His mouth was sore for days, he said, and years later whenever he told this story I would cringe in sympathetic pain, because ouch! But I would also ask myself how it was possible that my father had never seen a piece of pizza before, because pizza! Come on. Wasn't pizza one of the basic food groups?
Of course I myself never ate a bagel until I crossed the Mississippi for the first time when I was a teenager, because one thing you didn't see in grocery stores when I was growing up way out West were bags of bagels. And I had no idea there were so many cheeses in the world until I went to Europe as a student in 1976, because one thing you didn't see in grocery stores (see above) were lots of cheese choices. Basically you had your cheddar, your American and your Swiss. And if you wanted some Parmesan, you bought it (already grated) in a green can, and you sprinkled it on the spaghetti your mother made once a week.
Speaking of Europe in 1976 — Amsterdam blew my mind. How do I describe the Amsterdam I remember from those days? Welcoming and threatening at the very same time. Dirty. Exotic. Erotic. Cosmopolitan. Noisy. Europe's very own wild, wild West, minus the sagebrush and plus a network of canals lined by houses with quaint gables. I'd never ever been anyplace like it before.
Flash forward to now. I've just returned from a brief trip to Amsterdam, and wow. I can't tell who's changed more — me or the city. It's definitely cleaned up since the hippie invasion of the late '60s, but it also seems tamer somehow. Is it, really? Or have I just watched so many episodes of "Law and Order: SVU" that nothing seems very outrageous to me anymore?
Who knows? But here's the truth. Except for the shops and the skin in the windows of the red-light district, as well as the omnipresent marijuana fug hanging over the streets, Amsterdam could have been any big American city. And what with all the cyclists zipping around the streets, it could have even been Third South in Salt Lake City.
Everything had a surprisingly familiar air, and maybe that's because we really are a world village now. Or at least a first-world village, with tastes shaped by shared brands — IKEA, Apple, H&M, Coca-Cola, Nike — and an instantaneous connection facilitated by social media.
So there it is. Foreign in Europe doesn't seem so foreign anymore. But here's what I can't decide: Is this a good thing? What do we gain by having so much in common with other places? A lot, probably. I'm glad I can go to my local grocery store and buy cheese from Ireland.
But what do we lose?
I'll confess. Sometimes I miss strong regional differences — not only abroad but also here in the United States — those mannerisms and attitudes, those traditions and treats and ways of saying things that make individuals even more individual.
Life is change. Get onboard or get left behind. (Sigh. Sort of.)
Ann Cannon can be reached at email@example.com or facebook.com/anncannontrib.