Yesterday evening, I went for a sunset jog next to the Drava river which flows alongside the northern part of Osijek. Bicyclists, rollerbladers, strolling friends and amorous couples crowded the wide paved path. No one displayed that hunching isolation that comes from texting furiously on one’s cell phone—in fact very few people were talking on the phone at all. It struck me that it actually feels different to not have all that clutter in the social environment.
I am relaxing into this slower pace of life, in a social culture where people chat over kave sa miljekom(coffee with milk) in the numerous picturesque outdoor cafes. In fact, I may be the only one who lounges in the cafes by myself, but that is because I 1). do not have friends yet and 2). am still an American who enjoys sitting a cafe and reading by herself.
Although I am trying to inconspicuously “blend” in, I have been informed by some of the students here at the seminary that it is very easy to pick out foreigners. I was under the assumption that because our skin and hair color are the same, it would be easier to integrate here as opposed to an African or Indian context. No such luck. They tell me they can see a foreigner coming from a mile away.
“How?” I ask.
“It is hard to describe…the shape of the face, the way you walk, Americans wear the white socks, things like that.”
I thought about my 6 pairs of sparkling new white socks I just purchased before coming here and contemplated rubbing some mud into them to darken them (For those of you concerned about my fashion sense in Europe, let me assure you that the socks are for running or long walking excursions only).
Even when I speak the language, attempting to insert the right accent into the two-word question, a smile immediately comes to the person’s face. Sometimes he responds in Croatian, but sometimes, much to my frustration, he answers in English. Worse yet, when I am internally preparing my Croatian greeting as I walk up to a vendor, sometimes she automatically says “hello.” Clearly, the white socks gave me away.
Then there are the differences which I do not particularly like at this juncture–the prevalence of smoking, the fact that everybody bikes but nobody wears a helmet. But these are just surface differences and behaviors, and I am keen to move to a deeper understanding of how this culture views life. Even as I move through the days, accepting and mimicking the different ways people do things without knowing why they are doing them, I must get used to the internal disequilibrium this creates. My discomfort is, for the time being, my new normal. For some reason, this intersection of behavior and ignorance creates a pane of clear glass through which it is easier to see yourself. In my own culture, my entrenchment into familiar cultural norms can obscure self-reflection. In these last two weeks, I can see not just my blatant weaknesses, but also my subtle ones. I can see possibilities of how my strengths can fit into this culture, and am conscious that much of the cultural learning at this stage involves waiting, listening, patience, hoping, and praying.
This process extends to every aspect of life—even my white socks. Last week, I dropped off my bag of dirty clothes to the laundry as I was instructed to do. When I picked up the bag two days later, all of my socks were missing except for the one pair I did not put in the laundry. People were very sympathetic and concerned. “It happens sometimes, ” they told me. They helped me look in various places, and then I went around asking different students, to no avail. My white socks were AWOL. Yesterday, two people asked me about the white socks. “No luck, ” I said. Perhaps it is part of cultural assimilation, part of learning to wait patiently, part of being flexible—these are all good lessons coming from the missing white socks. All I really know for sure is that I will not be putting my remaining pair in the laundry this week.
Author’s Note: Just before this post was published, the mystery of the white socks was solved. They are now half the size and a different color.
Check out pictures of Osijek: Osijek Photos