A Few of the Strangest Things: On Readjustment to US Life

Giant local parking lot, with not a building or a person in sight.

Giant local parking lot, with not a building or a person in sight…

I recently moved back to the US after living abroad as an urban Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia for two years. Since then, I’ve gone through…some adjustments in daily life. On top of it all, I started a new job a few weeks ago. This, apparently, includes the expectations to act as a “normal” person.

I’ve found that there’s a very small window in which it’s considered appropriate to comment on the amazingness of, say, carpet and air conditioning. Since my new coworkers seem to expect me to act and react as a “normal” human being, I will instead present to you, dear readers, the  top five strange/wonderful/absurd/fascinating “common-place” aspects of United States living I’m still marveling at on a daily basis.

1)      Grocery Stores

Despite the regularity with which I frequented giant international-chain supermarkets in Colombia, I’m still regularly visited by US-grocery-store-paralysis.  Here,  produce is expensive and of disturbingly homogenous color, shape and taste. Packaged food is incredibly cheap, and remarkably varied. Between the available choices of peanut butter, cheese, roasted veggie chips, flour, spices….  Apologies to my fellow shoppers for blocking the aisles while I stop and stare.

2)      Space

Parks, traffic lanes, houses, personal bubbles—space is everywhere. I haven’t touched a stranger, accidentally or not, in weeks. In fact, people have apologized for crossing my path in a way that brought them within three feet of me. While I appreciate the return of the personal bubble, occasionally all this space is surprisingly lonely.

3)      Quiet

Hello, dear sweet land of illegal noise! Night-club levels of music blasting from home speakers placed carefully on the front patio are…just not a thing, here. And if someone decides that they should be, the police will help you take care of it! Let me just say that societal expectations have never made me (and my ear drums) so happy.

4)      English

I left Colombia with a fairly functional level of Spanish. That said, humor, out-of-context comments, and cultural references mostly still eluded me. It’s pretty awesome to understand everything around me. It will be even more awesome when I re-adjust my personal snarkiness level to the fact other people can understand everything that I’m saying too.

5)      Bathrooms

Gone are the days of ranking public buildings, restaurants, and friends’ houses according to their bathrooms’ virtues. Here I revel in free and consistently provided toilet paper, sinks, soap, and powerful plumbing, as well as sufficient space and seat-cleanliness allowing me to sit all the way down. Maybe I’ll come up with new ranking criteria for US public bathrooms when I get used to flushing my used toilet paper, instead of carrying it out of the stall with me in search of a trash can. (Yeah. That happened.)


While I miss parts of my third-world life, the day-to-day here in the US is undeniably more physically comfortable. Still, comfort comes at the cost of the thrills of adventure that daily life in Colombia so often offered. Are the trade-offs of life in a “civilized” world worth it? I plan to take the summer working in a “normal” job to find out. I’ll keep you posted!

Emily Fiocco
Emily graduated college in 2010 with a creative writing degree, which naturally led to working at a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin. After managing software projects for a year, she ended her spurt as an American professional to return to what she truly enjoys—traveling, living in new cultures, and non-profit work. Her life in the Peace Corps in the huge city of Barranquilla, Colombia has ironically turned her into an urban dweller. She is learning to make her home in a city that believes in fashion above all else, even during un-air-conditioned 100+ degree heat. Her job is teaching students and training teachers at a large, all-girls school, supporting the country’s goal to turn its schools bilingual by 2019. While here, her spare time activities include hunting down ovens in which to cook delicious, Colombianified food, embarrassing herself with highly gringa dance moves, reveling in the local geographical luxury of consistently labeled streets, and trying to improve her Spanish with the help of the local Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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