My future in-laws looked at me with the kind of blank confusion I can only assume my face resembles when my children talk to me about FortNite, leaving me–cross-legged and full-bladdered–in a linguistic black hole.
Oh! You meant the toilet.
Yes, yes, I insisted, the bathroom.
They shook their heads in that Americans are so quaint way. How extraordinary! (Ok, they didn’t really say ‘how extraordinary’, but they could have. And they probably didn’t shake their heads. But they could have. It was that kind of moment.)
Fast forward to this summer, sitting in a little cafe in Stockbridge, MA. I’d downed a large glass of ice water and asked our waitress, “Do you have a toilet?”
The woman looked at me, eyebrow cocked, in utter confusion. It took me a full minute before I realized Oh. I don’t actually call it the toilet. I call it the restroom or the bathroom and clearly this lovely, college town waitress can’t fathom why I’m asking if she has a toilet, because beyond the linguistic element, even though I’ve been in countless places throughout Europe which actually don’t in fact have a toilet, a restroom, or a place to sit and pee but instead simply direct you across a street or down a dark alley, that’s never the case in American eateries and no wonder she’s looking at me like I am crazy.
So there I was, circle complete. Yet instead of giving me some sort of closure, what I felt was disoriented. Neither fully here nor there, left, cross-legged and full-bladdered, doubting my own instincts.
I guess that’s what ten years of living in Europe plus another ten with a “not bathroom, sweetheart, water closet” Brit will do to a gal, muddy the waters until you don’t know your toilet from your bathroom.
Of course, the great toilet/bathroom conundrum is not the first time this has happened. I once wrote a blog post and referred to a wash bag. An American friend asked me quizzically what a wash bag was.
Do we not call it that? I asked in confusion. How extraordinary! Er…what do we call it? It took me several concentrated moments and Google to come up with cosmetics/toiletries bag.
Even more recently I found myself in a mini-panic when talking about the school fundraising gala because I did not know if I naturally said the word as gah-la or gay-la. Is that fragrant herb I like with my tomatoes base-il or baz-uhl?? And oh my lord, did I just say toe-mah-toe?
Language, slang, terminology–it ties you to a place. Growing up in Massachusetts, drinking fountains were bubblers and those chocolate sprinkles you put on ice cream were called Jimmies for some reason I still don’t understand. My Italian grandmother called the red sauce you put on pasta gravy, much to the disgust of non Italians who only use gravy on a Thanksgiving turkey.
As an American living in Europe, out of necessity and pragmatism I’ve adopted more European and British English terminology, but usually when I plant my feet back onto home soil or more familiar ground, there’s an invisible switch that flips.
But increasingly the switch is getting stuck. What happens when toilet becomes more familiar than restroom or bathroom, or when driving on the right becomes more familiar than driving on the left? When you find yourself standing on a sidewalk, head swinging in both directions wildly because for a full minute, you don’t remember from which way the traffic is coming instinctively?
In the large scheme of life it may not seem important. Not the driving on the correct side of the road, obviously. But you know what I mean.
Right? (Or left. Or which way are the cars coming????)
I remember a friend saying ten years was make or break time for many expats. A kind of Mason-Dixon/Maginot line for going home. Much longer and you risk feeling like a foreigner in your own culture; an expat when you should just be a pat.
I think it’s because the auto-go-to for your brain alters. And not just for things like toilet vs. bathroom. It’s being overwhelmed in Target because of the sheer size and choice. It’s feeling strangled in the city of your heart because you’ve been outside of its embrace for too long. Its getting lost in places you should know, gone long enough that the breadcrumb trail has dried up and blown away, long enough that the muscle memory has atrophied and you panic you’re going need to use the GPS to find your way home.
A decade is a long time. Not long enough to feel completely at home wherever you are, but long enough that sometimes you don’t feel completely at home in the place where you come from either.
How long before your eyes don’t refocus at all?
Or maybe, I’m just jet-lagged and making too big a thing about asking a waitress if there was a toilet.
It’s hard to tell.