When I was just out of college, living as an expat in France and working in Europe, I used to dread going back to America and my hometown. I thought it was – compared to the enduring grandeur of Paris and London – parochial and let’s just say it, ugly. Tick-y-tacky houses and concrete buildings. A society built to be swept away every few years.
But I knew I had to come back to make enough money to take off on another European adventure. I couldn’t have one without the other.
After awhile, we left the United States, living in Turkey, German and the Netherlands at various times.
For the past six years, we’ve lived in the Netherlands, and I just retuned “home” to Louisville, Kentucky for the first time since 2017. Flying from clockwork Schiphol to the nightmare of Philly’s broken-down airport was instant culture shock.
That was just the beginning.
Going from the high-functioning Netherlands, where the infrastructure is perfect and life is almost too comfortable, to a rough-and-tumble Southern Industrial city where nothing is perfect is a journey of 4,500 miles and lightyears in mindset.
Arriving in my hometown airport, Louisville Muhammad Ali International, I was greeted by huge graphics celebrating our only real claims to fame, bourbon and Muhammad Ali. (The “international” designation always makes me smile because the passenger side of the airport is barely a regional operation, with two tiny terminals.)
BUT, the other side of the airport is UPS’s WorldPort, the hub for its global airfreight operations, with 747s lined up on the tarmac every night. On that level, the only airports that compare are the Hong Kongs and Memphises of the world.
While Louisville is just as much a vital global economic engine, the glossy, futuristic feel of Rotterdam and Düsseldorf is nowhere to be seen.
BUT, as I drove across the city with my daughter Lucy, who still lives here, I realized how Louisville has amenities the Netherlands can’t match. We drove past the Olmsted-designed Cherokee Park in our old neighborhood and it’s huge island of unspoiled tranquility, perfect for an imperfect world.
No manicured European park compares.
Exciting, dangerous and bad
It takes me awhile to remember this is 24-hour world, where – unlike holiday-obsessed Europe – you can get anything you want any time and any day of the week you want it. But it comes at a price. You have to watch yourself because this a gun-toting world is divided between a few haves and a whole lot of have-nots.
While parts of the United States are obscenely affluent, most of it is not. Most of America is still a frontier of energetic, unpredictable, restless people. Which is why so much art and innovation come out of the U.S.
The average European is never going to starve because of robust social safety nets. The average American is motivated by the gnawing reality that joblessness, homelessness and hopelessness are a lost paycheck or a massive medical bill away.
Literally, do or die.
Coming “home,” I always think of Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” which perfectly captures the energy and chaos of the industrial America, “stormy, husky, brawling.” Every element – every line, every word – of that 108-year-old poem is still absolutely relevant in 2022.
America is still exciting and dangerous and bad in a way that keeps Europeans watching our TV shows and movies, and listening to our music. Talking about it. Singing about it. Dreaming about it.
Coming home also reminded me that Europe and the United States really need each other to keep supplying the world with the goods, services and tech innovation. I worry political crises on both continents will sever that symbiotic relationship that’s made the Western world increasingly wealthy for the past 80 years.
For those of us who have the luxury of living where we want to live, the choice we make between a high-functioning society in Europe and putting everything on black in America defines us. More and more, I realized there’s a part of me that craves both. As when I was a kid, I miss Europe when I’m in America, and miss America when I’m in Europe.
Which, of course, makes me a typical American expat.
Read more by Terry Boyd here in Dispatches’ archives.