May 30, 2022

It’s Normal, Isn’t?

Experiencing vivid sensations, a series of flashbacks, and even a little bit of a 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, the 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, EU>US 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.

But the adventure began even before I got my feet on US soil.


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 they still waited 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 nor 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 being in this train of thoughts, 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.

Single-family homes as far as one can see.

More mind-blowing than the buildings was to see 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.

So much asphalt for a 20 mph limit.

As a result, everyone around me was speeding, and when I tried to obey the rules, I was the slowest driver. Instead of making the streets' width according to the desired speed limit in the first place, the cities build these massive roads and later add speed bumps to fight the speeding. Besides not being very cost-effective, this approach also hinders traffic flow and, therefore, users' fuel efficiency – as the omnipresent four-way-stop intersections do.

The wide roads are one of the signs that everything is designed to be accessed by a car. But surprisingly, driving in cities here 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 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 – 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 less inconvenient than walking around it.

To demonstrate how much, I randomly zoomed on a residential neighborhood in the Phoenix area to connect two addresses. Our example covers a trip between two houses ~420ft (120m) from each other. Yet, it takes about 4,000ft (1,2km) to go from the first house to the second using sidewalks and crosswalks, or a mile (1,6km) to get there by road.

One could cut the distance to ~1,700ft (520m) by jaywalking across the six-lane road, but that's not desirable for the drivers, even less for the walkers, and it is still more than four times the actual distance. That's to get to a place across a street, but the nearest school from this address is over 3,000ft by air, and within the radius, there's only one place to eat out. And it gets worse. The neighborhood above has sidewalks and some greenery around, but plenty of points of errands, like business parks and shopping malls, don't have one or both of these. Thanks to this layout, walking anywhere takes ages while being unpleasant and potentially dangerous. And cycling? Its infrastructure is even poorer than for walking.

You cross a street, and the sidewalk suddenly ends. Now what?

Covering the longer distances could be done with public transportation. Sadly, it isn't an appealing option either. Phoenix public transit relies on buses, which are infrequent and get stuck in traffic. It also has a tram, but it isn't saving the situation. One has to walk to/from the station to reach the destination, so when the city is designed to make walking terrible and everything is so far away, it's never going to work.

That's what puzzles me; any form of transportation in many US cities sucks. But it doesn't have to be that way. Phoenix metropolitan area has 5m people, similar to Berlin, Germany. But Berlin managed to get more people traveling without a car due to diversifying choices for living. In Phoenix, they are mostly limited to single-family homes, expensive condos, or apartments in the middle of nowhere. One can get these in Berlin too, but in addition, there are plenty mixed developments that make space for restaurants and shops within walking distance from homes and contribute to a denser population that aids in making decent public transportation more accessible. As a result, ridership in Berlin public transport in 2019 was 1,620,000,000, while Phoenix carried only around 65,000,000 that year. 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; Phoenix has 185. Fair, some of the parks in Phoenix are substantial, but 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. And while more people in Phoenix have private gardens than in Berlin, public parks are often bigger and better equipped, and one doesn't have to take care of them – the city will do. Yes, it takes money through taxes, but so does maintaining the services, streets, sewage, water pipes... 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 speeding 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. I haven't seen another country with so many car parts stores encouraging DIY projects. And a vehicle that goes with America like syrup to pancakes is the pick-up truck.

A file photo I took in Colorado illustrates a truck and the mentioned car-focused planning. "An attractive piece of nature? Here's some asphalt!"

While some put their trucks to good use, they aren't the most practical grocery-getter nor a vehicle to get kids to school in a city like Phoenix. Yet, they are prevalent. I guess the appeal lies in its huge size, but a stock truck wasn't big enough for many. The amount of the lifted ones with shiny 35+inch wheels I saw all over the place was astonishing. HUGE!

Big cars and aftermarket gizmos point to another element that I find out of this world here: 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 US 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 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! They cater to the people like me, for the same or lower prices than 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 with the context of these ads attacking fears and insecurities. In money 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 move on to another thing that is not normal in other countries with a high Human Development Index: guns everywhere.

Hunting and sport go out of the equation, as they seem to work fine in countries that don't have gun ownership in the constitution. I see that guns can be a source of entertainment, like cars. But guns and cars are also steady leading causes of death of US children and adolescents, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. While transport-related deaths are common elsewhere, those 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 being significantly more evil 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 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 a 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!


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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays, Stories

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