The Westernized Blues

>> June 27, 2010

The last few weeks, I’ve had the blues. Whirlwind traveling has certainly been a contributor, as has this sickness/allergy that just won’t quit.

Here in the lovely home of dear friends, we are surrounded by old mossy garden terraces, fig trees, lilac bushes, creeping ivy, and endless meadows of lavender. The place where we are staying is on the road to the Bibémus quarry where Cézanne became fixated on the warm afternoon light that glances off of the angular cliffs of the mountain Sainte-Victoire. It’s paradise and my blues have dissipated, a distance of a few days from bruise-hued thoughts allows me to reflect on the cause.

I realize that my blues are caused by the angst and discomfort of culture shock.

I know, it’s laughable. Here we are in Provence, with grocery stores and crusty baguettes and a culture that is so similar to one that we both were raised within and around.

Culture Shock.

N and I talked had about the concept, but in a lighthearted way. We meandered through the markets of Ghana, laughing about how weird it would be to be back in the Western world. We anticipated that the shift would occur when we arrived in Italia. We considered and planned for some of the basic changes as we traveled through Turkey and the Balkans: the cost of raisins and bananas would increase, internet would become more accessible, hitchhiking would be a more mainstream traveling possibility, the euro was shifting marginally, and our efforts to lessen plastic use might become more difficult. But, it turns out that I was completely unprepared, that I had absolutely forgotten about so many of the things that define our Western world. They are aspects of a Westernized life that usually feel quite ordinary and normal and expected. But after a five month break, these ordinary and normal things feel strange and disconcerting and sometimes just plain wrong.

Last week, after much preparation (thanks for your help E!), we sent a package of fun things home from Venice. We scored a cardboard box from a delightful storeowner in Valvasone, and had the package ready to go as soon as we disembarked from the train. But when we arrived at the post office, we were told that our box was no good: images of olives were visible on the outside and this was ‘not permissible.’ Oh jeez, give me a break! We really have to go buy brown tape for 4 euros and cover up all of the pictures of olives? Hello Western world, I forgot how obsessed with bureaucracy and red (err…brown) tape you are!

We took the fancy ferry from Bandirma to Istanbul a few weeks ago, and the only seats available were located in the business class section. Not quite our style, but we jumped aboard. Business class was essentially identical to the standard class tickets; the only difference seemed to be that the ticket price (or perhaps just unspoken societal mandates) eliminated the riff-raff. Instead of normal people who smile and make conversation, careful families walked their children around the second floor business class ferry section, the children treated as pets kept leashed to a human hand, and picked up at regular intervals. The people sitting at our table were vaguely horrified when we pulled out our slightly stinky salami, bread, and cheese to make sandwiches. They silently slurped on their coca-colas and absentmindedly picked at the fancy tiramisu from the ferry café. Such a far cry from the laid-back scenes of children in Africa: proud of their responsibilities in taking care of younger siblings, making games of seed pods fallen from a tree, and exhibiting confidence in their independence.

Now that we are back in the Western world, everywhere we go we are pressured to buy, buy, buy. At first, we struggled. We found it hard to resist: “it’s just one euro! Why not?” That is a cute little bag of spices, and that lip gloss does sound tasty. But when I think back to our weeks in India, I remember that the same items were available, but for a tenth of the price. Yet, in India, I didn’t have an urge to possess, to purchase. Why is this? The answers are commercialism, consumerism, marketing. A strong and successful industry has been built upon these tactics and strategies; they are a true art, one of manipulation, deceit, and creative talent.

So much in this Westernized world has to do with who or what you want to become, rather than who or what you already are. Most every product for sale advertises change: change in your body, change in your hair, change in your income, change in your penis size, change in your mood, change in your health, change in your level of attraction, change in your income, change in your economic status, change in your weight. But the change all directs you towards the mainstream, towards the same current than everyone is swept into.

We are back in the land where women are body conscious, where advertisements are inundated with magical cures for cellulite, large pores, flab, under-eye circles, and parts of the body that fall victim to gravity. Gone are the round, strong, cherished bodies of women that exude heath and wellness. Enter the waif, but she is wearing these hideous balloon/arabian-style pants that look like a diaper. Sometimes I wonder if mainstream fashion is truly created to make women feel worse about themselves!

Now, in Aix, France, billboards around the town advertise lacy thong underwear, modeled on computer-generated female figures. No skin is that smooth, that unblemished, that perfect; commercialism has come a long way since the days of airbrushing, now the models are just computer composites. Lancome would like you think otherwise, but there isn’t a chance in the world that the $50 face cream is going to make you look like the girl in the commercial.

Perspective gained from traveling is such a gift and can be so life-changing. But what happens when you can’t go back to the way things are, when you realize that you have changed and the ordinary isn’t ordinary any longer? What if you don’t want it to be?

I guess that I will re-assimilate, I just hope that I don’t forget the joys I found in a non-Western World.


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