Tuesday, November 02, 2010

fat, vulgar and ugly

I have long thought that the United States had a hole in its center where its soul once was. I'm not old enough to have experienced more than a quarter of the last century but I have lived in this country long enough to experience many of the major life events typical in our culture. During that time I developed a nagging suspicion that we were a society in decline. Nothing confirms such a suspicion like traveling abroad.

I am just back from almost two weeks during which I traveled throughout Switzerland and Italy and had a fabulous time at Terra Madre and Salone Del Gusto with my wife. What struck me, upon returning, like an openhanded slap across my mouth was just how fat, vulgar and ugly America really has become. I didn't include loud did I? Yes siting in the Newark airport, wishing we could take a European train back to North Carolina instead of another cramped, uncomfortable flight sure to come complete with absurd security pat downs (I swear to god next time I fly I'm showing up at the airport in a Speedo) my wife and I couldn't help but notice that the Dick Clark/American Bandstand-themed, in-airport burger shack in which we ate was inhabited by exactly 5 other people. Four of them were on there cell phones yakking away loudly. All four of them were overweight, eating shitty food sure to make that problem even worse. The fifth woman, svelte and eating sans cell phone turnout to be French. Sigh. Welcome home.

I'm sure at least one person reading this will think, "Well if you think Europe is so great you should move there. Love it or leave it pal!" Being American I know how to appropriately respond. "F#@! you," I say, "I can do whatever I want!" After all, being a way for a few weeks, I didn't forget how to talk like an American. Wink.

I know other cultures, including the Swiss and the Italians have their warts. Some of them were on display during our travels. It was just so striking to take in after a few weeks out of the U.S. to come home- blinding really- like walking outside after having your eyes dilated and suddenly being that much more aware of the sun.

We are uber thankful that we are a household without broadcast or cable television and therefore didn't have to return to what I understand are a whole new species of negative campaign ads in the run up to a mostly meaningless election in which we will, "throw the bums out," the latest set of bums hardly indistinguishable from the last set. Thank you Supreme Court for confirming that corporations are in fact as important- possibly more important- than people in our culture. At least we can be legally honest about what we've come to believe. Thank you mass media for covering this election cycle with an absurd attention that confirms its stupidity and reinforces my intuition that it is in fact meaningless. The Circus aspect of our 'Bread and Circus' circumstance is blatantly on display. Double Sigh.

It is clear that the United States has a hole in its center where its soul once was. It's a collective hole to which we all contribute with the missing part of each of us that would historically be filled by a daily pattern of living that didn't focus on trading away our time on useless tasks for money to purchase stuff with which to try to fill in the hole. Noticeably absent are the regular interactions with other people in coordination with daily activities given meaning by attention and thoughtful participation.

I hope I haven't talked any of you out of traveling to Europe, just be sure to wear your special glasses for a few weeks upon return. We had a fabulous time complete with a trip-extending passport pickpocketing event! The food really was great and the people were interesting. The spaces, the urban fabric of the countries we visited was fun to experience. At Terra Madre there were people from 188 other countries, all engaged in local food efforts simultaneously similar and yet somewhat different from each other. A special thank you to Riccardo for your hospitality.

The thing is, my wife won't move. It's not at all an unreasonable position given our stage in life (two small children). Our families are here in the place where we grew up and where we have some friends, not to mention knowing where everything is and understanding the language. She concedes we can never have Papa John's shitty pizza again, but frankly that change should have been formalized a long time ago. She will never eat a pizza as good as the one in that hole-in-the-wall in Milan and so I can hold out hope.

Personally I could convince myself to move, to stop trying so hard to make changes in my particular sphere of influence (the local food system) in a country whose culture has degraded so significantly that regular menu items include sandwiches consisting of chicken breasts for bread and bacon not only dangerous to eat but with so much less flavor than possible had it just been crafted by someone who cared.

Maybe that is what bothers me so much about our culture- that none of us give a shit about it, that it has become a culture not worth caring about because of how we spend our time. I include myself as I too am often unable to devote attention to important everyday tasks because of the background noise that stands in for real relationships with our people, our places and our work.

I am obviously in a pessimistic mood. No need to send hopeful comments or cards. Que sara sara. Perhaps our current dose of madness will inspire change. I feel certain it won't happen all across America though. In fact I'm guessing we're in for far worse as continued economic decline leads to increased political and social instability. How's that for ending on a happy note! I guess today the best I can do is suggest that other Americans find ways of ripping back their time from the machine of a culture that has stolen it and then spend some of it with me.



Kate said...

So many things to respond to. First the most trivial. I've eaten pizza in various parts of Italy, and I will admit that little in the US holds a candle to it. However, I regularly eat pizza here that is as good as and often times better than anything I could find in Italy. Two secrets: a baking stone in a smokin hot oven, and raising as many of the ingredients yourself as possible. My own cherry tomatoes, garlic, herbs and smoked home-cured guanciale, paired with locally sourced cheeses on real pizza dough, rolled out extra thin? Awesome. And *knowing* the ingredients does combine with their objectively stellar quality to make the pizza taste better than anything you'd pay for, anywhere. Don't despair of excellent pizza. Try it.

As for those who attack Americans who criticize our own society and culture, I join in your chorus of "Bullshit!" I'm a 13th generation (euro-)American, also with Native American ancestry. My ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, and every other war this country has waged down through the centuries. I believe that my ancestors fought and died for a helluva lot better than Johnny Rockets and corporate ownership of our so-called representatives. What we've allowed this country to devolve into is not remotely worthy of the sacrifices those people made. It should shame us. And shame on anyone who thinks otherwise!

As for the meaninglessness of our current elections, I can't help but agree. I also know that apathy, however justifiable, will lead to only more of the same. I have no good choices awaiting me at the ballot box. But, as a descendant of those who fought for the very existence of this country, and as a woman acutely aware of how many other women have not had or still don't have the vote, I consider it a duty to go and exercise my right. I wish the choices were more substantive ones. So in this area, I join in your despondency.

Best just get this day behind us!

Anonymous said...

what you have to say resonates with me as well....even here in Canada.

nulinegvgv said...

Thanks for the support Kate. I meant the part about talking like an American as a bit of tongue in cheek humor. My new years resolution is to be funnier. How am I doing. ;-)

Jennie said...

Ah I know your pain. I have a huge travel bug and everytime I come home to the US I'm hit with a similar revelation. Even after trips to 3rd world countries.
Where's our culture I wonder? I don't own a tv, so if our culture is there I don't see it. Don't think I'd want to anyway.
There are smidgens of hope though, a wave of new seamstresses and quilters trying their hands at making some of what we routinely ship in from China. Gardens and growing things seems to be increasing in popularity.
When I was living in Des Moines, it seemed like just in the last year or two, cultural activities were really picking up. More local artists/groups/activities.
Does any of this outweigh the loud, fat and vulgar, no. But, maybe given time and opportunity they could. I have to hope. :-)

The pain does recede. Give yourself a week to readjust.

Glad you made it back safely!

Betsy said...

I've been in a funk since Tuesday's election; nationally and locally, sensible candidates and incumbents got smashed and the victors seem intent on taking us back to the Reagan years instead of leading us through our perilous future. I, too, thought seriously about moving but I'm too far along adapting in place to make that a wise choice. So I'm going to ramp up my grass roots efforts.

Anonymous said...

We just got back from Mexico (in a way-to-touristy spot; we were attending a wedding) where we were mistaken for Europeans a couple times. When we asked our dinner companions why that might be, the table agreed it was my short hair, my husband's glasses and dress style (not t-shirt/jeans), and the fact that neither of us is overweight.

I keep hoping adversity will bring out the best in my country...any day now...

Snowhawke said...

Great post. I had the same experience coming home from England a few years ago. I was in the airport in London after a week of being in the Cotswolds, and suddenly I heard this LOUD voice with an ugly accent and I realized it was a fellow American. It was jarring and shocking that someone would talk so loudly in public. On the flight back I heard another overweight American loudly complaining about having to eat the "crappy vegetarian sides!" with his meal. Never mind he is eating healthy fresh veggies at 40,000 feet, he wanted meat!

I get so tired of people saying, "Well why don't you just move to Europe then?". It isn't that easy. They don't want us. It isn't like I can just ask the France or Ireland or Britain to let move there and bing I am granted a work visa or citizenship.

Anyway, great post. It is good to know I am not alone looking through the window that use to contain America's soul.

Pangolin said...

If you want culture you have to make it yourself and invite other people to come share.

When your local cultural types have events it's your job to haul out and attend them even if it's yet another twenty-bucks you can barely afford and a day spent away from chores for entertainment of questionable quality.

Electronic media has infinite-porn but will never offer you a home grown tomato, hand-made ravioli or back forty cider. Get out more.

This is how we roll out west. Make your own culture.

Anonymous said...

Poet William Stafford said it best: "The darkness around us is deep." But rather than judging our culture by the troglodytes in the airport, look around you at the farmer's market, the symphony performance, the weekend soccer match, your house of worship. You may find kindred souls and other outraged sensibilities and spirits longing for community and grace. I had to struggle to find them here in Winston-Salem, but they are worth the search. And they have a quality I didn't often experience living in Europe: a willingness to embrace change and new ideas, a readiness to rock the boat for the hell of it even if everybody gets wet. I'd rather be here. Best wishes, Donna

Maria Barker said...

I have been a follower of yours for a while now. I love your blog entries, they really resonate with me. Don't get too discouraged, you are a family of influence. This past week I have also had a travelling awakening, but it was more like I was travelling TO the United States, rather than returning. It was jarring, seeing what I know is out there, but has been removed from my daily life. Hang in there, the thinkers need all of us.