(For Dena Dyer’s community writing project on cross-cultural experiences.)
I lived in Israel where pita and bread cost only a few coins, children really did call their dads “Abba,” conversation depth went well below the surface within seconds, the front of a book was with the spine on the right, and no one ate cold cereal for breakfast. Yet this culture shock was nothing compared to my first visit to my then-fiance’s hometown: Montrose, Colorado.
I grew up in Carson, California, in Los Angeles County. I often sum up my L.A. experience in one word: concrete. I went to 232nd Place Elementary School where the baseball diamond was asphalt and the bases, squares of white paint. (No sliding!) In my world then, strangers were dangerous until proven innocent, and real living happened at Del Amo Mall—at the time, the second biggest shopping mall in the world). To me, “Nature” was a television channel.
In the mid-1990s Montrose had a population of about 10,000. It was considered big and is still the second biggest city in Colorado’s Western Slope (the part of Colorado west of the Continental Divide). Charles drove me around town to see all the schools he attended. At one point we stopped at what looked to me like a red country house.
“This was Menoken-Colcreek Elementary School,” Charles explained. That house was his school. This means the man I was about to marry actually went to a red, two-room schoolhouse. I had heard of people like that, but I didn’t know they existed this side of Little House on the Prairie.
Traffic lights hung and swung freely from cables instead of being fixed to a huge metal arm extending over the street. We went to Wal-Mart and parked the car, and Charles left the car door unlocked. Inside the store, we actually ran into someone he knew.
I realized people around here probably borrow a cup of flour from the neighbor now and then. That kind of thing never happened in L.A. When a new neighbor, new to L.A., asked my mother, “Could I borrow some flour?” my mother stood a while at the door, confused. Then she went out to the backyard. My older sister, wondering why mom wasn’t getting the flour, went to the kitchen for it. My sister and mom arrived at the front door around the same time, facing each other. In my sister’s hands was the flour; in my mom’s, a flower in a pot. All three laughed, including the neighbor.
Back to Montrose. I dreaded having to get our marriage license; I anticipated a long wait in crowded lines at the County Courthouse, complicated and expensive parking, and at least half a day spent. Instead, parking was easy, and we were the only ones in line. At the counter I got yet another shock: the clerk said, “Hi, Charles!” She knew him. Not only that, she had known him since he was a boy. They talked pleasantly about our upcoming marriage and his parents while I—city girl in a small town—stood blinking in amazement.
Seventeen years later, I feel I’ve made some good adjustments. I not only smile at strangers but even start conversations with them. Just last week, I asked the librarian about the brace around her hand and wrist. I once gave a gift of homemade soap to a grocery store cashier named Linda, just because we were talking about lye (which my husband needed for a chemistry experiment but they didn’t sell at that store). I don’t fear my neighbors but even knock on their doors with a plate of cookies. And yes, I have borrowed sugar, eggs, and even a cup of flour.