as American as a root beer float
We like to joke sometimes that home leave is the best part of the Foreign Service. Although the Congressional mandate amounts to an extra vacation on U.S. soil, we have also come to appreciate fully the reason for its existence. Living in another country is a constant exercise in assimilation, as the mind learns to integrate the peculiarities of a new culture into its everyday routine. After a certain point, when the odd becomes commonplace, some aspect of one’s own culture start seeming foreign. Congress was wise to require Foreign Service officers to spend some time at home in between overseas assignments to give them an opportunity to re-familiarize themselves with the United States.
We have always found the culture shock of returning home after an overseas tour greater than the culture shock that accompanies the beginning of each new assignment abroad. The feeling was less strong this time, likely because we had returned to the United States several times during our two years in Moldova, the last time just months before the end of our tour. Still, we looked forward to the opportunity to reconnect with our own country. After spending several years abroad, some of the little things we love about the United States start to grow faint in our minds. This post is dedicated to a few of those little things.
If apple pie is as American as it gets, then apple picking has to rank pretty high up on the list of quintissential American activities. Apples may have originated in Central Asia, but it was on American soil that they truly blossomed, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Johnny Appleseed. We took Munchkin apple-picking in Maine before heading out on our Southwest road trip. The experience is not just about gathering apples, of course. There’s apple cider and apple cider doughnuts to snack on, goats at the petting zoo to feed, and a pumpkin patch whose harvest ripens just in time for Halloween. The only thing we did not do was go on a hay ride, and only because Munchkin wouldn’t sit still.
When local Embassy staff in Moldova learned they would be attending training in Washington, the first questions we faced were not about which museums to visit or where to go sightseeing; instead, they sought recommendations for restaurants and places to go shopping. Though we are not big shop-a-holics, there are certain things that are simply impossible to buy overseas, at least without facing obscene markups. S made a list and went to the outlets in Freeport while D indulged in another consummate American experience.
Because of the likes of Budweiser, Coors, and Miller Lite, which dominate the market, the United States gets a bad rep for having weak beer. If those are the only American beers you’ve ever come across, you can be forgiven for thinking so poorly of our brews. In reality, the United States is a veritable heaven of craft beer — just avoid the big producers and you’re guaranteed to encounter more flavor and variety than you could possible sample. While S went outlet shopping, D joined a friend for a VIP tour of Allagash Brewery. Craft beer producers tend to be small-scale, so one of the joys of traveling around the United States is seeking out local breweries and sampling their wares.
This is another area where the United States is much maligned by its stereotype as an obese fast-food nation. While it is true that it’s nearly impossible to find a hamburger worth the name outside the United States, American cuisine encompasses so much more than burgers and pizza. From southern BBQ to Louisiana’s cajun flare, from southwestern spice to New England’s seafood, American cuisine is as vast and diverse as its landscape. And not only does contemporary American cooking frequently incorporate a fusion of various cultures and their cuisines, but there is also a great appreciation for ethnic food, reflective of America’s immigrant history. In fact, any time we are away for a lengthy period, we typically make two lists in preparing to return home — one for people we need to see, and another for food we would like to sample.
Exploring the United States
Partly because of its size, but mainly because we have done most of our traveling abroad, we have seen very little of the United States. During our travels overseas, we tend to gravitate towards nature-based activities, and in this respect America also has plenty to offer. The three-week road trip around California that formed the centerpiece of our first home leave was one of the best trips we’ve done anywhere in the world. Ditto for our recent tour around the Southwest. In fact, there were so many memorable adventures from that trip that we are still reliving them on our blog several months hence.
Note: The root beer float pictured above is from the Spinning J Bakery and Soda Fountain in Chicago, and is as delicious as it looks.