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Why I Love America

Britain has a strange relationship with America. It is like that of a man who married a woman, and then the woman divorced him way back in 1776, and now said woman – let’s call her Liberty – has gone on to better things. She has got rich, glamorous and strong while the man has gone a bit sour and is starting to look his age and probably needs tablets to keep it up.

Lots of Brits love America, but there is a lot of prejudice too. To hear some, it is a land of fake and phoney. A land of crazy religious types and airhead celebrities, of creationism and Kardashianism.

Well, I’m a Brit who loves America wholeheartedly. Always have, just like my Uncle James, a former hippy who decamped from Sussex to San Francisco in 1971. I went to my uncle’s third wedding when I was eight years old. It was by a swimming pool. His Mexican wife made us burritos and chilli burgers. We visited Yosemite and Disneyland and Lake Tahoe and drove on the Pacific Highway. My parents had to remortgage the house but I had found heaven.

I have been back many times since. My parents house-swapped with a family in Baltimore when I was 16, and I spent a month as a suburban American teenager, just like in a John Hughes movie. In 1992 I walked around the base of the World Trade Centre, impressed by its sheer immense enormity. On a book tour in 2007 I visited a lot more places – from artsy Portland to highbrow Boston and magnificently superficial South Beach.

I got engaged in New York, and married in Las Vegas, in a kind of conveyor-belt service that lasted fifteen minutes. And just now I have got back from three weeks in southern California, where I worked and pleasured in LA and San Diego.

Of course now I am a grown up, there are a few things that unsettle me about the US. Mainly the total faith in personal responsibility that leads to the belief that guns should be freely available but healthcare shouldn’t. The most visible shock in almost any American city is the number of homeless people. In San Diego there is a whole road which is known as Veteran Village, where former veterans (many of whom are amputees) sit in chairs on the sidewalk, with their HOMELESS AND HUNGRY cardboard signs.  Yet veterans are mythologised and given lip-service wherever you go, even the killer whale show at SeaWorld starts with a speech in which the audience are asked to applaud the armed forces.

I spoke to a twenty-one year old boy (he looked no more than a boy, his eyes twinkling with sincerity like a young Emilio Estevez) in Santa Monica and he said that he had lost his job, had been allowed too much credit, hadn’t been able to pay it back, and was now on the streets. It was the American Dream in reverse. I gave him some money and have never seen anyone more grateful for anything, ever. It broke my heart.

But then, America is also full of beauty and kindness and wonder. The flip-side of personal responsibility is that people believe it is their duty to be pleasant, to be kind, to be courteous, not at the government level maybe, but at the individual one. Service is miles better here, even when a tip isn’t involved. Smiles are more frequent, even when cosmetic dentistry isn’t involved. People will tell you about the location of a parade you haven’t even asked to see. Your children will be showered with compliments. Thirty something men can happily chat to a five year old boy without that British fear of looking like a dangerous predator.

Yes, Americans don’t know how to drink compared to the British, but that is because they don’t need to. Brits drink to get near that state of confidence and levity that Americans seem to wake up with.

Yes, LA is a surreal place. A collection of disparate dreams (and some nightmares) woven together by freeways. But it brims with an uncredited intelligence, has the most gorgeous modernist architecture (horizontal to NY’s vertical), bubbles with multi-cultural energy. One day I was driven around by a young woman from El Salvador who told me that there are over fifty brilliant Salvadorean restaurants in the city. A high-powered film producer told me that no-one in the film industry knew anyone before arriving into town. Hollywood is a meritocracy. Brutal maybe, but fair. Talent rises.

Yes, they are health-obsessed in kale-munching, yoga-matted Santa Monica, but it is not a simple looks obsession. It is about health, and longevity, and feeling as good as a human can feel. They may want to live for ever, but so would you if you lived in Santa Monica.

When I close my eyes and think of America I think of the infinite Powell’s bookstore in Portland, the crazy fountain show outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas, of eating pastrami in a New York deli, of roadside diners, of hash browns and ranch sauce and root beer, of driving along interstates and skateboarding along a sidewalk in Baltimore, of art deco Miami, of the most staggering art collection in the world at MOMA, of riding Eliot’s bike (with ET in the basket) as an eight year old at Universal studios, of late night swimming in a cheap motel with my father. In America, they are willing to see the best in you, because they see the best in themselves. That isn’t arrogance, it is optimism.

So yes, my love remains undimmed. America, you are infinitely complicated, and you have more than enough issues to warrant therapy, but I could still explore you for ever and not even begin to get bored any more than you can get bored in dreams.

 

19 Comments

  1. I’ve never visited, Matt. But your enthusiasm may have gone a considerable way towards changing that.

  2. As a lover of all things American too, your blog makes for fabulous reading. Having been lucky enough to travel to America four times now, I’m only ever inspired to want to see more.

    Have posted a blog about Salem and Rockport just this morning, about our vacation over the pond last September.

    Your blog made me want to go back ASAP.

    Thanks Matt, have a great day.

  3. A brilliant piece. I would love to visit America one day and this has made me want to go more.

  4. Helen Richards says:

    I bloody love the states and I try and visit as many different places as I can. I am so jealous of their confidence and this ability to talk to anyone and every one about anything.
    I write a travel blog and have been detailing last years’ crazy trip to the states and my love of the place:

    http://www.thesarkytraveller.blogspot.com

    As usual, you blog is awesome and I bow down before you wishing I was a tenth as competent as you.

    Helen

  5. Christine gill says:

    My husband is American and I lived in Tucson AZ with him for 4 years before we moved back to Wales. I did not like it. It maybe depends where you come from and what part of the States you are going to, but in the Wild Wild West, at least, I found that getting to know your neighbours is virtually impossible. People are happy and chatty and wonderfully smiley while they are trying to take your money or lead you to Christ, but they don’t actually want to get to know you.

    Houses are built as far apart as possible, failing that you have really high fences, God help those who fancy a chat over the fence while going to get the mail in.

    I finally did get to have a few chats with my neighbour out of complete necessity. There was an enormous cockroach in my house and after throwing big boxes, brooms, and hard plastic baby toys at it I resorted to knowing in this guys front door, introducing myself, and pleading with him to come to my aid!

    I still think of it as such a lonely place. Give me a Welsh village any day. And the NHS. And comedy that is actually funny.

    Stores that stay open past 5.30 though? And book stores with cafes? And people every colour of the rainbow? Those things are wonderful! I gues there’s stuff to like on both sides…

  6. Confidence and levity. I guess that’s why I don’t drink.

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  7. Janice Coleman says:

    I’m an American and since I’ve never visited another country I’ll take your word for it. I think that in general people are reacting positively to you because you are a nice person. I work in retail and people can be very rude, however, if I smile, 9 times out of 10 they’ll smile back. Love you and your books – Janice

  8. Thanks for the love letter, Matt; I’ve had a similar affair going on with your home country since I could speak.

    One thing I’d like to comment on: You say “Mainly the total faith in personal responsibility that leads to the belief that guns should be freely available but healthcare shouldn’t.”

    I’m personally for more healthcare and fewer guns, but I’m not sure that both can be lumped into the notion of “personal responsibility.” There are constitutional issues in the latter and concerns among many Americans about big government and its right to intrude on individual lives in the former. So it’s actually a much bigger discussion than just respect for personal responsibility. But that’s for a different forum, I’m sure.

  9. A fitting tribute to a complex country; a land of extremes; where anything is possible.

    After nine years in England, I’m planning to move back “home,” to America, next year, for all the reasons you note – and a few more.

  10. Martin Lewis says:

    Like you I love the beauty, diversity and sheer awesomeness of the country itself. And as you say, the people are warm, generous, kind and enormously optimistic (“Is it a good day or is it a GREAT day!?).

    But I dislike their society. Placing the individual’s rights before those of the many truly disturbs me. It’s this that leads to the gun laws, the very existence of the NRA, the appalling healthcare system, the rabid Tea Party (heralding the rise of astonishingly blinkered and ill informed “hockey moms” like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman) the fact they use the word “socialist” as an insult, their corrupt voting system (where laws, LAWS, are passed in some states effectively barring whole sections of the population from voting) , institutionalised racism, rampant consumerism, appalling lack of knowledge of the rest of the world and success is only ever judged by WINNING.
    It is a young nation, and they often behave like spoilt teenagers. In future, I shall be spending more time in countries that have matured a little. It’s fun spending time with teenagers, but after a while you yearn for grown up conversation.

    • Being pretentious, condescending, arrogant and judgemental is just another form of ignorance, naivety and irony…and ego is blinding.

  11. you should try Canada. It’s like a United States for adults.

  12. Akinbamiwa seun labake says:

    I love america

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  14. America is the best! People are much more friendlier than than than those in Britain. It is bigger, cleaner, well designed, and beautiful. Here in Britain everything America is, Britain is the opposite. Cold, bland, boring, unfriendly, negative, contemptuous, violent, stand-offish, xenophobic, and resistant to change, thus we are living in a society that values all things negative, and destroys everything that may result in something positive. Generally, Brits stick together in a closed exclusive circle which is very difficult to penetrate, since outsiders are not welcome, and the Brits have no shame or qualms in telling everyone that don’t fit their twisted paradigms.

    Britain will never move forward not until Brits in generally loosen-up, drop the stiff upper lip, and get rid of the detestable holier-than-thou attitude, which unfortunately, has permeated the entire country. This problem is endemic across the width and breadth of the entire country.

    Americans, in stark contrast to Brits, will always speak to strangers, and generally make an effort to become friends, or at the very least, make an acquaintance with those who they meet. In the Brits twisted logic, they claim that Americans being friendly is rude, ignorant, or freaky. They quite honestly don’t like it. Such is the strange attitude, values and culture that Britain is clinging to.

    It is a crying shame that the British don’t strive to be more “Americanized” in their personal character, rather than clinging to useless so-called British values which benefit no one, nor contribute anything into society, but merely creates walls, silence, and hostilities.

    The jealousy Brits have is astounding! Often they will very openly verbally attack the American government to an Americans face, quite embarrassing, yet they utterly fail to see the mess their precious Conservative party has caused with ever rising prices of food and other consumables, the rising taxes which is all but turning Britain into a third world country. Government policy against it’s Gypsy population is atrocious, and like Germany allow hate to be spewed in the national press on a daily basis without even a peep, and lastly, their support of militant Islam, and the nationwide concern for British Jihadis in Iraq and Syria makes the British the biggest hypocrites in the entire history of hypocrisy.

    By far, the American system is fair, equal for all, friendlier in many respects, and less greedy in its dealing with its citizens, unlike the British government.

    It would be nice to see Britain move out of the dark ages of hate, contempt, racial witch hunts, tax hikes, and self-righteousness and join the real world. But of course, the British cling to all things negative, wrong and nasty as if it were a precious diamond. True change in this country, a change where the poor benefit, and the class and caste system no longer exists, is truly a long way off. All we can do is pray that Britain stops isolating itself from the world, and begin to treat everyone as “equal” under the rule of law, under common decency, under God. Until the we pray in earnest.

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  16. Melanie Stark says:

    I love America and and proud to belong to her.

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