Friends – old and new. And a Grumpy Young Man

My lovely wife thinks I am being very grumpy.

The good news is that she isn’t saying I am a grumpy OLD man.  It would of course be accurate to describe me as old, but, hey, I am not ready to give up yet.  I can still use that wonderful line, what is it………yes, perhaps I am as old as the woman I feel?

As I have said, the service in America is fantastic, so long as it is being delivered in the private sector.  The US Government, in its many forms, is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Two weeks ago we discovered that I needed a Colorado Driving License.  We only found this out when finally getting close to taking out a car lease.  We had eventually found a good car broker, and a Japanese car company who would finally take us on.  They were all a little bit confused when I agreed to the lease without having driven the car, but, hey, I didn’t have time.  And sorry John, I didn’t really care enough.

But then Heather discovered that I needed to have a Colorado driving license in order to register the car.  And that anyone moving to Colorado to work needed a local driving license within 30 days……and no-one had told us.  I was driving illegally.

At this point, Vrinder from our UK office had arrived to tie up his move to the US, and so off we went to the driving license centre.  We needed to take the driving test, first the theory, and then the practical.

At this stage I have to explain that I had a panic attack.  We were driving from a conference north of Denver, Vrinder driving, while I looked up the driving test.  And then I realised that I couldn’t answer the questions, they had rules, and I didn’t understand them.

So we did the 42 page Colorado driving manual on the I25 freeway from Broomfield to Littleton.  It is not ideal reading aloud from an iPhone, but you make the best of these things.  But the good news, being old, it is perhaps best to do the learning immediately before the test.

But when did I last do a test?  I was terrified.

So we took our “deli queue” ticket, and sat there for an hour.  We took the written test, although it nearly went pear shaped when the man asked Vrinder and I to stop comparing answers.  We both got 92%……high fives, big smiles.  No cheating.

And then the nice lady checked me on the immigration computer, and it all went wrong……again.

Let’s cut it short, skipping rapidly over another 2 hour wait in another US Government office  to prove I am who I am (…..a free man….).  And now I have my driving test booked, 40 years of driving, but they want to give me a test.  The 16 year olds here don’t get a real test, anyone coming in from Spain or Germany don’t get a test…….can I remember how to parallel park?  I can tell you that most Americans simply have no idea.

And that is why I am grumpy.  Well partially.

The biggest difference in our lives is the lack of friends, and a lack of a centre to the community.  We have made some good friends in America, there are some lovely people here, but it isn’t the same.   There aren’t any pubs in middle class, middle America, there is no-where to congregate.  Life is very family focussed, and in other places, very religion focussed.  Not that there is anything wrong with family, or religion, but there are no places where you pop in and happen to meet your mates.  Yes, did I say there are no pubs?

We all miss our friends, places to go, rubbish to talk about.  Just chatting.  Shared experiences.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a curious American holiday celebrating the time that the Puritans arrived in the new world, and sat do to eat with the existing residents to celebrate their new life.  And then, of course, the immigrants gave the locals diseases that killed them, and then eventually they killed the rest.  A lot to be thankful for really.

But we got invited round to our neighbours for dinner, a fantastic meal of turkey and lots of trimmings.  And then we went down the road to another house for drinks, and good laughs.  Yes, lots of friendly and funny Americans, who made us very welcome.

Not like old friends, but progress in our American Adventure…..apart from terrible queues in government offices.

It would even make young people grumpy.

An Election and other very serious issues (sorry, no jokes, this is serious)

The thing about Americans is that they are positive…….very positive.

There is a game you can play.

Almost all Americans have this strange idea that they want to ask you whether you are “doing OK”….. “having a good day”.

Try answering “well not really”.  This really throws them off base, well actually, most pretend they haven’t heard your answer.  Bizarre, why ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to?

In the world of work it can be just as apparent.  If you ask any American businessman how business is, you will always get the answer “great”.   Even if he is about to go down the toilet.

It’s cultural, this is a society very much based on politeness and positivity.  Most of middle America doesn’t understand those great English staples, cynicism and sarcasm.  And self doubt is a really problem for most Americans, they want to hear that the USA is the best country in the world, something most British people find to be very vulgar.  Americans want to feel they are in personal control.

For instance, last month huge winds struck the East coast, and the coastline around New York was devastated.  Over 100,000 people are still without electricity, many hundreds, maybe thousands are without homes.  The communities pull together as one would hope anywhere in the world, this is not just poor people, this is a fairly affluent part of the USA.  A European would look at this situation and say “what is the Government going to do about it?”

Which is one of the ways it all goes wrong in America, because most affluent middle class Americans hate Government.  They want “small government”.  For instance, Mitt Romney campaigned on stopping spending on alternative energy investments, on dismantling Government investment in such bizarre ideas as flood prevention.  30% of the population don’t believe global warming played a part in this natural catastrophe.

Yes, this week I am having a rant, sorry but the US election really got to me.

Firstly I must apologise to all American citizens, I am truly not sure I should be allowed to comment on your election.  I can’t vote in it, I have only been here 7 weeks so I am hardly qualified to comment on it.  But now it is over, perhaps some perspective can help, after all, the US just re-elected the most powerful man in the world.

As our Jake said, thank god the TV adverts are all over.  Mind you, the Xmas adverts then started, so I suspect he has changed his mind.

Political advertising has to be the most unbalanced thing you will ever see on TV.  They pour vitriol on each other in a manner that no nice polite European society would ever accept.  The issues get twisted and subverted in a very unreal manner, and the candidates just end up as caricatures in some kind of medieval pantomime.  Think Punch & Judy meets children’s playground.

Any subtlety of message, or any in depth discussion of facts is very difficult.  There is very low newspaper readership in America, and some TV channels are blatantly biased, but at least there are channels like CNN who do offer good independent coverage.  But every debate of an issue on the main channels ends with the two sides being represented in a very confrontational argument, and at the end…..where is the man from the BBC summing it all up for me?

The US system is a classic two party system, with absolutely no chance of anyone coming in to disrupt their cabal.  And the parties appear to be getting more and more polarised.  Obama got re-elected because his campaign used old fashioned methods, to get his key supporters out to vote.  This time round his key constituency was women, the young, non-whites, and the “working class” (plus some wishy washy liberals).  Many business people I have met voted for him last time, perhaps a vote for hope and change.  But lots of these people deserted him this time, worried about increasing taxes, a perceived failure in the economy, and “left wing liberalism”.

On the other side the Republicans have an impossible job of trying to represent the broadest political church the world has ever seen, incorporating billionaires, the far right, and the evangelical Christians, as well as trying to reach out to normal middle class America.

Did I mention the billionaires?  This election cost $2.5bn, what could this fortune have been better spent on?

This is the problem with the American electoral system.  The enormous machine that is the two parties creates a huge swell that glosses over the real issues.  It turns into smears, and big slogans, but at the end of it, no-one really believes the elected president will be held to account.

Because, in contrast to most democracies, the US machine appears to be about the two parties, but in reality the candidates need their party during the election, and once elected they are to some degree removed.  Now Obama is in the White House, the “most powerful man in the world”, but he has the Congress and the House to work with, one held by each party, and to get anything done the byword is compromise, or in their words, “bipartisanship”.

To the vast and diverse US population it means huge amounts of haggling and indecision while nothing is achieved.

Generally US Presidents look to their second term to create a legacy, as an outsider I would say Obama has been a different kind of president, he made his mark in the first term with Medicare.  I spend hours even now with Americans who find universal healthcare an anathema, it is too difficult for people focussed inwardly to totally embrace what most of Europe see as essential.  Big Government is seen as the province of the weak, whereas most of Europe would see Government as necessary and inevitable, particularly when Sandy shows us how nature is really in control.

Unlike most of Europe, the American economy is growing, their unemployment rate is lower (at least on paper), and things are definitely moving forward, but most Americans don’t see it as doing well enough.

I really like America.  It is a country that gets things done in a practical manner, most voting is electronic, so the result was declared before 10pm our time.  But the real challenge is what happens now.  Can Obama build the economy, manage an inevitable increase in middle class taxation, and really deliver for all of America?  Seems impossible to me.

It’s a big country, with lots of different people, this is what makes it so interesting.

Rant over…….normal service resumes next week.

The Road Trip

The family road trip, it brings back many memories.  And not all of them are good.

My mind goes back to July 1966, my parents had taken me away for a road trip, Italy, Yugoslavia, I was very lucky the way that we saw Europe, it certainly expanded my horizons.  So there we were, a late Saturday afternoon on the bridge over the Rhine in Cologne, stretching our legs, admiring the view, when I heard cheering from a car radio.  And I realised that my parents had lied to me, they had told me it was an evening kick off.  We did watch the game in the evening, in a German bar, but by then the damage was done.  I would always know where I was when England won the World Cup, no-where.

Yep, road trips are very evocative, and can create memories that last forever, good ones and bad ones.  I had sold our American adventure to the kids based on seeing the “promised land”.   But when we got the kids into American schools we realised that they get less holidays than in the UK, a week in October, two weeks at Xmas, and a week at Easter.  So the opportunities for a trip during this week, the “fall break”, was too good to be missed.

An argument ensued when it was realised we would be away during that very strange American experience, Halloween.  The families round here were going crazy, there were tombstones in the garden over the road.  Ghosts were hanging from every tree.  But we went on the road trip any way, we did it, because it was there.

Utah is the next state west of Colorado, directly over the hills, the Rocky Mountains, nearly two miles up at the highest crossing point.  This is America, so the “freeway” is straight, and after leaving the metropolitan area around Denver, there is little traffic at this time of year.  We drive past the ski slopes at Breckenridge and Vail, just 100 miles from us on the south side of Denver.  Something to look forward to there I suspect.

We stop for lunch in Georgetown, an old mining town in the hills.  Very historic, all of 100 years old, “historic”, I ask you.

It is worth mentioning at this point that eating out in America is different to anywhere in Europe.  There is just so much choice, from burgers, to steaks, to Mexican, to any Italian.  In fact, anything but Indian (or Bangladeshi) curry.  If you do visit America, don’t have a curry, they really don’t get the flavour at all, I really miss our dear friend Mr Choudhury. 

We even went to a restaurant which served burgers laced with Jam, Bacon, Peanut Butter and Cheese, a JBPBCB. 

In America, you can eat out at a different restaurant every night, and almost all of it is good.  Needless to say, the portions can be ridiculous, does anyone need to eat a 12 oz steak?  There is a huge obesity problem in America, no surprise, a large part of America eats too much. 

We went to Canyonlands and the Arches National Park, but it is a strange thing about the Parks in Utah that most of the inhabitants of Denver have never been there.  It is only a 6 hour drive, 350 miles, freeway nearly all the way, and what fantastic sights.  A 300 foot natural arch, vast canyons, and huge sandstone buttes.  In some ways not as dramatic as further down the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is 400 miles further south, past the wonderful Monument Valley.  But huge, dramatic and really very moving.

If you watch western movies, this is the habitat you will be used to.  We ended the trip at Dead Horse Point, paying homage to Thelma and Louise, dreaming of a better life as they went over the edge.

Great stuff, nothing like it in Europe, and out of season so there was almost no-one there.  Particularly no Americans, you can tell, because they always say hello, whereas the Japanese and the Europeans ignore you on the trail,

So we are back home to watch the final stages of the election, and the adverts seem unbelievably rude for us polite English folk, but more on that after it reaches a conclusion next week.    

The weather was lovely all week for us, 60 degrees and over, but nature showed who was boss on the East Coast with New Jersey and Manhattan under water with over 50 fatalities, and there are still millions still without power.  And even after this 30% of the US population still don’t believe in global warming, astounding lack of attention to reality.  Romney wants to cut all investment in new energy, to us Europeans the interest groups in US politics are very obvious.

And we got to our first football game, sorry “soccer”.  Loved it, but I really didn’t understand why after every goal the man in the “Arsenal Gunners” tent let off a huge explosion.  Very bizarre, and not reflected in a very polite game, with no diving, no poor fouls, and the few away fans mixed in with the home fans.  In fact, a completely different demographic, the majority of supporters were families with kids, at least as many girls as boys.

The two Colorado Rapids centre halves were under 5 foot 9, but Houston never put them under pressure. 

Apart from this, everything is big in America, it is hard not to be impressed by the American Dream.  Shame there aren’t any pubs though.  Image