Yes, another blog post in English! Because it’s about the US and because I just kind of like, felt like it. (Americans still use ‘like’ a lot!) The long silence here partly has to do with the eighth book by Simon Beckett I translated, for which I had a bit of a tight deadline, but mostly with the war in Ukraine. It felt stupid to be writing about petty navel-gazing issues when all that was going on. And yes, unfortunately it’s still going on. But then we even went to the U.S., a trip we planned in October 2021, to combine Martin’s research with pleasure.
I will not go into my vliegschaamte (shame of flying, from the Swedish flygskam). Nor into the stress of having to fill out quite incomprehensible CDC-documents for entry to the U.S. (My badly printed, purple ink documents ended up being tossed into a sort of bucket before boarding.) And besides the packing stress I also had to go to a commercial covid test site on the same day as the flight, which felt like kind of a scam because of the way the person barely managed to swab the inside of one nostril for like one millisecond. Plus having to also upload that negative result in time for the flight, which I then almost missed anyway because of the, indeed, horrific lines at Schiphol. (The worst was the lack of communication and no idea whatsoever if you were going to make the flight, while standing in a Disneyland zigzag queue for hours and having to listen to conversations of hungover British tourists.)
What I do want to write about however, probably in more than one blog post, are my impressions of the U.S., a country where I once lived and that I’ve visited often, but not in the past ten years or so. Context & disclaimer: we were in New York City for quite a while, in a shared Airbnb in Queens (great discovery, I would advise anyone to not stay in Manhattan) and then we rented a hippie van and toured through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks. Everything I write here is of course my completely subjective opinion, doesn’t count for all Americans and is probably primarily influenced by the look of the van and its Californian license plate. And it led to a lot of chitchat.
Like the lady at the first toll booth about fifteen minutes after picking it up in New Jersey, while we were still dealing with the stress of driving and finding the right freeway: “Cool van you’ve got there, sir.” One of the mandatory registration questions at campsites was: “What color is your vehicle?” (And no, colorful was not one of the choices in the pull-down menu.) Or the fisherman from Pennsylvania, who was camping there with his buddies because of striper season – which explained the three buckets of fish waste next to the other garbage and recycling bins – who sauntered over one evening. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but what does the other side of your van say; we did figure out the Escape.” (Answer: Love. And Escape was also the name of the rental company.) The next question would invariably be: “Are you guys really from California?” We would usually answer: “No, Europe.” Etc, etc. With one guy at a gas station, someone who blamed Biden for the high gas prices by the way, replying: “Whut?! What the hell are you doing in Johnstown?!” And no, Johnstown was not exactly a place that would make it into the Lonely Planet. It would make good newspaper article material about rural, right-wing, impoverished America though.
What struck me most, and is something I really want to remember and try to keep in mind in everyday life here, is how friendly and open most people are. From the lady who spontaneously started giving us coffee advice in the Walmart (unfortunately it turned out she had a different palate than us) to a man at a random fruit stall, who when he saw me losing some tissues due to clumsiness and the wind, rushed over to give me new ones. Or the man on our last morning, Memorial Day, sitting there with his very cuddly dog in an empty Industry City. (For people who know the old Fenix Food Factory in Rotterdam: this was even better, plus it was fascinating to see the similar gentrification in this Brooklyn neighborhood.) We talked briefly and when we said we were disappointed the coffee bar was closed (a place with velvet sofas and a bicycle on the ceiling), he told us: “Hey, I normally wouldn’t recommend going to Dunkin’ Donuts, but when you’re in need of coffee…” (More on this in a later blog post.) Or the very nice waiter who wanted to go to Amsterdam because we have mushrooms and CBD. The first time I saw a public notice in the subway about using CBD wisely, I was quite surprised. And yes, we did see several places where you can buy it, but it’s not like they ask you what kind of THC you’d like added to your coffee. (I think I remember hearing about that years ago.) But I thought it was weird and worrisome enough that McDonald’s standard question was what flavor, i.e. syrup, you wanted in your latte or cappuccino.
I had really forgotten about that side of America and how much nicer everyday life becomes when people you interact with in stores and on the street are just basically friendly. And mind you, this is NYC, where half of the people still wear face masks outside and you might expect people to be less tolerant about, hmm, maybe all those tourists who don’t walk in NYC-tempo or suddenly stop and gaze up and take pictures all the time.
When you read the papers in Holland it’s easy to see America as one big cesspool of gun owners and partisan politics. And yes, we did talk to Trump voters, like the man dressed in an Army shirt who told us you really can’t walk around downtown Albany without a gun. We had noticed it was very run-down, and the terrible thunder storm that hit us while all the bars were either seedy or closed, didn’t help. Unfortunately we didn’t discover the much nicer studenty area until later, when driving through. Another reminder to Europeans that walking in American cities is sometimes not the smartest thing to do. There were also more homeless people than in New York. (Does the latter have some kind of policy to hide homelessness, I wondered.) Apparently the we’re hiring-signs everywhere was because of the ‘free money’ the state was giving out during the pandemic, said Army Man. His daughter even worked for that department in dangerous downtime Albany (the official capital of the state, by the way). I didn’t dare ask him what her opinion was on this. He was really friendly though and invited us over for dinner by the fire later that evening.
Speaking of building fires, camping in New York state is something that merits its own blog post. From black bear warnings to American flags, and from hygiene behavior to “bring your own ax for chopping firewood but no firearms allowed”… It was quite an experience.