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A suburban holiday

Sometimes you come home a stranger.

 I visited my native Missouri last month with my eight-year-old daughter, and people asked where I was from; apparently I don’t sound native anymore. When I tell them we live in Ireland, everyone gets a dreamy look and tells me how much they’ve always wanted to see it.

Everyone, it seems, longs for our adopted country as a getaway, like an ancient and mystical Disneyworld. I don’t have to scratch too deeply to see that many of those same people feel increasingly maddened by the USA right now, and are longing for something simpler and more authentic.

I understand, I tell them: some years ago we took the “Benedict Option” and moved from the US suburbs to the Irish countryside, where we grow our own food and learn about traditional ways of life. We work regular jobs and have a car and laptop, but we want to be prepared for a future where such things will not be guaranteed, I explain, and we’ve learned a lot from elderly people in the area.

Nonetheless, I say, there aren’t any real getaways, not from a place where bills need to be paid, exercise hurts and children have tantrums. Also, while Ireland is lovely, most places look wonderfully exotic in the distance; after several years here, we sometimes dream of American suburbs.

My daughter and I wore old clothes and carried an almost-empty suitcase on the plane, for our rare trips are the chance to go shopping where everything is cheap, convenient and often luxurious. We shopped at mall stores the size of the Temple of Solomon, decked in bright kindergarten colours, with doors you don’t even have to open yourself. People stand at the door like servants, greeting you cheerfully, and guide you down massive aisles wide as Irish traffic lanes. The walls rise on either side stacked with affordable products -- many of them, from Bibles to deodorants, advertised as “extreme” -- in ridiculously giant containers.

Drive-throughs. Three-dollar petroleum. Clean lavatories the size of Irish living rooms, free to use for everyone.

 I remember all this, I thought. I could get used to this again.

As we drove around my daughter marvelled at the lakes and rivers of asphalt, whose far end you can’t see, as Jim Kunstler put it, because of the curvature of the Earth. Rural roads simply plough straight through hills and span valleys, and when I brought my daughter to the Ozark Mountains I could show her the same exposed geology I remembered from childhood.

Driving means something very different on Ireland’s narrow, winding roads, bound tightly by hedgerows on either side. To a newcomer it felt like driving through the bottom of a ditch, like Luke Skywalker through the climactic scenes of Star Wars, if the Death Star’s trenches had undulated and wound around like a rollercoaster over the landscape.

The lack of visibility, along with the bouncy ride most Irish roads offer, forces you to drive slowly – a handy habit in a country where petroleum is eight dollars a gallon. It also helps when you approach one of the many roads and bridges in our area that are a single lane, where one car simply has to wait for others to get out of the way.

The most obvious change, of course, was the weather. I grew up a thousand kilometres from the ocean in any direction, where a single year can see 40-degree (100F) summers and -20 (-5F) winters, as well as tornadoes, blizzards, droughts and floods, everything dramatic and mercurial.

Ireland, though, sits in an ocean less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle;
this far north in North America, you can find polar bears. The Gulf Stream sweeps up from the Caribbean to warm this island, and all of Europe behind it, far more than its latitude warrants, and while it doesn’t feel like Jamaica when it sprays over the Conemara rocks, its slightly-less-frigid temperatures keep the country from freezing in winter. People here are so unprepared for snow that when an inch came down in Dublin one night, traffic crawled to a stop and my usual 90-minute bus ride took four hours. While the air rarely becomes crisp, however, it also rarely gets warm, so a day in December can be cool and rainy, and so can a day in July.

That’s normal weather, so imagine a summer that is the rainiest since records began, ruining local farmers. That would be this summer. In the month of June the country received 228 millimetres of rain – three times the average – and received only 93 hours of sunlight.

Ninety-three hours of sunlight in a month. An average of three hours a day, at latitudes where summer brings eighteen-hour days. The average temperature for June – June, mind you – was 12C (53F). Yes, I was ready to go home.

 I started a chicken coop four months ago, and have worked on it every available moment, even digging for several hours in the evening after working several hours in Dublin. It’s simply that I could only work in fits and starts between showers, so a two-day project has taken most of the year. The Girl and I returned from the USA to find the coop still unfinished, only now surrounded by waist-high weeds. “None of you cut the grass?” I asked my family on our return.

“We couldn’t,” they said. “It never stopped raining.”

If we had left a caricature of Ireland, though, we came to a caricature of Missouri, still seeing one of the hottest and driest summers on record: 43 degrees (109F). Everyone joked that were getting hot water from both taps, that the trees were whistling for the dogs, that the cows were giving condensed milk, and that local Protestants were going back to full-immersion baptisms. More serious than the heat, though, was the drought, the most serious to hit the continent’s interior in 56 years, ruining the lives of thousands of farmers and driving up global food prices.

“How hot was it?” my neighbours asked when I returned, grinning and expecting a funny story about the sweltering 30-degree (80F) temperatures that make Irish people lunge for the air conditioning. When I asked them to guess, they started there and worked their way upwards. By the time they got to 43, their smiles had disappeared.

No matter how uncomfortable the surroundings, though, I found that Midwesterners remained the friendliest of strangers. The Irish have a reputation for being friendly, but as a rule they are more neighbourly, greeting each other on the road or in the village and then minding their own business. To be friendly in the way of Missourians -- to chat with people standing in queue, complain about your day or talk about your church -- requires a level of public intimacy most Europeans find intrusive.

A co-worker of mine who had to make several business calls to the USA soon asked me, unsettled, why everyone kept telling him to “have a nice day.”

 People here are more business-like in business; tell a Lidl or Tesco employee to effusively greet each incoming shopper with an airplane-stewardess smile, as Wal-Mart employees must do, and most would say they don’t get paid enough for that.

By contrast, when I shopped at a grocery store, I soon learned all about the checkout lady’s grandchildren, the changes in the neighbourhood, and her fears for the future of the country. There are things you can only tell a stranger, and in my country, you see, most of us are.

I missed this, I thought.

I now think of Missouri the way many US residents think of Ireland, as a holiday destination, pleasurable and indulgent and surreal, except instead of a rollercoaster my daughter and I scream and hold on to the car as we drive around a highway cloverleaf, and instead of a castle I can take her to a Barnes and Noble the same size. But then, as much as we enjoy seeing friends and family again, I’m reminded why we’re raising our daughter somewhere else.

 It’s not just the little annoyances that I rediscovered, like sales tax or ATM fees. It was realising anew that the constant driving and fast food, which feel like such a treat to us, constitute an ordinary day for many people. Futurists in the 1950s imagined a world of highways and drive-throughs would be an age of constant wonder, describing it in the same dreamy tones that people I meet described seeing Ireland. But there is no world that sustains the elated novelty of a vacation, and any attempt to do so results in an unhealthy landscape.

The broad roads and cheap gasoline are one reason my countrymen use twice as much energy as the average European, who themselves live far beyond what the planet could support. The massive stores can only exist because people desire to own many times more than they need. I enjoyed the ubiquitous fast food, but felt disappointed at the girth of many of the people I passed on the street; tourists from all over the world visit Ireland, but we can usually spot US residents hundreds of metres away by their shape.

Here in Ireland almost nothing is convenient, but they tend to be the important things; few restaurants have drive-throughs, but I can ride my bicycle just a few miles to the nearest bus stop, hop on the bus to Dublin, and be there in an hour and a half; in fact, most places in the entire country are no more than a few kilometres from a bus route. Back home, city neighbourhoods have less bus service than our isolated country roads, and the rural towns we saw in the Ozarks could be hundreds of kilometres from the nearest public transportation.

When seeing old acquaintances again, however, the greatest gulf stretched between our inner lives. Even when I lived in the USA I lived without a television for many years, and now that I live away, most pop-culture references fly past me. Kardashians. Angry Birds. Jersey Shore.

When the pop-culture references get political – this week, over Chick-Fil-A drive-through restaurants – the landscape becomes even more alien. I see old friends and loved ones taking sides I didn’t know existed, in a conflict I wasn’t aware of, over an issue I struggle to think of as political, each claiming their side is suffering from oppression.

In a country where people eat at restaurants, I think. That have drive-throughs. Made for cars. They own cars.

The bizarre lifestyles and politics are not unconnected. Most US suburbanites are shoehorned into an ill-fitting life: driving long hours in massive cars alone with talk radio for company, with televisions, speakers, smart phones and advertisements everywhere. In short, they live surrounded by shouting of one kind or another, so ubiquitous that it becomes a poisonous kind of white noise.

During our recent visit to Missouri my eight-year-old happened to see a bit of cable news, and began laughing at the hosts’ exaggerated facial expressions, kindergarten tones and ridiculous volume, and she had fun imitating them the rest of the trip, thinking they were a comedy act.

Surrounded by such shouting, I see many of my countrymen allying themselves with one media figure or other, funnelling their discontent into this or that spectacularly fatuous issue, believing that they are persecuted or threatened. Living amid such wealth and convenience, more and more seem desperate, unlettered but possessed of the most flamboyant opinions, aggressively pious but uncharitable, pugnacious but fearful.

Coming from a country still in the grip of the Patriot Act and with a murder rate five times that of most European countries, I found it a relief to realise that life doesn’t have to be that way; when the local newspaper ran a screaming headline about a “TERROR ATTACK!,” it meant that someone had been mugged.

It was refreshing to watch political debates between five or seven major parties, and to realise that only in my own country, among world democracies, do citizens passively accept having only one choice more than North Koreans. It was refreshing to hear neighbours talk about their chosen candidate without much tension, without a sense that an election was an apocalyptic smack-down between the forces of good and evil.

Yet people, including my countrymen, are often more and better than their memes or bumper stickers. When my hometown lacked electricity for two weeks a few summers ago, I was told that my old neighbours helped each other out, and I hear similar stories from most crises. My hope is that, as the emergency continues, the Disneyworld aspects of my country will fade, and instead of gazing at a simpler life in the distance, more Americans will find they can create one at their feet. And they might discover that their online Chick-Fil-A flame-war enemies turn out to be good at carting jugs of fresh water from the creek.

In the meantime, I’m raising my daughter in the country, and while even there we get more mass media than I would like, I feel like I have a bit of room to pass an older set of values.

So at the end of our holiday, we go back to a cold and wet countryside where everything is expensive, cramped and slow-moving. This island began as a getaway for us at first too, but it became real soon enough, and perhaps someday, the USA, too, will feel real again.

Top photo: my hometown of Florissant, MO, USA.
Bottom photo: The Girl a brief walk from our front gate in Ireland.

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