Before I left Madrid this past June, you had sent me a correspondence which had this as its final paragraph:
Please write. Write sometime and tell me things about your crazy country, full of enormous highways, tall cities, weird people, strange drinks (like Dr.Pepper, the most disgusting drink ever made after cicuta, I guess), blonde girls, cute dogs, creepy perfect neighbourhoods [sic], great writers, great musicians, great…and a long etcetera of lights and shadows of that hard to understand country you come from.
That’s quite poetic L, right there at the end with the lights and shadows etceterrata. You must be something of a writer yourself and-being Spanish-you write quite well in English. I know because I try to write in Spanish and it is widely considered to be the final and most difficult faculty to master in any second language.
Tomorrow I return to your country.
I’ve kept a numbered list of things that have caught my attention over the past 10 weeks.
Many of these things have occurred over the past five years since I’ve been gone so what I’m observing are not necessarily changes that have occurred overnight.
I hope this suffices to recap my summer sojourn back in Freedomland**.
This country is so jam-packed full of flags, it’s alarming.
I relate this because your country is virtually flag free compared to the US.
Many other countries I’ve visited don’t seem to have this flag fetish.
After 911, the flag industry raked in so much cash over the course of several years that even the steady descent into widespread unpopularity that the president has experienced hasn’t even really affected their presence.
I offer a personal example: My mom spent around 1000 dollars erecting a flagpole replete with a brand new red-white-and-blue flag atop and the accompanying lights.
Some say freedom isn’t free; I agree, it–or at least the symbol of it–appears to cost about a grand.
I took pictures whenever I could over a 10 week period.
Without even really trying, I took over 50 photos.
My assumption is this: Many US citizens feel that the USA is–without question–the best goddamn country on earth, and in order to announce their pride to every other citizen they see, they pump flags like fists at rock concerts.
I read once that given your country’s history of dictators and royal tyrants, Spanish people inherently despise and distrust any institution that governs their lives.
So showing national pride isn’t something you want to do that readily.
Maybe in a few decades (if we’re all still collectively kicking), when America’s self-asserted world dominance in the world has been weakened, its citizens won’t be so quick to sport flags that to many in the world mean the complete opposite to what they mean to US citizens.
(If you don’t understand what the above statement means L–and I assume you probably already do– read a little bit of Noam Chomsky, peruse Zmag.org or even just listen to any Rage Against the Machine song.)
2. Automatically foaming soap.
(I call it autofoap or even just foap.) All over this land in both the public and private spaces I visited, autofoap has taken the US by storm (por huevos).
Somewhere in the course of the past five years (most acutely in the past two or three) regular liquid hand soap was replaced with autofoap. Apparently, it removes the burden caused by non-foaming soap.
I wonder what this means, if anything.
It could mean we’ve reached new levels of laziness or that the general public was extremely jaded on the old liquid hand soap, so much so that this subtle and clever move has us entranced. Will the US ever go back to non-foaming hand soap or is this foap here to stay?
A good question.
What’s next, L?
Water bottles that automatically unscrew their lids, crawl up your arm and pour their contents down your throat for you?
3. Coca Cola with vitamins. This is actually somewhat of a spin off caused by Red Bull’s steam-rolling of the energy drink market. When I was here a few years ago, I remember there being the normal variety of soft drinks along with Pepsi and Coca-cola drinking waters. Now there is virtually no end to what’s on offer.
Actually, that’s not true: There are two kinds offered. One offers vitamins and minerals and one offers only antioxidants. Of course the vitamins are rather sparse (only 25% of the daily recommended value of B6 and B12 and niacin – what the hell is niacin anyway?). The other one is mixed with green tea. Now if they could only find a way to fit a burrito in these cans, I’d consume them like Spaniards do olive oil and cigarettes.
4. Pharmacies have overtaken the corners of many cities throughout the Midwest (and presumably the rest of the nation).
Farmacias in Spain are everywhere as well, but they seem to only sell drugs that are purport to improving health or allaying pain.
Pharmacies in the US have a small back corner section where you can fill your prescriptions and a capacious mini-supermarket design of row after row of generally useless shit…
OR shit you can buy at any general store or supermarket.
When I left five years ago, these pharmacies were in existence, now they are taking over street corners all over this great land.
It’s good to know that when you’re getting low on your anti-depressants you can also pick up some stationary, cigarettes and any other last-minute school supplies.
5. On July 5th, 2008, the temperature was oppressively hellish around the mid 90s with heavy humidity.
Every public place I entered today – the library, supermarket, pharmacy and a restaurant – were all frigid.
In the restaurant, I actually looked down to find my nipples hard.
I should have brought a sweater with me in the dead of summer.
So, L, why is the temperature of American air conditioning so high, you ask? I used to think it was so people would eat or shop as quickly as possible and then get the hell out so someone else could do the same thing quickly. Maybe not. Maybe an obese population requires unusually high temperatures indoor.
This temperature extremity is alarming for a reason I wrote in my first TNB piece and which I don’t think I can restate any more clearly:
The largest source of greenhouse gases is electric power generation.
Air conditioners use around 1/6th of the electricity in the US and on doggishly hot summer days, they can use up to 43% of the peak power load.
So as the environment gets hotter, we’re going to need a lot more air conditioners to keep the indoors cool.
This will, in turn, make the outdoors even hotter.
If you love air conditioning, this is definitely the place for you.
6. 99% of Americans constantly confuse Spanish culture with Mexican culture. Stephen Colbert, famed American satirist for his hilarious fake news show The Colbert Report, devastatingly revealed his own ignorance one night (but was safe because only 1% of the country knows about this) by putting Spain on the new terror list watch.
Since Iraq and North Korea are no longer on the Axis of Evil, he said, we’re going to have to pick another country to put on it. He started reading some headlines, found that Spain extended legal rights to Apes. (This is a true story.) After lashing into the mere idea of it, he blurted out, “Taco Shells? Freedom Shells!” The crowd roared with laughter.
I mentioned this to some friends who watch him and they immediately said that he knew what he was saying and that the joke was kind of double joke, referring to US backlash against France’s rejection of supporting the US’s invasion of Iraq. It was also, they pointed out, a joke making fun of people who think taco shells come from Spain.
There is no doubt in my mind that Colbert is one smart guy. Satire at this level is rare and very welcomed. But he really didn’t seem to be making fun of people who think tacos come from Spain AND people who supported banning the word french with fries. It felt like–at least in the moment–he really thought tacos came from Spain.
And this is unsettling because it has been my experience with pretty much every other American who hasn’t been to Spain.
Currently, in pretty much every way minus the language, Spanish culture is very distinct from all countries in Latin America. This means that your people don’t eat Burritos every day because it is not Spanish cuisine; it means that you, L, or your countryfolk don’t wear Pepé Gonzalez sombreros or play mariachi music, that “Oh, no I haven’t been to Spain but I have been to Cozumel” means nothing; Tortillas are not made of flour or corn but eggs and potatoes and Jennifer Lopez only speaks Spanish, is not Spanish.
I’m not positive about this L but I think this is a cumulative effect of American’s general ignorance of world geography largely caused by their own bloated and unjustified sense of self-importance, Mexico’s adjacent placement and that the language spoken throughout all Hispanic America (i.e. all countries south of the USA minus Brazil and the French colonies) is the same language spoken in Spain. Oh yeah, it’ also used as an adjective for anything that comes from Spain, as in Spanish wine. This trifecta of reasons has even America’s foremost satirist confused.
7. American politics = Hollywood spectacle.
It’s unfortunate but true. It’s less about what you say or what you mean and mostly about image and perception.
I’m afraid we are doomed for the rest of our lives to have to endure corruption on such a widespread level.
I am very willing to lay down my keyboard, get grassroots and take up arms in front of the white house, demanding the power be given back to us, the American people.
But only if many other people are.
Do you think anyone is with me, L?
No, me either.
Let’s hurry up and wrap up this correspondence so I can get back to checking my email and sharpening my cynicism.
8.** Why I call the USA Freedomland? I call the USA Freedomland because it’s virtually impossible to listen to any of its politicians speak without overusing the word freedom. In fact, they speak in vast excesses of loaded terminology like democracy, freedom, terrorism, etc. If you check out Publicrhetoric.US, you’ll see an analysis one of Bush’s last speeches on Veterans Day. Freedom outnumbered the second most common word, security, by more than 2:1.
Freedom was used 21 times while security only reached 10.
It has become such a loaded word in the USA that it has essentially become meaningless. If all I did was listen to its political speeches, I would have to draw the conclusion that the USA invented freedom.
Not only did they invent it, but they are coveting it like Tokein’s ring.
They will let other countries have it, but only if those countries allow Starbucks and McDonalds in.
These companies are icons of freedom, or free or open (American-friendly) markets.
When I visit the USA, I don’t see freedom so much as excessiveness and apathy.
Compared to most European societies, it seems like a immature and jovial population that is dedicated firmly to its football (or sports in general), driving, working, gas, fast food, being the best, buying in bulk, celebrity worship, reality television and its disposable and iconic to-go coffee cups.
Every one has these.
Recycling is optional.
We are hellbent on freedom at all costs.
Whatever that means.
And we want to make sure that you and everyone you know is aware of this.
America, with all its faults, is at once the best and worst this world has to offer.
I highly recommend you visit someday.
All the best.