The United States I left thirty-five years ago is not the same country to which I have returned. It has changed in profound ways. To me it is a new country, a foreign country to which I have to acclimatize myself as if for the first time.
I arrived late at night at San Diego airport. A friend of one of my sons was supposed to pick me up. I imagined that once through security I would change some euros into dollars, buy a phone card, and then call. However, when I arrived it was so late that most of the airport shops were shut down, as was the money-changing booth. I had not a dollar on me. The information booth was empty, as was the police booth. I wandered around hoping to stumble upon my son’s friend, although neither of us knew what the other looked like. He had passed hell week and was training as a Navy SEAL, so I supposed he would appear fit and vigorous, but that was not much to go on. I supposed he would be searching for me as well, but in an airport most of the people there are searching for someone else, so that wasn’t much help either. The only well-lit place I found was the USO office, and so since my son and his friend were in the Navy I took a chance that they would let me use their phone and wandered in. Not only did the woman behind the desk place the call for me, she thanked me for my son’s service.
This, in fact, happened to me this morning as well, when I entered a bank asking for information. The manager, upon hearing that my son was a SEAL, said, “Thank you for his service.” It could be that San Diego, with its large military presence, is more attuned to its personnel, but it struck me that there is an attitude of respect that was not present thirty-five years ago. Back then the Vietnam War had just ended and both military and civilians wanted to forget about it, get it out of their minds, go on to something else.
While cruising through the dark streets with my son’s friend I expostulated upon some of the differences between Greece and the States – specifically, because I was searching for something to eat, about the closing hours of shops. In Greece, by law, almost all shops must close by nine at night. You will find no supermarkets or other retail stores open past that hour. In contrast, in the US you can find something open almost any hour of the day or night if you look around a bit. It’s curious, really, because Greeks are such night creatures, especially in summer, but it has to do with antiquated customs related to religion which have carried on into the commercial sector. In the US commerce comes first and religion does not enter the same picture at all; religion is on another page, another channel.
In the morning I explored this new land. It looked different, smelled different. It disoriented me, but at the same time I felt safe and at peace. Pacific Beach in San Diego is a very popular tourist attraction and night spot. It is full of restaurants, cafes, hotels, tattoo parlors, and shops full of hip trinkets and garments. At that time of the morning, though, as places were just opening up, it was largely deserted. I passed people here and there and…
I noticed that Americans are polite and upfront in a way that Europeans, and especially Greeks, generally are not. Greeks are polite, yes, but they are also very reserved. They will pass you on the streets without looking at you; they will push you aside without acknowledging the indiscretion. I pass Americans on the street and they often nod and say hello. When crossing in front of each other they say excuse me. I’m just not used to such things.
And they obey traffic regulations. This, to me, is a continual shock. I am used to the every-driver-for-himself attitude of the Greeks, the speeding, the running of stop signs, the going the wrong way up one way streets, and so on, not to mention the jaywalking every which way and the casual blocking of the streets by sauntering pedestrians.
This is not to say that Americans are some sort of special saintly people; I have seen my share of weirdoes as well: people mumbling to themselves, people sauntering down the street cursing this and cursing that. When I turned on CNN – ah, that’s another long-desired luxury, news in English – the newscasters were discussing the first amendment rights of people to curse in public. This was brought on by some city passing an ordinance fining people for each expletive blurted out in suchlike manner. The consensus was that the ordinance would not withstand the definitiveness of past Supreme Court decisions. Ah, freedom. We’ve come a long way from the time when Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was condemned and banned as obscene. Now it is generally extolled as a work of literature, and folks can spout whatever they will not only on the printed page but on public streets. Yes, times have indeed changed.
Another thing I have found refreshing is the cultural diversity. Greece is very much Greek, and any other race exists in a very marginal capacity. The US is a mixed blend. Here in San Diego there is a strong Mexican influence, but it is easy to find people from many other backgrounds as well. For example, in the bank I spoke with an immigrant from India, from Mumbai, and as I have lived there as well we were able to discuss our past experiences in that city.
It will take time for me to adjust. I am still in the throes of jet-lag and culture shock. But so far I have liked what I have seen. Every nation has both good and bad attributes, the positive and the negative, that which is worthy of praise as well as the dirty ugly secrets. The US is no exception. But it is a vast multi-faceted collage worthy of further exploration.