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Hi Lexi,

You touch on a great point regarding identity. I, too, had people asking me months before I came back to the States what I was going to do once I returned. I found it hard to answer because I didn’t have an answer. I know I want to live, and live passionately. I’m searching for my next opportunity to do that and I’m thankful I have a degree that will allow me to lead life with my heart. And I can only hope that I can be as happy as the Scottish grocery clerk you speak of.

In my transition back to living in Montana I’m realizing more and more that we are minorities. Especially in our big, low population, state. We’ve spent continuous months traveling the world and having cultural experiences. While I consider us lucky to be a minority in this situation I also find it difficult at times. We can turn to few friends to reminisce about long train journeys, flight delays in foreign countries, or trying to order a meal in a city where the only words you can say in their language are ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

In my twelve months of living in Switzerland I averaged more than one country every month. I’ve walked many historic streets and had much time to wander. I’ve developed into the type of traveler who would rather walk the streets of a new place to find cities best-kept secrets instead of riding the metro from point A to B. I have put in countless steps in some of the most beautiful places in the World. I once stumbled upon a park in Brussels that a local had never heard about. I sat in a restaurant in Rome over the Christmas holiday for three hours talking to the owners while drinking house wine. And I’ve walked the streets of Istanbul where suicide bombs went off just weeks before.

I’m overwhelmed. When I see people I haven’t seen or talked to in a year and they ask questions like “How was it?” How do I answer that? It was great! It was humbling. It was the best year of my life. Travel, experience it yourself! I want to share, but not too much. These memories are intimate and sharing too much feels like I’m giving my heart away. And then there are people’s reactions to what I share. Fear, awe, amazement, shock. To me, my adventures seem so normal so I’m finding it hard to grasp when people have such exaggerated responses.

The things I’ve learned are really important to me. I’ve learned to not take convenience for granted. Grocery stores being open all night, shopping on Sundays, and owning a car. These are things considered normal in our country and when I first moved to Switzerland I found it odd to not have these things. Now I find it weird to be able to shop on Sundays, grocery stores being open 24/7, and I miss my nine-minute train into Zürich. My thought-process is different now, I think differently. How do I take my newly wired mind and adapt to what used to be my normal?

I was telling my mom and her friend the story of terrorism causing me to have to cancel my flight from Prague to Zürich because of a layover in Brussels just five days after the airport bombing. While speaking about this I was reminded of something. These journeys and experiences made us brave, courageous, strong, fearless, and strong-willed. And whatever obstacles we face in our hometown, state, or country we can take on. I know we can because we’ve conquered other things with more barriers than I could speak to. We’ve got this.

I hope you enjoy those long talks with your dogs and I wish you luck in answering the “what’s next” question. Enjoy these moments.

All my best,

~Vanessa

Black And Blue

Dear Vanessa,

Returning to the United States has been harder than I imagined. I feel a bit like Frodo did when he returned to the Shire after his adventures in the wider world; how do I simply go back?

I was out of the country for almost a full year, and it turns out that it was the perfect amount of time in which to forget the all-consuming question that drives American culture: What next?
I met a woman in a pub in Ireland in June, and one of the first things she said to me was, “So you must have a job waiting for you back home.” The moment my rather baffled, “No” hit her brain, her eyebrows vanished into her hairline, and I was forcibly reminded that American culture is truly driven by title and worth. I need to know what you do for a living so that I know where you rank in relation to me. Are you better than me? Do you make more money? Do I want fries with that?

The real problem is that I have no clue what happens next, and that makes people uncomfortable. I have big dreams that involve finding a career with a multinational corporation, or starting a company based in sustainability. I also have small dreams that revolve mostly around my garden and long walks with my dog.

During my travels, I met the happiest man in the world. He is a grocery clerk in a tiny shop in the Scottish Highlands, and he’s happy as a bird with a french fry. His job had no glamour whatsoever. In fact, every job I’ve had for the last 14 years would be considered more glamorous than his, but I have not once been that happy while on the clock.

The day after my husband proposed to me the question was, “When is the wedding?” and immediately after (actually during) the wedding I heard, “When can we expect babies?”

Now, after a year of extremely exhausting and emotionally fulfilling work overseas, the most important thing anyone can think to ask is, “What are you going to do for work?”

I spent a year with my hands in the dirt, learning to dig and sort potatoes, harvesting seaweed from the Arctic Ocean, milking cows in Ireland, building rock walls in Scotland, running a table-saw in England. I learned that the value of work is not in the station or position, but in the satisfaction at the end of the day. Seeing an important job description on my Facebook page was nothing compared to the joy of scraping dirt and horse shit out from under my fingernails, all the while knowing that one more carrot field would survive the winter because of my work. I spent a year changing the way I viewed work and status, and coming back to a culture that needs to know where I fit in the pecking order of society has been overwhelming.

I know that my frustrated rants alone won’t go far in changing America, just look at Bernie Sanders. For now, I suppose I’ll just have to find an answer to the “what next” question.
I’ll have a baby when I’m sure nothing else good can happen in my life- thank you Mike Birbiglia for that line- and I’m planning on finding a job that makes me as happy as a Scottish grocery clerk.

Hope you’re well,

-Lexi

P.S. – Where are you working now?

Live and Learn

Dan,

It fascinates me how much the people of this country differ as you travel across it. The world feels simpler in a city filled with so many like minded individuals, but it wasn’t so long ago that we both lived in a state that varied so extremely with each road trip you took through it. Even the people we know from childhood differ so completely; contrasting career paths, life choices and beliefs.

You talked of the memories of our country, how they hold us together when it seems like so much is able to fall apart. I look at what our generation has gone through alone and I have to agree. For as much crap as “millennials” receive for our flakiness and dependency on social media I would say we have also suffered some serious blows in our short lifetime.

When we were in middle school the world felt simple, our lives were planned out for several years and most of us weren’t wanting for much. The idea of adulthood was a distant threat and the biggest fear was often which color backpack to get for the first day of school. Then we were hit with a harsh reality, the world was not as safe as we previously imagined. People could be shot, buildings could fall and bombs could go off.

In our current reality, chaos feels like the new normal but in the days of our childhood the world seemed to be filled with fewer jagged edges. For years after it felt like our generation was playing catch-up, like an excelled learning course for why the world wasn’t fair. And then we found ourselves becoming adults, and we were all unified by being so suddenly on our own.

Politics aside, when Obama was elected President I feel a lot of our generation felt hope again. We needed something to believe in and something about that election felt like things were getting better, the country was becoming whole again. The future felt less exhausting even if it was all in our heads.

Our generation is so different but often so passionate, we don’t always agree on what the best path to take is but we don’t wish to repeat some of the history we all lived through. We want something better, something stronger. What makes us a tribe is our need to prove that we can learn from our mistakes and be part of something we can feel proud of.

Hopeful,

Adair

I’ve Heard That Song Before

Adair,

Life has taken me around to a few places. I’ve been lucky enough to travel abroad a time or two and to live in a few different places. At twenty six, I’m no Jacque Cousteau or Gary Johnson, but I’ve traveled some. Right now I’m traveling over two thousand miles with my wife from Flathead Lake Montana back to Brooklyn with our new (to us at least) car. It’s been interesting to get from Montana to Chicago and see the sameness of parts of the country and the vast differences. The distances, the geologies, the accents, the industries, and the politics: all of it changes or stays the same even from county to county. And I’m barely halfway back right now.

This constant ebb and flow of landscapes and peoples has got me wondering about what galvanizes us together as a people. What do Americans have in common with each other? Do we have a binding agent, a glue that keeps us as one, or are we distinct regional tribes all floating on distant islands? A couple of poets once said that “everything is an island.” But does this include people and especially Americans?

If we look to religion, politics, ethnic heritage, or taste in Television you would have a hard time finding a binder that holds us all together like preschoolers crossing the street. From before Columbus or the Vikings before him, to when the first people crossed the land bridge into this part of the world, things have been different in some regards. Even our government, the laws of which we live under, is not a unifying factor. When rights are applied to some and kept from others, when the constitution is political chessboard rather than a statement that can be changed as needed, when the law is enforced or not based on class or race, we have no governing body that unites. We have a government that rules as it sees fit.

It would seem then, that America as a rule has no one people or idea that keeps it whole. So how are we still here?

Some would say that we aren’t. They would have you believe that this is a new state of chaos and the plight of modern times. Others would tell you that we are closer than ever to realizing the dream of unity, but those they push aside for not being unifying enough would beg to differ.

I think the truth is that we are both whole and broken. Because the only thing that makes America, America is our experience of her. It’s the shared memories of our people as a people.

Those of us who saw the moon landing were forever changed. It is a moment of public memory that changed everything. Some dreamed of flight school and the chance to see new worlds, others began writing of the perils and heroism of far off imagined worlds, and some spent their lives trying to prove that footage was directed by Stanley Kubrick.

We all remember 9/11 differently, but we all remember it. Some are still shaken by the horror of those who jumped to their deaths, others share pictures of a melted metal online and demand more answers. We all remember, and though our lives and experiences lead us to see different things that day, and to remember different things, we share in the experience of having seen it.

This is what makes America whole. We either see greatness or sorrow or a mix of both in wars, monuments, politicians, and American Idol results. We are a tribe of many tribes, but we have all seen the same story. Some parts are well told incorrectly, others hidden from view for their harsh truths, but the biggest moments were felt by all. How we saw them and what they did to us varied wildly. But our shared and varied memories makes us a country. More than that, they make us America.

Taking a moment to remember,

-Dan