All beginnings are tough, but many of those difficulties become endearing moments in time. Moving to a new city is an example. The list of the personal adjustments you go through is endless and may last months, even years. The basic adjustments are common to all moves. Get to know the new neighborhood, locate the good supermarket. Find work. Learn traffic patterns to and from work. Make friends, and master the local customs. Now imagine doing all that as an immigrant. A new country and a new language. EVERYTHING is new.
Immigrants landing in a new country take these efforts and more to make their new home feel like one. It may take them years to bridge language and cultural barriers and begin inhabiting local conventions. The first few weeks and months are the most volatile for the immigrant. Every aspect of life is foreign and odd, and the learning curve is at its steepness. Such was my experience when I arrived in the United States soon after graduating college.
The time was the late eighties. Flying overseas still carried a unique aroma. The information age was in its infancy, and physical distance played a significant factor in isolating people and cultures. Global trade meant something entirely different than the diverse bounty we enjoy on every store shelf today, not to mention the advent of online shopping and its far universal reach. Most of the products you were able to purchase at the supermarket, the pharmacy, and the furniture store back then were items produced locally or regionally. For those reasons, anyone who made an international trip was expected to bring back fruits of the foreign land they visited. Exotic chocolate, cheese and alcohol from Europe, stylish T-shirts and shiny sneakers from America, and hand-made crafts from Africa. So in that spirit, I left for the United States packing a request list, a short one at that. In fact, it had only one line – a bottle of Excedrin caplets, requested by my mother-in-law. “Mail it when you can,” she said, “no rush.” I promised I will do that as soon as I could.
And so I did. I have been in the country for a couple of weeks, and gradually became acquainted with basic Americana. I began to understand the differences between the dozens of choices of bread lining the supermarket bread aisle, or really just learned to identify the one we liked. I became tolerant to the constant aroma of burnt oil coming from the McDonald’s restaurant across the street. I enjoyed the freedom of turning right on a red light and the challenge of left-turn on green. Everything was new. After years of watching American life in the movies, I was finally living it all. So following a trip to the supermarket, I walked into a nearby drugstore looking for a bottle of Excedrin. And just like the bread aisle, I found it offered in many choices. Different forms of pills or gel tabs. For a headache, tension or a migraine. Different bottle size and different strength, for daytime and nighttime. Impressed and confused, I deliberated for a while. Finally, I settled on a value pack bottle of regular strength in a red box. Back at the apartment I wrapped it in brown paper and scribed the address on its side. Next stop, another first. U.S. Mail.
The suburban post office was neat and organized. Morning light filled the space through blue horizontal blinds. Dark rope directed the moderate line of customers toward three awaiting clerks. People stood quietly with ample space behind each other. Soon it was my turn. The large man with the shiny bald head standing in the far right station looked at me with a blank expression as I stepped over. I placed my box on the counter. “Package to Israel,” I said. The clerk lifted a custom-declaration form from his side and readied a pen in his left hand. “What’s in the box?” he asked with a black stare.
The question and the clerk’s menacing presence stumped me. I suddenly forgot the brand name of the pills and was not sure what to call my parcel. I tried to think of how to translate the Hebrew term for “medication” to English but was uncertain which word to use, as there is more than one. Think fast!
And then it occurred to me. I bought it at the drug store. Of course! “Drugs,” I said.
Everything froze. The clerk standing in front of me, the people in line, the other clerks waiting on customers, the dust particles glistening in the slowly moving air. The entire post office stood silent.
I looked at my clerk. I knew I said something wrong, but could not think of what exactly. I rushed back in my mind over what I said, but everything computed back to the same result. I was right but something was wrong. Badly wrong. I did not dare to move. My clerk did not move either. He only scanned the room with his eyes, then took a deep breath. He had a situation on his hand, and everyone waited for his next move.
With his shoulders still locked in a tense pose, he lifted the package by his left hand and looked at me. “What do you have in the box?” he asked again.
I knew better than to repeat the same line. I had to think fast and give the right answer this time, to save myself from further embarrassment. Simplify! Where did I buy it? No, never mind. What did I buy? Yes, that’s it! “Medication for headache” I managed to say.
Everyone in the post office exhaled together in collective relief. Motion returned to the room. The dust particles resumed their slow movement. My clerk relaxed his shoulders and wrote something on the custom-declaration form. I paid and turned to the door. There was a lot I had to learn out there in the new country.