Crossing Enemy Lines

Now what do you think about THAT, Mr. German?! yells the balding old American man in a tie-dyed shark t-shirt, leaning dangerously over the table facing (who I guess would be) Mr. German. 

For some reason, American cruise lines attract a ton of international patrons, which seems odd to me considering that the whole point of going on a cruise is that you don’t have to do anything besides eat, drink and tan – flying to get to an American destination just to get on another vessel seems counter intuitive. However, regardless of the reasoning, on American cruise lines, Americans are going to interact with Europeans and Asians and Canadians and everyone in between.

For an entire subset of people kind of isolated from the rest of the world from a geographical standpoint, this is actually pretty cool. It’s fun to sit at a table full of strangers and leave an hour later collecting email addresses and Facebook usernames; it’s even more fun to find out what people do for work, where do they live, and what their lives are like across the pond (or a few ponds).

However, this type of interaction may not be suited for all, including who I will consider Mr. Shark (I really would hate to call him Mr. American). When meeting others of differing backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas, regardless of their originating country, it is obviously important to respect those thoughts and respond accordingly, especially if you disagree. (This isn’t kindergarten class and this shouldn’t need to be reiterated from a kindergarten class, but I will). Since there are boundary lines involved here, I actually think it is more important to remain respectful because we must remember that the birthplace of those ideas is extremely different, especially when aboard an international cruise ship or any other cross-lines destination.

So what was Mr. Shark and Mr. German fighting about? Universal healthcare and the effects of Obamacare. If Mr. Shark had cared more about presenting a valid argument, possibly changing the opinion of another, and learning about another’s viewpoint over the ego-boosting feeling of being right especially from an international standpoint, he probably would not have stood up, pointed his finger in Mr. German’s face, and addressed him as Mr. German in his tie-dyed shark t-shirt. Unfortunately, he did.

Although as human beings we have a lot of shared human experiences, we also have a lot of severely seperate experiences based on the country we live in, the taxes we pay, the part of the world we reside in, the car we drive, the work we do, the government we operate under, and a thousand other facts. And although it’s fun and pretty cool to pick out all the quirky similarities we share, it’s important to also remember that there is no need to stick us all in the same box and assume we all think and act the same exact way. Whether we live next door to one another or across the ocean, your experiences and thoughts will never mirror mine – and I like it that way.

As a result, Mr. Shark will never even somewhat understand Mr. German’s viewpoint and Mr. German may not ever understand Mr. Shark’s. Leaving a bad taste in one another’s mouths, Mr. Shark may never respect Germans and Mr. German may cease from respecting Americans, especially if these were their limited experiences of one another’s countries and cultures. Mr. Shark may stray away from visiting Germany and Mr. German may avoid visiting America.

Is this a stretch of circumstances? Yeah, maybe. But the point remains – Mr. German will not forget the time he went on an American cruise line and an old American man in a tie-dye t-shirt stood up and pointed and wagged his finger at him. He may not remember what the argument was, or if his shirt had a dolphin or a shark on it, but he will remember the sheer disrespect and embarrassment at that wobbly table in the middle of the Atlantic. He will remember that it was a tiny American man that did it. And, for the first time in this entire circumstance, it will become blatantly obvious that neither man has had the same experiences which led him to this opinion in the first place.

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Facing The Morning Pilgrimage

When I die and go to Hell, I will spend an eternity sitting on route 80 in bumper-to-bumper traffic, making bets to myself on how long it will take me to get to work as I slump behind an 18-wheeler and a beer-bellied plumber.

As rogue travelers, we spend a lot of time on the road, usually going somewhere cool (or cool in theory). However, I don’t think “a lot of time on the road” should translate to 30 miles and an hour and a half to work each way.

Am I the only one that sits in an obscene amount of traffic twice a day, everyday? No, I’m not – because if I did, route 80 would be empty for at least some of that strip of 30 miles. And honestly, that’s the part that really irks me. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, traffic congestion caused Americans to travel 5.5 billion hours more and to purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, which adds up to 56 billion unnecessary pounds of carbon dioxide released during that year.

Hard to grasp? Yeah that’s probably because it is. Also, just so you know, this adds up to an average of 38 hours per commuter per year, according to Adam Werback in The Atlantic. Personally, I spend about 480 hours in my car each year just commuting to and from work, so this figure sounds pretty awesome to me, as well as my 100,000 mile ’02 Ford Focus.

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This picture actually gives me anxiety

In America, we go on about how we have to save the environment, about how we should recycle, drive hybrid cars, and use reusable products, which is all good advice since Americans make up for five percent of the population yet use 20 percent of the world’s energy, according to the World Population Balance. However, also in America, train station stops aren’t necessarily accessible, nor are they necessarily fairly priced, or necesssarily reliable.

Conversely, we are also constantly told we need to put more time and effort towards our personal lives; that we need to spend more time with the kids, take the retriever for a walk, have dinner with the wife. According to the International Labour Organization, Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. Somehow, I highly doubt that every single one of those Americans chooses to work an extra ten hours each week.

What great advice! Too bad it’s totally unrealistic, especially considering there are three unemployed people competing for every position, says Fox News, which makes for slim pickings for jobs.

To top the whole thing off, many of us come home angry, frustrated, and anxiety (and back pain) ridden – just from coming home from work. Exhibit A: Today at about 8:00 pm, a 60-or-so-year-old man in a small yellow convertible car actually followed me back to my apartment complex, parked behind my car, proceeded to walk up and then bang on my windows screaming “You know what you did,” and then trying to physically open my door. Luckily, I had locked the doors, feeling like the fact this guy had been behind me and then drove into my complex for six miles or so was kind of weird. Then after he left and I went inside, I looked out the window and saw that he had come back and circled around, most likely copying down my license plate so that he could find me and kill me. True story people. If I go missing, you know why.

I’m no genius (obviously). I’m not an engineer, I don’t know the makings of how to build a highway, or how to manage traffic issues, or how to deal with energy usage in this country or any other problems that I have mentioned here. But I do know one thing for sure – something isn’t quite right, and it’s not the residents of 740 Park who are seeing the effects. It’s you.

The Last Sparkle of Humanity

Humanity is an ocean…

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest marathon; always held on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April. Each year, it draws in 20,000 hungry runners and 50,000 of their closest friends and family, who crowd the sidelines and scream and cheer and hold up their signs and are almost as relentless as the runners themselves. And this year, just before 3:00 pm, it was bombed.

Close to the finish line, two bombs went off, ultimately killing three and maiming close to 200 more bystanders. Throughout the day, 5 more undetonated bombs were discovered, which consisted of pressure cookers and nails. As of right now, no suspects have been named and no one is in custody.

I could literally go on all day about how utterly sick this is. To even gather my words enough to write this was a challenge in itself because, as all other Americans are feeling at this exact moment, I am infuriated, wounded, and let down.

On the one hand, I want to shake my finger at the human race. Regardless of whether this was an outside terrorist attack by an extremist group or an attack, because that’s still what it is, by one of our own, I want to say look what you did. Look what has been created. I want them to see this as a wake-up call, for it all to mean something, for us to say, look at the violence that is impeding our world. 

“Maybe this is what the Mayans predicted, not an asteroid or a solar flare, but the end of what we are. We no longer cherish life, or the other people, or even the earth or the animals or the resources put on it. War, genocide, abuse, senseless mass murder, animal cruelty, gluttony, greed, waste, and lust. Look around you, the end of the world is already here.”

And you know what? Maybe this is true. Maybe the extreme violence that no longer lurks in far-off battlefields, that now has infiltrated our schools, movie theaters, and sporting events, is the true mark of the end of an era; an era in which we believed we were safe when we left our homes in the morning, an era in which we, as Americans, believed we lived in a healthy, safe nation. 

However, as easy as it would be to throw in the towel and say it’s all downhill from herethere is a tiny part of me that believes otherwise. I am so utterly angry at all of this and my brain is so muddled that I can barely even spot that sparkle of hope. However, it’s there. Actually, it’s right here. 

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Now let me make this image a little more clear– this photograph was taken after the bombing. These people, as you can see, are still running. Actually, they are marathoners– running an extra mile and a half to Mass General Hospital to give blood to the victims. These people just ran twenty six miles and their own sparkle inside is telling them, “Keep going.”

All over the place, average people with average lives and average jobs didn’t leave the scene, they went back. They ran towards the fire and the cries and the blood to save those who hadn’t been so lucky. They risked their own lives for people they would never know. This is hope. This is humanity. This is what we stand for; not the evil that floods the headlines and sometimes seems the be the only thing left.

All around us, all over the world, these good people run wild. You will never read all of their names in newspapers and they will never receive big gold medals and no one will ever pat them on the back. Some of them will save lives, while others will give a free loaf of bread or even just let someone cross the street because it’s raining out. These strange people are absolutely everywhere. And they absolutely outnumber those who live to cause pain. 

“Good will always prevail over evil. Every time. Remember that.” 

When awful acts of terror such as this occur, our first instinct is to say humanity is fuckedWhich it very well may be. But I have a pretty good feeling that these good people, who hide on every corner, aren’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet either.

…If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. 

Time is of the Essence

Throughout my life, I have been giving my time up like charity. You need me to come in and work an extra shift? Not a problem. You need someone to put the project together for class? I’m in. You need help with your article? I’m on it.

Doing this gave me some great opportunities. I met a lot of cool people, had a lot of great experiences, did a lot of neat stuff. But the thing is… I never enjoyed it. I never took it in, appreciated it, breathed it. I never had the time to.

In Italy, you don’t do this. If you’re going to dinner, you’re not going to be on your iPhone doing work when you’re supposed to be chatting- and not catching up, either, because you don’t need to catch up if you had the time to be already caught up in the first place. Everything you do, you do it because you enjoy it, because time is of the essence, but in a slightly different way.

In America, we do use our time wisely, always; if we at stopped at a traffic light, we’re emailing. If we’re waiting in a restaurant, we’re making a phone call. If we’re at our shitty part-time jobs, we’re doing homework.

In Italy, the Italians also use their time wisely; in the fact that if they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it. If someone is cooking your meal, it’s not going to half-assed and rushed, it’s going to be beautiful and perfect. If someone is going to talk with you, they’re gonna talk with you, not shove you out of the room because they have another meeting like right now. 

Now it may just be senioritis, but this year, I use my time… for myself. Instead of blindly giving it away, I think about what else I could be doing that will make me happy. I don’t want to rush anymore. I don’t want to look at my days and think Yeah, I made it through. I want to look back on my days and say it was a great day not just because it was productive, but because it was fun. 

In America, we are looked at as the worker-bee nation, which has made us into a superpower… but has also made us super worked. For the first time, I’m wondering how great of a thing this actually is.

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So is Culture Shock What They Call It Now?

Upon our university orientation to our semester in Italy, a few very misinformed school employees told us about a phenomenon known as “culture shock,” which basically are feeling of sadness, frustration, and anxiety as one attempts to assimilate into life into their host country. Being that Florence is basically America, I feel that “culture shock” didn’t really exist for us. Maybe if one of us spoiled New Jerseyans was studying abroad in Gambia, but we’re not. It’s Florence, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

However, “reverse culture shock” is another story entirely. While we all fit in quite nicely, albeit for a few small frustrations and discrepancies, into our new pseudo-Italian lives, getting back into our lives as over-indulgent Americans was a little more of a struggle.

When I first got back home, I was excited! Overwhelmed! Joyful! at finally being back at my nice quiet home, where I could eat buffalo wings and donuts for a buck and ride in a warm car to get somewhere. However, this joy was short-lived… which wasn’t surprising since it mostly revolved around American bacon. Soon enough, I was looking around every aspect of my old life, which was now my new life, and wondering… Why?

Bacon Flowchart

Exhibit A: Yesterday I drove from a Kohl’s to Target, probably about a mile from one another, although on a busy road. As I got back in my car and didn’t even turn on music for the ride, I thought to myself… if I was in Florence right now, I would be walking. And that would be okay. I wouldn’t be releasing poisonous fumes into the air or wasting gasoline, but I would be getting a bit of fresh air (although cold) and that would just be life.

Exhibit B: Once at Target, as I tried to buy some food for my mother, I literally felt so overwhelmed I almost had to leave and I was enormously thankful my mother also showed up around the same time. With my little hand carriage sitting beside me, I was wondering why I didn’t get a cart. What size milk I should get. Why there were so many goddamn brands of bacon. How do people do this? If I was in Florence, I would have walked into a store the size of my room, got everything I needed, and I would have been able to fit it into my backpack. Probably would have made a few friends, too.

Me, Food Shopping

Exhibit C: Yesterday, I drove in my car about 30 minutes to get to the mall. If I was in Florence, there would be nothing that I needed that would have been more than 30 seconds away. Yet here, everything is so incessantly spread out, probably so some rich CEOs in their mansions can have some breathing room.

I could honestly go on about these instances forever, and I could even limit them to my experiences on that boring Friday that was yesterday, but I’m guessing you would be pretty bored by then. Now that I am back home, I look around at this disease of over-indulgence and I just wonder…why? What are we getting out of this? I don’t want to get too political here because that’s just not my point, but this country is in 16 trillion dollars of debt, 28 percent of people are obese (which is the second highest rate, behind Mexico, then all other countries), and we take up five percent of the world’s population but we use 20 percent of the world’s energy. I think it’s pretty obvious something is wrong here.

That’s not “reverse culture shock,” people. It’s more like having your eyes open, for the very first time.

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

“Ignorant American.”

“I hate America.”

“Stupid Americans.”

You have probably heard phrases like this before. If you aren’t an “ignorant American,” I’m sure that you have heard how the rest of the world hates America, how our country lacks culture and substance, how we are a nation full of people who know nothing outside of their own world, who spend their days thinking of money and die unfulfilled.

Oddly enough, as it seems to me, it’s not the rest of the world who despises America so whole-heartedly (yet some parts of the world do, as there will always be people who hate another simply for their nationality, gender, religion, or race), yet sometimes, it is Americans themselves, bashing the country that gave them life, freedom, happiness, a land full of prosperity and opportunity. Most often, it is spoiled students who don’t feel like they got their deserved lot in life and instead of joining the rest of the world and making a change, they choose to take it out on the land that takes care of them, whining and complaining like brats.

Is everyone happy in America? Does every American belong there? No, of course not. Some people who are born there, just as anywhere else, don’t find it their cup of tea for a plethora of reasons and move to other beautiful places like Italy, France, Australia, Canada, Asia. This is all well and good. Wherever you want to go, that’s the great thing about planes, people. But to bash your own nation? This will not make foreigners like you more. It makes them wonder what’s wrong with you, that you could be so disloyal to the place that took care of you.

I love Florence. I feel like it is a piece of my home. I hope that one day when I take my kids here, I remember it as vividly as I do when I sleep in my apartment next to the Duomo and that I can smile when I think of the short amount of time that I was blessed enough to spend here. But I also remember that it was my American school that sent me here, a glorious opportunity at that.

And I have many other pieces of home too– down the coast of New Jersey where I spent the best three years of my life. Back in the countryside of Jersey where I grew up, which still felt like home even when I moved there knowing no one after my parents got divorced and life made a 180. No matter where I go, whenever I go, America is home.

The States has its problems. Our political system makes a mockery of itself, more people vote for American Idol than they do for the President, we grossly overspend and overuse. I’m not denying any of this or any more of the laundry list of problems anyone can attest to. But America isn’t the only country with problems. And making it the scapegoat for yours won’t fix your life, either.

So students abroad, I’ll tell you this. You don’t have to bash the place that you will be returning to in a few short months to get foreigners to like you. You don’t have to run around toting an American flag all day, but while you are learning the beauty of another culture, don’t be ashamed to share a little of yours too. It is the people that make up the United States, not the grass that grows there. Remember that next time someone says something nasty about the place you, and I, were born and raised, and show some respect.