Having spent a short time in the U.S. my brain has been in conflict. I’m living the American dream but at what cost?
Thanks to Mr G’s permanent job, we’re living in a rental house with four en suite bathrooms (our own with a shower you could party in as well as a jacuzzi bath), a laundry room, garage that opens with the press of a button from inside the seven seater car (so no getting wet if it rains or arguments over who’s going to open the door) and a truly enormous fridge. The beds are huge, there are insect screens on every window and door, ceiling fans in every room as well as air conditioning and three gardeners that arrive every Friday to trim the postage stamp lawn.
I’m no longer a tutor or a gardener, I’ve become a Desperate Housewife.
The sun shines here everyday and even on the odd occasion when the clouds burst and drench us with their thundering monsoon downpours, it’s still very hot.
Shopping is a dream if you have the cash. Malls are full of labelled shops – Vans, Converse, DC and Ralph Lauren, Apple, Samsung and Gap, there are no imitations here – it’s the real thing, it’s inexpensive and it’s impossible not to get caught up in.
And food … Well what do you want? Burgers, sushi, ribs or burritos, frozen yoghurt, salads or smoothies – all are available in drive thru – as are the banks and the pharmacies. The longest walk you’ll ever need to do is around the hypermarkets where the aisles are longer than a GAA pitch.
I’m blown away by the friendliness of everyone I’ve met. From genuinely lovely neighbours to helpful but unassuming shop assistants. America offers the ultimate in politeness. It’s clean, litter free and the people take pride in their surroundings.
Our children have noticed the differences between here and our Irish home, “he called me sir”, “is dammit a curse mammy?” “everyone’s so friendly, it’s nice”. Then there’s the small business’… the sprinkler’s broken “see you at 2pm.” Our air conditioning isn’t working properly,“we’ll be there first thing in the morning ma’am.”
This country knows how to look after you and make you feel like you’re the most important customer they’ve ever seen or heard. It’s a delight to be in.
I’ve no doubt there are millions who aren’t experiencing the kind of luxuries we are. We’ve moved into middle class America, but my, what a contrast to recessionary Ireland. A country where you’re counting your lucky stars to be working, where high streets are starting to look like they have more empty shops than full ones and you daren’t mention you’ve had your kerosene tank filled in case someone comes along and empties the contents.
Maybe I haven’t been inside the ‘real’ America long enough yet. The one you hear about where everyone carries guns, where parents are nervous about sending their kids to high school because they’ll be exposed to drugs they’ve so far been sheltered from. Not the hash or coke touted around in Irish schools, but meth or heroin that totally blot out the harsh realities of the day-to-day consumerist lifestyle that the less fortunate miss out on. I’m not so sure though, talking to family and people we’ve met on our travels, or my husband who’s spent several months here already, my perception isn’t too far off the mark. My reasons for feeling unsettled aren’t too unjustified.
So what’s the problem? Why the conflict? What have I to complain about? Surely my new Wisteria Lane world is a heavenly existence? Why can’t I relax and enjoy every second of this kaleidoscopic bubble?
It’s simple. I see very little green.
I’m not just talking about the emerald greens of home. The multi-shaded hues we’re accustomed to seeing when we step out of our front doors. I’m talking about the environmental green. If it weren’t for twitter I could easily forget that our planet’s in turmoil. Granted, NBC news regularly mentions the drought that’s causing devastation for farmers across central America. Corn and bean crops are wilting under the relentless searing heat that beats down daily. Already food prices have increased with threats of further increases in the U.S. and globally in 2013.
But for all the wildfires, droughts and massive storm cells, I’ve not heard a single word about global warming, climate change or the fact that our actions could be contributing to the planet heating up and causing this extreme weather. There’s no mention that almost all the food we’re eating here has been created genetically or that geoscientists are filling the atmosphere above New Mexico with untested chemical treatments to try to cool the planet. Perhaps when wallets feel the pinch people will start to become more aware of their actions and begin to make changes, who knows. To be honest I can’t see things changing any sooner.
During our travels I’ve noticed some tentative steps to becoming greener – hotels asking us not to put our towels out for washing everyday (we were in a desert), the odd town mentioning night sky pollution, supermarkets asking us to return the dozens of plastic bags they fill up with our groceries every time we shop, and goods trains with 100 carriages or more, but is it enough in a country with 314 million people?
I should make it clear at this point that I’m not blaming the American population per se for the lack of obvious environmental concern. If we are not informed or encouraged to find out more about the damage we are doing to our environment who can blame us? Who on earth wouldn’t choose to drive a large, comfortable all bells and whistles vehicle given the choice. Never mind that it’s a 3.6 litre V6. When they’re cheap to buy, when there’s no graduated road tax encouraging you to buy something smaller and more economical, when petrol is so cheap you barely blink at the fill of a tank, why would it even enter your mind that you’re contributing to global warming. Running adverts on TV telling us that smaller is better isn’t enough.
One could argue that people need big cars to travel the massive distances between cities here, but how many people regularly drive across state?
It seems the main reason people need their cars is to drive them from one out-of-town shopping outlet to another. It’s nigh on impossible to shop here without a vehicle, there are so few town centres as we know them.
Governments have responsibilities. We might not like their decisions at times, their carbon or plastic bag taxes, their town planning, but without them would we be so quick to change our habits? We shout and we argue but have to admit that large car and bag taxes changed habits quickly in Ireland – they hit our wallets. Would we have made those changes voluntarily? I somehow doubt it. If life is easy why change it and make it harder for ourselves? That’s not something we’d voluntarily do, it’s not in our nature.
The United Stated is a contradiction. It’s “The Land of the Free” but at what cost? It’s a place were you can do almost anything you want, live the life, dream the dream. It’s a place where you can own a gun to make you feel safe but in doing so you’re more likely to get shot because there are more guns in circulation. Benjamin Franklin said:
“The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”
For the past 100 years or so we’ve become more and more reliant on money to give us that happiness, it’s how western economies run, but it’s floundering. The other problem with consumer societies in our non perfect world is that they generally pay little heed to the environmental consequences, it’s not in their financial interest. It’s all about the here and now and not about the legacy we’re leaving future generations. But if countries continue to deplete the earth of its resources, if they continue to sell the idea that we all need to buy more products and own more things, apart from the environmental impact how long will it be before we’ve lost our connection with our planet too (some might argue we’ve done that already)?
Within a very short space of time of living here I have found myself wanting to own the RV that tows a jeep, shop till I drop, gallop on a Palomino across the plains, kayak down the Rio Grande, ride a gleaming Harley Davidson along Route 66 and fill my house with handmade crafts. My table is full of shiny labelled bags having visited shops full of things I “need”. I’d love to live this easy, hot sunny life where I’m no longer struggling along in the dreary grey clouds. When I’m here I want to hold my hands over my ears chanting “lalalalala” loudly like my children used to when they didn’t want to listen to something I had to say. I want to pretend I don’t know or care about what’s happening to our planet.
But I can’t.
However much I think I want it, I know this lifestyle isn’t real, it’s an illusion of happiness, a temporary existence that simply isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later human beings will wake up and realise that material possessions have no real meaning, they’re not important.
When we cast our minds back to our most enjoyable memories they’re about the people we spent time with, the places we visited, the simple activities and pleasures we undertook. Bar one or two items that may have particular sentimental value or make our lives immeasurably easier, long-lasting happiness doesn’t come from the things we own.
In my Wisteria Lane life I had to visit a beautiful garden to reconnect, I’ve struggled to find the serenity I was looking for in my perfect home. Although I’ve enjoyed this spoilt lifestyle I’ve felt spiritually disconnected.
Life in Ireland might be a struggle, it’s summers may have turned damp and dull, but it’s greener than many of us realise. Like it or not the recession is doing us a favour, it’s making us re-evaluate what’s important, we’re rediscovering old skills and we talk to our neighbours. It’s making us reconnect with our planet and it’s making life real again.
I like real. Do you?
Your Wysteria lane experience has given you the luxury of time to think and write. If you do not win the ‘Best Blogger’ award I will be raging mad. Yes – you are having a real middle class America experience. Nice to know that there is no place like home, right?
Mona you’re so right about the luxury of time for writing, if anything were to persuade me to stay it would be that! Am missing my quirky old farmhouse, my garden and green lane ways though. Am delighted you liked the post having lived here yourself and tickled you think it worthy of Best Blog category!
You’ve put it so well!
As we complain about the grey skies and bad weather… we forget to look at what it gives us too!
Enjoy the rest of your holiday.
Thanks Margaret, we’re now spending a lot more time looking for natural places to visit rather than shops which are giving us far more pleasure 🙂
This is a wonderfully written insight into your surroundings at the moment Dee. Thought provoking, and, I, like Móna, think this post alone should win you that award. Excellent read.
Thank you Colette, it sat in my pending box for a few days as I don’t usually write such opinionated posts. The feedback is very much appreciated. I’m not sure how you get into that category but a lovely thought!
Great post Dee,
Consumerism eats us all up. When we have no money we seem to want even the littlest bits of sparkle in our lives yet when we get more money those sparkly things are never enough. It doesn’t matter how hard I try I still buy a bit of useless sparkle (usually gadgetry) now and then.
But it’s true, giving in to this is killing the planet and also stripping society of so much. The people in the states may be friendly but we have to ask why? OK in fairness I found the same in New York, people walking the streets were some of the most helpful people I’ve ever met, even those in the less weatlthy areas, but there’s something kinda creepy about those shop assistants that seem just sooo pleased to see you.
Also we have to aks ultimately does the glittery stuff make us happy long term. Haveing said all that I’d love to switch places with you for a couple of weeks 🙂
Thanks Amanda, have to say the temptations have been many here and have a small pile of things to bring home, though have tried to keep it to local crafts. Guess that even in the old days the girls looked forward to the cart arriving with the shiny ribbons.
As for the shop assistants – the recent Taco Bell case (google if you haven’t heard) makes you wonder how many really want to pee on your nachos!
Coming from the opposite direction — as an American who lived for a year in Ireland — I’d have to agree with you. I’m a Southern California native, where our cars are our sanctuaries and the doors remain locked, so riding the bus and train in Ireland and walking into the city centre was a new experience for me. Bringing bags to the grocery was unheard of. I got a “care package” of snacks from my parents and shared it with my housemates, and I remember one girl saying that they were delicious and if she lived in America she’d be big as a house.
Well, there you go. Many options, lots of opportunities for gluttony, not a lot of accountability. And that’s just for snacks.
Cars, houses, incomes, collections of stuff — the bigger the better in the USA. “Downsizing” and “going green” are very nearly dirty words. Convenience is king.
I love being an American, and I love the variety of people and places and cultures and food and weather that America allows, but sometimes I wish I was back in my small room, sleeping on a twin bed, walking everywhere and actually meeting people back in Galway. And enjoying the every bit of the green.
Valerie thanks so much, it’s good to hear your perspective. I agree there’s so much to like here and I don’t think America’s alone in it’s consumerist attitude. Look how Ireland behaved during the Celtic Tiger and though I’ve never visited the Far East, am sure it’s equally as greedy. Can’t help but wonder what it will take for people to change their attitudes, or if they even ever will.
Makes for great reading and leaves me wanting a break stateside. I’ve been ‘north of the border’ but haven’t hit the US since I was 12. Definitely need to correct that 🙂
Thanks Ken and yep, it’s an enjoyable country to visit – go for it.
I love visiting the States but not sure I could live there – the country where strawberries are almost the size of apples and so many people tumble dry all their clothes while we here in Ireland are dashing in and out to our clothes lines trying to dry our clothes in the open air.
If there is any advantage to this recession, it is that people are thinking more carefully re their use of oil/diesel. The cupboards were so bare last week and I was trying to work out another reason why I had to go to Carlow as it seemed silly not to multitask and just go for groceries!
I love the customer service you receive in America and feel that Irish businesses could learn a lot but agree with Amanda, just how real is it.
The gun culture alarms me too, am trying to remember the name of the documentary I saw on it – really good, it really showed how the fear intensifies and feeds and gun culture.
It’s difficult to admit that a recession can be a good thing isnt it, when the luxuries we’ve become used to are taken away or we have to give them up. As business or shop owners trying to sell products it makes life so much harder too, but on the other hand we strive to do better. The customer service we’ve experienced here on the shop floor has been exceptional but that’s partly to do with the irish accents I expect. Hve also come across a couple of VERY rude people too so swings and roundabouts. I’ll be returning home with a different perspective and hope it warms up there or we’ll be wrapped in blankets!!
It was actually very warm today – 21 degrees 🙂
Delighted to hear that! Long may it last 🙂
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Thanks for the link and glad you enjoyed it Elizabeth.
HI – I thought I left a message but guess not – your message hit home with me and I so enjoyed this article – that is one of the main reason we are relocating to Donegal in Feb – to live a simpler life – I am so excited and scared at the same time – but it will be an adventure – thanks again for this great article
Hi Elizabeth and thanks for your lovely comment. I’ve yet to visit Donegal but would love to head up there. An exciting time for you and if my own experience is anything to go by, one you wont regret. Best of luck with it 🙂
Dee – what a great post. It is so good to hear about America through your eyes and it is exactly as you’ve described and while I love visiting I so love my real home in Ireland. Yes, we could learn about customer service a bit more here but I love that we are not handed everything on a platter – that we are more green that we are in tune with nature. Our weather is mad at times but it is green – we have rain and we do not run our lives on air conditioning and sprinklers.
Enjoy the rest of your time there and we’ll see you back in the Emerald Isle soon!
Thanks Lisa and good to read I wasn’t so far wrong in my perception from someone who’s lived here and there. I’ll certainly miss the warmth and blue skies when I return but am looking forward to seeing our lush, green grass once more.
Thinking so many things while reading this post…there are massive differences between Ireland and America…it’s definitely been a big adjustment for me I have to say! People, places and things seem much more authentic here, that’s for sure. There are centuries and centuries more of history here as well. People are surely more connected to the environment in Ireland…although when I moved here it was the peak of celtic tiger and things seemed a bit crass at times…not as genuine.
I was a bit sad to read some of this post though because America is a big country and things vary depending on where you are. (To give you scale, Ireland is roughly the size of the smallest state in the USA, West Virginia) I believe you were actually in New Mexico, where one of my one of my favourite cities in the world is located, Santa Fe. It’s an amazing spiritual, eco-green community in which caring about the environment is a prerequisite for being a resident. I hope you were able to experience Santa Fe, Taos and the surrounding area.
Imen thanks so much for your comment.
I’m aware my view of America were based on just a few weeks there which certainly doesn’t make me an expert, and as you say, limited to a tiny portion of such a vast country. Ireland’s not perfect by any stretch of the means but because of its size, if it gets its act together it can fix things much quicker. Anybody who’s concerned for our environment I’m sure shares my worry that we’re just not doing things fast enough to help it. I did visit Santa Fe (loved it there too) and surrounding area, some of the beautiful national parks and botanical gardens and could see that, like here, there are many people doing their best to live more sustainably, spiritually and simply. However, trying to encourage millions of people to become more environmentally aware quickly is such a massive task. That still leaves many millions not doing enough.
My alarm bells really rang loudly when a bright 12 year old asked us why we weren’t using the electric dryer to dry our washing (in 35oC temperatures), he’d never seen washing on a line in that neighbourhood before… if the educated youth aren’t getting the message then something is wrong. It is a big and beautiful country with many warm and friendly people living in it but I couldn’t help but come away thinking that if the majority aren’t encouraged and educated to think more about the quality of the planet rather than their lifestyles then our children may not be around at my age to see it too.
I have lived in the states for 20 years now. I am originally from Portumna, County Galway. And when I go home I love to be outside and see and do as much as possible. The air in Ireland is different, there is a freshness to it.
When I go back to Ireland I like to meet with friends and connect with nature and people…here, not so much. And it is not because the people aren’t nice or the area I live in, Connecticut, isn’t beautiful, they are. People are very polite, customer service is tops. But there’s a huge population of people where we live in Fairfield County. I try to drive as little as possible here because the roads can be congested. That turns me off.
As far as consumerism is concerned, you’re spoiled for choice here. Eventually the novelty wears off. How many “things” do you need? But there’s a fair amount of consumerism in Ireland too, and though the boom is gone, people still need the things that they didn’t need twenty years ago. I see little difference with that.
I really liked this post, but I have to say that people drive everywhere in Ireland, we don’t. There are parts of America that are aware of how important recycling is and we still bring our own canvas bags into the shops to bring groceries home.
Is the American dream wrong? I think it might be a little bit, depending on where you live. However that’s also the case in Ireland.
We’ve learned that you don’t need a massive home, or big cars. We recycle plastic and glass and cardboard and paper. We eat home 6 nights per week. The screens on the window and the air conditioning, you’ll come to appreciate those in the sweltering heat of the summer.
I liked this post a lot, and am nominating you for best blog post for The Irish Blog Awards 2013.
Best of luck.
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and to vote. I’m really pleased that this post got people thinking. I’m sure if we were living in a different state in a different house my perception would have been quite different. It was written in the here and now. You’re quite right, in Ireland we’re not perfect. Although we have small towns and high streets, many shops are closing in favour of out of town stores and yes, we do have to drive lots too. Our own house is four miles from the village and there’s no public transport but the car tax initiatives did make us down size to the smallest and most economical car we could buy and we do try and car pool with neighbours for trips up and down the hill. Next year my husband is off to Oregon for a while which I’ve heard is quite different. I hope so 🙂
I believe Oregon is beautiful. Where you are now is a very “parched” state. I am surrounded by trees, stone walls…believe it or not, and suffer very bad allergies because of it no place is perfect, but we make the best of things!
We’re back in Ireland now and thankfully this summer wasn’t as wet as last. It was interesting to see how they’d landscaped Albuquerque. The many types of stone for colour and texture eliminating the need for watering.
Having lived in US before I totally get what you are saying. I found ‘Nature’ portrayed as threatening and unsafe on US tv & almost no coverage of green issues – and very little coverage or questioning on where the endless supplies of food came from. A polite people who get an insular viewpoint from their media. I like green – and really like your blog!
Thanks for taking the time to (leave such a nice) comment Michela.. I know we weren’t there for long but it was enough to get a feel for the place and interesting to read that others who were there for much longer feel similar.
Hello from Salem, OR, USA! I have to say that I’m not at all surprised by what you have written. I would like to put in my 2 cents regarding the environment and guns. First, our schools teach environmental education. We are fighting a bitter grass roots war against industrial agriculture. You won’t hear about it in the news, but the war is being fought. People are organizing to pass laws against GMOs, there is a large GYO movement, and many have found joy in joining CSAs. Our government has whored itself out to this industrial ag companies and yet there is a number of us who are fighting back.
Second, we don’t have a gun control problem. We have a mental health problem and a parenting problem. Statistics show that cities that have the tightest gun control laws also have the highest murder rates. The nutters you see on the news are always mentally ill and usually (not always) have obtained their weapons illegally. Regardless their mental illness is the root cause of their violence and our countries lack of willingness to address this issue is what is putting our citizens at risk.
I had ancestors (I’m 1/4 English) in the American Revolution, and I want to remind my friends across the pond that without that Revolution there would not have been the USA to turn the tide against Hitler in WWII. I mean no disrespect to my cousins (I’m also 1/4 Irish) but lIke it or not the USA is many times the one standing in direct opposition to tyranny because of our love of our “right to bear arms” and because we believe in freedom and liberty. We don’t always get it right but when we do we don’t hear people complaining. The average, law-abiding, gun toting US citizen is not going to willingly give up their right to bear arms and someday the world may again have reason to be thankful for that spirit.
Finally, our consumerism is sickening. I fall prey to it every time I go to the store and by choice we have very little compared to the average American. Why do we need 100 kinds of sugary breakfast cereal, and where do these cheap plastic toys keep coming from? They find their way into my house in spite of my best efforts. Then eventually they find their way into the landfill. It makes me sick when I think of people in Haiti living with nothing. Did you go into a pet store while you were here? I could feed entire families with what I spend to feed my one dog. What is wrong with me, with us?
Carolyne, thank you for taking the time to leave such a detailed reply.
I was only thinking this week how difficult if must be for so many of you living in America who are fighting to live a greener and more sustainable lifestyle but seemingly road blocked at every turn. I can’t begin to imagine the frustration of living in a country with a government that is so tied up with the big corporations and industries whose sole purpose seems to be more about how rich their executives can get than the future of our planet. I’m not suggesting that our own is much better but at least we’ve only a fraction of your population here on our small island.
Also as a nation who has a police force that doesn’t carry guns or a NRA it’s difficult to comprehend living in a society where guns are so prevalent.
We’re by no means perfect in our own household either, our own central heating is oil as living rurally we currently have (and can’t afford to implement) any other choice. We would love to install solar, geothermal or wind power but just don’t have the budget to do so. We can only all do our best, try to do better and hope that it’s enough… Who knows what’s ahead of us.
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