A Journey of Long Conversations: Chapter 2

My summer of wonderful connections with strangers began as soon as I stepped on the airplane in Boston. While I was putting my bag in the overhead compartment, a man asked if he could slide into his seat. I told him I was sitting just on the inside from him, and somehow, from there, began a conversation that lasted for the remainder of the six-hour flight. My new friend (whose name I’ll include once I ask him about this blog), was an air traffic controller from the south coast of England, who had grown up in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. In the course of the six hours we spent together, we ended up about talking about almost everything I knew about, for I wouldn’t venture to say that my off-hand knowledge lasts much more than six-hours, read end-to-end.

There were a couple chapters of our conversation, and his story, that stood out to me particularly. I’ll focus on one. He had a tremendous fascination with American culture. He talked about how, ever since he was a kid, he’d always loved everything American: American TV, American music, the scenes of suburban American life—all of it. “Such a great country,” he kept saying. In past twenty years he’d been to America tens of times, most of them just to explore. The one instance that really stood out to me was his description of driving into Laramie, Wyoming. He’d flown into Denver with his wife, planning to drive straight to Yellowstone. They drove over a hill into Laramie and “everything was perfect”— the wide prairie, the main strip mall, the row of old Western bars. His favorite part was the motel they stayed at: the kind you drive into, with all the rooms arranged in a U of two floors facing the parking lot.

I kept asking him about the motel, what made it so exceptional? He just kept describing a classic, cheap motel, the kind found in every little town in America. What I realized was that was amazing for him was the sheer normalness of it. It was exactly what he’d seen in the movies—this emblem of drive-through American culture that was completely alien to children in a remote Scottish village.

To me, drive-through motels and strip-malls are the truest physical manifestations of the flaws in American culture, bringing our rushed, aesthetically blind attitudes into the architecture of our cities. But with all their negative reflections upon Americans, strip-malls are the representatives of America, the urban landscape that holds within it every aspect of living in the United States—the carefree, easy going cruising around all night, just as much as the stressed out munching of big macs on the way to the beginning of a twelve hour shift at a weapons manufacturer.

When I arrived in Cambridge, UK, the next day, I was struck my the same romance of seeing a culture in its purest representation. With its winding diagon-alley-esque streets, ancient Cathedrals, cows meandering about flourishing meadows, and tiny medieval homes packed tightly together on the edge of the countryside, Cambridge the shockingly perfect representation of my idealized conception of Britain. And for me that was everything you could want out of a city (lacking a few mountains, maybe): walkability, history, natural beauty, and immediate access to the forest (ok, mostly farms in the UK). Yet for someone else those narrow lanes and cows wandering about could mean conservatism, refusal to change, claustrophobia, boredom.

There’s no radical conclusion I’ve drawn here—beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose. The grass is always greener, perhaps? But it was illuminating to see someone valorize the humdrum stuff of American life that I’ve always found to be our worst assets (other Europeans I’ve met have agreed with me on this point). I think it’s very easy to create myths about other cultures, myths that can be easily construed as true. Rather than trying to deconstruct each myth and expose daily life for the banalities that populate it everywhere, I think we’d be better off if we recognized the cultural myths that circulate, and attempted to rehabilitate the beauty that exists between mythologization and everyday disillusionment.

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