Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Public vs. Private

America continues to beguile, bewitch and baffle us. Each time we think that we have begun to understand this country, something happens to dislocate us and leave us feeling like outsiders once more. My accent will, of course, always place me as a 'foreigner'. This evening in the pizza shop, a charmingly garrulous old man engaged me in a conversation about the Queen Mother - he told me about his admiration for both her knowledge of horse-racing and her ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol, he described how much he had learned from her, 'God Bless Her Soul', and praised her wonderful attitude towards the fall of a previously great Empire... Then, before I could place my pizza order, he segued into a critique of 'Charlie', his predictions for William and Kate, and his opinions regarding the future of 'Great' Britain. Unwilling to interrupt, I listened with a smile on my face and watched the people on each side of me place their orders and then leave with their takeaway pizzas. Eventually the old man left too and I asked the staff, politely and in my very English accent, for a cheese and pineapple pizza to go.

For me, the big cultural struggles currently relate to the environment. As newcomers from England we are struggling to acclimatize to the relentless heat and humidity. I've watched some of my neighbors (the ones who always look cool and collected and impeccably dressed regardless of the heat) and I know that to live like a local is to turn on the air conditioning in one's car for 10 minutes before starting a 1km journey to the supermarket. To live like a local is to have an air conditioning unit buzzing cool air into every room of one's house through carefully sealed windows. I can understand the logic, but I can't quieten my environmental conscience. The girls and I walk everywhere, although our pace is slow and lethargic and the air feels like treacle around us. At home we quietly sweat and hope for a moment's breeze to come through sash windows which are propped wide open. We hang out our laundry on a washing line rather than using a dryer, water our gardens with a watering can rather than an automatic-electronic-state-of-the-art-climate-controlled sprinkler system, and cause chaos by cycling along the road to the local cycling lanes rather than driving there. I generalize, of course - to live like a local, in many cases, is to leave the city and head North for the summer.

Any sense of belonging is precarious and begs the question of what anyone can actually access. Not all of America is available to all Americans, let alone to fresh-off-the-boat immigrants like ourselves. While this area is wonderful because of the public spaces, other things remain strictly private. This is a nation where things are 'owned' by the individual, where society is supported primarily through philanthropic benefactors rather than through a government-facilitated 'common good', where recycling is seen to be a means for poor people to gather together a few dollars by taking people's plastic bottles to a reclamation center (and the white bearded man who looks through our wheelie bin before the garbage collection is made is greeted by the local dog walkers, praised for his industry, and eats at the local soup kitchen). This is a country where the state motto for New Hampshire, which borders Massachusetts, is 'Live Free or Die'.

And so we decided to live a little bit more like the locals and we went on holiday to Maine. I imagined a seaside holiday where we would spend each day swimming in the sea and building sandcastles on the beach. We hired a cabin close to the sea shore and our imaginations were fed with descriptions of a wooden cabin where one could shower out under the stars, cook in the garden, and live beyond the pressures of modern-day life. In fairness, the cottage's amenities were fairly described - the only washing facilities were in the yard and we gained a sense of how life might have been when the current owner's grandmother had holidayed there in the 1950s. The locale, meanwhile, had changed drastically during that time. Other 'cottages' had been rebuilt as contemporary homes with air conditioning units, double driveways for the family's SUV collection, huge windows which offered residents the possibility of glimpsing the sea in the tiny gaps between the other newly developed houses. This is the America that we had imagined from the UK: big and modern and brash. Showering outside in the middle of this suburbia-by-the-sea certainly identified us as 'outsiders': when we looked at the estate agent's spec for a nearby property there were 4 bathrooms to the property's 3 bedrooms. We had one room and an inside loo.

But what shocked me, really shocked me, was that the sea shore was owned. The coast was private. We were able to walk about a mile in either direction to reach a stretch of public beach, but the majority of the coastline was private. I am aware that small sections of the English coast are privately owned, but most of it is public land isn't it? If you go for a walk near the coast, there are public paths which allow one to access the seashore, right? I tried to go for a walk one hot afternoon while the children played miniature golf with their dad. I walked four  miles, paralleling the coast on the hard shoulder of a freeway. I could see the sea, I could hear the gulls, but every track or road which led off the freeway had a large sign forbidding intruders. Quite a lot of the signs included a graphic image of a gun. I kept on walking until I eventually turned about and returned the way that I had come.

The conundrum is that America isn't unthinking. There is a widely shared perception that children need access to water when the temperatures are up near 100F and the humidity levels are high. This is, after all, a child-focused culture where every possible opportunity is provided for (most) children. The coast is owned, and that means that children can't swim in that bit of the sea, or go crabbing along the shore line, or scrabble about looking into the rock pools. And so, Americans have dipped into their 'tax dollars' to provide free outdoor swimming for children throughout the summer.

This is more radical than it sounds from an English perspective. There are very few 'tax dollars' available (and Romney is currently canvassing the promise that there will be far fewer tax dollars to play with in the future if he is elected). Any expenditure of these 'tax dollars' is hotly debated and carefully justified: there are, for example, large signs on the subway trains at the moment advising people that their 'tax dollars' will need to be spent on cleaning up the carriages if people do not remove their own waste. The signs work well: I eavesdropped a debate between two strangers where one advised another to take his newspaper off the train with him - the man with the newspaper listened, and then picked up his discarded newspaper and took it with him as he exited the train while the woman next to me, with her large shopping bags pressed firmly against her ample stomach, nodded her approval and muttered, 'Dat's right, boy, dat's right'. And yet, out of a tiny stash of 'tax dollars' which is carefully protected from unnecessary expenditure on public goods (such as a public health service or universities), a huge amount of money is being spent on free public swimming. These swimming pools are built on valuable real estate, staffed with huge amounts of life guards, filled with carefully treated tap water which is tested every couple of hours, and allocated huge parking lots. And the pools are needed, really needed, because the summer vacation is long and the climate is overbearingly hot and because the sea is private.