Friday, July 01, 2011

The moment I felt most American

AOG, Madrid

On election day 1988 my mother, my sister and I were on a Jumbo Jet heading for Europe. 

We arrived in Madrid and within less than an hour we were on a train heading for the region of Extremadura, on the border with Portugal. 

My thoughts on that long journey (it was about an 8 hour train journey then to add to the transatlantic flight) centered around what our new lives would be like in this continent. I remember being told at the time that Spain only had 2 television channels. 

This might seem ridiculous to you, but I had grown up with cable, and two channels seemed insufficient to me. And third-world like. And I wasn't happy about it.

I remember stepping off the train and looking over the tracks to my right. A beautiful hill and forest scene with sheep peacefully standing there, hardly moving. To my left, the future. 

We had gone to Extremadura because one of my mother’s great aunts lived there with her Italian husband, who came to pick us up at the train station. My parents were separated now and would divorce a few years later, and this was the only close family we had at the time. 

The car which picked us up at the station was a white Ford Escort. I remember thinking then “ok, I know this model, everything is going to be ok”. 
View of the city of Caceres
 A couple of days later, my sister and I went into town on our own. I clearly recall my thoughts when I saw this very modern looking parking meter with a digital screen right next to a XVII century Baroque palace with medieval elements attached to it.

I immediately thought back to the meters in Houston where you had to stick a quarter and roll a handle to watch a little flag pop up telling you how much time you had left. 
 At that moment, America didn’t seem modern at all, especially when compared to this country which could allow things like Baroque palaces and modern digital machines to co-exist side by side. It was, I think, my first eye-opener.

A year after landing in Spain, we landed in London. Life was moving on.

I have to say that from the moment I set foot in Europe in 1988 I have felt American on a daily-basis. It is hard to explain, but it must be related to not really knowing what the deal is most of the time. To making a faux pas here and there, that you are not even aware that you are making. 

To looking at things and thinking, “my God what are they on about with this?”. 

To reacting to some situations in a manner different from expected by my friends and colleagues.

To not settling for tripe when tripe is being served (although I think this is more about me than about me being American; many Americans settle for tripe too easily).
I know I am different from most of the people who surround me and my life. I think differently.  I act differently. I react differently. I want different results. Better things in general.

And I'm glad I do. Just as I am glad that they think differently from me.

I have experienced hundreds of examples of this  cultural disparity since election day 1988.

But back to the original question.

In 1995 I went back to the US and stayed with a friend in Alabama. it was my first trip back since 1988.

Although everything was familiar I could see small cultural cracks here and there. I was no longer the same person who’d left the country 7 years before.

And the questions began to flood in. Some positive, some negative.

Why do people drive everywhere? Why don't they make more sidewalks? Why do they all eat so much processed food? Why are things national and not local? Why are there so many people who allow religion to rule their lives? Why all this racism and hate? Why are women's fashion and hair stuck in the 1980s?

I was feeling very much the European throughout. But then something happened.
 Shortly before I left, I went out one night in Birmingham and I met this guy who was very friendly.

I remember talking with him about things, his life and his future, and mine. He was about my age and had achieved quite a lot. He told me about his up and coming projects, dreams, and achievable goals. There it was once again. American positive thinking. Everything was possible.

I remember thinking during that conversation that I needed to get my butt in gear and be like my right-there-in-front-of-me peer.

I needed to complete my education, just like him, and start aiming for a good job, just like him, and aim for a better life, just like him.

He was talking to me in a language I completely understood. The cultural references were identical. The outlook was familiar and well trodden. The goals achievable. The future was bright, and it had an American glow about it.

I felt very American just then. That instant catapulted me back to the person I used to be just before that Pan Am flight touched down at Madrid Barajas Airport in 1988. The feeling stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

I returned to London.

Yes, the minute I got back to my flat in central London the questions started flowing, but in reverse.

Why is everything so expensive? Why is everyone so poor? Is this a police state? Why doesn’t anyone smile? What am I doing here?

It was a few years before I realized what I was doing there and before I could answer my  own questions.

I confess that these days, I am one of those people who feel very American in Europe, and very European whenever I go to the US. I can't help that. In fact, I rather like it. 


xochimiqui1 said...

I understand more than you can know!When I am in the states, I yearn for the culture and cosmopolitanism of Europe. When I am in Europe, I yearn for the simple things from my daily life in the states that are considered luxuries there. But most of all....I miss the openness and friendliness of Americans. Europeans live in their own little self contained spaces in which they dare not wander out seems for almost any reason. But still...I feel at home in both places. You are American....but you are now a citizen of the world more than anything.

Ynot said...

I think we both are. We both are.