Does anyone else have perma-smell associations for whole countries? One scent that transports your brain to a specific country, drops you on a random street and makes you dreamily reminisce about the life you could have had with the achingly cute girl that worked at the local travel agency that not so subtly offered to give you a ‘private tour’ (nudge-nudge) and you distractedly turned her down because you had to go review three hotels and two restaurants that afternoon and you then decide that you’re a thick-skulled jackass for not noticing the palpable flirty signs until you thought about it two days later while sitting on the train to the next city and then you wonder how the hell anyone that is so painfully unobservant could possibly be trusted to be a travel writer? Show of hands?
Some countrywide perma-smell association examples: France smells like butter. Italy smells like garlic. Romania smells like a mix of pălincă and grass (with a hint of manure).
So what’s the overriding smell I associate with the US? French fry grease. It’s everywhere. If you’re saying to yourself “Well it doesn’t smell like French fry grease at my house!”, you’re wrong grandma. It most certainly does, you’ve just gotten used to it.
You don’t notice how the US smells like French fry grease until you leave for a while and your nose has had time to forget. You need at least two weeks, but the sensation magnifies the longer you’re away. Get out of the country for like 10 months and you’ll see what I mean. When you return, the instant you hit the top of the jetway the French fry aroma in the airport hits you like a bullet in the kneecap, even if the food court is 100 yards away. If you think an air quality assessment at an airport is unfair, fine, let’s change it up. Arrive in Duluth by boat. Parachute into a third tier suburb of Pittsburg. Teleport into Oklahoma. It changes nothing. Hello French fry grease. Goodbye clear completion.
And have you ever noticed how as soon as you walk through a cloud of French fry grease vapor you’re suddenly starving to death? Even if you just ate? Even if your nose is sealed shut from a bad Eastern European head cold? Don’t try to tell me that stuff isn’t laced with heroin. You don’t even have to ingest it to become addicted. Meanwhile there’s no cure for herpes. Oooeeeoooeee.
On that note, I arrived back in America a few days ago. The trip was fairly disaster-free, but a freak cold I contracted while in Suceava meant that I rarely went more than two minutes without putting a new coating of snot on my upper lip and finger tips. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to everyone in Bucharest, Heathrow and O’Hare airports for the Nose DNA that I unintentionally left behind during layovers. There was nothing I could do about it. More material exited out of my nose last week than all my other orifices combined.
I was seated in the dreaded center row on the longest leg of my journey, with a half-deaf bitty on one side and a Danish Moonie on the other. The Moonie was so large and had so many airplane seat accessories that it took her five minutes of packing, rearranging and grunting to let me out so I could get to the bathroom and refresh my Booger Wad.
Here in Minneapolis, in addition to a stupefying visit to a supermarket for the first time in years (57 kinds of tomato sauce, versus five in Romania and 23 kinds of peanut butter, versus zero), I’ve been hyper-aware of the differences between big city America and my hideouts in Romania and Italy these past few years. The utter convenience and reliability of everything. Free WiFi clouds so profuse that only suckers pay for their own home services anymore. Going to work with more than 30% of your available cleavage on display is considered a bad thing.
This is just the beginning. I’ve got giddying months of reverse culture shock in store for me as I re-establish myself as a resident of this land of wretched plenty. Never mind 57 different ways to enliven pasta. I’ve got 21 new energy drinks to appraise. I have to get up to speed on over four years of TV, movies, music, politics, pop culture and reprobate starlets that ‘accidentally’ expose their private parts in public every other week. I can go to a restaurant and eat breakfast at 2pm, lunch at 10:30am or dinner at 5pm. I can pay my electric bill without it being a two hour, three visit affair. I can turn on the hot water and have it actually work most of the time (we eventually did without hot water for over two weeks last month in Iaşi).
Equally, in America I can’t buy a decent coffee for less than US$4 or wine for less than US$9. Shallots are a pricey extravagance rather than a common ingredient. World news is glossed over for 30 seconds before eight minutes of local sports results. There are dizzying, infuriating rules about when and where one can park a car, drink booze or get nekkid. Worse, you’re often limited to only doing one at a time (unless it’s football game day, when anything goes – God bless America!)
But coping on the fly with constant culture adjustments is all part of the fun of frequent international travel. You can never be accused of being flaky if you’ve just gotten off a plane from somewhere that has unusual toilets. It’s an all-purpose excuse to get out of bad manners, falling asleep at family meals and low tipping. And my buddies, bless them, are all in on the plot:
“Please excuse my friend. He’s a professional travel writer and just got back from two weeks in Buenos Aires, where they only tip 3%, it’s socially acceptable to be drunk at 10am and ass-grabbing is the highest form of flattery. If we’re lucky, and he remains conscious, he may tell us the location of the only free public toilet in Venice.”
Friends, sadly, this brings to a close my critic acclaimed (yes, just the one) travel series My Bloody Romania. I hope my sarcastic and spotty knowledge of Romania has been amusing, enthralling and mostly factual. Thanks to Justin and Willy at Gadling for the opportunity to prattle, curse and digress at will and special thanks to my regular readers over at Killing Batteries for descending on Gadling and padding my comments sections. Killing Batteries Minneapolis Edition resumes in a few days. Set your feeds and botox treatments accordingly.
Oh, one last kernel of Romania knowledge: the first person to establish import rights for Skippy Peanut Butter into the country is going to be a squillionaire – andale!!
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more unrelated tangents and diatribes when pre-season high school football coverage eclipses reporting on the events in Burma.