One of my favorite parts of traveling is the inevitable, “Where are you from?” It is that brief initial moment when you first interact with a local, when you are as much of a novelty to them as their city is to you. And you start to learn just how others view your country, your city or your continent.
The first time I answered this question, I answered in a very standard American way. “Seattle, Washington.”
You see, it is customary here in the great US of A to include your state, which fiftieth of our big ole country you call home. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that half our city names are duplicates of each other, but the only time you wouldn’t include your state is when you’re from somewhere huge, like New York City or Los Angeles. Otherwise, tack your state name on the end.
However, that is generally not how people think of a country that is not their own. Just like the Englishman who once answered my inquiry with, “I’m from Derbyshire.” My American brain was immediately confuzzled. Where the heck is Derbyshire? In those terms, it makes perfect sense that the moment we say Washington to a non-American, the inevitable reply is, “Oh, the capital!”
Now, if you’re still stuck in Ameri-think, like I was during my first encounter, you immediately wonder, “That’s strange. The capital of the state of Washington is Olympia,” and look at them strangely. It takes a moment to realize they’re referring to the only Washington most non-Americans are aware of.
“Oh, you mean DC! No, I’m not from DC. I’m from the opposite side of the country.”
Well, now they’re totally confused.
Okay, forget the whole Washington thing; focus on Seattle. “Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Space Needle?” seems to be understood internationally, as you immediately bond over, “How’s my butt?”
And if all else fails, grab a map. Our cab driver in Vienna had a worn world atlas on the passenger seat of his car covered in little dots, presumably all the hometowns of his fares over the years. And as soon as I pointed to Seattle, his immediate response was, “OH! Near Canada!”
Well, yeah, I suppose we’re near Canada. Kind of. It’s a three-hour drive that hardly anyone actually takes. I’d never really thought of it that way.
Or the guy in Canterbury, England who responded with, “Oh, Seattle! That’s on the West coast, right? I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco.” Okay, that’s two states away, but it’s definitely closer than DC. So I responded with, “Yeah, we’re only a two-hour flight from San Francisco.”
To which his friend provided my absolute favorite where-are-you-from response to date: “TWO HOURS?! How is that close?! I could cross my entire country in a two hour flight!”
Ah, it’s all relative. And I simply love it!