Monday, August 25, 2008

My Summer Vacation Essay, part I

The previous time I went back to the U.S. -- three years ago -- I was surprised by how much culture shock I felt.

Moving to Europe, I really hadn't experienced any culture shock to speak of. I'd expected various things to be a bit different (and they were), but not long after moving to France I had my first baby. And that was way more of a shock to my system than anything the French could throw at me.

Coming back to my home town after living abroad (if you'll pardon a Pulp Fiction cliché) the little things that had once been familiar now started to seem strange, like the particular foods at the supermarket or on a menu.

Even stranger, though, were the big things. Everything seemed enormous -- as though the country had been afflicted with a bad case of gigantism -- from the stores to the vehicles to the dinner portions to the endless parking lots. I gather many people arriving in the U.S. from other countries are dazzled and impressed by it. I was impressed all right, but not exactly in a positive way. It wasn't just the pointless wastefulness of it all, but even more it was the lack of alternatives and options.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes at me, I'll tell you that I'm perfectly aware that all of my praises for compact, walkable neighborhoods and public transportation have to be taken with a grain of salt since I obviously have the zeal of a convert. The funniest illustration of this was way back in the beginning of my European experience when I met a French woman who'd chosen to make a life for herself in the U.S.A. I started on my usual blah-blah-blah about walkability, and it turned out that she had an equal-and-opposite blah-blah-blah about how things are so much better in the U.S. than in France! (I don't remember what her complaints were, maybe something about French people having a bad attitude or something.) Anyway, I thought it was hilarious as soon as it hit me why she and I were having so much difficulty communicating with one another: As an expat, you constantly get asked to compare your old country to your new one, and naturally (in a friendly conversation with someone from your new country) you focus on what's better about the new one. But then that means that two opposite expats are like matter and anti-matter. I highly recommend moving to another country for a few years and then trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who has chosen to make the opposite switch -- I guarantee you'll learn something amusing about human nature! ;^)

On my more recent trip back this past summer, I was ready for all the stuff that surprised me last time, so instead I got a new surprise! Everywhere I went, I would sing my usual praises of car-free freedom. I'm a total broken record on this (if you've somehow missed it, please review here and here), but the thing is that after living the first twenty six or so years of my life in car-dependent suburban-type areas, it was such a revelation to realize it doesn't have to be this way, and I'd like people to at least be exposed to this idea and encourage them to want to try (and create) alternatives.

But that was the surprise. My claim (here) that Americans can't take good ideas from other countries was proven wrong. Everywhere I went, my discourse on walkability was old news. (And not just because I'm repeating myself.) People all had their own tales to tell about their neighborhood's walkability and/or about public transportation! :D

Coming up in the next installment: my kids' reaction to America!


C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. Check out this Walk Score site -- it's cool!!! For the flip side, see the high cost of cheap oil.

Varina said...

Wow, this really took me back to when I first moved from Shanghai back home to Houston and everything seemed so ridiculously huge and spread out and inconvenient. From my apartment in Shanghai I could walk 15 minutes in any direction and pass dozens of restaurants, at least one major shopping mall, several schools, two or three hospitals, untold quantities of pirated DVD shops, literally thousands of apartments, etc. From my house in Houston, 15 minutes got me to a Wal-Mart, an Indian Grocery, a book shop, and two Starbucks. It would take a twenty minute bike ride to get to the nearest bus stop, which didn't even run on weekends. It was so annoying and also completely baffling. Still in many parts of the country (not Texas of course) people are starting to want walkability and I have some hope of repatriating sans car.

Eric said...

I've had a cultural shock of my own returning to the U.S. after long trips abroad. While I am grateful for the many comforts and conveniences we possess -- and our relative freedom -- I miss the simplicity and efficiency of many of the countries I visit.

I recently had the opportunity to spend 5 days in downtown Antwerp, Belgium. Although it is a city of half a million people (and a major diamond and fashion center), the downtown area feels like a sleepy medieval village. Restaurants spill into the cobblestone streets, and car traffic is limited to a few main arteries. A colleague and I rented bicycles for a day and walked the rest of the time. It was fantastic!

I find myself homesick for a lifestyle that has never really been mine. I would gladly trade our two vehicles for a lifestyle in which they weren't required. But that isn't an option in North America -- yet.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

Exactly! BTW, if you're hoping to repatriate sans car, that link I put in the first comment (the walk score site) can help you find good places to move to. :D

Hey Eric!!!

Sounds like it was a fun trip! Hopefully we'll see some progress in this direction in North America.

B. Spinoza said...

living in New York city, as I do, I have no idea what you're talking about :) It's a great walking and public transportation city

Unknown said...

I would love to live in a city that's more walkable. Actually, my Walk Score is 74, which is pretty good at our current location. There's a park, library, grocery store, hardware store, several restaurants, and of course my brother-in-law's place all within a few minutes. We love the area enough that we're going to look for a house in our neighborhood next year.

But nothing beat Boston for walkability. The city was so small geographically that we could walk from one side to another for lunch at work. I miss the vibrancy of the city, but not the cost of living.

Lars Larson said...

Three years of living in Europe and I never once drove a car. I have been dreaming and dreaming of living somewhere that gave me the OPTION of not using my car and finally, FINALLY it has it is time to put up or shut up.

I now live in a suburb north and east of Seattle. I have the option of riding the bus one hour each way to work (30 minutes to drive and giving up the ability to go out on my own to lunch) or biking 14 miles each way (also about an hour with careful traffic navigation) and I am determined, rain or shine, to make it so.

It will take gumption and a bit of sacrifice but I believe I will be rewarded many-fold for my efforts.

C. L. Hanson said...

Wow, see? More examples!!! Keep 'em coming! ;^)

Hey B. Spinoza!!!

I love New York City!!! (Unfortunately it tends to be a tad expensive.)

Hey O.G.!!!

Boston's great too!!! (Of course I haven't visited it as many times...)

Hey ErlyBrd!!!

Good for you!!!:D

Anonymous said...

I lived in France myself for a year and I can't find the words to describe how much I miss the Paris métro.

When I moved back, it took me a while to get used to driving everywhere (I hate driving and I'm terrible at it). But I never really realized how far my house was from everything until I got back Stateside. The closest grocery store in my proximity is six miles away, and I used to just have to walk to the corner!

However, since I have moved back, I notice that many more people are trying to walk or bike places, even when it gets cold. I don't know if that has something to do with higher oil prices, but I like to believe that people are just sick of spending so much time in their cars, cut off from the rest of the world.

Rebecca said...

I'm not going to lie - I LOVE to drive. I love going on long road trips, driving down mostly empty highways for hours. But I also love to walk, and with the price of gas these days...

Also, not going to lie again - I love the bigness of the US. Well, that's not totally true. I hate how huge parking lots and stores and malls are, but I love the open space. When I go to New York City for the day I always love how easy it is to walk places, and I love just being able to walk down the street and, when I'm hungry, having my pick of places to eat every which way I turn. But after spending a day there, I'm also SO glad to go home and get away from the crowds and the feeling that everything is SO squished together. But I know not all walkable cities are like that - I never felt that squished in London or Boston.

I've been seeing a lot of articles lately about how the just-out-of-college people are reversing the trend of spreading out. They're flocking to urban areas with good walkability and good public transportation. It's definitely an idea that's finding a foothold in the US.

Rebecca said...

Oh, and I forgot to say that I'm excited to read what your kids thought of the US!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

Exactly -- I feel the same way and I like the trend! :D

Hey Rebecca!!!

That's an important point: some people really do like driving everywhere. In that case, having a car is obviously more liberating. I'm just pointing out that there are a whole lot of people who might prefer to live in a walkable area, but don't know it because they've never tried.

And thanks! I hope my essay about my kids will be amusing, but I'll warn you in advance the most of the news is that they were pretty blasé about the whole thing...

Joe said...

I like big grocery stores with good milk. Gotta have good milk.

I hate driving, but hate big cities even more. Loathe them. Don't like parks either--I prefer my unused land to look wild. I like driving away from my house and passing big fields lying fallow. It pains me to see them filled with hideous apartments designed to look "folksy."

One thing I do miss about South America was the mad libertarianism of it. People did crazy shit and nobody stood around wringing their hands.

This is why I'm getting tired of the US--the nanny state whining is just getting too much. I just need to find a libertarian place with good milk.

Joe said...

...and no walking. Scooter maybe, but no walking--if it's close enough for walking, it means too many people live in one place.

(Which greatly increases the odds of not being left alone. Misanthrope that I am, I don't care about you and prefer the same privilege in return.)

AnnM said...

Eek! My address has a walk score of 9. Nine! No wonder I haven't met any of those American walking advocates you mentioned.

On the plus side, when we move across the river to Georgetown or Foggy Bottom, we will have a walk score in the 90s. But that won't happen until our tadpoles lose their tails.

I have taken to biking. Some. Mostly to the auto mechanic.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Joe!!!

Well, as I was saying to Rebecca, some people don't prefer walkability. If everybody did, then U.S. cities would probably look very different than they do.

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

A nine? Wow! I thought my parents' house was bad, but at least their neighborhood scores a 40.

mathmom said...

Well, to put it in perspective, the only place I have actually lived in the US without a car (while in graduate school) got a 9. The hard things were biweekly laundry and weekly grocery shopping---really hard to do on the bus in the rain. When we had only 1 car the neighborhood was about a 40.

In fact, the other 2 places I have lived without a car (student housing in Utrecht and the hills of Buda in Budapest) weren't walkable, but they were very easily busable. It was much too expensive to try to get apartments in more walkable neighborhoods, which is the same problem I see with NYC and Boston.

My current neighborhood is definitely not walkable or even bikeable---the roads here are dangerously narrow for cars, much less bicycles. They are putting in a bike path, we'll see if it will go all the way to the grocery store (about 2 miles away).

Anonymous said...

My friends from Italy who come here are often overwhelmed by the grocery stores; too big, too many selections of the same thing, too many people, too many aisles of just too much stuff. I've had friends walk in, not be able to buy anything and then walk out empty-handed.

Italy does have some larger grocery stores but mostly they're smaller neighborhood places compared to our gigantitoriums here in the states. Going back and forth as I have for most of my life I've become accustomed to the differences but have often sympathized with what it must feel like never having been in one of our behemoth megastores and to suddenly have to figure out which brand of tomato puree to buy when there are fifteen choices staring you in the face.

The comparisons are almost inevitable and I've been asked a million times which country I like better. It's an unanswerable question because both Italy and the US have their advantages and disses. The perfect place to live for me would be an amalgam of the two.

As for owning a car, in Rome it's more of a pain in the ass since a good portion of the historic district is now off limits to all but local residents and business owners. Parking in Rome is the same kind of nightmare that parking in New York is. Life in these cities is oftentimes easier without a car at all. I enjoy driving in Rome, as crazy as it is, but ultimately it's a hassle and a lot more enjoyable to walk and use public transport. I like the feel of cobblestone underfoot.

dee said...

Yes, I love public transport. As you know, we do have a car, but it is not a primary means of getting around. More for road trips, which is a habit I can't seem to break. Or, rather, I don't even want to break. But my 10-minute tram commute is something I just do not take for granted.

Also, I would put the hypermarkets of France (think Geant or Carrefour) or the UK (or most European countries that I'm familiar with) up against any of the supersized US stores. Large stores with a TON of stuff are not unique to the US. Nor are large car parks outside for all the people who've come to shop. Only in France, all the cars are small and are Peugeots or Renaults. :-D No, they're not usually in the town center, where everything is quaint and small and lovely. But they have their 'burbs and oversized stores 'over here' as well.

I have two Starbucks within a five-minute walk from my haus. And a McDonalds. And a Burger King. :-D

dee said...

Also, I think the food portions in Switzerland are, for the most part, quite large, honestly. I was surprised by that. Or maybe it's just that I never finish anything no matter what country I'm in. Not THAT's American of me. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

That's a good point -- that "walk score" site apparently doesn't take the bus into account. Having compact neighborhoods usually goes hand-in-hand with good public transportation, but they're not totally interchangable.

It's also true that homes in walkable neighborhoods tend to be relatively expensive all over the world. That shows there's a real demand for such places, so hopefully that will create the market pressure to build them up. :D

Hey Tom!!!

I have always wanted to visit Rome!!! It sounds fantastic -- I've really got to make the trip one of these days.

Hey Wry!!!

It's true the suburban big-box stores also exist in France. And it's true that you can take fun road-trips all over Europe and see lots of fabulous out-of-the-way places that the train fanatics (like me! ;^) ) never see. But that's basically what I was saying above about alternatives and options.

For example, when I was working in downtown Bordeaux, many French colleagues chose to live out in the suburbs and commute in by car every day -- a commute which took them longer than my half-hour commute on foot. I thought they were nuts for doing that when they didn't have to, and they, in turn, thought I was nuts for choosing to live downtown. ;^)

Craig said...

Moving to Europe, I really hadn't experienced any culture shock to speak of.

Coming back to my home town after living abroad (if you'll pardon a Pulp Fiction cliché) the little things that had once been familiar now started to seem strange, like the particular foods at the supermarket or on a menu.

Even stranger, though, were the big things. Everything seemed enormous -- as though the country had been afflicted with a bad case of gigantism -- from the stores to the vehicles to the dinner portions to the endless parking lots.

I had the selfsame reaction when I returned to the States after living in Germany for over 2 years. Everything seemed so huge and wasteful and the SAME, and at the same time, so different from what I had been used to. Street signs looked strange to me, I missed the different historical architectural styles that are just everywhere mixed with the unexpectedly ultra-modern. I missed the cobblestone streets, the cars parked up on the curbs on both sides of 1-way streets. I missed the Döner Kebap stands and Gelato stands and Wurst stands and Bakeries and Pastry shops on virtually every corner.

There are lots of things I like about living in N. America (the room, for one), but for some reason, my time in Europe turned me into a European. I get homesick for it at least 4 times a week, yet the whole time I was there, I never really missed the States all that much at all.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Craig -- exactly!!!