Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rough Love for my Patrie

One thing I’m enjoying about America is our embracing of our own tackiness. I love being able to wear a hoodie and old jeans in public and not feel like a total slob. This goes for decoration, too. I spent Boxing Day in Compton and New Year's Eve in Hampden (both in Baltimore) and remembered how amazing bar culture can be when it doesn't take itself so seriously. Compton had a Christmas tree made of beer cans/bottles, and the painting in the window of local Mexican legend Nacho Mama's fused the Natty Boh (local beer) man, a sombrero and the infamous "Christmas Story" lamp to glorious effect. 34th Street in Hampden, already famous for the building-sized giant pink flamingo of the nearby "Hon Bar," was decorated from end-to-end with the most tacktastic set of Christmas lights I've ever seen, including a true Baltimorian tree made of Natty Boh, Old Bay and blue crabs. (If you don't now what those are, you need to visit Maryland).

Driving again is both stressful and fun. I don’t like traffic or paying for gas but singing along at the top of my lungs in an empty car remains one of my favorite simple pleasures, and it sure is nice to not be dependent on a train schedule to get home after-hours. In the same vein, it’s nice to have 24 hour snack service (in the form of 7/11s and fast food places) for munching night owls like myself; I’m squeezing in as many Slurpees as possible while I still can. Driving in dirty city snow also beats trudging through it on foot—and the US definitely handles snow better than France.

Shopping has been a mixed experience. While in Paris I have a hard time finding anything that fits. To be truly European I need to grow a few inches and lose a few pounds—Parisian clothes are made for wispy girls with long legs and no curves. Happily, the Old Navy outlet here is having a great sale; I bought a pair of jeans for $19 and a few cute tops. The odd thing is that the jeans are size 2, and are even still a tad big on me. While my figure, big in Europe, is definitely on the smaller size here, I have no business wearing something that small (meaning it took me three incredulous rounds in the changing room to realize it was what I needed). When I expressed my irritation to the two rather large fitting room attendants, they beamed as they reported that Old Navy had “shifted” its sizes—“and customers love it! Now we’re all skinnier!”

Doh. As much as I’m embarrassed by the European standard of sizing pants by waist and height ratios that points out my square-dimensions (seriously, my numbers are the same, it’s sad), it’s certainly a lot more logical than “shifting” already-arbitrary numbers to cater to the ego of an obese nation. In the same way, France's tactics of providing well-balanced, affordable school lunches (seriously, I eat them) and obligating junk food advertisements to feature a public health disclaimer do a lot more to keep European children fitting into those sizes than pumping high schools full of fast food franchises and vending machines.

The other thing that has been depressing to rediscover in America are the ads during daytime television, which consist in about equal parts of: 1) drug ads, 2) loan/credit/get-cash-now ads, 3) health care/Medicare ads and 4) affordable continuing education ads. To me, they represent a way to glean sobering insight into the American psyche. If you read between the lines you find a lot of fear: fear of the recession, of poverty; fear over the unavailability of health care, particularly for the elderly; fear over the expense of education and the vicious cycle of being too under-educated to score the career that will enable one to fund that education. I'd be the last to say that French education or employment are anywhere near ideal (pretty damn good health care system, though), but our system has flaws that run deep and hurt many, with very little reform in sight.


  1. Isn't it amazing how much more you notice when you've been away for a while? Maybe it should be compulsory for every highschool leaver to take two years travelling and working overseas. I know that having spent time in the states I appreciate all the things we have here in NZ- Free access to amazing beaches, a reasonable health care system, schools that aren't dependent on how much you pay a year in property taxes, affordable university, interest free loans for your education and living costs while studying...
    I guess when you've had it all your life it doesn't stand out as something amazing, but I am so glad I live in this country.
    Even so, there are times I want to go back to NY and feel the energy of so many people and placces and races and...

    I guess nowhere's perfect, but I for one, am glad I've seen the other side.

    Wouldn't it be nice to mix all the best bits of all the places we've been into one small country where we could live with a bunch of like minded people? Maybe it would be boring if we had no one to argue with over whether all that recycling was needed, or whether petrol ought to be subsidised more (seriously, people BELIEVE this shit) All the same, I think I'd find enough to do without watching people complain about all the wonderful things they have access to.

  2. I totally just went to Old Navy and noticed they changed their sizes too!!! although I thought their sizing before was pretty off too....

  3. I just now saw this post and I'm so proud those pictures made it to your epic blog! It brought back memories of our happy day in Canton and the gaudy awesomeness of the beer tree. I agree that traveling has made me appreciate my own country more, as well as see where it falls short. Although if we can't expect people to be perfect, we certainly can't demand it of countries.