Jet Lag and the Juxtaposition of Cultures

I arrived in San Diego after about twenty-eight hours of travel time.   Leaving Thessaloniki,
Greece, early Thursday morning I flew to Athens, then boarded a plane for an eleven-hour flight to Newark, New Jersey, my port of entry to the United States.  It was fortunate I had a three-hour stopover there, because I needed almost all of it to go through security:  passport check and customs.

First of all, the huge hall in which document checks were carried out could only be described as a circus or a madhouse.  The two lines, one for US citizens and one for foreigners, were equally long.  They twisted back and forth through paths marked with restraining ropes, hundreds of people with their carry-on bags slung over their shoulders or trailing behind them on wheels.  A number of flights had arrived around the same time and all the passengers had converged on the hall.  That line was the only way through, no special treatment or exceptions.  I wondered if I would have enough time to catch my connecting flight.  I don’t question the necessity of checking everyone’s documents, but it was exasperating, frustrating, and exhausting.  Because there was nothing I could do about it, however, it was also a good exercise in patience and serenity.  The line would proceed at its own pace and anything I would try to do to hasten it along would only result in more delay, or worse.  So I relaxed and observed the people around me.

Though I am an American citizen, I live in Greece.  Due to finances and busy schedules I don’t have the opportunity to visit the States often – only once every several years.  Every time I do, in the beginning I experience profound culture shock.  Americans and Greeks are very different from each other, and their countries and cultures have evolved in profoundly different ways.

Anyway, I finally got through passport control, then got into the line for customs, where my bags, belt, shoes, items from pockets, and so on all had to go through the x-ray machines.  I must have appeared innocent, as I escaped the full-body scans and searches to which others were being subjected.  Upon finally completing all the red tape and rigmarole, I proceeded to the gate at which my ongoing flight was scheduled to depart.  Another flight was listed but the attendant assured me that as soon as that flight left my flight would board by that gate.  After I had sat around, dazed by weariness, until it was almost my boarding time, the attendant made an announcement that my flight had been changed to another gate all the way on the other side of the terminal.  Throwing my two bags over my shoulders, I set out at top speed.  It turned out the plane that was supposed to have been ours had got stuck in Chicago and they had had to substitute another plane.  Not to worry, they said, the delay would be minimal.  And indeed, after a short time we boarded the plane.  That is, however, where things got more dicey.  We were informed that our flight was subject to indefinite delay.  The pilot would announce a possible takeoff time, and then when the time approached would revise his estimate and suggest a new time.  Finally he announced that due to a weather front moving across the central States all flights were on hold and he didn’t know when we’d be able to move.  In the end I arrived two and a half hours late in San Diego.  My son who was supposed to meet me had left the airport in frustration, as no reliable information had been available, and was waiting for my call, necessitating a further delay, though a short one, as he returned to the airport.

So now, I sit alone in the early morning, when I should be resting and recovering from the ordeal of the trip.  Jet lag will not allow me to sleep.  If you’ve ever experienced it, you know that it plays havoc with your system, wakes you up at crazy times and exhausts you at other times when everyone else is fully alert.

I mentioned differences between the United States and Greece.  One thing I have noticed since I have come is how overweight many Americans are.  There are fat Greeks too, of course, but I was unpleasantly surprised at the large proportion of overweight people in the US.  It goes all across the board too:  old folks, the middle-aged, young men and
women.  This is a recent phenomenon.  It did not used to be so.  There is a reason the Beach Boys sang about “California Girls” back in the 60s.  Americans then, for the most part, were slim, lithe, and attractive.  What happened?  Why did you let yourself go, Americans?  Was it just a matter of having too much of everything?

Another thing struck me as soon as I exited the airport in San Diego.  While waiting for my son on the sidewalk I noticed a designated smoking area, a very small patch of concrete no more than a few paces wide.  In Greece, though it is prohibited to smoke in most public buildings, the streets and sidewalks are still fair game.  I talked to a lone woman puffing on a cigarette while carefully standing on safe ground, and she informed me that not only were such designated areas getting smaller and smaller and in more and more inconvenient areas, but it is even forbidden to smoke in your own car while on certain roads.  I’m not a smoker and I don’t necessarily approve of smoking, but this seems to be a case of Big Brother government going a little too far in its legislation of righteousness.

I had another little jolt of culture shock when my twenty-three-year-old son was buying some liquor and was asked for identification.  Now, liquor can be dangerous and I am certainly not in favor of drunkenness or alcoholism, but in Greece my nine-year-old can walk into most any shop and buy alcoholic drinks.  Many children do run errands for
their parents in this way – but there is no higher proportion of alcoholics in Greece that I am aware of, nor do young people overuse alcohol any more than they do in the States, despite the much easier availability.

Different cultures, different lifestyles.  It’s not my intention here to go into all the reasons for these differences, merely to point them out.  Remember, I am speaking, at the moment, from the perspective of jet lag and culture shock.  If I wrote this tomorrow it would doubtlessly be put into other words, but the differences in cultures would remain the same.

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