Now that I can have crunchy Cheetos delivered to my house within 3 or 4 days and my life is complete, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Over the years I have often been asked why I haven’t become a citizen of this country (as if that were such a self-evident step everyone would naturally want to take.) My stock response is now gone. Cheetos have arrived and I need a new answer.
To be honest, I have never once even considered getting citizenship here. And it is not that I am so patriotic. Like most Europeans, I find the whole concept of patriotism somewhat suspicious - people being proud of an accident of their birth. When the American flags came out in front of what seemed like all the houses on September 12th, 2001, I understood the sentiment - the desire to show sympathy and connectedness - but I still found it just a little bit creepy. I also dread election season when it seems that every candidate is required to declare the USA “the greatest nation on Earth!” I wonder how the 6 billion and 700 million other Earthlings feel about that statement and it makes me cringe.
I’m not exactly a fan of the American economic and political systems or the government - at least not in the way they have been working in the past few decades. The original blueprint was fabulous, but its implementation has never really lived up to the vision. I hear the stories of what various family members on the American side experience or deal with and often think “Life doesn’t have to be that hard!” Here in this country, I have grown fond of our little social welfare market economy and the sense of security - the soft landings – it brings.
It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning of my life in this country, I still had a sense of superiority. We Americans were freer than the people here, where the government still controlled so many industries and made its presence felt in many aspects of life. Nowhere was this more evident than in the grocery store. I had been used to having a wide selection of every product to choose from. Take milk, for example: Not only were there 10 different brands, each one had different varieties (1%, 2%, Skimmed, Vitamin D . . .) Here, in this country, there was just one brand of milk. And the bottle was labelled, simply, ”Milk”. Your choice was that you could either 1) buy “the milk” or 2) not buy “the milk”. It was the same with “the butter” and “the yogurt” (though here you had two flavors to choose from) and “the mayonnaise” (with 80% FAT written large on the tube as if that were a selling point). It was similar with the meats, the sugar, the flour, the salt . . . There were no fresh strawberries in winter. No limes at all. Ever. And the junk food? I wont even go there. The memory is too painful.
I found over time that I could get used to most of this, but I couldn’t adjust to the opening hours of stores. Basically every business shut down at noon on Saturday for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’t even guess how many times I opened up my fridge on the weekend, pondered its glaring emptiness, and then had it dawn on me that the next opportunity for restocking was 36 hours away. ”This is barbaric!” I thought, “What is wrong with these people?!”
Television was another shocker. Two stations total - both government-run. One of them went from early morning to midnight and the other from about noon till 10 pm. A third station popped up on Sundays only for a few hours and there was always an old movie broadcast in the original language. Usually in English, sometimes French. If you owned a TV, you had to register it and pay a monthly fee, whether you watched or not. (This is still true today!)
The postal service was state-run, as were the railroad, the trams and bus lines, the telephone system, the radio stations, the electricity, the water supply, the oil, gas and steel companies, the lottery and the casinos, the tobacco industry, the airline and airports, lots of the food sectors . . .
Over the years, this changed of course. Liberalization and privatization and globalization all made their way here. Technical developments changed the media landscape so that pretty much every American TV series can be watched here now. And a supermarket here looks quite similar to its American equivalent (except for the Cheetos, of course). I buy the Stainzer dairy products because they are local and known for quality and good treatment of animals. I buy Schirnhofer meats because they have great policies for their workers. I appreciate lazy Sundays, knowing that I couldn’t go shopping even if I wanted to and that almost no one else has to work either.
It seems I have learned that having more consumer products to choose from and more TV stations to watch and more junk food to gorge on doesn’t equate to freedom. There is a deeper sense of freedom that many Americans don’t experience. The freedom to take a day off of work when you are sick and still be paid. The freedom to go to the doctor when you are sick without first calculating whether or not you can afford it. The freedom of mandatory maternity leave and five weeks of paid vacation time. The freedom of knowing that in hard times and elderly years, you will be taken care of and that you will never be a bag lady or homeless. The freedom of knowing that your kids can go to college for free and that you don’t have to save up a half million dollars. The freedom to leave your front door or car unlocked. The freedom to walk after dark without a whistle in one hand and a bunch of keys clenched in the other. The freedom that comes with not being anxious about what is lying in wait around life’s next corner.
I am not going to become a citizen of this country. But a few days from now I will be washing the orange out from under my fingernails with deep satisfaction and not worrying existentially about what the next day will bring.