In Search of Simplicity


Sheffield, England
November 24
QDS Carpentry & Joinery
I'm a woodworker. My goal is to build beautiful, ecological houses for the poor. Right now I'm learning, and running a small business.

JANUARY 11, 2010 12:21PM

Observations From an Englishman in California

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I recently enjoyed spending time away with my wife's family in California. We left England 2 weeks before Christmas, on the coldest day I could remember, at -7 Celsius. A week into the new year, having enjoyed our stay but ready to return home, well, we couldn't return because British Airways staff had been unable to de-ice our plane in time so it was still stuck in Heathrow!

The snow cloud had a silver lining - 2 nights at a nice hotel in San Francisco courtesy of BA, until they could book us on another flight. Spontaneous, luxurious and all expenses paid, the best kind of holiday! It also afforded me a time outside of time to do some thinking.

I thought I'd share some of my observations from this visit to America. The subjective insights of an English, Christian, not particularly political carpenter. Some are mundane, some topical, in no particular order:

Everything is bigger in America. The bottles of milk, the fridge, the tubs of nuts from Trader Joes, the cars, the houses, the streets, the ads, the stores, the portions etc etc. To the extent that I lost all sense of scale and when we were comparing the size and layout of our sister-in-law's house to our new house in Sheffield, we somehow thought it was a similar size. Only to come back and realise how very much smaller all the rooms are over here. Big enough though!

The unprecedented cold and snow crippling Europe and other parts of the world went practically unreported (I was watching CNN and reading USA Today while at the hotel). This seemed to confirm my wife's past comments, from growing up there, that the rest of the world doesn't really exist except to the extent that it impinges on American interests.

(A big and unfair generalisation! Expect more of these.)

Woodworking seems a lot more advanced than in Britain, both among professionals and hobbyists, and my guess is this has at least 3 reasons: Houses are most commonly built in timber (as opposed to brick or stone in Britain). Everything being bigger and most people having cars, more people have large garages which can double as workshop space. Hobbyists typically have more disposable income (?).

The healthcare system, or lack of, comes as a shock to me after taking for granted our 'free' National Health Service. My mother in law's insurance payments are $700 per month. $700 every month! And the idea that those who don't have insurance may simply be denied treatment is also hard for me to get my head around. On the flip side, it was somewhat easier to get seen straight away (at a Med7 centre) for my flu symptoms, than it is to get an appointment at my local overstretched doctor's surgery in the downmkarket part of Sheffield where we live. Thank goodness I had medical insurance. $249 just to get looked at and also have my ears syringed.

As a side note, I have now had my ears cleared of wax build up in 3 separate countries - England, Romania, and the USA so I have a rare insight into 3 completely different methods. (I told you some of this stuff would be mundane). In England they use a relatively high-tech machine - you plug it in, put water in it, stick the attached implement into the ear, and a stuttering jet of water is forced in. In America they use a spray pump bottle (the sort that kitchen disinfectant comes in) with a tube attached, and wear out their forearm muscles. Surprisingly low tech. In Romania they use a terrifying large metal syringe.

There seems to be a more distinct political divide in America than in England - but maybe this is just the people I happen to know in each country. Having no affiliation either way, I was surprised at some of the seemingly unthinking loyalties - mostly on the Republican side - and the corresponding paranoia and demonisation of the opposite side. For example I was surprised at my Republican relatives' total negativity to the idea of reforming the healthcare system. Also I heard of churches creating a climate of peer pressure to vote Republican, for example through jokes along the lines that 'of course you wouldn't vote democrat!'

The majority of people, in any country, don't have the time to look very deeply into political matters so are very susceptible to the opinions of those they respect. It is sad to me that Republicanism is often synonymous with Christianity when so many of their values are far apart. The reason seems to be that one BIG issue corresponds - respect for the life of unborn children. On this I agree, but why does it blind people to the immorality elsewhere in typically Republican values, and make them suspect evil intentions in any initiative from Obama?

My new year's resolution being to GET MY LIFE IN ORDER, I went to Staples to find a good organiser/diary (paper not electronic). On this Americans seem to excel, the range and variety was superb, with various clever layouts to help get a handle on your time management, and inspirational and practical quotes at the front. This was one aspect of the indefinable feeling in the air that America is (or was before the recession) a fertile ground for new business entrepreneurs. This comes with a generally more consumerist feeling - big colourful signs to shops, rampant advertising on TV, it's somehow exciting at first - the land of opportunity - but draining and distracting in the end.

TV ads are a lot more patronising than the obtuse artistic ones we have in Britain, and I found the ones for medicines particularly hilarious (slash disturbing). Shiny happy people telling me how wonderful this new drug is, then seemlessly and in the same cheery manner, telling me that there is a high chance of severe side effects, I may die, or if the erection lasts more than 4 hours there may be irreparable damage.

What worried me is how easy I found it to let the sunniness of the presentation lull me into ignoring the reality of the consequences.

I enjoyed visiting, but by the end I was ready to return to cold dark Britain.

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Some of your generalizations are not unfair -- to most Americans the world does not exist beyond their neighborhood. It would be interesting to see the data on US vs UK citizens who have visited a foreign country, who can speak (even poorly) a foreign language, etc.