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Things I keep forgetting about the US

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New York icons in Las VegasThere are so many banal facts everyone knows about the United States, but when you’re here, you’re still taken by surprise. At least I was on this trip to America.

Of course I knew that this is a gigantic country, that the people are friendly and open and that the most of them are  focused more on what’s happening in their community than on news about the rest of the world.

But in the past ten days of traveling through the South-West of the USA, I was still often surprised, amazed and sometimes even shocked at what I’ve seen and experienced.

on the roadThe US is huge. Even though I’ve driven all across the States on previous trips, the size of the country still took me by surprise this time around.

I’d forgotten how long it takes to get from one place to another, how much open space there is in between.

Distances that look so small on the map will take hours or even days to drive. It takes twelve hours to drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas – twelve hours of deserts, small towns and a variety of nothing.

The people are friendly. Life here is pleasant because people are open and outgoing – much more so than in Europe. The constant “Hi, how are you?” and “Where are you from?” may be rhetorical questions, but they still make you feel welcome.

Other incidents, however, are better proof of how people here make life easier for one another through politeness.

hikers on a mountain top in Yosemite National ParkOn this trip, I’ve done a lot of  hiking in the national parks. Some of those hikes have been pretty strenuous, but there’s a wonderful camaraderie between the hikers.

Whenever you meet people on the trails, they’ll not only say hello, but they’ll often also start a short conversation and encourage each other. “You’ve almost made it to the top of the mountain” or “Just keep going a little further and you’ll have a great view”.

Don’t expect that kind of good natured friendliness towards strangers when you’re hiking in other parts of the world. In the Alps, hikers will almost be embarrassed by the intimacy of exchanging a quick “Grüss Gott“.

big womanThere are too many obese people in the US. The number of overweight people is shocking. I’ve seen people here, whose ankles were as big as my thighs. I’ve seen people who were so fat, they couldn’t walk anymore but had to use an electric wheelchair. I’ve seen people whom I couldn’t have gotten my arms around for a hug.

These are extremes, but there are a lot of them. In general, there are many more overweight people here than in other parts of the world. Especially young people.

Go to any jeans store and look at the sizes they offer: in the US, waist sizes of 38, 40, 42 aren’t uncommon. In Europe, the majority of the pants will have waist sizes between 28 and 36.

big deals at Burger KingThere’s too much junk food. It’s unbelievable what people eat at the fast food places. Such enormous portions. So many carbohydrates. So much sugar in the extra-large soft drinks.

But even in the better restaurants, the servings are huge. Don’t finish your plate, if you don’t want to gain weight.

The US is a place of contrast. One of the most fascinating things about this country still is that there is so much contrast and variety here. Variety in terms of the ethnic background of the people, of their views and ideas, of how screwed up or how well-educated some of them are.

visitors to the Grand CanyonBut variety also in terms of the architecture, the natural wonders, the things you can see and do.

It’s easy to understand how the people in the US can sometimes think of this place as “God’s own country”. It’s pretentious, but it’s understandable.

No matter how much you think you know about the US, some things will undoubtedly leave you surprised, amazed, awe-struck and even shocked.

It’s a place that defies description, that has to be experienced. But since it’s so diverse, you can always just experience a little part of it and hope that the more parts you’ve seen, the better you understand how everything fits together.

It all sounds so banal, but you have to see it to believe it.

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Written by Thorsten

June 10, 2009 at 7:28 pm

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