“You don’t hear much about homelessness in America here,” Lisette, a Dutch hairdresser, tells me, still pensive and puzzled.
Just like my parents — who have traveled to the US many times — Lisette cannot reconcile America’s fictional self with who the country is. She tells me she was shocked about how many people were on the street in New York City when she visited. So I tell her about Seattle but I don’t tell her about what happens to homeless folks when they die. My stepmom, meanwhile, experienced such a profound culture shock in Louisiana two decades ago that she chewed out a plantation tour guide for normalizing slavery and making it sound acceptable. Her disbelief hasn’t abated and neither has mine. America may look similar to the Old World on the surface but how we go about most everything is completely different.
During the six years I spent in the US, five of those were spent trying not to die after chronic depression struck. I’ve never not had insurance but I could never afford to join the “My therapist says…” club. Instead, life ground to a halt then imploded. How mental health care came to give those who can afford it bragging rights sums up how health is both another commodity and a status symbol: If you can afford it, you can have it and make sure everyone knows about it. Hence the “My therapist says…” club. (Meow, the cats reply.)
In Europe, if you’re struggling, you get help so you don’t lose years of your life. Similarly, medical bankruptcy is an alien concept.
In the summer of 2018, Bourdain’s death made me choose life. A few weeks later, my stepmom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
I wrote and fundraised my airfare across the Atlantic, with the emphasis on ‘fundraised’. Within a few days, it became evident staying with my parents for three months wouldn’t be enough. I decided to spend 2019 in Europe. Within six months, I understood I had come home after spending my entire life looking for it.
Home is values rather than a landmass and hindsight is all about perspective.
I could never co-opt America’s ruthless and unforgiving culture that equates human worth with a dollar figure. Then again, I didn’t try because I was socialized not to and could never grok the rationale behind the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog capitalism monsterhood catering to the lowest common denominator of mass everything. America has the Pledge of Allegiance; liberty, equality, fraternity is how France indoctrinated kids of my generation. And then it forced us to study philosophy for a couple of years so we might be able to construct a cogent argument and advocate for ourselves by the time we left high school. Philosophy wasn’t considered a hipster bloggy dude bro thing but a life skill for everyone. No need for illuminati when you have Enlightenment rammed down your throat.
It’s not like we’ve lived up to the French Republic’s motto yet but we keep trying and slowly improving. However, America has the most relentless, forceful, and in-your-face marketing in the world so it still enjoys pride of place in popular imagination as the place where you can reinvent yourself endlessly, even when you already hold a passport that gives you the right to live, study, and work in any of the other 26 EU member states.
Like all immigrants, I had — and still have — innumerable blind spots. I love a good story and that’s my weakness. But I can’t spin mine into what it isn’t, namely the American Dream. I’ve no idea what that is but when people tell me they want health care and education, they’re describing Canada, the EU, Australia, Cuba, places where we humans are so much more than means of production. To add insult to injury, the US still lacks parental leave. To not afford parents time to bond with their child is inhumane.
To turn childcare into an exclusive commodity that affords the same bragging rights as therapists is fucked up.
I’m writing this as an American by choice who became an estranged American, increasingly unable to read what the US is turning into.
Wherever you go, life is always about communication, connection, and community. Although chronic depression turned my American years into social, emotional, and intellectual stasis, I never lost that sense of what the Dutch refer to as ‘gezelligheid’, i.e. conviviality or the art of living together. The words we use differ but the concept is universal.
When it goes missing, you can’t always live without: My brain broke.
Pitching ourselves against one another instead of joining forces stunts many rather than empowers everyone, it puts inordinate pressure on individuals, and it doesn’t allow for societal cohesion or even a sense of the common good, the kind we Europeans regard as self-evident. Americans who dare question, disrupt, or subvert the status quo are always those on the margins, either because they can afford to have the courage of their opinions or because they see no alternative: it is a matter of life or death.
How can anyone thrive in America when neither education nor health are basic human rights but commodities?
I didn’t expect it to all come toppling down so soon but the pandemic looks like America’s coup de grace. Is it? (I don’t know.)
I didn’t expect to leave and not come back either.
I didn’t expect to sum it up in one sentence: America isn’t safe and Americans aren’t safe, neither to themselves nor the rest of the world. And the only reason I’m not trapped is because I didn’t go back for a visit when I supposed to in March. But I’m still an American, albeit so removed from this bizarre reality I can’t relate to it anymore, the gouging, the profiteering, the marketing… Even the internet of people seems to be Americans to one side and everyone else to the other. For those of us who are hyphenated Americans, it’s one hell of a trip and many more mixed messages. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have the rest of the world slam the door in your face when you’re both the face and the hand slamming the door .
Is America’s current distress self-inflicted? Is Trump the most honest representation the country has ever had? The self-made myth is ungenerous, American exceptionalism is ungenerous but the American Dream lives on in the hearts and minds of citizens and immigrants alike. The world thinks of America as the land where everything is bigger, better, and far larger than necessary: The prospect of infinite growth and the greed of unchecked capitalism fascinate. Or at least they used to until it began to kill Americans during a pandemic.
It’s not that history has taught America nothing, it’s that education remains too expensive.
In America, that which is free has no value and rules are always open to interpretation, hence the legal industrial complex. If you need money, you can either work or sue for it. And it can be way more cost-effective to put people at risk than to have them sue you. You could conceivably get away with it, or the legal repercussions happen so many years later than the risk has already paid for itself. Case in point, opioids.
Lack of education charges high interest from one generation to the next. It’s not that people don’t know better, it’s that it’s all they’ve ever known so they believe that’s all there is. When you’re socialized to strive for personal gain at any cost, you cannot understand anything else. And if you feel really strongly about the rest of the world being out to get you, you learn how to shoot a gun and you own at least one, if not an entire arsenal because everyone is your potential enemy.
What if everyone were a potential friend instead? A potential creative partner even? A co-conspirator in turning reality into something a lot more hopeful than this horror show giving the world nightmares. It’s impossible not to feel hopeful in a culture where bluntness is the default, as is the case here in the Netherlands.
This is why I remain enthusiastic about the potential of the internet: Words can be tiny sparks that lead you home, wherever it is. They did me.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.