June 30, 2008

Holiday Conversation

It seems the perfect time to tell this story, with the Fourth of July coming up this weekend. This past weekend, I had an uniquely American experience, on my way to the Nation's Capitol.
As part of my patriotic duty to stimulate the economy and not produce greenhouse gases, I took a trip on public transportation to see a dear friend of mine in Washington D.C.
My train took me to Penn Station in New York, right under Madison Square Garden, and from the Garden I took a bus to downtown D.C., where I took the subway to meet my friend.
Growing up in the Midwest, public transportation is rare and generally unreliable (with the exception of the Chicago systems). I cherish these opportunities to keep my car in its spot and travel with others. The others traveling with me on this trip turned out to be quite the international group.
While waiting for the bus to arrive, I met two young men waiting for the same line. Rob and Max were on their way to Virginia Beach. We talked about where we came from and what we do. Max was from Russia, did his undergrad work in Russia and Germany, and now studies molecular biology at NYU. He's planning to work in the pharmaceutical industry. Rob is a web designer, who went to school in the Philippines, where his parents are from. It made my venture from Wisconsin to Indiana for school look a bit pale. But they were kind and inquisitive, and eventually it was discovered that Max was familiar with the endless fields of the Midwest -- he had spent time in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was intimidating but so enjoyable to talk to these guys. And it was a slight preview of the rest of my ride.
A girl who looked to be my age sat with me on the coach. We did not speak for the first few hours of the trip, mostly because I was away in iPod-running-drool-inducing-jello-neck-bobbing-napland. Early mornings do not agree with me.
After I woke up, and wiped the attractive pile of spittle from my chin, the girl next to me asked where I was from. When I told her Wisconsin, she asked, "In the United States, correct?" I said yes. She seemed a little disappointed, but her explanation made sense. She said I looked European, and wondered if I was from Germany. I said no, but thanked her for the compliment. I have always had the thought that women from Europe were not necessarily more beautiful than American women, but they hold themselves differently, more elegantly. I think of Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and, more recently, Princess Diana. So I was thrilled with her question.
The conversation rolled naturally after that (amazing what a kind question can accomplish). My seatmate was from Denmark and was working as an Au pair for a family from Long Island. She graduated from high school recently, and was working before going to (free!) college in Copenhagen.
I asked Pinella about her travels in the United States, and she said she had been to Buffalo and Philadelphia, and this was her second trip to D.C. She was attending her first baseball game this weekend.
So we discussed different sports (another comfortable place for me to be), and how Denmark's men's handball team is the Euro champion, but their soccer team has more work to do. She told me that she wants to take a trip around the country when she is done working, and is saving up to try to make it to California.
We talked about how Wisconsin has been compared to Germany in terms of climate and landscape. Of course, discussing my home state brought out my Badger Pride, and I explained to her how I get made fun of for my love of all things Wisconsin. And that rolled into a fascinating discussion of how, in the U.S., there is so much less history and tradition than in Denmark, people tend to not take pride in their country. Pinella said it is becoming that way in Europe with younger generations, especially with the globalization of American culture, but there is still a large population of people who take pride in their customs.
We talked about how that had happened in the U.S., with all of the combining cultures and the need to incorporate everyone. Pinella said how our holidays seem to lack the true spirit intended, how they lacked soul. We wondered if it came from materialism or just the newness of our nation.
The topic of the American Dream came up, and luckily my high school freshman English teacher forced us to define the American Dream after reading The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, or so I feel, the American Dream is to give your kids what you never had, to become what your parents could never become. And, as the richest generation to come along, that is becoming harder and harder to achieve.
Pinella said her Long Island family was wonderful, yet she is always amazed at the amount of toys the 4- and 6-year-old have. She said they are good kids, but they do not comprehend what they have already and tend to always ask for more. Always more -- the real American Dream.
It was so interesting to hear a fresh view point on many of the things going on in our country. I did not bash the U.S., but we did discuss some of the not-so-apparent issues the country is facing.
Am I proud to be an American? Yes, wholeheartedly (where's Lee Greenwood when you need him?). But am I worried about where our country is headed? You bet.
I wonder what the other passengers on the bus were thinking about our conversation. The blond girl with the flawless English and me. It felt good to have a deep conversation with someone near my own age, and I hope I represented myself and my fellow Wisconsinites well.
And, I think this weekend I'm going to try to remember the spirit behind the Fourth of July.
Then again, I'm not going to miss out on fireworks and jell-o salad, either.

Happy Fourth, everyone.

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