More than a decade ago, I found myself leaving a small, warm European country where I grew up - Moldova - for a cold place called Alaska, where winter claimed half the year and strange Americans walked around with permanent smiles on their faces. I was about to attend the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and had looked forward to my trip for many months. But when the customs door slammed behind me at Anchorage International Airport, it took me a moment to recover from a faint thought: I was all alone in a strange land, with strange people, houses, and trees, and even a strange sun.
I was only 18, and my longest stay away from home so far had been summer vacation at Grandma's village. I left behind a tightly knit family, a fiancé who would never become my husband, and a promising career - all for a new adventure on the opposite side of the globe.
After 13 hours of elbowing fellow passengers and trying not to black out from desert-hot air and the stench of fried chicken, cheap perfume, and fuel, we landed on the great American land.
This was my second trip to Anchorage, but my first close look at a city that looked exactly like ones in American movies I'd watched: streets packed with cars, lighted signs, smiling people.
At first, it was difficult to understand why everyone took such interest in me. "How are you?" I would hear several times a day, often from complete strangers. Once, I decided to return the politeness and proceeded to give an account of my well-being, but the nice gentleman hurried off just as I opened my mouth. Women in the bathroom or men in the university's hallways would say things like, "I love your dress," or "interesting necklace," and my body would stiffen, my mind going through scenarios of stalking and kidnapping. Why else would strangers notice my clothing?
The worst part was the food. I learned not to trust names, especially after my friend served me what looked like a rolled pancake and was lovingly called a burrito. I thought I had eaten a volcano.
Another time my host family served me a plate of something, and all I could understand was "Chinese famous dish." To me it was a strange mix of vegetables that tasted like grass. Why do these Americans eat food that tastes like a hayfield when they are the world's most well-off country?
When it came to food, I tried to be obliging. Another time I was given what looked like a can of tomato juice, which I promptly poured into my glass. I was told it was condensed soup. Soup? Where were the vegetables? I refused to eat pizza with my hands: Well-mannered girl that I was, I knew to use a knife and fork.
Strange people, these Americans. College students can eat food in class and call the professor by his or her first name as if they are buddies. The students prop their feet up as they please.
New frustrations came and went as I learned the meaning of odd phrases ("to work one's rear off") and mastered state-of-the-art equipment like the manual can opener.
After a few crash-courses in cross-cultural understanding, I was also learning to get over strangers ambushing me with smiles and greetings. I was even getting better at plastering a smile on my face and leaving it there until the end of the day - so that I wouldn't be called a snob. Things also got easier as I stopped using proper "British" words like "trousers" and "porridge," and the American slang and accent took over.
It didn't come easy.
One night, a few months into my stay, I had just come out of a hot shower and was reading in bed. My host mom dashed into the room, talking fast and waving her hands. All I could understand was, "Get out, quick!" She tossed a coat at me and forced me to put a pair of boots. I thought the house was on fire. I followed her to the porch, cold and confused. As I stood there in minus 20 degrees F., with my bathrobe and coat on, she pointed to the sky. "The northern lights," she said.
Just then I noticed the beautiful play of colors above. Reds, greens, and whites moved together in a mysterious dance. A gorgeous, breathtaking sight I had never experienced.
That evening, I decided Americans were indeed crazy - but fun. Although Alaska looked nothing like home, I was starting to blend into the melting pot of strange personalities.
Years after that night, I still stop every time I see the northern lights - a rare treat now that I have moved to the Pacific Northwest. More than 11 years into my marriage, I still come home on a cold, late winter night, dash into my bedroom, and yell at my husband: "Get out, Sweetie! The northern lights are beautiful!"