This land is my land.

28 03 2011

Now that I have been in the United States for A WHOLE MONTH already, I have come to realize that there is a lot about the culture here that I can still totally identify with, even after spending the past almost 20 years overseas. I feel like I would feel completely comfortable easing back into society here, and pretending I had never left.

For example, take… people. I understand their language, their jokes, their mentality and their concerns. I can talk shop on baseball, hurricanes and inflation in the cost of an ice cream cone. And everyone is just so nice to each other. That’s what I really like about Americans.

In the past couple of weeks, I have also been noticing stuff that is maybe a little under the surface… things you take note of only when you are here a longer time, that are so very different from my life in Europe. A couple of days ago, I started writing down a few of these, and thought I’d share them.

Here an incomplete list of fascinating stuff I have (re-)learned about the USA:

Freight trains, though not as plentiful as in Europe, are exponentially longer than in Europe. The other day I was stuck at a railroad crossing in downtown Hollywood, FL as a cargo train passed. I counted 150 wagons, not including the two locomotives that were pulling it.

– There is a good reason it’s called commercial radio. When there is a commercial on the station you happen to be listening to, there will be commercials on all the other radio stations, at the same time. It’s like all radio stations have together conspired to simultaneously flood their listenership with paid advertising. The exception to the rule is, of course, (commercial-free) National Public Radio… that is in the middle of its Spring fund drive.

Radio Gaga.

– And by day four of the above-mentioned NPR beg-fest, any intelligent and loyal NPR listener is ready to pick up the phone, not to pledge but to tell them to please, please STOP! There is only so much penetrating, public on-air groveling I can tolerate before it seriously grates on my nerves. And you’ll notice that the voices get more desperate the closer the deadline creeps. (“Please, pledge NOW! We need your money!”)

– One more thing about advertising. The U.S. oil and natural gas industry is currently paying millions to bombard television viewers with the message that “the deeper you go the more good you learn about oil and natural gas.” Really?  Deepwater Horizon, anyone?

March Madness is not some kind of psychotic illness that runs rampant in the Springtime, but a basketball tournament that everyone seems to get real excited about. (OK, maybe it is an illness…)

–  To end on a positive note: Americans volunteer more than any other population I know. There are opportunities to do unpaid social work everywhere – coach a team, chaperone kids or help old people. If only there were as many paid jobs as there are volunteer opportunities, this country would be in fantastic shape.

Just another Saturday night

23 03 2011

A cacophony of voices, a throng of people of all ages, all shapes and sizes, black, white and brown, mingle on the beach promenade. The stroll, skate, sit, eat, talk, run and bike away the lazy day.

I spread my towel on the beach facing the water, take off my sandals and let the clean beige sand slip through my toes. The wind comes out of the Northeast, and the late afternoon sun warms my back. My shadow gets longer and longer as the sun sinks westward, behind the beachfront restaurants, the intracoastal waterway, the Everglades, and the earth beyond. I take out my journal, and write down what I see around me.

Watching my shadow.

To my left, four generations of an extended family chatter away in Spanish. All at once and without punctuation or paragraphs. Some of them sit on blankets in the sand, others on coolers, a colorful umbrella angled away from me is their shelter. Turning right, I see some teenagers play 3-a-side soccer in the sand while, other, smaller kids watch as ice cream from their too-large cones drips off their faces, and between their fingers.

A disembodied orange flag in the ocean mysteriously creeps closer to shore, snaking around to the right. Only as the flag, floating on a buoy, approaches the shallow water do I notice the scuba diver, dressed in black neoprene, attached to it by a cord. He emerges from the waves, takes off his over-long flippers, gathers up his flag-buoy and walks out of the ocean. He looks around at his surroundings as if he was a Martian, just landed on earth.

In my line of vision to the open sea, a small girl sits in a hole in the sand that it probably took her all day to dig with her tiny white plastic shovel. Her head is the only part of her body still sticking out above ground. The incoming tide inches ever closer to her construction site. And just a few minutes after her mother calls to tell her it’s time to go home, her hole is inundated with water, the waves rolling in like last week’s Japanese tsunami.

Beyond the beach, a triathlete swims parallel to the shoreline, his labored strokes witness to the fact that he’s probably got a few miles in those arms already today. But he soliders on, bobbing up and down with the surf, moving slowly and steadily from right to left. After a few minutes he disappears to the north, continuing on his way.

Miles off shore, huge cruise ships – cities on the water – march steadily out of Port Everglades in the opposite direction, one after the other, heading towards Caribbean points south, unknown.

On the beach promenade behind me, Tony the Pizza Chef serves up his pies the size of hors d’oevres platters to a hungry clientele. Still, eyes grow wider yet when they see dinner arrive at their tables.

As dusk falls, the blood-red, radiant supermoon surfaces in the distance. Cheers go up, cell phone cameras are aimed and thousands of underexposed, shaky photos are shot, filed, emailed, messaged, uploaded.

An honest attempt with a compact camera.

A rock band strikes up the first chords of its evening set in the bandshell. People dance, tap their feet, embrace life.

On just another Saturday night at the beach.

Unemployment and resilience

19 03 2011

It’s hard not to notice the after-shocks of the financial crisis here in South Florida. There are still a lot of houses with “for sale” signs on them and the media are still reporting about long, soul-crushing job searches. Millions of highly-qualified, experienced folks looking for work. Anything at all. Going back to the basics they thought they had graduated from and left behind years ago.

Too many people, too few jobs.

And as I come face-to-face with these stories, I am increasingly thankful that I made it through the crisis with a stable job, in a stable environment. I complain a lot about toxic levels of arrogance, but yes, okay, it’s complaining at a very high level.

The other night out at the beach, I met a woman, about my age… let’s call her Carrie. We got to talking. She had a very slight British accent and she told me that she moved to Florida from London 20 years ago, and then from here to the West Coast in 2005. She was back east on business this week.

She asked me what I was doing in Miami, and I told her I was on an unpaid sabbatical.

Carrie said she had just gotten off a sabbatical of her own about a year ago. It was 18 months long, and involuntary. The sabbatical she had, however, is generally known under another name: “unemployment”. She had been a marketing manager for a global motorcycle manufacturer, and was laid off after 15 years in the industry.

Carrie spent more than a year and a half with no idea what her future would bring, living off her savings and hoping every day for some kind of turn for the better. She sent out more than 200 job applications and heard little, if anything, back.

“It was just like writing into a big black hole,” she told me.

I had heard exactly this sentence on the radio earlier that day. And now the story had a real face. Carrie said she ended up doing what she called “internships”. But, I asked, what company was willing to give someone in their mid-40’s an internship when there are long lines of young university graduates applying for the same thing?

“Well, they weren’t internships in the classic sense. More like… loose consulting. Or just sitting in on conferences, going to company events, volunteering my time to do… anything, really, and networking.” All for free, of course. And she never gave up.

Her big break came just over a year ago, as a direct result of one of these “internships”. She got a job as the national sales manager for a maker of motorcycle protective clothing. She now supervises more than 100 sales representatives working for her and regularly travels across North America visiting and training her employees.

“It’s my dream job,” she told me, back in the industry and sport she has loved since she was a kid. But it came at a high price. She said she had to take a 65% pay cut. “It’s been really, really hard. Really hard. But it’s getting better now.”

This looks dangerous. But hey, if it's your thing....

Carrie’s story had a happy ending. She made me think about myself, and how I might react in a situation like hers. Four years ago, I was unemployed for three lousy months, resting in a generous European social security net, and still I was close to a nervous breakdown.

I’m wondering if I could be as resilient as Carrie, if I found myself in her shoes. What would it take to not lose faith in my skills and abilities, in humanity, and in the system? Where would I get the positive energy to keep trying? And what would be the alternative?

Daily devotions on eight wheels

14 03 2011

One of my goals on this three month vacation unpaid personal leave of absence is to get a head start on inline skate training for the 2011 race season ahead of my European friends. While they are still shoveling snow and enduring blasts of arctic weather, I get to bask in Florida’s springtime. It’s dry and warm almost every morning when I head to the coast at 6:30 a.m. for my sunrise skate. It’s my personal devotion to the dawn of a new day.

Meantime, my skates are wondering what the hell is going on. In the first two weeks of my stay here I have put in about 100 miles (160 km) or so, probably more than I would do in any given summer month in Switzerland.

Giving the skates a rest at the beach.

But I’ve found out that skating on the beach or along the intracoastal waterway here in South Florida can also be mighty tricky, with many unfamiliar obstacles and sights to see.

First of all, there is the wind. The coastline skate path is, pretty much, due north to south. So when the wind comes from the north or the south, it’s logical that when you skate the one way (into the wind) you are basically standing still. Every yard (meter) forward is unbelievably hard work. And then when you turn around to go back the other way (away from the wind) you are doing nothing less than flying. OUT OF THE WAY, EVERYONE!!

It’s when the wind comes right off the ocean, from the east, that it socks you in the head BOTH ways. Florida has these winds coming off the water probably, oh, I will say, 90 percent of the time.

Second, the sand. It’s everywhere. I don’t even want to venture a look into my ball bearings after these first two weeks. Before I leave here in June, I will owe those babies a serious professional cleaning job. Hopefully they will bear with me that long.

And third, the flora and fauna one encounters in the tropics as opposed to in the old world is so… interesting. In Switzerland, I skate past farms and quaint villages with half-timbered houses that are probably 700 years old. The cattle and horses in the meadows, happily and lazily munching on luscious green, protein-rich grass, lift their heads as I pass. Last Spring on one of my favorite routes near Zurich, I skated by one cow in the process of giving birth to a calf.

Here, I skate past all sorts of crazy-looking palm trees, nouveau-riche waterside villas barely as old as I am and… manatees.

Sea-cows are watching.

Given the choice, though, considering the time of year, I will gladly take the wind, sand and manatees. When hurricane season starts, I will reassess.

Challenges of the English language

10 03 2011

The other twilight I decided to wade into the darkness over South Florida and try a night flight through some of the busiest airspace in the world. But I discovered quickly that darkness is relative. Though the sun dropped behind the Everglades as it does every day, the southeastern tip of the country is far from dark. A sea of light illuminating the ground beneath our Cessna Skyhawk (as well as the clouds above it) was burning enough energy to power a small developing country. For a year or maybe two.

The lights end abruptly in a straight line though, north to south, and the black abyss of the Atlantic Ocean takes over.

Downtown Miami at night. Gorgeous, isnt it?

One of the great challenges of flying (day or night) in my home country is, I’ve discovered, that I have to actually relearn my own native language in order to figure out what’s going on on the aviation transmission frequencies.

You see, in Europe, where almost everyone speaks English as their first, second, third or fourth foreign language, the pace on the radio is slower and more deliberate. The directions given by the the air traffic controllers have a distinctly European flavor. (And still, I feel sooooo superior with my native English language skills and the “Level Six – English proficient” notation on my pilots’ license.)

But here in the land of the free and the home of the verbally challenged, I am quite simply, erm… a bit lost. That evening when I contacted what is called “Clearance” at my home airport, I gave them my call sign – N5213R – and my intentions – “shoreline south” – this is what I heard back:

“Five-two-one-three-romeo, shwewlypdkjahjhsadoifhniowneknrlkmkdnn. Blurph.”

Ummm… say what?

My response: “Five-two-one-three-romeo, say again slowly, please?”

“One-three-romeo, aslhfkjjkdsopnvoewsdfkljipelous. Opuwernx.”

I looked to the instructor sitting next to me.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t understand him either,” he said.

A second “say again” call brought clarity, I was cleared to taxi and prepare for takeoff.

Not understanding what is going on is all fine and good when stationary on the ground. There is time to pause and think and breathe and stay out of everyone’s way. There is no pressure, no airspace to watch out for, no altitude or speed to maintain and no reason to worry that something bad just might happen the next second.

Once airborne, however, is when the real fun starts. Especially in, as previously mentioned, one of the busiest aviation centers in the entire country.

A sightseeing flight down to Miami and Key Biscayne crosses the airspace of two busy international airports, where the last thing they want to see is a single-engine gnat getting in the way. Being sucked into the air intake of a passenger jet headed for Europe would create a bad day for everyone.

So therefore little itty bitty aircraft like ours are asked (told) to keep low enough over the shoreline so that we can practically dip our toes into the ocean below, and wave to residents on the 43rd floor of the beachside apartment towers just west of us.  We are almost close enough to see what they are watching on TV. The big boys thunder overhead as they depart from or approach MIA or FLL.

And so the garbled radio transmissions continued this night. I asked the various stations to “say again s-l-o-w-l-y” no less than seven times. I’m sure they threw a party when N5213R landed safely at her home airport.

Damn foreigners.