The good and the bad in the U.S. — a hardened expat home for holidays
SAN FRANCISCO — In eight days I’ll have been in Rome six years and a few signs indicate that I’ve gone native. I drink coffee on 95-degree days in July. I speak Italian before I speak English. I turn to ESPN.com’s soccer page before anything else. But as I concluded my recent nine-day holiday visit to the United States, I discovered something else about myself, something a little bit unnerving yet liberating.
I feel like a stranger in my home land.
Some aspects of my native U.S. shocked me. They shouldn’t have. I’ve seen them before. I grew up with them. But spending so much time in Italy where
la dolce vita
has never been a cliche, they hit me as if I’d visited India and Sri Lanka instead of California and Oregon.
Then again, I realize I took many things in the U.S. for granted. Despite a political climate that made me wary of every establishment I entered, and every person I met, some aspects of America are really terrific. I wish I appreciated them more when I lived there. I definitely do now.
Granted, I saw a small sliver of the U.S. It’s a golden sliver. We landed in San Francisco and spent three slow days going up the coast on Highway 101 where we stayed in the beautiful little beach town of Crescent City, Calif., near the Oregon border and an off-the-charts romantic B&B under the Heceta Head Lighthouse on the Oregon Coast (stay tuned for details in a future blog). After three days over Christmas in my hometown of Eugene, Ore., Marina and I shot down Interstate 5 to Redding, Calif., before returning to San Francisco for our flight home.
Yes, Rome is home. Here are some of the reasons why, followed by some reasons why I miss my old home in the U.S. Call them views of America from a hardened expat.
If America is the greatest country in the world, then why are so many Americans living on sidewalks? San Francisco’s homeless situation is out of control. Then again, it was out of control in Portland, Ore., when we visited two years ago.
Our two San Francisco hotels were in the Financial District and off Union Square, high-end neighborhoods in what has become arguably the most expensive city in the country. Homeless were everywhere. In door fronts. In alleys. Outside subway stations. Union Square isn’t far from the City’s (note San Francisco’s glamorous status among America’s urban centers has earned its own capital letter) Tenderloin, a cauldron of drugs, alcoholism and desperation. Driving down Sixth Street was like an inside look at a post-apocalyptic America. Groups of three dozen vagrants huddled near cheap kitchens and shelters. Some hotel fronts looked scarier than any you’d see in a slasher movie.
Mental illness was on wide-open public display. People babbled to themselves. Others screamed obscenities to no one in particular. One old woman (or was it a man?) in a tattered hoodie kept flailing her filthy blanket at an unseen pest, only visible to her eyes.
According to San Francisco government statistics, the city had 9,784 homeless in 2019. That’s nearly double the 5,703 from 2007. The main reason is a housing market that is the craziest in the country. This city of 880,000 is built on a bay and it hasn’t had any place to grow for decades. Housing prices and rents are comically high. A few years ago a cab driver told me he had a one-bedroom in the Tenderloin where he was repeatedly kept up all night by drug deals made by his next door neighbor. His rent?
About $1,900 a month. I pay 1,000 euros for a spacious one-bedroom in a chic neighborhood near the center of Rome.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a minimum-wage laborer in San Francisco would need 4.7 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
And it’s not just San Francisco. In the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest report in 2018 there were a half million homeless in the U.S.
I should’ve seen this coming. But like a man who returns home after a fire destroys his neighborhood, I remained shocked to see almost no evidence left of my old industry. Newsstands had disappeared from the streets. I don’t remember seeing a single newspaper box. No one had a newspaper in their hand on public transportation, on the street, in cafes.
The only time I saw a newspaper was my hotel in Eugene had USA Today in the lobby. It was the size of a supermarket flier.
Living 7,000 miles away didn’t shield me from the carnage the Internet age has done to the newspaper business. My old Denver Post, from which I retired in 2014, has gone from more than 300 in the newsroom in the early-2000s to under 80. The staff — and paper — have become so small they moved from their office downtown to the building with its printing press in charmless Adams County.
I have friends and former colleagues, great journalists with decades of experience, getting laid off. Even I’ve been affected as a freelance travel writer. Newspapers have dwindled in size and budget to where many travel sections now view us as pests, easily deleted with the push of a keyboard button.
According to Journalism.org, print and digital circulation in 2018 stood at 28.6 million, down 8 percent from the year before and less than half of the 60 million from 1995. A University of North Carolina study last year showed 1,800 newspapers had folded since 2004. That’s one out of five.
The newspaper industry has become a feeding ground for hedge fund vultures who buy newspapers and strip them down to the notepads, strewing the streets with discarded journalists, all treated like yesterday’s newspaper. In about 2005, my editor at The Denver Post told me in 2040 there will be three newspapers left in America: The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Boy, did I get out at the right time.
Americans’ growing girth has been an issue for years. But after living in Italy, where
La Bella Figura
is a lifestyle, it still shocks me when I return to the U.S. and must move to the edge of a sidewalk to let an obese American pass, like a runaway hotdog cart.
Keep in mind I was in California and Oregon, two progressive, health-conscious states where exercise, education and outdoor activities are part of the locals’ DNA. Yet from San Francisco to Eugene I saw massive beasts who hadn’t exercised since I’m sure junior high P.E. (Do they even have P.E. in junior highs anymore?)
If some of these people walked down Via Veneto in Rome someone would throw a net over them and put them in a zoo.
And it’s getting worse.
Last year the New England Journal of Medicine conducted a survey of 6.2 million American adults. Defining obesity as a body mass index of at least 30, the journal reported that in 2000 not one state had an obesity rate higher than 35 percent. In 2010, 27 states hit the mark.
Last year it was 48. Every state but Colorado and Hawaii. Ten were over 45 percent. Mississippi was over nearly 50.
The study concluded that by 2030, one of two adult Americans will be obese.
Marina and I experienced part of the problem first hand. At Crescent City’s Good Harvest Cafe, a great, homey two-story restaurant across the street from the Pacific Ocean, I wasn’t that hungry. I ordered seemingly safe fish tacos. The two tacos formed a total eclipse of the plate below them. Served open faced, they were both about the size of a child’s catcher’s mitt.
“How do I eat this?” I asked the waitress.
“Most people use a knife and fork,” she said. “Don’t try it with your hands.”
It was a damn good fish taco but if I finished the second one I’d still be stuck in that chair. The Heceta Lighthouse B&B is famous for its — I’m not making this up — seven-course breakfast. The portions weren’t large but I was a pancake short of matching the lighthouse’s girth.
I gained two kilos on the trip, matching Marina’s weight gain from a 10-day trip to the Pacific Northwest the year before.
After my second day in San Francisco, I wanted to wake one of the homeless and ask where he finds cheap wine.
The sticker shock on West Coast wines floored me more than drinking three bottles of them would. At ENO, a tony wine bar near our Union Square hotel, the cheapest glass of wine was $16. With taxes it was nearly $17.50. Most of the wines listed by the glass were about $25. And the pours were
at the line of demarcation. Not a drop more. I felt like I was back in Utah in the ‘90s when cocktail glasses had actual lines at the legal maximum of alcohol allowed.
Oregon is world famous for its Pinot Noir. It’s my favorite Pinot in the world. But you get no home-state discount. I perused the wine selection in Eugene’s Fifth Street Market and couldn’t find a single bottle under $35.
In Rome, I can find Barolo for under 30 euros. You can get a half liter of excellent house Montepulciano in many trattorias for 3.50 euros. My local enoteca has an entire shelf of great wines from around Italy for about 10 euros a bottle.
The difference is wine is considered a luxury in the U.S. In Italy, it’s one of the four major food groups.
The prices in the U.S. went even higher after Oct. 18 when Pres. Trump placed a 25-percent tariff on European foods and wines. Add the exorbitant taxes and rent San Francisco restaurants and bars must pay, and I was left wondering how these homeless can afford to be alcoholics.
Religious radio stations
My apartment is two miles from St. Peter’s Square. I am one train stop and a short walk from the center of the Catholic world. The Vatican is the nerve center of 1.2 billion Catholics. Yet driving up and down the West Coast of the United States I thought I was in the center of a religious revival.
Hey, Americans, what’s with all the religious radio stations?
I’ve always felt the U.S. is the most religious nation in the world. Where else is religion such a political force as America’s Religious Right? It helped get the two worst presidents of my lifetime elected in George W. Bush and this fascist carnival barker we have now.
But I don’t remember channel surfing and every other station is quoting a Bible verse. On a weekday. I was almost insulted. I never felt more bombarded by a religion. Not by Muslims in Beirut. Not Hindus in Delhi. Not Buddhists in Bangkok. Certainly not Catholics in Rome.
It’s just these damn born-again Christians using the media to brainwash a gullible American populace.
The website InsideRadio.com reported that in January 2018 the U.S. had 1,948 religious “teaching/variety” stations, behind only 2,175 country western stations (which are equally annoying) and 2,027 news-talk stations. Add 1,191 “contemporary Christian” stations and you have more religious stations than any other genre.
I spent half of Napa County trying to hear Iron Butterfly and heard how I’m going to hell instead.
Then again. Not every surprise in the U.S. was bad …
Living in America is sometimes like living with a beautiful woman. Sometimes you don’t notice the beauty around you. I forget how beautiful America is. Marina always reminds me.
This was my first time taking Highway 101 up the Northern California coast into Oregon. As a child, my family drove from Eugene to San Francisco every summer to visit relatives. My father, the most impatient person I’ve ever known, drove Interstate 5 every time. I didn’t know 101 existed until I started renting cars on my own.
The coast, from Crescent City all the way to the Oregon-Washington border, is spectacular. Clean, expansive, empty. We took the steps down to the beach in Crescent City and saw the waves splash against the rocks. We stopped in Gold Beach, Ore,, and we were the only people walking the sandy beach, with nary a rock to be seen. And our B&B in the shadow of the 205-foot Heceta Head Lighthouse, whose light has shined 20 miles out to sea since 1894, was one of the most romantic places in the 18 countries we’ve visited together.
In Italy, you must hunt to find someplace ugly. But as the U.S. is collapsing politically, its nature still stands strong.
A pre-Christmas story from Visa: Four days before our Dec. 21 departure to San Francisco, Visa contacted me. I had a security breach on my credit card. Someone tried using it to spend about $58 at a car rental somewhere in Milan. This was problematic. I needed a credit card for the U.S.
They declined payment, cancelled my card and rushed a new card to my hotel in San Francisco. When I reached Fox Rent-a-Car at the San Francisco Airport, I couldn’t rent my car. My Italian debit card wasn’t accepted. They wouldn’t accept cash. If my card didn’t arrive at my hotel, I’d have to wait until it did, throwing our entire trip in turmoil.
We took a cab to the hotel and when I checked in, the clerk handed me my FedEx envelope from Visa. I activated the card and rented the car the next day.
Fellow Americans, do not take good ol’ fashion American efficiency for granted. This never would’ve happened in Italy. If Visa had used PosteItaliane to mail a card to my home, I’d still be waiting for it.
Whenever I step out of a car in Italy, I shake for about 60 seconds from the aftershocks of driving over potholes and pock-marked roads. It’s like driving through a war zone. The American freeway system seems as new as when it exploded in the 1950s.
The roads are as smooth as golf course greens. The signs are abundant and accurate. You almost don’t need GPS. Even in the cities I don’t recall driving over a bump.
Americans rely too much on cars (see “obesity” above) but in a land so vast at least they have reliable roads.
San Francisco offers a paradox. Amidst the human carnage on the cruel streets of the city, the streets themselves are nearly spotless. It seems even the homeless pick up after themselves. I never saw one discard even a cigarette pack on a sidewalk as I once did a well-dressed middle-aged Italian in my neighborhood last fall.
In the U.S., it’s part of our upbringing. Overeating. Racism. Materialism. It’s all part of our culture. Littering is not. It remains one of our biggest sins. I don’t remember ever seeing so much as a strewn napkin on the Oregon Coast. There’s a trash can on every street corner.
To this day I carry the tiniest bit of trash in my pocket until I find a place to discard it, whether it’s rural India or my own neighborhood. Rome, meanwhile, remains the filthiest capital in Europe with trash picked up whenever Ama, the city’s waste management company, feels like picking it up. When I returned home Sunday, my street’s trash bins were surrounded by stacks of garbage bags that wouldn’t fit in the overstuffed containers. It looked like the day after New Year’s Eve outside my old frat.
Coming from Italy, it’s hard to be impressed with another cuisine. And American food is stuffed with preservatives and artificial coloring. Some food I saw in supermarkets looked positively synthetic. But the quality and variety in restaurants is often spectacular.
Marina is a low-maintenance traveler except for one area: hotel buffets. She wants to walk down to the lobby for a big, hot breakfast. Waffles. Muffins. Sausages. Marina found her beloved cinnamon rolls of which she has developed a growing dependence. We may as well have injected the fat and sugar straight into our arteries.
But, oh my, were they good.
I had fantastic fresh salads, excellent steaks, juicy cheeseburgers. Just walking around San Francisco we passed more ethnic restaurants than we have in all of Rome.
I told Marina I don’t want to return to the U.S. for a while. The political climate is just too toxic. Large segments of the population are too disturbing. After six years in Rome, I’ve discovered something about myself, confirmed after my holiday visit.
I am very content on being a stranger in my old home land.
January 3, 2020 @ 1:30 pm
John, as a fellow Coloradan (former in your case), I enjoy reading your posts.
You’re right, it’s really politically toxic here right now. Yes, George Bush seemed like a doofus, but I’d take him back in a second these days. Those days seem so quaint.
My only disagreement with your observations is about roads. I think you got lucky, or you’re just comparing them to something much worse. America’s bridges and roads are falling apart. Better to build new ridiculous walls, though, lol.
Best to you.
January 3, 2020 @ 10:02 pm
I want to be a stranger to my homeland.
January 4, 2020 @ 12:40 pm
My partner and I have lived in Salerno, in retirement, for two years. We just spent the month of December in Rome. I have loved Rome since my first visit in 1983. This Christmas visit has us thinking of moving to Rome. We shall see, it would be difficult in that we now have a circle of good friends in Salerno.
I am not looking forward to returning to the U.S., but we must at some point to see dear friends and family who can’t visit us here. Your observations are interesting. I always felt like a foreigner in America myself. And even though I don’t yet speak Italian very well I feel much more a part of this culture than I ever did in the U.S.
Tanti auguri per il nuovo anno! Gary Evans
January 6, 2020 @ 10:24 am
Having spent an average of 2 months abroad every year for 10 years, I couldn’t agree more. Tanti grazie John, you have articulated my long-time feelings beautifully… Richard Smith, L.A., CA / Eugene, OR / Lopez Island, WA
January 22, 2020 @ 2:10 am
I feel the same way, Gary. As I’ve said, Rome is home. It’s where my heart is. The Italians’ value system is more closely aligned with mine. Hell, over Christmas my sister told me she took her 8-month-old cat back to the shelter when it scratched the back of her couch. Americans are more concerned with possessions that living things. Italians are just the opposite.
January 22, 2020 @ 2:11 am
Thanks for the kind comments, Richard. I’m afraid the direction the U.S. is only going to get worse.