United States of America
I believe that there are just as many opinions about the United States of America as there are people on this planet. And no doubt is the mighty nation in the “Wild West” almost always omnipresent. The US is loud, in many ways dominant and unfortunately also slightly mistrustful to strangers. A somewhat difficult combination, not exactly the perfect foundation for friendships across borders. Already by now, after 5 lines, we are probably showing up on the NSA observation list! :-)
The promised land does, however, have a magical attraction. To me, personally, this is a double-edged sword. On one side the US stands for a number of positive things:Freedom, endless opportunities and lots of space to do exactly what you want. On the other side there is the sticking to any individuals “constitutional rights”, written some centuries ago, which today seem so completely overtaken by the modern, globalized world, that it is almost grotesque. The right to carry a weapon is an example. Something what many Americans insist on. The right to go to school without being shot at, however, seems to be neglected. The right to run your own business on a free market sounds very attractive to most people. But consumer rights and general information are oftentimes way behind. Trustworthy guidance stamps guiding consumers within “Ecology” or “Sustainability” are not really implemented. Information is more or less up to the manufacturer, which is disturbing. The result is confusing for the average consumer and they struggle to get proper information. We also had to search quite a bit to get some proper groceries, without added sugar and too many additives. I regard myself as being fairly well-informed within the matters of “good and bad” in terms of food ingredients, and this served us well during our stay. The average American, however, will first have to acquire a certain knowledge, before he/she can gain a critically and balanced view of the food market. This is an uneven battle, because you have to know how and where to get this knowledge. Most Americans do not know this!
Thus the subject “public health” is an often debated topic. And if you start on the subject “public healthCARE” you are certainly entering a battlefield. Many Americans see this as conflicting with the previously mentioned constitution. Public Healthcare is suffering. Private corporations are dominating the “market” and if you are not able to pay for insurance, you are in the hands of the “higher powers” should you ever need help and medical assistance. In Europe this sounds completely absurd and in my eyes one of the richest nations in the world should be able to do this just a little better. However, as any interference from authoritiescan (and will) be seen as an attack on your personal freedom, this is a battle almost impossible to win.
Freedom is a good thing! Where I come from freedom comes with responsibility. There are certain limits to what you are allowed to do in Denmark, which is only fair, as I am not alone. I have to share my country with apprx 5,5 million other people. But all in all I do feel that I was raised in a free and democratic country. The US is also free and democratic, but the resistance to “be told” what you can and cannot do is so strong that the individual freedom at times seems to be without responsibility. For example, in some states you are allowed to drive your car without any means of insurance. Or even without license plates! You have the right to eat yourself to death and leave the bill to the health- or social system, should you not be able to pay for yourself. You have the right to defend yourself and carry a weapon. However, when this right leads to catastrophic consequences for families and communities, not even the death penalty that is in effect in certain states seems to soothe the pain for the ones left behind. You have the right to consume energy and pay for it. The global climate may suffer just a little (some say!) but as long as nobody asks you what you are using the energy for, this doesn’t matter. The melting ice in Greenland is far, far away anyway. This is where the general irresponsibility lies. Freedom at any price is extremely attractive, yet at the same time repulsive, in my opinion.
In spite of all this I keep coming back to the US. I have my reservations, but I still find the vast country extremely beautiful and I can always recommend a visit. I have been there both privately and on business. In the US everything is bigger. Not necessarily better. Just bigger! Nature is diverse and in many places completely unique. Fortunately they have been prescient and on this particular area quite radical. The National Parks are the oases of the nation and the Americans are protective of them. Once a law makes sense, has been approved and implemented they are quite reasonable after all!
We arrived in Seattle in early November, after more than 15 hours of flying from Christchurch, New Zealand, where spring was just about to kick in. Now we found ourselves in the early North American winter, which immediately required some “re-packing” of our back-packs. As mentioned in earlier blogs, we do travel with our cells/cubes for organizing our luggage, and the cells containing our winter clothes were found, and the light and thin clothes, meant for warmer weather, were tugged away. During the last few weeks of our New Zealand stay Anton’s clothes started to show severe signs of wear. But clothes in general are extremely expensive in New Zealand, so we remained calm and Alexandra kept fixing whatever needed to be mended. However, towards the very end we had to buy some new pants and t-shirts for him. After all, we had to be able to enter an airplane without feeling ashamed... :-) Yet, Anton is the type that will NOT wear any new clothes, unless forced. He will wear clothes until it simply falls apart. Anyway, we got him properly dressed for the journey and he looked nice upon arrival in Seattle!
It is cheap to go shopping in the US. Hence all the worn and frayed t-shirts got replaced with some new ones. And due to the colder conditions (and significantly lower prices) we bought a “little extra” for all of us. “Little extra” developed into “quite a lot extra” during our three months of traveling through the country, and just a few days before leaving from New York on a flight to Dublin, Ireland, we had to buy an extra duffel-bag in order to be able to carry everything. In turn, we were able to give Anton’s stroller to charity. And his somewhat broken toys also got an upgrade. His precious “Dusty” plane (from the film “Planes) which we bought in New Zealand for 30 dollars, costed us only 6 dollars in the US. The old one was sent to the “Toy Cemetery”, with a broken wing and severe scratches, and the new one was “inaugurated”.
Roadtrips through the US is a popular form of vacationing. After having stayed for a couple of weeks by Alexandra’s friend Daniela just south of Seattle, and a one-week excursion into Canada, we started our journey down the West Coast. Along the coast of Oregon and California, and finally inland towards Nevada and Las Vegas. Along the way the surrounding nature changed dramatically several times. From the beautiful coniferous forests in Washington State (and particularly Mount Rainier National Park), to the long beaches along the coast of Oregon, the giant redwood trees in northern California, to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park, which turned out to be one of my personal favorites during the entire journey. The US really has it all! And if you are into long drives in your car, you have arrived in the right country. We also drove along the historic Route 66 for a while, during our journey through southern California. It felt good to “feel the history” and we all enjoyed the many impressions.
Christmas in Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco was quite a different experience from what we are used to. Although a “White Christmas” is really not common in either Denmark or Germany, this was in fact the comparison that we made, as we drove towards one of the best steak-houses in the area on the evening of December the 24th. Temperatures of apprx. 20 degrees Celsius. Christmas Eve is nothing special to the Americans so we did not feel the same “Christmas Spirit” as we would have back home, but after a great dinner we went back to the hotel in order to have a more traditional, northern European Christmas Eve, with unwrapping of gifts and a few carols, alongside our nice little plastic tree with colored, blinking LED lights.
Fortunately Daniela in Seattle introduced us to the grocery chain “Trader Joe’s” at a very early stage. This store has a different focus than most other supermarkets and you can get a broader variety of ecological and sustainable products than elsewhere. Hence we were able to get by without complete dependance on the sugar- and carb-loaded breakfast buffets in the chain hotels that we stayed in. We actually had one incident where we all “crashed” after just 45 minutes from leaving the breakfast table. The food simply wasn’t substantial enough. It would make you full, yes, but only for a short while. Unfortunately this is rather typical for American food. It looks and tastes delicious, but you need a lot of it to keep going. And as the dishes are often loaded with cheese and fat, this will lead you straight towards the fitness studio and a strict diet, if you do not wish to increase the size of your clothes substantially.
Unfortunately groceries (food) are rather expensive in the US. The cost of cooking a proper meal at home is the same (if not higher) than eating out. Hence the Americans are skipping that routine and go for the easier solution. Understandably so! We did exactly the same! But if you do not haul yourself up in time, you are doomed!
After having spent New Years Eve in the City of Sin, Las Vegas, we flew from the mild climate in the Nevada desert directly into one of the worst ice-winters seen in many years in the north-east of the US. We made a quick stop-over in Minneapolis, Minnesota where the temperature was at minus 28 degrees Celsius. Brrrr! Upon arrival in Washington DC it was only about minus 15 degrees Celsius. A little warmer, but not much! In the days following our little “climate change” we explored Washington DC. Unexpectedly the capital would turn out to be a spot we kept returning to again and again during the following month. Washington DC simply has a certain “something” that we really like. It is one of the absolute “power centers” of the world, but it is also the place to find some of the finest museums. Many of them of significant historic and scientific value. We were all very impressed when we stood nose-to-nose with the space shuttle “Discovery” in a huge hangar somewhere near Dulles Airport. It is American, yes, but on behalf of mankind I was pretty proud and happy. Imagine that there are people willing to train and educate themselves for so long, so that I can surf the internet, use my smartphone and guide my way through the city with my GPS device. We have space shuttles and space technology to thank for just that!
What I missed most in the US was history. The nation is not old in European terms. In the US a house is considered really old and most likely protected if it is over 150 years of age. In Europe this leads to nothing more than a shrug. Many private families in Europe are living in houses way over 500 years of age. With strict rules and guidelines for restoration and preservation, yes, but still. It puts things into perspective. In Williamsburg, Virginia we were able to get a glimpse of something authentic and truly old. This was where the movement that led to the American Independence started. Historic personalities like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington used to come here. And to this day the central part of Williamsburg is a living museum with preserved or reconstructed houses from the past. This was where I got at least partly “closure” in my search for the American history. The rest came to me in New York, as we visited Liberty Island and Ellis Island. It is estimated that apprx 100 million people living in the US are descendants from immigrants entering the halls of Ellis Island. That’s about one third of the entire population! Impressive!
During our stay in the US we had visitors from our family in Denmark. My mother followed us for a few weeks in California and Nevada and spent Christmas and New Years Eve with us. My sister came to stay with us in New York. It was great to see them after so many months of traveling around the world. It was actually my mothers very first visit to the US. If it will be her only visit, only time will tell.
Some of the comments in this blog may lead you to believe that my view of the US is mainly critical. That is in fact not really the case. Here are three things that I really like about the US:
The Americans. Their courtesy and friendliness. Their openness and genuine happiness when others have success. A sharp contrast to the omnipresent “Jantelov” in my native Denmark.
Nature. It is simply breathtaking, beautiful and oftentimes completely unique. Varied as well. Something for everybody!
The ability to put things into systems. Americans do know a thing or two about tourism, services and entertainment! The chain hotels, chain restaurants and amusement parks may all be slightly “too much” at times and you have to search good and hard for any “personality” or “edge” anywhere. In turn you do know exactly what you get. It certainly has its advantages. Particularly when traveling with children. And NOWHERE do you EVER get the feeling that children are not welcome!
I always thought that I would someday come to live and work in the US. At least for a while during my life. And I still would like to live in New York before I die. With a permanent address and everything. But to me the rest of the US is no longer a place where I can really see myself living. Perhaps for just a short period of time. But not on a permanent basis. The list of things where the US is too far away from what I believe in and stand for is simply too long. It is not because I believe that we are better than the Americans or live a better life. But in Europe we believe in a completely different way of solving matters, and after three months of staying in the country I am not willing to exchange the “European Way” for the American. Maybe I have overdosed on the American lifestyle. I don’t know. But it certainly felt good to once again put my feet on European ground as we exited the plane in Dublin Airport. In pouring rain, by the way....