Back in Home Base Part 3: Answering the Question, "What Draws You to Travel Mostly Outside the U.S.?
Updated: Jul 1
Three men in a tub.
And who do you think they be?
And all of them going to sea!
A lot of people have asked us why we are drawn to travel mostly outside the United States. When we returned to home base we experienced some clear differences between U.S. culture and the places we have visited outside the U.S. Admittedly, there are a few things we prefer about being in the U.S. But in the main, we are more comfortable outside its borders. In this post, I'll try to explain what it feels like to us to live in the U.S. compared to other places.
First, the upsides of being back in home base.
#1: Spending time with family and friends
This is the best thing about being back. Zoom, email, Facebook, and text messaging are great ways to keep up with what folks are doing, but nothing can replace face to face visits. I talked about that in my last post (Back in Home Base Part 2). In an ideal world, our family and friends would all visit us around the world, but in reality we know that is difficult for most people. We welcome it, but don't expect it. So these visits have been wonderful.
#2: Home-made chocolate-chip cookies. And, Shapiro's deli.
Foreign lands offer many delicious treats, but when our daughter had warm cookies waiting for us, and my aunt had the same when we went to her house, they were like love and support all wrapped into a beautiful tasty package. Yum. Likewise, a stop to our favorite deli, Shapiro's in Indianapolis, was a reliable and missed treat.
#3: The open and friendly demeanor of strangers in the U.S.
Unlike a lot of other places, people in the U.S. are generally happy to engage in friendly chit-chat. Often in other countries, my instinctive chatty nature results in blank stares, and it feels good to have it reciprocated. I recall in London, especially, feeling isolated by the silence in Uber rides, the tube, grocery check-out and other places. While some of these casual conversations in the U.S. can result in TMI (too much information), I have welcomed more connection.
What are the things we've found difficult about being back in the U.S.?
#1: Car culture
When we started our nomadic lifestyle, we sold all our vehicles except Paul's motorcycle (which I don't ride). We were residing in a nice, residential neighborhood in Lansing, MI, a medium-sized city, the state's capitol. But, without a car, we were practically stranded. Like most American cities (except notable exceptions such as New York and San Francisco), residential areas are generally too far from restaurants, groceries, stores and entertainment to walk. We had a long list of "business" we had to take care of (see Back in Home Base Part 1) and we could not walk to any of the places we had to be. The first two weeks, we rented a car. After that, our daughter (and in Louisville, my aunt and uncle) graciously allowed us to borrow a car, but that required all of us to coordinate daily our various schedules. Lansing does have a bus system, but it favors specific parts of town. There are virtually no traditional taxis, and while Uber does work, it is very expensive. Rail travel is almost non-existent. High gas prices are much more of a problem in the U.S. than a lot of other places because people are so reliant on driving. People who live in rural areas have an even greater need for cars. We are also not a bicycle culture. In Europe, bicyclists were plentiful, but not in Michigan or the other places we traveled. There are folks who bike, but it is not expected or cultivated, and most streets and drivers are not bicycle-friendly. We lived for over four months overseas without a car, and it was easy. Getting all of our "business" done in home base was stressful. Car culture contributed to that stress while we were home.
#2: Political and social disfunction
Uvalde - 19 children, 2 teachers killed in school. Jayland Walker, an unarmed African-American man was shot 60 times by multiple police officers in Akron, Ohio, after fleeing his car that was stopped for a traffic violation. On July 4 - Independence Day in the U.S., and the most popular summer holiday, 8 people were killed, and 29 injured when a gunman shot people sniper-style from a rooftop during a family-filled 4th of July parade. The U.S. Supreme Court took away the right for U.S. citizens to choose safe abortion as a health care choice, leaving it to 50 different states to legislate in a chaotic, unworkable scheme. Some states threaten criminal prosecution if state lines are crossed to access medical services. Congress airs hearings with testimony by members of the former President's own party, many of whom were part of his inner circle, describing their futile efforts to explain to the former President that he clearly and unequivocally lost the 2020 election, and that all of the stories of massive voter fraud were unproven by any facts whatsoever. They further describe how he nevertheless continued to publicly claim a stolen election and fueled a violent gathering to try to stop Congress and the former Vice-President from certifying the election - the first time in U.S. history an attempt is made to stop the peaceful transition of power. All of these things happened during the first 5 weeks we are back in home base. Our country is bitterly divided and seemingly ungovernable. There are enough people to block almost any federal legislation but not enough to pass anything. Different perspectives on life divide urban from rural dwellers, religious fundamentalists from more ecumenical, agnostic, and atheist thinkers, and people with differing levels of education. Some political figures are capable of fueling these divides, but few appear able to bridge them. It is really stressful to wake up each morning to this kind of turmoil, and it makes us sad and angry We know that political and social disfunction exist in many other countries, but it is not our disfunction and it is not nearly as painful.
#3: Waste culture
After being away almost five months, we were struck by a culture of waste in commercial settings. Food portions are typically gigantic. Drinks are huge, and endlessly refilled. Take-out often comes in styrofoam, which is non-biodegradable and is made from petroleum. Plastic utensils and plastic bags are ubiquitous.
To put it more positively, these are the things we found relaxing and enjoyable in other countries:
#1: Neighborhood centers
In every place we have visited abroad, cities large and small have the feel of walkable neighborhoods with local vendors selling fresh food, pharmacies, bookstores, restaurants, and parks or public squares. The photos at the top of this post were taken about two blocks from our apartment in Lisbon - in the center of the capitol city of Portugal. The photo underneath is a typical meal created from small vendors selling fresh food. As I was walking back from picking up some groceries and fresh bread one morning, I noticed across the street there were literally a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. The famous nursery rhyme shows how trades-people were the center of the village. These small village-like centers are all over the capitol cities we visited across Europe, as well as cities we have visited in Australia and New Zealand. You can walk from public square to public square within cities large and small, always finding fresh produce, local products, and lots of outdoor cafes. Frequently you will see street performers and you will see people engaged in lively conversation. People seem more connected to their communities in a visible and organic way.
#2: Public transportation
Every place we have visited abroad has walking routes, bike lanes, and public transportation. Within cities large and small, buses, trams, and subways connect one part of the city to another. Light rail connects cities to suburbs. Railways connect cities to other cities. We found public transportation to run frequently, easy to navigate, and affordable.
#3: Open-minded value systems
The U.S. is unusual for being such a large land-mass with few neighbors. Most countries in the world are adjacent to lots of other countries. As a result, more ordinary people interact with other ordinary people from a variety of countries on a regular basis. Additionally, U.S. culture flourishes in television and movies all over the world, exposing others to our points of view. Many people outside the U.S. speak English and other languages in addition to their native tongue. In our experience, many people in the U.S. interact almost entirely with other people from the U.S., almost entirely in their own language. The cross-pollination of cultures abroad results in a certain open-minded culture in many countries. People are less likely to assume there is one way to accomplish anything. People we met were genuinely interested in hearing our views on a range of topics. I am not saying everyone abroad is open-minded, and everyone in the U.S. is not, that is clearly not the case. But as an overall trend, it certainly feels like more people are open to more of a range of ideas. And there is a growing world-wide move toward the ideals contained in the International Declaration of Human Rights (spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt and passed in 1948 by the United Nations). Notably, most democracies embrace not only philosophies promoting free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom from racial, gender and sexual orientation discrimination, but also embrace access to health care as a human right, including autonomous access to reproductive health care including abortion and birth control. We find these values more in line with our own values.
#4: Connection to history and the arts
When traveling abroad, it is humbling to realize the expanse of human history. It is common to find physical pieces of Phoenecian, Pagan, and Roman civilizations across Europe and equally old indigenous communities across the world. We visited still-standing castles from the 13th century in every country we stayed in this year. Historians are better now about telling the stories of the multitude of civilizations that have contributed to modern nations - from Muslim, Jewish, and Indigenous cultures as well as the predominant current cultural majority of a given place. A wide range of visual, performing and literary artists are celebrated much more visibly, it seems to us, than in much of the U.S. We frequently saw statues of poets, performers, and musicians in our travels. We believe it is only possible to move forward when the past is honestly taught and understood. We get a sense of a genuine effort in most of the places we have visited to undertake some of this hard work.
#5: Environmental awareness and consumer protection
Outside the U.S., we have seen a much higher awareness of environmental concern. In a world still grappling with the Pandemic, we saw a lot of take-away containers, but they were almost all cardboard and biodegradable. Utensils were bamboo. Most people do not use plastic bags, and the consumer has to pay a little extra to use one. Far fewer people use cars. More people turn off air conditioners and open windows, although unprecedented heat waves are making that more difficult across the world. Many people dry their clothes on a line. In most places, people were more likely to wear masks when warranted by health conditions as communicated by health agencies. There is a sense in the places we've been that consumers have rights. In EU countries, you are asked every time a website wants to use "cookies", and companies are required to offer options in addition to "you have to say yes to our taking everything."
I think what most of these traits have in common is a much keener sense of community and less of a focus on individual rights. We like the community feeling - we're in this together. We're not exclusively traveling outside the U.S. We are staying in Seattle for two months, shortly. And we will travel some in the U.S. in the future. But we generally feel more comfortable traveling elsewhere.
There is the added stress of having to focus on un-fun bureaucratic tasks that might be part of coming back to any country that is "home base." And, conversely, there is the fun spark generated by learning about others' cultures and customs and foods, that increases our enjoyment of being away. But at the end of the day, we want to feel connected to the greater human race, in all of its complexities. So for the time being, most of our travel will be outside the U.S.