It was, like most decisions, mainly by chance. I was looking for a summer internship. I had spent the school year abroad in England and I was feeling adventurous; I didn’t really feel like going back to San Sebastian, my hometown in the Basque Country, on the north coast of Spain. Madrid, where I live and study, seemed boring as well.
And for a person from outside the United States, Alabama sounds as exotic as the Seychelle islands.
When I landed in the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport two months ago, I decided that I was going to have an open mind. The Orlando shooting had just happened and my mother was kind of worried for me. The American friends I’d met in England laughed at me: “Alabama? There’s nothing there! You won’t be able to put up with the heat. And those people have never heard a foreign accent before. Also, tornadoes.”
My friends from Spain weren’t much better. “Don’t get in trouble; I just Googled it and the death penalty is still on. Innocent people get convicted a lot.”
“Alabama? That’s like… cowboys, right? Please don’t fall in love with a cowboy.”
But again, I had an open mind. I was going to spend two months in Birmingham, interning for Weld. As if an internship in a newspaper wasn’t challenging enough for a college student like myself, I had to write in a foreign language. I was terrified.
I have to say that I didn’t really experience much of a cultural shock. Like most people my age everywhere in the world, I’ve grown up watching American films and TV shows, reading American books and listening to American music. When I got here, everything looked kind of familiar. I may not know a whole lot about the Founding Fathers, but I’ve watched enough sitcoms to pass an American citizenship test.
Of all summers, 2016 was an interesting one to spend in the States: the national conventions, the presidential campaign and the Olympics were on, to name the biggest events.
But this also meant that I was exposed to a lot of American patriotism. Maybe because I see its negative effects back home so often, I don’t have a very high tolerance to nationalism. I guess there’s nothing wrong with loving your country, but for some people it seems even insulting to hear the suggestion that perhaps, just maybe, the U.S.A. might not be the greatest country on Earth.
From an outsider’s point of view, it is kind of scary to watch this nationalistic display: you are being constantly reminded that you are not part of something. It is not that they are excluding you; they will accept you as long as you acknowledge their superiority.
I agree that the U.S.A. is a great country, and I mean it literally: it’s huge. I think that’s one of America’s biggest strengths: you can find everything here. You hear the most conservative speeches, but the most progressive and groundbreaking ideas usually come from here as well. That diversity is important.
Ironically, I found myself having a feeling that was close to patriotism: I have to admit that while I was here my European sentiment got exalted. And not just as a result of Brexit, but also because of that feeling you get when you are in unfamiliar land. It is a feeling I am already familiar with: I feel very Basque when I am in Madrid, and I feel Spanish when I am abroad. I guess I would feel Western if I traveled to Asia. But in America, I feel European.
So, realizing I am very European after all, I’ve tried really hard not to be that snobbish person who laughs at the “historic” buildings that were made only a century ago. But the point I was trying to make is that I’m not special: the things I don’t like about this country are the ones that would probably bother most of my old continent fellow citizens.
Apart from guns, and Trump, and the blind faith in capitalism, there are a couple of everyday things about the United States that I haven’t been crazy about.
I hate American city planning. Not having a proper city center. I hate that I can’t walk. I’m used to living in cities where I can either get around on foot or rely on public transport. Here, I’ve survived two months without a car in a city that is clearly not made for it. I was usually the only person in the street. Once I got asked what team I was on; they assumed I was playing Pokémon because that was the only possible explanation to someone walking on the street. I might coincidentally have been playing Pokémon in that moment, but that’s not the point; I was also getting somewhere.
I had a personal struggle: Americans seem to have mastered the art of small talk and I am not great with strangers. I really don’t know to how much detail I need to go into when a waiter asks about my day.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I like about this country: I like that people actually know their neighbors. I like how Americans use the word ‘community’, because there is no accurate translation in Spanish for what it implies. I like peanut butter, and iced tea. I even like McDonald’s.
And contrary to my expectations, Birmingham is actually a cool city: there is a lot of music and culture and people doing things and restaurants where I still struggle to work out the right tip (why do you make it this hard?).
I’ve met so many interesting people and seen so many cool places. I’ve had the loveliest host family. I’ve actually eaten good food, which wasn’t within my expectations. I’ve worked in a place that does the kind of journalism I thought didn’t exist anymore.
I’m going back home with a renewed faith in my profession, which I really needed after four years of professors and experts telling us journalism was dead, watching Spanish (and foreign) newspapers downsize, disappear or become a series of headlines like Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Death of Journalism – Number 8 Will Shock You.
But, above all, there is one thing I hate the most about the United States: in spite of everything, it is impossible to hate Americans. They are the loveliest people I’ve ever met.
Having said that, I cannot wait to be back and eat a Spanish tortilla de patata in a terrace at 9.30 p.m., knowing that if I get appendicitis all of a sudden I have a hospital I can be treated in for free.