My first 2 hours on American soil — Dallas Ft. Worth airport to be exact — were spent in long lines: ‘Freedom’ lines. Because I’d complained about the wait to the person next to me, the gentleman behind us felt compelled to explain that standing in longer lines was a necessary part of ‘protecting American freedom.’ Unfortunately, I missed my connecting flight because there were only 3 Homeland Security employees processing the freedom of over 600 people at once. By the time I made it to the agent, he scanned over my passport and saw that I’d been outside the USA for a while — mostly in Italy. He handed it back, looked up at me and said: “Well, now you get to enjoy some real food don’tchya! Welcome back to America!”
For once, I could understand every single word that was being said to me, but I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. Did he not realize where pizza, lasagna, and spaghetti originated?
I moved on to the next inconvenient line — the customs line. My connecting flight to San Diego was already long gone, but apparently my American freedoms were about to kick in soon. At least that’s what they told us, and it was written all over the walls: large American flags and eagles with floating quotes ‘Land of the free, home of brave’ and ‘Let freedom ring’. Nearing the front of the line, a boisterous man in uniform named Lamar shouted at everyone: “Only 10 more minutes folks! I know you’re sick of lines, but only 10 more minutes, I promise. We got awesome people up here working to get you processed. Welcome back to America, the best country on earth! You’re awesome!”
At that moment, I didn’t feel ‘awesome’. It didn’t seem like I was in ‘the best country on earth’ either. I felt like my back was about to break from the weight of my luggage, my feet were sore, and my lack of any decent sleep on the plane, plus the time change, put me in a zombie-like delirium. Lamar’s loud words didn’t ring true. In fact, they seemed to be overly optimistic, if not completely delusional. It wasn’t until I made it back to San Diego that I began to feel some of the real perks of American freedom…What were they? -Probably not what the State Department, Founding Fathers or MLK had in mind:
The first, best, American freedom I’ve enjoyed so far has been the freedom from abstinence. For the better part of 3 months, my girlfriend has been living 6,000 miles away. Of course, I won’t go into detail on this topic (nor attempt to explain the more mushy aspects of our relationship), but a long stretch of celibacy makes one value the opposite state of abstinence that much more. I know, the Bill of Rights says nothing about the right to have sex, but now I’m pretty sure that’s what Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence.
Burritos come in at a close second on the short list of American freedoms I’ve experienced in the last 48 hours. Over the past month I’ve imagined gorging myself on Mexican food, and I’ve done exactly that since I arrived. I have a stomachache as I write this because I’ve already overdosed on every kind of burrito imaginable for each meal of the day. Good guacamole, carne asada, salsa and beans just aren’t available in Europe. However, I’ll spare the reader by refraining from documenting the inevitable result of my current Mexican food binge, a separate story that might be entitled: ‘Mexican-American Bathroom Confidential.’
The third American freedom was realized in a bar, where the beer selections refreshingly ranged beyond the two Italian standards: 'bionda or rossa'. I don’t even like dark beer, but that’s all I drank last night because it just wasn’t an option a week ago. In fact, this new mindset has framed all eating and drinking choices for the last two days of my life. That is, if I couldn’t get it in Italy/Europe, then I’ll get it here. Which probably accounts for my stomachache, and has led me to believe that ‘American Freedom’ has very little to do with the Constitution, and everything to do with shopping: The Freedom to Consume.
And it carried over to my first trip to the grocery store, which was surprisingly overwhelming and overpriced. My new mode of purchasing anything new — based on its NOT being available in Italy — led me to buying yellow American cheese, turkey, premarinated chicken, baked potato chips, and the kind of cereal I really wanted. I was happy to be able to buy avocados, but the rest of the polished fruits and vegetables in the produce section looked fake compared to their Italian equivalents. And there were so many different options that they must have distracted me from the prices. For three months I hadn’t spent more than 25 euros on a single grocery trip, but today’s was 80 bucks!-- for what seemed like very little. I glanced at the numbers on the register’s display and then at my 3 bags of groceries in disbelief. Then the checker provided me with another dose of delusional positivity: "You saved 11 dollars Mr. Carrillo!" Of course, how stupid of me: I didn’t just spend 80. I saved 11. I should be proud of my consumer self. That and the free plastic bags, the help bagging, along with the scripted offer of assistance to my car made me feel only slightly better about my inflated purchase. On the way out I studied my receipt, which sadly added up and also informed me of the endless ‘Rewards’ I’m in store for — as long as I keep religiously spending ridiculous amounts at their store. Who knows, I could earn a free sandwich with a couple months of excessive buying. Nevertheless, there was 'some' freedom in that Vons. 'Did I mention the cereal selection?'
Of course, there’s the weather, despite that San Diegans are complaining about how cold it is. My spoiled Southern California opinion has changed a bit on this topic. In a nutshell: if you don’t have to use multiple layers, including scarves, hats, and/or gloves, then it’s relatively nice outside and you really shouldn’t complain at all. If you do, then you should be aware that your whining is an insult to the majority of the rest of the world’s population. The fact that I see some people wearing sandals and shorts in December is evidence enough that the weather here is close to perfection.
So it’s nice, and a little strange, to be home for a few weeks. The small differences are amusing more than anything. I mean, I’ve read or tried to read a lot of newspapers between London and Rome, but have never seen anything like what I saw on the front page of today’s San Diego Union-Tribune: “The Greatest Country in the World; in America’s Finest City.” Some people call it ‘reverse culture shock,’ but I don’t think I was gone long enough for that. To me it’s just funny—the things about America that stand out more after being gone for 3 months. The most obvious, so far, has been the unabashed, self-proclaimed awesomeness factor.
So what's the next step in my re-assimilation process?
To do a little online research and find out what the hell ‘Tebow-ed’ means.