Life outside of Europe

So, today I’m blogging from Idaho where I’m visiting the in-laws. This is the first time I’ve been back in the States long enough for the place to feel foreign since decamping off to Belgium a couple years ago. Actually, the strangest part of this trip has been the feeling of being in a foreign country, even though it’s a country that I’ve spent almost half my life in.

Some of that could be Idaho. I’ve lived in California, Colorado, Indiana and New Jersey, and this is a bit like Colorado. Of course, I haven’t lived in Colorado in 20 years. But, considering that I’ve spent most of this trip either working on a white paper for my employer or planted in front of basic cable, I have to at least consider the possibility that Idaho isn’t really the problem.

[Warning: This post is long and will contain extensive references to life in America. The Americans will probably all get it. You may not.]

Anyway, I though I might point out some things that coming here reminds me that I miss about America, along with some I don’t:

I miss:

  • Having more selection in fast food than McDo, Quick and the local kebab merchants. (Yo quiero Taco Bell.)
  • Grocery stores that stay open after six and on Sundays.
  • The open road and the sight of mountains on the horizon.
  • Pho.
  • Bagels. (Damn, I miss bagels. Even Idaho bagels.)
  • Buffy reruns.

I don’t miss:

  • Crappy American fries.
  • The fifteen pounds I lost by moving away from fast food and the four I’ve gained back in the last week here.
  • SUV’s, the smell of the Interstate, and the odor of the local rendering plant.
  • Biscuits in gravy.
  • Fruits, vegetables and cheese that taste like cardboard.
  • The words: “Parental discretion is advised”

There are a few important bits of knowledge that many Americans don’t seem to have that I would consider really quite important. So let me point out a few things for any American readers we have who need the refresher. I suspect few of you do, but some of your compatriots clearly need it and I would appreciate it if you could distribute these little bits of knowledge as far and wide as possible:

  • The Bible does not predict the establishment of the State of Israel, nor does it predict that the Antichrist will attack it when there is peace with the Palestinians. Yes, I’ve read the entire Bible. I even used to go to Sunday school. Whatever it is you think you’re reading there, it isn’t there. Frankly, if there has to be peace in Israel for the world to end, I wouldn’t start cashing in my stocks yet anyway.
  • I don’t care what Jesus would do; I worry too much about about what George W. Bush would do. And, I will accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour when you accept that you’ve been brainwashed by your cult.
  • Yes, I’m from Europe and no, I don’t like Heineken. I also don’t drink Coors because I don’t like the taste of horse urine in a can.
  • France and Germany have virtually identical policies towards Iraq and it’s the US that has softened its stance, not the other way around. Yes, it is entirely fair that the US should pay nearly all of the bill for rebuilding Iraq, because if you broke it, you have to fix it.
  • They’re euros, not euro-dollars. And they’re not worth eighty cents, they’re worth a buck fifteen. Get used to it.
  • I don’t care if you were in Vietnam, you’re still a drunk redneck in a pick-up truck.

Okay, so this hasn’t been a great trip. I hadn’t realised how much these little things annoyed me until I got here.

However, the real crowning moments of disappointment have all come from CSPAN. My mother-in-law doesn’t have the Sci-Fi channel, or FoodTV, or even F/X. I can’t even get CNN. So, I’m stuck with the network news and CSPAN. The network news is pretty bad. I get the impression that news on the Big Three networks reaches mostly people over age 70, and that the producers assume anyone that old can only stay awake about 20 minutes.

CSPAN, however… Wow. First, I watched the confirmation hearing for Bush’s appointee for Secretary of State for Indian Affairs. It’s some guy named David Anderson who owns a bunch of BBQ restaurants in the upper Midwest: “Famous Dave’s.” He starts the hearing with a recording of an episode of Oprah where he was featured, talking about how he dragged himself up from alcohol and drugs on the reservation to become the Harvard MBA and successful businessman he is today.

As soon as I saw the Oprah tape, I figured that the fix was in. This wasn’t a confirmation hearing, it was a formality, and Mr Anderson was confirmed unanimously before the relevant sub-committee. I assume his hearing before the full committee will be just as smooth.

The thing is, there was only peripheral mention of the long running legal troubles that the Bureau of Indian Affairs faces. (They’re getting sued for robbing the tribes they’re supposed to serve of something like half the annual GDP of the US over the course of 150 years.) Furthermore, there was hardly any mention of Indian gambling at the hearing, just a little bit. It turns out the Dave Anderson didn’t make his fortune in the restaurant business, that’s just what he does now. He started out in reservation politics and worked his way up to an executive position in some reservation casino operation. He said that he intended to divest himself of any assets he had in the gambling industry and abstain from any decisions involving gambling permits.

He did say one thing that struck me as worth knowing: He’s for casino gambling as a temporary measure to finance development of more permanent industries on reservations. I’m somewhere between indifferent and against on reservation casinos, so at least his position is one I can understand. But, I was really irritated by hearing about how his personal story was an “inspiration” to young Indians and how his business experience qualifies him to run the BIA. The first is laughable and the second ridiculous. I’m sure his life story is largely as described: that he was an alcoholic kid from the rez with nothing to his name who managed to pull himself together. (Although as the hearing progressed it turned out he was from Chicago, but hey, that’s just details.) I doubt very strongly that knowing the guy who runs the BIA used to be a drunk does much of anything for kids of any background.

I would have liked to have heard the nominee say something like “I’ve run a dozen BIA projects on time, and under budget and without legal problems.” That would have impressed me. Running casinos and grilled cow establishments doesn’t impress me. And, I was on one level completely unsurprised and on another disturbed that someone with such close ties to the gambling industry would be allowed to take over the BIA. I mean, that’s like letting oilmen decide on your policy in the Middle East.

The second disappointing thing I saw on CSPAN was the Democratic primary debates. First, did Joe Lieberman look like Senator Palpatine back in 2000? I swear, the resemblance is uncanny. Well, at least having a Republican in the Democratic primary gives all the other Democrats something to agree on: They all hate Lieberman. Otherwise, who the hell are all these losers? I recognise Gephardt because I’ve seen him run before, Al Sharpton is hard to miss, and I assume the black lady is Carol Mosley-Braun. But the others? Was it just me, or did anyone else need cards to tell them all apart?

I’m not hopeful about this bunch. The one who I think is Kucinich sounds like Jerry Brown. John Edwards is the smiling guy, right? He gets off some good one liners, but is way too Kennedy for his own good. Kerry just sucked. This Dean guy wasn’t too bad, but he certainly didn’t distinguish himself in the debate I saw. I’ve heard Gephardt tell stories about NAFTA that didn’t make sense before, and listening to him take credit for Clinton’s economic record is just pathetic. I had hope for Wesley Clark, but not anymore. Frankly, I think I could vote for Carol Mosley-Braun. I could bring myself to vote for Al Sharpton in a pinch. The rest just make me glad I never did become a US citizen.

I’m a lot less optimistic about the Democrats in 2004 than I was before. If it had just been about destroying Lieberman, well, that would have been okay. Every time he said something, I wanted to sing: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong…” But, if the debate is any sign of what’s going on, the battle lines all seem to be drawn between the pro- and anti-Bush camps within the Democratic party. That not just ridiculous, it’s a strategy for defeat. If the Democrats can’t all come together behind annihilating Bush, there’s even less chance of getting the electorate behind it. I’m beginning to think Michael Moore is right: the Democrats should draft Oprah.

I’m not sure when I’ll next be back in the States. Probably next summer, just as the election is heating up. It’s not something I’m looking forward to.

30 thoughts on “Life outside of Europe

  1. The democratic candidate front-runners at this point seem to be Dean and Clark, but Gephard, Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman still have a shot at the nomination. All are ‘electable’ if given the nod.

    Obviously only one can get the nomination, but there’s a second contest for the vice-presidential candidate…

    Dean/Clark or vice versa might have too many of the same supporters overlapping. Clark/Edwards might temporarily loosen the Republicans grip on the south.

    But more daringly, consider Dean/Moseley-Braun:

    yes, Moseley-Braun does have a shot at the vice-presidency if she can add African-Americans and feminists to Dean’s support base (or Clark’s, for that matter).

  2. “Having more selection in fast food than McDo, Quick and the local kebab merchants. (Yo quiero Taco Bell.)
    Grocery stores that stay open after six and on Sundays.
    The open road and the sight of mountains on the horizon.
    Pho.
    Bagels. (Damn, I miss bagels. Even Idaho bagels.)
    Buffy reruns.”

    Sweden has all of that.

  3. Vaara – I love CSPAN and I wish the European Commission would run a service like that. It’s very demystifying and not terribly expensive. I used to watch Booknotes religiously back when I lived in California. I also have fond memories of watching the members of Twisted Sister give testimony before Congress on record labelling back in the mid-90’s.

    Patrick – I think I could back a Dean/Mosley-Braun ticket. Of course, I think I’d probably back a Cher/Madonna ticket against Bush too. BTW, one guy – I couldn’t figure out who exactly – had what sounded a lot like an Australian accent. What’s the deal with that?

    David – My boss keeps telling me that too. I did actually consider doing my Master’s at Gothenberg, but if the wife wasn’t going to take Montreal, I don’t think Sweden stood much of a chance. If we’re going to keep taking Scandinavian work though, I wonder if I ought to try to learn Swedish.

  4. “I love CSPAN and I wish the European Commission would run a service like that.”

    They do, to some extent at least. EuroNews sometime sends hearings and debates from the EP, featuring EMPs and also commissioners and various other people. Or at lest they used when I had access to them.

  5. “I get the impression that news on the Big Three networks reaches mostly people over age 70, and that the producers assume anyone that old can only stay awake about 20 minutes.”

    You raise here a rather interesting point Scott. For a number of reasons I have the feeling that TV viewing is increasingly dominated by the under 12’s and the over 60’s and that this fact has something to do with the ad revenue crisis they’ve been having, and the declining quality you refer to. Those between 25 and 60 are watching less because they have more pressure on their time: ‘work flexibility’ and all that. And then of course there is the really big news: the loss of the adolescent and early 20’s group into the internet.

  6. I hate to puncture this particular fantasy,
    but the statistic I seem to recall is that roughly 70% of americans get their news solely from TV.

    If you’re pressed for time, it’s easier to have ‘Good Morning America’ on as you’re getting dressed than it is to devote your time to reading news articles on the web or in a newspaper.

  7. David, is Euronews an EU government project? If so, I guess it would explain some things about it. I’d rather see something like C-SPAN that considers its primary mandate the televised coverage of the work of the government, and other public events as a secondary thing.

    Edward, I think your diagnosis may be correct for basic cable, but very nearly every American I knew – me included – spent more on TV entertainment than any media except the ‘Net. With cable, it has become a lot easier to find “comfort TV.” There’s always a Buffy or Trek rerun on F/X or SciFi or something, or an old MASH episode somewhere, or some movie you remember fondly. Working so much makes TV a much more important source of entertainment in the remaining hours of the day because it’s always there, and if you have full cable there’s always something watchable on. The ‘Net is really the only thing that comes close, and even that is mostly for a relatively small community – ten million or so tops in the States – who don’t just read the ‘Net but participate actively.

    Patrick, I suspect few Americans follow the news very closely at all. Of those who do, I suspect the ‘Net and TV are about even, and cable news channels much more than network TV. Of those who don’t, I guess “Good Morning America” or the odd bit of CNN when nothing else is on is probably their main news source.

  8. What is Pho?

    Al Sharpton is icky. He has a sketchy sketchy background. So does Carol.

    And Lieberman isn’t Palpatine! He’s Jiminy Cricket from Pinnochio!

  9. Ok. It’s the pushed-for-time thing I’m pushing. This depends how many people move over to online 24/07. If the machine is on, it’s a lot easier to run a quick check on Google news – 30 seconds, than to wait half an hour and see if there’s anything interesting.

    What about radio? This seems compatable with many other things.

    Of course if you’re so whacked from working that you only want to be a couch potatoe by the time you get home, then the telly is just the thing for you.

  10. As far as I know, EuroNews is run by the same company that owns the IHT, which in turn is owned by the New York Times.

  11. And pho is a Vietnamese dish consisting of noodles in beef broth, with strips of beef, tripe, and other lovely things in it. Actually, the first and best pho I ever had was in Paris; a Vietanamese friend took me to a restaurant somewhere in the 19e, but unfortunately I have no recollection of its name or exact location. But as he pointed out to me, “?a, c’est du vrai pho.”

    Scott, if your travel plans include Seattle, be sure to have some pho at Than Brothers; they have shops all over town, and their choux ? la cr?me are to die for. *sigh*

  12. http://www.memetank.net/wow.htm says Euronews is 49% owned by ITV. Various other random websites say it’s financially assisted by the EU. Anyone have more authoritative sources?

    And, Scott, you left San Francisco. If you were living in they city, you were in probably the best place for good, cheap, multicultural fast food in the world. I think you were probably spoiled.

    David; how common are tacerias in Sweden?

  13. Mmmm… Pho…

    We’re trying to convince the in-laws that they want to move to the Pacific Northwest. They seem to like Idaho as little as I do. Of course, the availability of non-stop flights to Seattle and Vancouver from Amsterdam and London is just a bonus. We keep telling them that the closer they are to a major international airport, the more often they’ll see the grandchildren. :^)

    There are some good pho restaurants in the Bay Area, but I was surprised at how widespread they are in Idaho now. (Ida-pho indeed :^) I don’t remember seeing any Vietnamese restaurants in Idaho when I first came here four years ago. But then, I was also surprised to see ATM machines that speak four languages here: English, Spanish, Chinese and Hmong.

    Vaara, know any decent pho houses in Brussels?

    Edward, in the US, the main market for radio is commuting to and from work, with a few additional folks who set their radios as alarm clocks. More people watch TV in the morning now.

    I suppose there may well be people getting a significant part of their news that way. The Top 40 stations just play music during rush hour, and the talk radio slots tend to be opinion shows that run from the centre-right to the not quite fascist right. America pretends not to have a partisan press, so they have partisan talk radio instead. There are still a few not so political morning shows, but not as many as there were in the 80’s. The heyday of Howard Stern and Don Imus is definitely past.

    Anyway, off to the airport.

  14. Scott Martens: “I don’t care if you were in Vietnam, you’re still a drunk redneck in a pick-up truck.”

    Sounds like the words of a true Eurotrash snob.

    Ironically, this very same much-maligned American “redneck” consumer-working class is the one that European financiers hope will pull the European welfare states out of their recession.

  15. Scott,
    I mostly agree with your observations about U.S. Radio, though I’d say it isn’t yet a total loss despite the massive commercial consolidation of the late 90s which squeezed the soul out of most stations (to make room for ever more commercials no doubt).

    I’m one of those who wakes up to news radio:
    “The most listened-to News Radio station in Chicago”… ‘cuz they merged with their sole competitor a few years back.
    “Traffic and Weather on the eights”, which means that their coverage is a very superficial gloss of the news, essentially they read the headlines.

    I’ve acquired a taste for spanish-language pop for when I listen to the radio in the car, but that’s just me.

  16. OTOH, traffic every ten minutes is useful if you have flexibility in choosing how you’re going somewhere. It’s cute in a way that Bavarian radio gives you traffic info for the whole state, but it’s not very helpful that they do it every half hour. The only thing that’s accurate in that time frame are the 20+ km jams that you probably can’t avoid anyway.

    And a week of prime-time Bavarian Television should cure anyone of the idea that tax-supported media are inherently superior. Schlager rots the brain.

  17. There are at least two god things the Bavarian State Television (Bayrischer Rundfunk) does: They replay these wonderful Bob Ross Joy of Painting Series and they’ve got an entertaining night programm called spacenight.

    But else? ?Schlager rots the brain.? Oh yes!

  18. Markku, you ignorant slut: Scott wasn’t talking about the whole American white working class. Just drunken rednecks in pickup trucks. If that’s what you think that the American working class is, you’re the bigot.

    Yeah, I know, don’t feed the trolls.

  19. Doug,
    The Traffic portion is kinda wasted on me as I walk to the train to get downtown, but for quite a few people it’s the most important part of the broadcast.
    While it’s nothing like a sunday evening heading back into Paris, we do have a significant traffic congestion problem.
    My point was rather, the news that does fit between Traffic, Weather, and commercials…is very superficial.

    Zizka,
    Markku is a New Jersey denizen, I believe, and thus very far from RedNeck Territory. He is not so much standing up to ‘Eurosnobs’ on behalf of RedNecks as grousing about anyone poaching on his turf.

  20. “you ignorant slut” Doubtlessly, Zizka, you are exercising your superior European tact.

    But let me ask you this: why is it alright for Europeans to use a denigrating term for American laborers? I rarely hear Americans use the same kind of language for, say, French farmers or German construction workers.

    Let me put it this way: for a European to use the word “redneck” in describing an American – even though Americans use the word amongst themselves – is akin to white Americans using the word “nigger”, even though that is quite popular now with young African-Americans. Yet I see “redneck” being used all the time in European media to describe Americans en masse.

    Patrick: I actually have some American-born relatives living in “Redneck Territory” who work as laborers, and yes, one of them does drive a pick-up truck (though I certainly hope not while drunk).

    But you should be careful in understanding European attitudes towards America. Things will not change even if we have a Democratic president in the White House, or a drastic change in American foreign policy to your liking. European anti-American bigotry will still be there, simply because Europeans cannot countenance American success in fields they’ve been told they naturally excel in.

  21. Zizka, when they’re in New Jersey, they’re called “pineys”. Some historical reason, I dunno why. Markku doesn’t strike me as a piney – I suspect he’s some suburban beigeist for whom the defense of the American working class doesn’t extend to little things like medical insurance or job security. The primary cause of my unhappiness on this trip is the degree to which many of the people Markku thinks he’s defending live far worse than, say, the long term unemployed in Europe. But that’s not the kind of thing Markku is likely to understand.

    When did “redneck” become a term for designating the American working class? “Redneck” used to mean semi-agrarian and ignorant. I know lots of Americans who work very hard for very little money and except for the ones who actually work in agriculture, very few of them have pick-up trucks. They cost too much unless you actually need them for something. Frankly, all the drunk pick-up truck driving rednecks that I know don’t work much at all.

    Markku, I’ve never heard a European use the word “redneck” – even the ones who are genuinely anti-American. Maybe the Brits are different, but I don’t think most people on the continent even know the word. I grew up in the States. I’ve spent more than half of my life in the USA, so calling me “Eurotrash” is about as on target as calling George Bush a “spic” just because he’s from Texas. I’ll respond to “honky”, “gringo”, “iceback”, “wasp”, “mallrat”… heck, be creative. But when you do ethnic slurs, it helps to at least aim accurately.

  22. “Red Neck”,
    for those of you that may not know refers to a farmer’s tan…the sunburn that otherwise-white men get when they work outside in the sun with their clothes on.
    As such, actual ‘Red Necks’ are really an endangered species as agrarian America has been steadily shrinking for over a century despite heapfuls of subsidies,…much like in Europe, actually, and for largely the same reasons.

    The remaining ‘Red Necks’ tend to be the most conservative and stubborn. True Red Neck ‘family’ farmers have to work like slaves for not much economic reward. The farm is typically the second job, nowadays. And in their dwindling, moribund towns, there’s not much else to do besides drinking.
    I seem to recall that Red Necks whose farms have failed have been a major source of ‘white’ Urban Poverty. Yes, they have pickups, but a lot of them are functional antiques held together with bail wire.

    Nonetheless, a lot of non-Red Necks identify themselves as Red Necks, because it’s a vicarious link to a more romantic (as long as you don’t have to live it) cultural identity more appealing than that available in suburban bedroom communities. For an example of this, see the resurgent popularity of country music, or listen to early John (Cougar) Mellencamp songs. (‘I was born in a small town, and I’ll die in a small town…’ likely not).

  23. Scott: though you’ve might have lived in the US for a long time, your opinions certainly come pre-packaged as those of an anti-American European. It beats me why you would extol the European welfare state as superior to the American way of life, inasmuch as the European welfare states are completely dependent on the buying power of the very same American worker-consumers you actually sympathize with. Hasn’t it finally occurred to you that if American workers had the same social protections Europeans do, the welfare states of Europe would become untenable? How long would America’s foray into welfarism last, given the worldwide recession – if not depression – that would result, should the American worker be taxed at the level of the European?

    Just like you, I’d like to see the American working poor thrive. But it must be done in a way that does not freeload off of other economies in the manner the European welfare economy does. How that could be accomplished is still quite a debatable topic, but the employment of free-market principles certainly seems to be part of the equation.

    In any case, while your professed concern for the American poor might be genuine, you bring nothing to the table in terms of new ideas on how to achieve solutions without resorting to the exploitative practices of the welfare state. Your assumption that the welfare state is superior fundamentally speaks of European arrogance, since Europeans continuously fail to acknowledge the full significance of America’s continuing trade deficit vis-a-vis Europe.

    My apologies, though, for descending to name-calling. I actually come in constant contact with western Europeans here in New York, and their continual arrogance, – and ignorance of economic realities – is just astounding (in fact, Eurotrash is a word I think New Yorkers invented). And I do see the word “redneck” thrown about, not just by them, but also by European media, especially in Scandinavia, where they seem to employ it with glee.

    The one exception seems to be Eastern Europeans, especially Poles. As it happens, I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of Polish immigrants. Never have I met a more likable bunch of Europeans, all of whom are actually grateful for being in America, rather than glomming off of America as much as they can. Perhaps their experience with hard living and working conditions makes them less susceptible to passing judgment on the American people in a manner all so easy for western Europeans.

  24. Markku,
    The European welfare systems, by and large, are superior to the U.S. welfare system, by any objective measure.
    That’s not an attack on the American way of life. Whether one cultures ‘way of life’ is superior to another is a futile, and pointless discussion.
    But the Rednecks way of life is almost on the fringe of the american way of life, these days.

  25. I’m an American who grew up in a small midwestern town. In my home town rednecks were the guys who beat up on the local hippies. Not necessarily poor, or farmers either. The word has quite a bit of scope. To me, it’s a kind of person I don’t like much who doesn’t like me either. The ones I run into are pretty free with the ethnic slurs themselves and, except in fake PC or anti-PC formal occasion, I use the term when warrented.

    Well said, Scott, you Screech-drinking Newfie you. (Newfies all look alike to me).

  26. As a term of disparagement for those near the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, it’ applied more broadly than to just farmers…

    Because it’s more polite (or rather, less provocative) than using the more acurate term ‘White Trash’.

  27. I’m not sure it even means “poor”. To me a redneck is white, probably rural, not necessarily Southern, socially conservative, probably racist, and violent. He probably can’t be rich but he by no means has to be poor.

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