May 30, 2022

It’s Normal, Isn’t It?

Experiencing vivid sensations, a series of flashbacks, and even a little bit of culture shock as I returned to the US after seven years.

When I moved from the US to Europe in 2015, I battled some of its realities. When I entered European airport security, I immediately removed my watch like a pro thief while taking off my shoes. I thought that I was cool, acing it before being asked, but everyone around looked at me like I was a weirdo instead. "You don't have to do that here, sir," the officer said. Outside of the airport, I had to do parallel parking in tight places, and the fuel cost a fortune. In the US, whole milk is sold with red labels, whereas in the UK, the red label marks skimmed milk. Golly, I can't tell you how many times I purchased the wrong one before I got it! Everything was a mixture of familiarity and unknown – kind of like when I revisited my high school ten years after graduating. Same walls, different colors, new lift, windows... I recognized it, but it was very different at the same time.

It happened to me again recently, only in reverse order this time. I found these moments as fascinating reminders that things can be different from what I am used to in my little bubble and that "normal" has a fluid definition. So, I decided to write it down.

Thanks to Covid and visa restrictions, the adventure began even before I got my feet on US soil. You can tap here to view that or move on to the US part.

The rush started shortly before my departure: one had to have a negative PCR to enter the US, no older than a day. However, many testing companies take up to 24 hours to deliver the result, so it often meant that one was already on the way to the airport, yet still waiting for the outcome. As if traveling on the other side of the Atlantic wasn't enough thrill.

I sat on a bus to the airport when I got an email that my test results were ready to be downloaded from the testing company's website. Alas, no luck. Their page was down. "Better no news than bad news," I thought and tried to work out what can I do. But before I figured out anything, I got another message, this time from the airline: "You must complete your info, including mandatory US contact tracing.." So I opened the link, and it said all kinds of stuff about covid, and then that one also needs to apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization, definitely not later than 72 hours before their flight. "Oh, so that's what ESTA stands for." ~ "Wait, seventy what?" ~ "Lovely, this is getting better!"

Now on the bus, I started to fill out the form. I had to answer whether I was seeking to engage in terrorism, espionage, or genocide. Geez, America, nailing that first impression! As I neared the end of the form, it asked for a fee. Of course! They can claim whatever about how it is a safety feature, but it is all about cash in the end. So, I paid and prayed that they process it right away. A few website refreshes did nothing, so I accepted that I might have to wait for someone to click that green button before I could enter the customs. Meanwhile, I got a message from the local government: "We received test data... you can view it in your online ID account." So I logged there, and it worked! Haha, imagine, the company's website was still dead, but the gov portal did the trick flawlessly. The test was negative.

Having shredded some of my worries, I entered the airport. I managed the security, got on the plane okay, and survived the 11h flight to Phoenix with ease.

I landed, and the 'wow factor' started.

Above Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the US.

Immediately as I got to the terminal, I recognized a distinct smell that I remember from when I stayed in the US years ago. It wasn't bad or good, just specific. It could have been something in the air-conditioning – not sure – but I haven't smelled it anywhere but in America, so it brought back many memories. Still, there were many things I forgot about the US. The bilingual signs, for example. In places I saw them recently, such as Ireland, Brittany, and Scotland, locals cherished them as a part of their national identity, even if they didn't speak Celtic languages. But considering America's complicated relationship with its southern neighbor, seeing Spanish everywhere felt somewhat strange.

While in this train of thought, My ESTA went through, and the passport check was a piece of cake. Yey! And so, I could continue to be amazed by the everyday American things that are pretty exotic to the outsider folk. Entering the city, I got a reminder of the scale of the highrises and that many structures are being built from timber. Yet, the size of the skyscrapers was nothing to the sheer extent of the suburbs.

Suburbia as far as one can see.

More mind-blowing than the buildings was seeing the US streets again: even in residential areas, they are wide, highway-grade roads that are generally designed to take way higher speed than the sign-posted limit is. As a result, everyone around me was speeding.

So much asphalt for a 20-mph limit.

The wide roads are one of the signs that everything is designed to be accessed by a car. But surprisingly, driving in American cities isn't much fun either. It is not that I am some anti-car nut job; I do like to drive. But that's to drive, not be stuck in traffic jams.

When everyone in a large city goes by car, heavy traffic is inevitable even with impressively massive roads.

I like driving when I am not forced to do it. But with the dismal alternatives, driving in the US is often the only reasonable way to reach places. The US Federal Highway Administration published that over 35% of the car journeys in America cover two miles or less (1) – that's a lot of trips that could be walked or cycled. Yet, no one who can afford a car does it because being stuck in traffic is a better option than getting somewhere any other way: Walking next to fast-moving cars is unpleasant and dangerous, everything is far away and often there aren't even sidewalks. Public transit is infrequent and also suffers from traffic congestion; moreover, one has to walk to/from the station to reach the destination, so when the city is designed to make walking terrible, it will never become a desirable option. And cycling infrastructure is just as poor. So, everyone drives, and the cities make driving even more stressful by adding speed bumps to further hinder traffic flow and users' fuel efficiency, instead of addressing the speeding problem by making the streets' width according to the desired speed in the first place. Never mind the cost-ineffectiveness.

It felt like a lose-lose scenario to me, because it doesn't have to be that way. Tap here for a comparison of Phoenix and Berlin, Germany.

They both have metropolitan areas of around 5m people, but Berlin has a more diverse urban setting, which improves the mobility. Phoenix is mostly limited to single-family homes, expensive condos, apartments in the middle of nowhere, and dedicated shopping areas surrounded with massive parking lots, making them further away. One can get these in Berlin too, but in addition, plenty of mixed developments make space for restaurants and shops within walking distance from homes. Berlin also has a higher population density, which aids in making decent public transportation more accessible. As a result, ridership in Berlin public transport in 2019 was 1,620,000,000 (2), while Phoenix carried only around 65,000,000 that year (3). Thanks to making so many people use an alternative to driving, Berlin can use spaces for greenery instead of parking lots, and it has more than 2,500 public parks and gardens (4); Phoenix has under 200 (5). And while some of the parks in Phoenix are substantial, having more frequent parks means that they are easy to reach by more people, as opposed to having a few to which most have to drive. Yes, more people in Phoenix have private gardens than in Berlin, but I'd argue that public parks are often bigger and better equipped, and one doesn't have to take care of them – the city will do. It takes money through taxes, but so does maintaining the streets, water pipes, sewage, electricity... to each of the single-family homes – which costs a lot when you have a sprawling city like Phoenix. Having abundant parks over asphalt seas with concrete islands edged by heavy traffic positively impacts not just getting around but the overall stay in a city.

With the car-focused environment in the US, it is no surprise that there's a big car culture.

A file photo I took in Colorado with a pick-up truck, America's favorite vehicle, and the mentioned car-focused planning. "An attractive piece of nature? Let's pave it!"

I haven't seen another country with so many car parts stores. They encourage DIY projects, something I like a lot. But I don't see the appeal of driving a lifted truck with aftermarket 35+inch wheels to get groceries or to get kids to school in a city like Phoenix. Yet, seeing the number of people who do was astonishing. So, let's move on, because the big cars and aftermarket gizmos point me to another element that I found out of this world: The US purchasing power.

With so many having a decent income and using the same currency and language, marketing and selling anything is unreal. So is seeing the number of people who can get the trucks and then care less about the running costs. And the quantity of commodities one doesn't need or even would consider wanting until they walk through a mall or browse an online store for a few minutes... Wow!

It's fantastic when everything is in stock somewhere, available to ship the next day. Sadly, the only thing I hoped to buy here wasn't. It was a pair of shoes from one global brand I purchased in Europe and liked so much that I wanted another. I thought I'd come to the US and score a deal for them. Bad luck; finding US15 size in stock is a pain everywhere, even in the US. Never mind a bargain.

Another struggle with being sized above average is that I need more food to keep me running. It's the same thing as with vehicles; a truck will eat more than a tiny sedan. And so, sometimes, I am still hungry after finishing a plate in a restaurant. Not in America, tho! US restaurants cater to the people like me, for the same or lower prices as many places in Europe. I wanted to eat American Mexican food and a proper hamburger. I usually don't seek these dishes outside the US, as it can be tricky to find places where they taste equally good to me, and there is no lack of other available meals that I like. It was another thing I didn't think twice about until I shared this bucket list with a local. She turned to me and said, "Wait; you don't normally eat burgers?" I guess it isn't normal either.

While in restaurants, I love that one gets free water in the US. It's also not given, and I wish it would be a standard in every country. But what's up with the ice? Every soft drink comes with so much of it that there's hardly any space for the actual beverage. Then you take two sips, and it's gone. As for water, some tap I had here tasted short of a standard. Clearly, I wasn't the only person who noticed it, but instead of calling the city to fix it, they saw an opportunity to cash on it.

"It's time to rethink your water." Are you kidding me?

It is the other edge of the business world here. Anyone with an enterprising mindset can try to sell anything, and the chances are that they'd find someone willing to pay for it. Seeing its extent is incredible until it is in the context of these ads monetizing fears and insecurities. In cash we trust, ask your doctor first.

I think decent available drinking water should be a right, not a privilege. Anyway, since I'm on about rights and monetizing people's emotions, let's cover another thing that is not normal in other countries with a high Human Development Index: guns everywhere.

I see that guns can be a source of entertainment, like cars. But guns and cars are also steady leading causes of death of American children and adolescents, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (6). While transport-related deaths are common elsewhere, the US gun numbers are off the charts. Cars can take people around, but handguns? Some in the US see them as necessary to defend themselves. I never felt the US was significantly eviler than the rest of the world that manages without guns, but those who argue for arming citizens might know better.

The next thing that sounds strange to many from abroad is the US' emphasis on freedom. Outside the anthem, the "land of the free" concept is repeated at a high rate in local media; people put it as bumper stickers on their cars, yard signs next to homes, and on T-shirts.

A dictionary on a T-shirt imported from one of the poorest nations in the Americas says free-duhm like a few other things.

The US might be freer in some respects but not so much in others. I cannot walk with a firearm in Scotland, but I am free to hike or cycle through Scottish national parks without paying entry fees or worrying about crossing private property. A driving license is expensive in Germany, but you are free to go over 100 mph on some roads once you have one. One's also free not to have a car and still manage to participate in society. England has high taxes, but when I ended up in a hospital in London, I was free to walk away without paying a dime. Denmark isn't giving free plastic bags to shoppers, but they provide free education to their people. This could go on. There isn't a monopoly on freedom.

Where the US shines like very few others in the best sense is the spectacular diversity of its landscapes. Arizona itself provides myriad exotic locations to explore the vivid colors and the mad shapes. Absolutely terrific! I will post about it later; stay tuned.

Last but not least, a thing I don't take for granted is the good folks that I was lucky to meet in the US. I wish I could revisit all, but my stay in the US is already over; it was a short one. But a good one. Till the next time!

    1. Federal Highway Administration: National Household Travel Survey
    2. Statista: Passenger numbers on public transport Berlin Germany 2021
    3. Valley Metro: Ridership Reports
    4. Public Parks (Green and Recreation Spaces)
    5. City of Phoenix: Parks and Recreation Department
    6. The New England Journal of Medicine: Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States

Thanks for reading! You can get in touch for comments, and if you enjoyed this article, you can stay a bit longer and browse my Blog Archives for more posts, such as...:

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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays, Stories


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