Thursday, January 18, 2007

Third Nature

[This is a column I wrote for the Basler Zeitung "English Corner" a few years back. As it is no longer on-line, and a friend just asked me something that reminded me of it, I thought I'd republish it.]


I went into Manor to buy vacuum-cleaner bags, but at first I wasn't sure where to look for them. Beside the escalator, I found the directory of the store's departments; after having determined what category might be appropriate — Haushaltsgeräte ("appliances") — I headed for the third floor.

As I went up the escalator, I recalled a moment of confusion I had had on a recent visit to the United States: it had been difficult to say what floor I was on. And what floor was I now heading to? The third in Switzerland, but in the U.S. it would be called the fourth. I used to use the latter numbering system, but after over a decade in Europe, it now seems strange to me. Even as I first wrote these lines upstairs at the Non Fumare cafe, I would not have wanted to say that I was sitting on the cafe's "second floor." These days it does not seem to me to have a second floor; how could it? It is only two stories high, so it has a ground floor and a first floor, doesn't it? What once seemed natural now seems wrong. A "second" nature has been replaced by a third.

In a sense, the issue of what floor you are on is just a matter of naming. After all, many hotels have no floor called "thirteenth floor," for fear of frightening any superstitious guests who may end up there. Such counting is merely a convention, a means of identification (where in this building do I want to go?) rather than precision (how many stories does this building have?). But at the same time, the numbering seems like more than a convention: the number I use to identify the floor I am on has an influence on my sense of space, of where I am.

This is not the only counting system that an American in Europe needs to develop a "third nature" for. Dates cause problems to: at the bottom of the first sketches of this column, I jotted down the date: 6.11.02. But that doesn't mean I started writing my December column in June. (Back then, I was still trying to pin down the topic of my August column.) After so many years in Europe, I find myself unable to write a date using the American convention. In this case, though, I have to admit that the date / month / year system has always seemed more logical to me than month / date / year (whereas the floor numbering in the U.S. did make sense to me until I moved across the ocean). One effect of the difference is that the American expression "9/11" does not make sense in Europe. Someone from the former East Germany might think it refers to the date when the Berlin wall was opened in 1989.

My first such shift from second to third nature was a big surprise, and it still seems uncanny. What do you say when you stub your toe or pinch your finger? After almost three decades of saying "ouch" or "ow" as all Americans do, I was startled to find myself saying "owah," even when speaking English. This shift took place within a year after I first moved from Philadelphia to Berlin in 1991. It seems like the language of pain ought to remain in one's native tongue, even when one lives abroad for a long time, but it, too, turns out to be mutable.

All this means, of course, that when I go visit the United States, my second and third natures begin to struggle for control. The reflexes I have developed in Germany and Switzerland no longer make sense: for the first few days, I have to think for a moment to remember to say "excuse me" instead of "Entschuldigung," for example, and during that time I'm always taken aback for a split second when people address me in English: "May I take your order, please?" Some of this disorientation might just be jet lag, but some of it is a matter of the conventions I live with every day in Basel, a matter of how my "third nature" has replaced my second one, of how, the longer I am abroad, the more European I become — European, not Swiss or German, in a way the Swiss and the Germans are not.

When I got to the third floor of Manor, it turned out I had been right about the Haushaltsgeräte — but wrong about which store to go to. My wife had bought the Migros house brand, not Manor's. So I had to head across the street to Migros and look for the right floor again. At least I no longer had to think about what category to look for in the directory.

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