My own personal experience of the United States is short and in some respects bizarre. I was travelling with my then-wife. I remember watching news about the attempted coup against Gorbatchev on CNN while there, so it must have been in those days in August ‘91. Before we met, my wife had been the girlfriend of one guy, Mr. B., working at the Liberian Embassy in Bern and later at the consulate in Hamburg. While still Mr. B.’s girlfriend, during a diplomatic reception in the US consulate in Hamburg, she had become friend with the wife of one American officer, Joe W., who was stationed there as a veterinarian, responsible for meat inspection for the American troops in Germany (or something like that). The name of this friend of my wife was May, if I remember it correctly. So the purpose of the trip was to visit May and Joe W., who had been transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As a result, the only time I have been in the US so far was a visit to Fort Bragg. Not the typical tourist destination. However, all I really wanted was somewhere to relax, read a bit and have a couple of days without work, and for that purpose, it turned out to be a good location.
I could not have done anything else, however, because it turned out, to my surprise, that there was absolutely no public transportation in that place. Wherever I had been before (in Europe) in Germany, in the Netherlands, in France, in Austria, in Italy, there was, of course, a system of public transportation. My misconception was that the US were an industrialized nation and that I could expect the same type of infrastructure there as well. You have such misconceptions without thinking about them, until you end up somewhere where they turn out to be false. I had not even invested a single thought on this. Well, my knowledge of the US was very limited at the time.
I was about 30 years old and did not even have a driver’s license. I had never needed one. I went around by bike when the weather was fine and by train or bus when it was raining. In the places I had been before, you don’t need a car. Many people have one, but actually you don’t need it. You can do your shopping on foot. You go to work by train or bus or bike. The school or kindergarten are in walking distance or a few bus stops away. I had had no idea how totally car dependent the system in the US is. I was absolutely stuck in that place. I could go for walks, there was some kind of park nearby, but I was warned not to go into the forest because of snakes (I did not meet any). On one walk, I saw a tree covered in the silk of some kind of caterpillars. A very large and long type of wasp was crawling into that collective nest, probably to put its eggs into some of the caterpillars.
I did not have a bike. The only bikes I saw during my stay in Fort Brag where racing bikes. People where using the bike as a sports device, not as a means of transportation. There was a single shop in walking distance, some kind of small super market. I bought something there one time, but the second time I was there, I was asked for some kind of id-card at the checkout. I did not have one, of course. It turned out it was a shop for military personnel only, probably subsidized. “But I can’t put that frozen yogurt back into the machie”, I said. “Well, that’s an argument”. Finally, the guy behind me in the queue took it on his card. So, there was actually no shop in walking distance, at least for me.
The officers there lived in one-family-houses. I remember the scent of pine-scented cleaner. It is strange how different such things develop in different places. Where I come from, cleaners are normally lemon-scented; there, however, it looks like people grow up associating pine-scent with cleanliness. It took me a while to get used to this (for me) slightly flashy scent. I remember big wooden furniture, a giant washing machine (another of those things that develop differently in different cultures), a kitchen sink with a grinder. Grass lawns and trees. Rather big cars. Air conditioning (not necessary where I come from, but here, the air was hot and wet).
May took us to Fayetteville to go shopping. A shopping mall with a giant parking place around it. Again one can see how totally car-centered the American system is. The density of the settlements is so low that shops in walking distance could not survive. As a result, you need a car. If everybody has a car, big shopping malls with big parking places can evolve. Then more of these low density suburbs with single houses and without shops develop. Once everybody has a car, public transportation dies, especially if people tend to think that subsidizing such basic infrastructure is some kind of socialism and that socialism is a bad thing. The result is a total dependence of cheap fuel and a per-capita fuel consumption much higher than that of most other countries. A crazy system, in my view.
Inside the supermarket, again it was strange to see how different the place was to home. A completely different selection of products. A very limited range of dairy products, compared to home, where we have countless versions of fruit yoghurt and the like, for example. The different systems of measurement also produce differences. In Europe, the standard milk pack is one liter. Here, I saw gallon-sized canisters instead. This may be one of the reasons American ice boxes are so big. Such differences are results of arbitrary historical accidents, but you only notice them once you are out of your normal area.
The girl at the checkout in the supermarket wondered where my wife was coming from. Obviously, she did not know where to place that accent. Now, Liberian English is indeed special. Some consonants at the end of words are omitted and nasal consonants at the end of words are replaced by a nasalization of the preceding vowel, not unlike the changes from Latin to French. Omitting the s at the end of words means that the possessive s and the third person s no longer exist, resulting in some grammatical shifts. I would say the English my wife was speaking was a dialect of English, but there is a spectrum from there through some kind of creole language to some kinds of pidgin, depending on the native language of the speaker and on their level of education. I guess Liberian English is most closely related to some forms of African American English. But that is a different story.
I bought a text book of some programming language that I would have to use in my next project at work (buying this book proved to be a good idea). On my last days in Fort Bragg, I got up very early in the morning to readjust myself to European time, and spent the morning hours working through that book.
I learnt that what I would call a fast food place was called a restaurant. There were several of them in Fayetteville. I did not see any place I would have recognized as what I was used to call a restaurant, although such places probably existed in other parts of the city. One reason that I had difficulties recognizing these places as restaurants was their architecture. This type of one story building with the characteristically shaped roof turned out to be a common, even predominating type of architecture here, at least for shops. In Europe, you see this type of building only with certain fast food chains and there, they always look a bit out of place. I don’t know if these companies transferred this kind of architecture to Europe as a conscious move or out of thoughtlessness.
A funny detail connected to this style of architecture: the roof type typical for these buildings can be found in the logo of the chain pizza hut. This chain also exists in Germany. Now, the German word for “hat” is “hut” (pronounced like “hoot”). The word for “hut” is “Hütte” instead. Now, Germans who don’t know English pronounce “pizza hut” like “Pitza Hoot” and many of them think that what you see there on that logo is the depiction of a hat (not so implausible, isn’t it). Now it is a bit strange that a company should call itself “pizza hat”, but if you grow up with it as a child, you get used to it and don’t ask questions. Since this roof type is rare here and most of these fast food restaurants are inside shops integrate into larger buildings (due to the high density of settlement and the resulting high land prices), people normally do not recognize this logo as depicting a roof.
Joe liked to go fishing and took us along. We stopped somewhere on the way and went to some shop to buy baits. Joe bought a pack of living worms and a few bottles of root beer. I tried the root beer and he asked me if I like it. “Well, hm, its interesting…”. He laughed. I don’t really regret that I have never seen that stuff here in Germany. It is probably one of those things you have to get used to as a child. I cannot remember how it tasted, only that I found it quite strange.
We drove through an area with tobacco fields and some little huts, obviously the homes of poorer people. Finally we drove left into a little farm track and stopped near a pond. Joe paid (I don’t remember whether he had to put the money into a box or some kind of machine or just a jar) and then we unloaded our chairs and fishing rods from the back of the car. He showed me how to put the worm on the hook and how to cast the line. After a few attempts, it worked well and I sat on the chair for a very relaxing afternoon, observing insects and spiders and actually catching two fishes, of a species Joe called “panfish”. My wife and Joe also caught some. I don’t know exactly what species that was, maybe bluegill, but they tasted very nice when May fried them later in the evening. She was a very good cook. One of Joes comrades, a nice guy whose name I have forgotten (I seem to remember he was called Robert, but I am not sure), came along and brought a piece of alligator meat (I am not sure if they had bought that or caught the gator themselves) which was added to the food. With its thin ribs, it looked a little bit like fish but it tasted more or less like chicken. Since birds evolved from dinosaurs and crocodiles are their closest living relatives, I guess that is how dinosaur meat would have tasted as well.
A thunderstorm forced us inside. There was a power blackout as a result of the thunderstorm. In the few days I spent there, I experienced two power blackouts. I think that was the third and fourth power blackout I experienced in my life time. I had never understood why the American computer magazines where full with articles and advertisements about uninterruptable power supplies. Now I understood that. All the power and telephone cables are up on poles. That makes them vulnerable to storms. These electricity cables on poles instead of in the ground and the power outages, the lack of public transportation, the little huts inhabited by poorer people, and the strong religiosity, all of these things gave the place a somehow third-worldly feeling, not what you would expect in a military base of the largest industrial and military power on earth.
One day Joe took me along to an officer’s club, a bar decorated with symbols of different military units. As a guest, I was allowed to enter, to have a beer. We talked to several of the people there and Joe told me they were planning to go Gulf Stream fishing the next day. We decide to come along. The next day early in the morning, we entered a bus, one of these very old fashioned yellow school bus-type vehicles that, for whatever reason, resist the trend of modernization. Maybe the lack of public transportation systems causes Americans not to know how modern busses look like. This bus also added to that semi-third-world feeling of the place. The bus drove east through several towns that all looked more or less the same. I don’t know if towns look like that everywhere in the US, but at least in North Carolina, it looks like that is how towns look. Flat buildings in that (from a European point of view) “fast food style”, cables on electricity poles. One of the guys told me he was working for the military secret service. His job was to extract information from publicly available sources, like newspapers and books. At least that is what he told me.
I have forgotten the name of that coastal town where our trip ended. So I was there in one of those places along the North Carolina coast, but I don’t know which one. Motor boats of different sizes. Tourists. We entered a ship and went some distance out on the sea. After some time, we had reached our destination. We got some fishing rods and started. My line got tangled up with that of my neighbor on the first attempt. The guy from the ship tried to untangle them, then gave us new ones. I caught a red snapper. Somebody wanted to give me a barracuda he had caught but Joe advised me not to take it because they were often poisonous in this area, due to the concentration of toxins from some algae in the food chain. I have later eaten barracuda in Cameroon (in Kribi) and it was quite delicious. It looks like they did not have that toxic algae problem on that side of the Atlantic.
On the way back, we observed flying fish. I notice that at some distance, the pattern of waves seems to change into some kind of texture. There seems to be a line below the horizon where that change happens. This is certainly a result of the limited resolution of the eye or of the way the brain processes the visual data. I remember seagulls. The weather was fine. I don’t remember much about the way back. The driver had some loud music on, it was getting dark.
One day, we visited a friend of May (I think, on the way back from the shopping mall). She was living in a small house with her children. She was a widow; her husband had died during Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War.
I remember the airport in Charlotte. When we came, I saw more extremely obese people within 30 minutes than I would see at home in a year. Not that Germans are not fat, but… May had picked us up. I had to leave first, leaving my wife behind who would stay another week or so. May dropped me at the airport again, a distance of about 3 hours. The first leg of the trip brought me to New York (JFK), where I spent a few hours before my plain left, to Amsterdam, as far as I remember. In that sense, I have been in New York. When the plane took off, it was flying a curve and during part of that curve, while it was tilted to the left, I could catch a glance at Manhattan, through a window on the other side. The twin towers of the World Trade Center. That was the last bit of the USA I have ever seen. The plane straitened itself and the window was only showing the sky. (I am sure this article will pop up on the screens of the NSA, with words like “Secret Service”, “Fort Bragg”, “World Trade Center”, “plane” and the like – hi, my friends from the NSA, hope you enjoyed yourself, sorry, a totally harmless travel blog post).
I am sure there are more interesting places in the USA to visit than Fort Bragg. This was certainly not the typical tourist’s stay in the USA, but I don’t regret it. It was, I think, a bit of the USA like it really is.
(The picture, showing a rather typical view from Fayettevill, NC, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winn_Dixie_Fayetteville,_NC_(8159823090).jpg)