I’m kind of a sucker for the American dream. America is the land of possibilities, of glitter and glamour, of making wishes come true, of starting at the bottom and going all the way up. In America, you can be anything, and everything is beautiful and amazing.
That’s how I feel when I’m not there. And I suppose the bigger cities (LA, San Francisco, New York) do feel magical, like you’re in a movie. But it’s not all like this. Being half American, I go to the States every two or three years, to see family. And however much I love it, every time I go I’m a little disillusioned.
This year, we went to Sacramento, where my grandparents and uncle live. And although it is the capital of California, it feels like one big suburb. There is one museum, one big mall, a few cinemas—but apart from that there is very little to do. One other symptom of these suburban kinds of places is that people don’t really care about appearances—neither their own, nor of their environment. Both this lack of stimulation, and the lack of care, lead to life being very different from what you’d imagine about the Golden State.
Every Restaurant Looks The Same
There’s a reason why minimalist interiors are called Scandinavian, or even just ‘European’. If you’re in LA, it’s not hard to find a coffee place or bar with a nice look and feel to it. But the difference with Sacramento is enormous. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in a Starbucks, In-n-Out or a pizza place: the interior is always the same. But contrary to Ikea, for instance, it’s not… pretty. Imagine the most boring Sims-house you could possibly design: everything is a dirty kind of brown or beige, and yet nothing really matches. The seats are an economic mix between cheap and comfortable. The walls are a meaningless color and have some generic artwork hung on them. So European students can stop being ashamed of their 100% Ikea-furnished rooms: it’s more tasteful than at least half of the places here.
Even when arriving at the San Francisco airport, I was surprised at how un-decorated it was. I arrived in a hall with white walls, then went through the passport security which had dark-colored carpeted floors. There was no design, anywhere: nobody seemed to have tried to make it modern, or welcoming, or anything, really.
The same goes for the people. I found the epitome of who-gives-a-hoot in a man walking into Target wearing a plaid shirt, sweatpants with basketball shorts over them, socks and sandals. It’s a long way from Hollywood glamour. People dress for comfort, not display.
Family Time Is TV Time
You’ve probably seen Christmas Eve in the movies. Everyone’s wearing cute pajamas, the Christmas tree is shiny and takes up a central space in the room, people are laughing and having fun and there’s sweet Christmas music playing in the background. Christmas dinners are usually portrayed as people trying to look their best, making the table look the best, having the best time. What they don’t really tell you is how Christmas family time centers mostly around the football game. As a European, you might think: ‘Isn’t that boring for about half the family? And doesn’t watching sports mean you don’t get to talk?’ Both of those things aren’t true. Everyone loves football. (And if that’s not your sport, basketball games are also always on.) And everyone talks: mostly about what’s happening on the screen, though. And let’s not forget, of course, that America is first and foremost a capitalist nation. There’s a lot of money to be made through the commercials in between, and during, the game. Everybody is aware of this, but it hardly matters: as long as your team wins.
Black Coffee Costs More Than A Burger
I took a different flight than my parents and sister, so I had to wait at the airport a couple of hours before they arrived. I decided to get a coffee to keep myself awake after the twenty-plus hours I’d already been. It was harder than I thought: not only does a black coffee—a concept strangely unfamiliar to Americans, even though it is called an Americano—cost about five bucks, but it’s also very hard to pay for anything with a debit card. RE: capitalist. My two options are getting a credit card, or surviving on free-refill sodas and 2$ burgers and coming back shaped like a ball.
You Spend Hours In Parking Lots
One day we decided to go to Lake Tahoe to play in the snow and do some ice skating. Seeing as my uncle and aunt have three small kids, we didn’t leave until about 11 AM. The drive up there was around two and a half hours. (If we’d still been in the Netherlands, we would have left the country in this time: now we barely made it halfway across the state.) Then we had to find a parking spot. This took an hour. Americans are shockingly used to this phenomenon: you get into a parking structure, paying about 8 dollars an hour, and you already lose that amount just looking for an empty spot. In fact, it took us so long that the gondolas up the mountains—to where the snow was—had already closed. So we had to go back and find somewhere else to go. Leaving the parking lot took another hour. And in the meantime we paid about 10 dollars for not doing anything. It takes a lot of stamina, and peace of mind, to sit in a car and do nothing for hours. Americans can pride themselves on that.
Despite all of this, it’s not surprising that people thought everything was possible when they first arrived in America. Europe is a miniature place in comparison. I even found myself using the president’s favorite word (‘YUGE’) for everything I see: the nature, the cars, the drinks. It’s immense, imposing, almost impossibly so. There’s so much space. There’s so much difference, even within one state—let alone fifty. Not all that glitters is gold, and far from everything glitters. Sometimes this place will bore you or wear you out. Getting your daily cup of coffee while also having to pay rent might cause you to go bankrupt. This, too, is America. But if you can’t find opportunities here, I’m not sure where else you would be so lucky. So I do, still, have my hopes up high. Look what I’ll be whippin’ up.