equivalent to coffee in how/why you drink it.
Tea has this whole culture around it in England that I would kind of equate to what a siesta might be in Spain; tea, the way England does it, offers a momentary respite from whatever it is you're doing. It's not the kind of thing you grab on the go in order to "caf up" for the day or the kind of thing you wolf down to warm your insides like you might with coffee. It's the kind of thing you take a moment with, and as simple as that sounds, it really does make a difference in your day. It takes, on average, three minutes for a tea bag to steep, and you learn very quickly that to cut corners on that is to be disrespectful to the ritual. So at the very least, you have three minutes in your day to pause and think or to just pause and not think, and when that's over you have a mug to snuggle up with somewhere, a context over which to have a relaxed conversation with someone, or, better yet, an excuse to eat a scone with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. It's really hard to put into words, but it's kind of like drinking a cup of tea brings momentary clarity.
Earlier today I was scouring Buzzfeed (another daily ritual in my life besides tea), and they had this article called "The 16 Most Delightfully British Photos Of All Time." The very first picture was of a woman during WWII sipping tea in a pile of rubble post-Blitz. I don't think I've ever seen a picture that better explained this specifically British manner of drinking tea that I'm trying to explain:
So far, despite the 90-degree weather and unbearable humidity, I've stuck to my guns about the tea thing since I've been home, and I really hope I don't unknowingly let that slip away. It truthfully has become such a wonderful moment of calm in my days, something that I think every busy, tired, and overwhelmed American could use.
On that note, I'd be lying if I didn't say that after my toothpaste-induced catatonia I didn't go home and revive myself with a niiiiice cuppa, so I guess that brings my post-England experiences in America full circle at the moment.
Do you drink tea? Have you been to Great Britain? Leave your comments below!