The End or the Beginning?
06.12.2008 - 07.13.2008 75 °F
The flight from Paris was uneventful and eerily familiar. Perhaps it was the humorless costumes that our rather “seasoned” United flight attendants were wearing. Perhaps it was their American English, which seemed grating and out of place. Perhaps it was the English menus. Whatever it was, for better or worse, it felt like home. We floated over the tarmac and finally touched down at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. We exited the plane and stepped onto US soil for the first time in 8 months. That didn’t feel odd. What did feel odd was returning to a country that you weren’t quite sure you still identified with. The immigration agents seemed surly compared to other countries, as if to try and intimidate you upon your arrival. It sure didn’t feel like “Welcome home!” The train between the gates seemed slow compared to months of European train travel, and the airport seemed sloppy and disorganized. As we were scanned for weapons, the TSA Agent, noticing Griffin’s checkpoint Charlie T-Shirt proudly stated, “That place doesn’t exist anymore.” to which Griffin replied “Yes it does! We were just there, and they have this really cool museum!” The agent said “Really?” grunted and shrugged… We were all thinking: Is this the place we left?
After 17 countries and some 49 cities, we’ve finally reached our final destination of the trip. Home. I can’t say whether “home” marks the end of 8 plus months of constant traveling, or the beginning of life in the United States with a different lens than we had before we left. I guess it’s both really, isn’t it?
We see things so differently now, it makes us all feel like strangers in our own country to some extent. We’ve all been marveling at the contrast and differences between the US and the rest of the world we’ve just visited. There are so many differences that it bears highlighting just a few.
We drive big. Driving down our streets and weaving through scores of giant SUVs and pick-up trucks is really odd when compared to the scooters and tiny cars we dodged in virtually every other world city, especially when you’re driving one of the beasts yourself. We will be making some changes to our garage over the coming months scaling down our own "bigness". We'll be driving the scooter a lot more oten as well.
Walking down the “shampoo” aisle at our local grocery store is an out of body experience. It seems we have 100 kinds of shampoo just for oily hair and 100 more for dry hair. In Ghana, they had maybe 10 total, and none of them were for oily blondes. I swear this one aisle at Ralphs is bigger than most of the grocery stores in which we shopped.
In LA, where we finally landed, the freeways are 10 lanes wide, filled with countless cars carrying only one person, while ride sharing or public transportation rules the day virtually everywhere else. The rest of the world has invested in mass transportation infrastructure, while the US has invested in highways which are arguably the best in the world. We have some catching up to do on trains and subways.
We are big. Folks in the United States are massive by comparison to virtually every other country we visited. Germans were pretty big as were Australians, but big in these countries means someone who is athletic and broad shouldered carrying a bit more than their age should tolerate. Our bigness isn’t because we were born into an athletic family, it’s because athletics is something we watch on TV. We get in cars and drive to the grocery store and then drive back home and sit on the couch, watch TV and eat. In most places we visited, you walked or rode a bike to the grocery store and you carried everything back home on your person. You could only take home what you could sling on your back or stuff onto your bike. This meant you were shopping for a few days and you would return to the grocery by foot or bike when your food ran out. COSTCO wouldn’t work in this environment. Huge packages for huge people who are driving huge vehicles just isn’t part of the world outside of the US.
The US always seems to be in a rush while so many other parts of the world take their time. I supposed this is good news for getting things done, and being productive, but it seems that folks in Berlin, Paris, Florence, Accra, or LiJiang are expecting things to take longer, and so taking two hours for lunch isn’t a big deal. Waiting is just part of life.
Europe Australia, and New Zealand seem to treat the naked body and sex as a relatively harmless fact-of-life that can provide entertainment and even humor, while violence is something that should be kept from children at all costs. In America we do quite the opposite. In New Zealand, the kids weren’t allowed to see American Gangster under any circumstance. It would have been no problem in the US. We openly love our guns and our rights to have them. Sex – not so much.
The encounter between the TSA agent and Griffin reminded us about something we knew before we left, but now it was very clear. The general ignorance of the American Public about our political system and our own history is incredible. In every country, we met folks that were acutely aware not only of their own politics, government and history, but of ours. We were stopped a number of times and asked whether we supported McCain, Barack or Hillary and everyone had an opinion that was based on reasonable understanding of the differences between each. It was pretty amazing. These were not the super elite or well healed folks asking these questions. The folks in the know and the folks deeply interested in US politics were shopkeepers, airline gate agents, cab drivers, or waiters. These were the rank and file citizens of the countries we were visiting. It is truly amazing to see how much influence our country has over these people and how much time our country occupies in their collective consciousness. Yet, most of our own citizens have only a vague sense that a whole other world exists outside the US. A suffering US currency? Whatever. Starving people in Kenya? Whatever. A dictator killing his Zimbabwean challengers? Whatever. Folks in the US don’t seem to know or care. I could rant about this for a while. I won’t.
We were reminded of something that we had forgotten as we flew over the US: America is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. If we were traveling here as visitors, we would have had our faces pressed against the Plexiglas over the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and Lake Powell. Oh wait, we did have our faces pressed against the windows. Our flight from Chicago to LA was gasp producing, even though we’ve done it many times before. Guess we just forgot how nice it is. Some other things we forgot about:
The Central Coast of California is about the prettiest place in the world. The beaches, the rolling hills, the spectacular vistas, Montana de Oro, Big Sur, they’re all beautiful. The little town of San Luis Obispo is lovely as well as are the surrounding towns. Most of us inevitably take for granted the cities or the areas in which we live. I think we had done that as well. We knew it was nice, but we just didn’t recall how nice. This place provides some awe inspiring scenery and an abundance of all things outdoor.
Our house was nicer than we remembered. We arrived at night and the soft glow of the lights made it look like a restaurant or night club with a soft ambiance. Carol's mom had done such a great job keeping the house in tip top shape she seemed more like a museum curator than the keeper of the house.
The United States is the “service” capital of the world. We have great service by any measure in this country of ours. Restaurants, grocery stores, retails outlets, and even car washes provide service that goes far beyond what we found anywhere else in the world.
We have a democratic process that works very well and unfortunately, we all take for granted. Notwithstanding some voting irregularities in Ohio and Texas, and a few recalls that oust Governors ahead of their time, we seem to trust our democratic process more than other countries, and we exercise the patience to let politician’s terms run their course. Not so for other democracies that are still learning. Countries are struggling to believe in the process while abuses run rampant. And who can blame them when you have a sterling example like Zimbabwe going so horribly wrong.
We tend to tear down “old” buildings and replace them with new ones while the rest of the world seems to honor their old buildings like they were fine works of art. I remember watching the kingdome implode. Maybe we destroy our old buildings because they’re just not old enough. We’re lucky to have a mission in our little town that dates to the 1600s. I guess it’s old enough to keep.
There were a few things we learned about traveling for eight months that are worth sharing. Some are are obvious. Some, not so much.
Spending eight months in the constant presence of your family was absolutely awesome, but it was also very hard. We all needed breaks to pursue our own unique interests and be our own people. That’s not so easy to do when you all have essentially the same itinerary. Make room for freedom in your schedules so your kids, wife and husband get some “quality time alone”.
Travel light! Duh! We shed more and more stuff as the trip went on. We shed clothes, electronics, shoes, all kinds of stuff. We mailed things ahead and sent stuff home. Go through all your stuff before you take off decide what you really need and then take only have of that.
Always carry and extra piece of luggage that you squish into one of your other bags. The dilemma is that airports restrict your weight and trains don’t. On trains, you want to be in as few bags as possible regardless of weight to make quick loading and unloading easier. On planes, you want to keep your bags below 25kg. Try to weight them before you go to the airport. If you are within 1 kg or so, they will cut you some slack as long as you’re not over your gross total. Those Ogio bags we showed you on the first page of the blog were awesome – but they are very easy to pack with too much weight. Be careful. The smaller the bags, the less risk of going over weight. Duh, you say? Indeed.
Yeah, yeah, there are many other things we learned, but I’ll stop at that in the name of brevity.
Anyway, we’re home now, have hosted visits from numerous family members and are enjoying all the things California’s central coast has to offer. We’re surfing again, Parker and Griffin are in the junior lifeguarding classes and skating, Parker’s golfing, Blake is preparing for a triathlon, golfing, and attending the summer car shows, while Carol is back to yoga, hiking, working out and hanging with friends and family. I must say that there is no better place on earth to take advantage of the outdoors and the quintessential California lifestyle than right here in San Luis Obispo, and I swear that after traveling around the world, we are never going to take this place for granted again..…. Yeah right.