07 May 2007

Ten things I miss about America

Here's the caveat: I think if I made a list of the things I don't miss about America, it would be a lot longer. A lot. Oh and also? My family and friends are what I really miss, more than all of these things together, and since it's not really a "thing," it's not on the list.

I guess I've been thinking about America because I'm going there! In three days! To see the new baby niece or nephew who is going to be born, possibly on my birthday! To deliver a very great, but as-yet unfinished paper at a conference! To attend a cousin's wedding and hang out with the humongous clan that is our family! Ahem. Yes, the ten things:

1. Front porches. I suppose there are places in Europe where people have front porches, like maybe on farms? But mostly, not so much. I miss the big front porch of the House of Love in Bloomington, which had a saggy green velvet couch where we would sit in the fall and spring and read the things we had to read (being English dorks and all), and watch the people rattle by in their muffler-less trucks and motorcycles (being Indiana where there are no car inspections and all) and that scruffy shirtless sunburned guy with a big belly and tiny shorts and a bandana around his neck who would ride by on his bicycle every day, his knees akimbo because it was too short for him. And I miss sitting on the wicker furniture on the front porch of my parent's house in Vermont, which in the summer is just blanketed in my mother's flowers.

2. Cinnamon gum. Did you know that Europeans don't chew cinnamon gum? I bet you didn't! Now you do. Cinnamon Trident is my favorite, and I stock up in the US. I gave some to a friend the other day, and she screwed up her face and wasn't happy about the burning sensation in her mouth.

3. Public radio. Yes, I can stream it online, which is fine and dandy. And yes, I can upload a whole bunch of NPR podcasts and listen to them. All of which I do. But there's something disappointing about being six hours away, and hearing Morning Edition in the afternoon, the morning weather in the evening. Some evening shows will play in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, the podcasts, but they are also sadly disconnected from all of the little bits and pieces that surround them; you can, for example, choose to hear a whole bunch of NPR snippets about food. But what you miss out on is the serendipitous: I love public radio for introducing me to music I would never otherwise hear, to news I would never otherwise know about, to voices I would never otherwise listen to. Self-selection sort of wrecks that.

4. Grocery store baggers. Here, after your groceries come through the checkout chute, they land in a postage-stamp sized area, where you scramble to shove them into bags yourself, and get your wallet out and pay, all at once, because there is barely room for one bag, let alone several. And when the purchases of the next person in line come barreling down the chute while you are still fumbling with your purse or stuffing the bananas into that grocery bag, there is nowhere for them to go, and everything gets jumbled and the next person gets annoyed. I think the unwritten rule in Europe is that you buy five or less items at any given time.

5. Shoes in my size. I have a hard enough time finding shoes for my size 11W feet in the States. But here, it is impossible. The upper limit of what some stores have in stock, and this only rarely, is size 42, and I can only sometimes fit into a 42, depending on the brand. So I guess I am fated to do all of my shoe shopping Stateside.

6. Yard sales. Pop quiz: Q. What do people do with used furniture and used clothes here? A. They leave it on the curb. There are a few thrift store-type places, but they are oversaturated with goods, and I think they are considered to be for "the poor" to shop, not anyone who thinks reuse/recycle is a good thing (or one man's trash is another man's treasure). We had a houseful of furniture in Barcelona to give away, and no one could take it. Where did it end up? On the curb for the trash truck. It's disheartening. There is no such thing as the yard sale phenomenon, because first of all, no one really has a yard, and second of all, the whole concept is quite alien. I think in part, or in the past, people tend to buy and use their things more carefully and keep them longer, but this is changing, what with 5-euro shirts at H&M and 3-euro lamps at houseware stores.

7. Religious freedom. This may sound strange, being that the states of Europe, like America, are democratically pluralistic, and nominally, one can practice any religion one likes. However, I have the feeling that, more than in the US, there is a deep secularism and a real skepticism about religion. This is in part understandable, given, to take just one example, what the conservative Catholicism associated with Franco did to Spain. Those kinds of legacies play out in many ways, but in part results in fewer young people involved in Christianity, and also the embattled stance towards practicing Muslims, as seen in the veils-at-school debate. Increasingly, religion of whatever kind is seen as something belonging to immigrants, to "others," faith seen as something suspect and dangerous, and not something positive, something that brings people together. When in the US, I feel that people who don't share my beliefs are at least respectful and even curious about them, but here, the attitude is more of derision and even anger. Fortunately, we have been lucky to find some wonderful spiritual communities where we are living, but the sensation is that these are fewer and farther between than in the land of born-again Bush.

8. Black beans, decent salsa, refried beans, good tortillas...oh wait. What I mean is, I miss Mexican food! And I miss Annie's Macaroni and Cheese. I discovered a little "American" shelf at one of the grocery stores here. The food that is on it is: marshmallows, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, barbecue sauce, brownie mix, Hershey's chocolate chips (6 euros a bag!), real vanilla extract, Arm and Hammer baking soda, Old El Paso enchilada sauce, salad dressing, microwave popcorn. I wasn't really excited about any of those things except the vanilla extract and the outrageously expensive chocolate chips, but it's an interesting portrait of someone's idea of American food.

9. Space. Now, generally I think it's a good thing that Europeans have found how to live compactly. It's better for the planet for us not to assume that we can use up as much space as we want, from big SUVs to big houses to lots of trash and the space to bury it, from big box stores to things spaced farther apart so we have to drive to get there. But... I sometimes miss the feeling of openness that exists, even in cities, in the US. I miss not having to squeeze in everywhere.

10. The right to complain. And doggy bags. And free water. These are grouped together because they all have to do with restaurant etiquette. The last of them I've basically gotten over, but it also means I end up drinking less water when we go out, because if a glass of wine is the same price as a glass of water--what am I going to order? The second means that I eat more, because there's no taking it home. Fortunately portions are more reasonably sized. And the first one is related to the fact that waiters are paid well, which I think is a good thing. And not that I'm a regular complainer anyway. But it's the feeling that you could if you wanted to. We ate at a restaurant in Strasbourg with M's parents that we chose not for its stellar menu but because of its proximity to the train station. And after perusing the placemat menu, I announced, "this place is so American!!" What made me say so? Right there on the menu, four clues: 1. a big welcome and a free salad! 2. all-you-can-eat side dishes! 3. a note to the effect that, if your meal isn't ready on time, it's on us! 4. a note to the effect that, if you aren't completely satisfied with your meal, please let us know! It was a little dizzying, I have to say. I had the momentary sensation of what Europeans must feel upon arriving in America. Too ... much ... faux ... cheerfulness... beep beep beeeeep...

Fortunately, these ten things I can live with, especially because there are definitely more than ten things I love about living here, and thus rather tips the balance towards being happy with where we are. I remember having a discussion with my brother when we were backpacking around Europe for a month, back in 2001. He held that I wouldn't like living in Europe, and I maintained that I would. We sort of got stuck at that, and I don't remember what our supporting arguments were, but here I am, and here I will be, at least for a good while.

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