I have to admit that I liked the pun in the title… What you are about to read is far from an essay… It is more some random thoughts on my time in the States and my view of the American lifestyle as I experienced it for 3 months, riding from Boston to Miami (The Atlantic Coast – 2850 km). I was hosted several times by locals and I spent considerable time with them and their friends. I have to clarify, though, that I don’t mean any generalisation and, also, that the text below has no proper structure – it is just some random thoughts on my subjective experience, as they came to me at the time of writing (after my time in the States). So, I may write about stuff that one wouldn’t bother mentioning or the opposite – not writing about what should be the case for writing.
One may be very critical about the North American culture, the extent of capitalism, the ideals of consumerism, the importance of making money. And one should be very critical about all these. However we have to admit there is another side too.
My first raw feelings had to do with amazement. With excitement. I still remember how jaw-dropped I was even from Boston, looking at the skyscrapers and walking in the University of Harvard’s yard. USA is thriving in so many sections… Science, sports, business, education… One may say again, “yes, but everything is so industrialized, from food to… faith”. Yes, it’s true, but we still have to admit that advanced research is taking place in almost every field, there is low unemployment rate, there seems to be equal opportunities in the labor market, there is certainly high quality of life for a good portion of the population… [- “but still, the gap between the rich and the…” – “yes, I know, I wanna write about the other side now, please” – “ok”] Myself, from the very first moment in the States, I got the idea that this is a proper country. I mean a functional society. Laws are enforced, infrastructure is great, things do happen, and most importantly, you are respected.
All of the North Americans I met were wonderful. Super polite and friendly. Open. Most of them welcomed me at their places, cooked for me, provided me with the necessary, left me alone at their homes even if they knew me for a few hours (!!!) They trusted me. But I think it’s a more general trend – a North American will offer help if someone is in need. While riding, or in general when I was outside, it was very easy for me to ask for anything, anywhere. It was not uncommon to have a conversation with a stranger while waiting for the bus or when at the supermarket. When I was with the bike, people were very often asking me stuff (where am I from, where am I going, if I enjoy my time etc.)… I am typing these words and I have countless faces in mind – outside the super market, at the gas station, at the port, at the ferry, outside MacDonald’s, at a monument… People were showing interest… From a point and then, while going South, I was feeling awkward cause people were gritting or smiling at me in any random encounter. I remember in a gas station in Rodanthe /Outer Banks I thought that the guy who just had gritted me was confused, that he knew me or something.. But no, it was typical.
I don’t know if it was just about me, or the persons I met were special… I mean, I am sure there’s a lot of bad guys in the country, but myself I never ever felt I am threatened or that someone somehow wants to harm me.
In regard to the American lifestyle I ‘d like to say one word : CONVENIENCE!
They have thought of everything that could make their life easier. Yes, you may say, they have the money (average income in 2011: 50.000$), but that’s another story. Where should I start from. Simple in-house stuff: you don’t need to regulate how much water you ‘ll get on a shower. There is a fixed flow. You can throw papers in the toilet. You can throw food in the sink(!) There are no air condition devices. Air-conditioning is usually embedded into the house, you just choose the temperature. Beautiful, big televisions connected to the internet was a typical thing. Big houses with great backyards was the norm in the suburbs, while in the big cities (like Boston and New York) I found mostly small, shared apartments (as the rent was very expensive). Paying too, couldn’t be easier! 85% of all my transactions in the States took place with an American Express card I had from Greece (NO fees, no comision, nothing!) just by swiping my card in the machine (no pin, no signing (not always)). Feeling like not paying..
It’s also extremely easy to navigate around, as most of the american cities have been built in a grid.. You may have some main roads with names that separate the neighborhoods, but then most of the rest is numbered.
Βig car is the norm in the USA. You just feel smaller next to a car… The gas is so cheap (2.5 times cheaper than in Greece! – 09/4/2016) that people really don’t mind having a 4.600cc car. And the point is they don’t mind going fast either. The driving experience I had in terms of speed was like 1.3 times faster in comparison with Greece. But, it’s not only big cars… this over-size issue is kind of omni-present. It applies from the size of coca-cola you can get in Seven Eleven to the vast, chaotic super markets or hardware stores…
And now I said supermarket… Oh my God.. Sometimes I was spending so much time and energy in just going around and trying to decide… You want peanut butter, you go to the shelf and you see 20 brands with 20 varieties etc… You can’t decide… You need time to learn what makes this peanut butter different from the other, and what do I really want. And.. wait a sec, do I really need peanut-butter, or this super-flashy offer made me think “it ‘d be good to eat some peanut-butter”, oh…
And this brings me to another word that hops off the business sphere to all aspects of social life. MARKETING! Oh my… Marketing! Promotion, advertisements, offers, fancy paragraphs, huge smiles (dude, your teeth are real?), feedback questions all the time – sheer exaggeration.
It’s fun reading these kind of texts on “what we do” (sorry, “what is our area of expertise”), with a ton of adjectives, with clever syntax, with the right colors. So many times what they say is so misleading.. So far from reality. Smaller letters, asterisks, awkward prerequisites, very quickly read texts at the end of an ad. The first day I was in the States I was so annoyed. I went to buy some fruits. Took some apples that were already packed in 6. The price tag though had a price for the apples P/lbs! I didn’t notice that and I had to pay way more than in the label, as my apples were more than 1 lb.. But they are so experts that you can never accuse them for false claim or something. And so many offers. Buy 3, get 1 free. Buy 6 in the price of 4. etc. I was so frustrated cause myself I always wanted small quantities. I don’t need 6 packs of cereals..
And marketing I think is everywhere. Donald Trump is the most vivid example.
(While his political views are extreme and while I hadn’t met not even one supporter of him (and I was often talking politics), he is so popular! The same holds true for Hillary Clinton.. So unpleasant, but so professional… I saw her in a TV show and I couldn’t believe how flawless her speech was, how appropriate her gestures, her smile… True actress!)
USA is literally the land of immigrants.. The majority came from Europe. But there are also a lot from Africa (African Americans), Asia (mostly Indians and Chinese) and Latinos (from South America, they are also called Hispanics). Why am I saying this, because I want to point to the need for so many people of different origins and walks of life to live harmoniously. (I suppose) That’s why meritocracy, that’s why respect and “equal opportunities”. That’s why the significance of “personal space” and “private property”. That’s why there are so many rules – so everything is properly clarified.
But most importantly, the acceptance of diversity. I really felt that (especially in New York). A feeling I had throughout my stay was that I can look like whoever I wanted to. Never felt I was judged or criticized. I could see that there is respect to one another, no matter what. I could also feel what they say about the American Dream was real. Like “I can be whoever I want, if I try” – I could feel meritocracy. I had a lot of conversations with Greeks that came very poor to the States, and, not necessarily made a fortune, but they enjoyed their time and they now have a very high quality of life.
In regard to “my personal space” – being respectful of someone’s body and space.. (To me this is a bit exaggerated). From my personal experience, people won’t easily touch you, or it’s typical that one will apologise just for touching you or for coming very close to you, or even because they block your view. Also, most probably, you won’t be seeing someone in a café sitting with his legs and hands fully extended like he is a king.
In respect to diversity, I would like to make a comment on the multitude of religious beliefs. So many different churches and christian denominations (baptists, methodists, anglicans, roman catholics, orthodox, non-denominational, etc…). All these together make USA the nation with the largest Christian population in the world – 247 million in 2014! I didn’t notice any mosque, despite their considerable rose from 1.209 in 2000 to 2.106 in 2010, an increase of 74% (!)
Before coming to the USA, I wanted to learn what’s going on with their Health System and Education. I would like to mention that after many conversations I had in the States, it’s not true, for most of the cases, that someone poor that has no social security won’t be treated in a hospital. The vast majority of the patients gets treated and the hospital is called to pay for him/her. Most hospitals have a specific budget for this kind of cases. However, I can’t believe that there is no free (or at least very low-cost) higher education. If you wanna have a bachelors, most of the times, you have to pay. There are student loans with relatively good terms but still, you need years to pay off… [“Public university students paid an average of almost $8,400 annually for in-state tuition, with out-of-state students paying more than $19,000… In 2014, U.S. student loan debt exceeded $1.2 trillion (!!!), with over 7 million debtors in default” (wiki) I was told that student loans is a way to keep the workforce in the States!
Food cost was rather high, especially fruits and veggies. There was always the choice of eating cheap, low quality fast food, or finding super markets that are extremely low cost, where everything is 1 $ and you can find some good deals.
Finding a place to stay was rather easy. Apart from the huge couchsurfing network, there is also http://www.warmshowers.org – a hospitality network only for cyclists! I used both and there were always people that would host me even if I let them know the previous day! As far as camping in the countryside is concerned, I had to be very careful as there were a lot of signs “private property”, “posted”, “no trespassing”. (I remember a sign “trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again!” – haha 🙂
In regard to riding in the States, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the road condition was not as good as I expected and in the Northern part of my journey, my surroundings were mostly urban… Which was boring. However, I can’t ignore that the vast majority of my riding was in a flat terrain, that it was very easy not only to navigate around but also to plan properly (as there were bike routes in google maps for the whole country). The drivers were paying attention to me for the most of the time and they were (in general) respectful of the traffic laws. Also, I was very well treated by all bike shops I ‘d been to. Last, I have to mention that I never felt insecure with leaving my bike outside the super market for 5-20 minutes with the camera and the gps and everything there!
Finally, I would like to make a comment on the Greeks that are residing in America. I was very lucky to meet a lot of them (in Boston, NYC, Wilmington, Boca Raton) and I saw that these people love Greece so much. Independent of how many years they have in the States or for how long they hadn’t been to Greece, they talked to me about Greece’s current situation with so much interest, in pain, actually… They watch the news, they are informed and most of them are in some way affiliated with a Greek Organisation or institution.. Somehow they help! They want to help!
– North Americans take care of their teeth.
– North Americans like their coffee a lot milky/creamy.
– North Americans are taller than me – hahaha.
– North Americans (at least in the suburbs) have good relationship with their neighbors. (It’s true what you see in the American movies, about invitations and dinners with neighbors)
– North Americans like big back yards, building stuff on their own, and certainly they love their grass mowed (cut). There are neighborhoods where there is something like police for checking if the grass is in good condition, if the rubbish bin is where it should be, if your property is dirty…
– North Americans love writing reviews. From products to places to services, you can find a review online from another customer for almost everything. (yelp, amazon, tripadvisor etc.)
– North Americans like drive through. From MacDonald’s, to Starbucks, to Banking! Yes Banking. Apart from drive through ATM’s, you can do almost everything else since there is a vacuum pipe for sending and receiving stuff and even a clerk if necessary. But you ‘ll stay seated in the car throughout the process.
North Americans love zip lock plastic bags. There was no house that I went into without a grand variety of sizes and quality types. (One friend told me that this was due to the fast pace of life. It’s convenient to cook, freeze, take it to work, de-freeze, eat. However valid this may be, I saw these bags containing all kind of things, and being all around the house.)
And now enjoy the ULTIMATE USA FOOD COLLAGE – hahaha 😀
All kinds of art, of course!
Overall, I had amazing time in the States. It was a great experience for me to live what was accessible only through (Hollywood) movies or on-line. If you were asking me if I would like to live my whole life there, the answer would probably be… No. I don’t fancy the over-capitalistic approach, as it turns against society, it’s way too individualistic. However, what I loved in this country, and why I would like to go and study or work for a few years, is the fact that you have options, and the choices you ‘ll make are respected. You have so many options in all spheres of everyday life. You can choose at what state you want to live (there are great differences from state to state), you can choose at what neighborhood you want to reside, you can find the religious “institution” that is right for you, the job that is appropriate.. You can choose how you wanna “build” your life, and this is acceptable by the rest!