Cultural Contrasts

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Illinois
Saturday, March 13, 2004

Every time we go back to the U.S., we notice different things that are not new, but which strike us due to the contrasts (great or small) to living in Europe. During the 2nd week of March we took a trip back to Chicago and then Chris went on to Ohio and Maryland while Melanie went to Brasil. Here are some observations that we think say more about how our perceptions have changed than how the U.S. has (not) changed.

There are many great things about Amsterdam and the Netherlands, but good service is not one of them. Other missing features include good beef and main course salads -- they can be found, but are not common. So, upon arriving in Chicago we went to Goose Island Brewpub for a real American hamburger, a big salad and some local brew. Melanie really wanted a big green salad with some veggies, but nothing quite like that was on the menu. When she made the special request to the waitress, two wonderful things happened: 1) The request was understood and 2) the waitress figured out a way to accommodate it! When we lived in the U.S. we often complained about poor service. We had no idea how great we had it!

In contrast, when our friend Ginny visited us in Amsterdam (the day before we went to Chicago) she had an AJAX soccer shirt that she had purchased at a souvenir shop the previous weekend for her son. She wanted to have his name put on the back, but when she took the shirt out of the package she noticed that there was an ugly yellow stain on the white collar. So, we went back to the store where it was purchased to get a new one. Only one problem: the store did not have any more shirts in that size and they have a no refund policy. Ginny could trade the shirt for 65 euro (the cost of the shirt) worth of store merchandise -- which, except for the AJAX shirts, is mostly junk like lighters and other souvenirs adorned with erotica or marijuana leaves. The clerk agreed that the stain was unacceptable and Ginny made it clear that there was nothing else in the store that she wanted instead. Finally after trying to call the store's manager at home and suggesting that we walk a mile (away from our next destination) to a sister store that has the shirt, it looked like Ginny and the clerk would be in a deadlock. The policy was no refund and there was just no way to give a refund even if the shirt was defective. Can you even imagine such a thing in the U.S.?

The Chicago franchise of the company that Melanie works for has a spectacular photography collection -- one of the earliest, broadest and "most important" private collections in the U.S. Over the past 6 months the operations and technology divisions of the company have moved from offices scattered all over Chicagoland to a single brand new building. It's a beautiful building and one of the nice things is that pieces from the photography collection can be displayed there -- which was not the case in all of the previous office spaces. For the opening of the building, a series of beach scenes by the world-renowned Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra was hung in the entrance hall. The series consists of 20 photos of adolescents at beaches around the world (only 18 of which fit on the wall). Each large color photo has 1-3 children ages 11-15 standing on the beach with the water in the background. She attempts to capture the awkwardness of being an adolescent and the cultural differences that are reflected in the way these no longer children/not yet adults represent themselves to the camera. In Poland she came across a group of children who had gone to the beach for a school outing. Not having swimsuits or thinking anything was wrong or unnatural about it, they had stripped to their undies to go swimming and Dijkstra had taken 2 pictures of them -- 1 group of boys and 1 group of girls. The reaction of the bank staff to these pictures: Angry emails and phone calls to HR complaining that the bank was displaying child pornography, that the subject matter was not appropriate for the workplace and that people should not be forced to walk past such filth every time they use the building lobby. After living in a city where red-lit windows showcasing live women sitting in their lingerie line many streets, it's hard to imagine such strong reactions to these photos that were intended to show a child's innocence.

On the Monday of our visit, there was a violent assault in the world of ice hockey. For anybody who didn't watch TV news in America that week, Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks hit an opponent "from behind and drove his head into the ice. Moore landed face-first - with the 245-pound Bertuzzi on top of him - and lay in a pool of blood for several minutes before he was removed on a stretcher" ( The victim has a broken neck and a concussion. This assault was shown on every news show over and over and over for the entire week. Every time there was a new statement or development regarding this, the assault was shown as a reminder of the original story. When we were in the U.S. we must have been used to seeing this. If Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" is correct then this sort of violence on TV news is not new over the past year. Yet this week Melanie found herself quite offended by having to look at this brutal attack over and over. The first time she saw it she actually flinched. Every time it would come on after that she had to close her eyes. Meanwhile, in the same newscast another story would cover the congressional hearings on decency in broadcasting. These stories would show stodgy men and women saying things like: "No parent should have to worry about their child hearing obscene language or seeing sexually explicit matter on TV." Interestingly, none of the congress(wo)men seemed concerned about children seeing violent material. Is the human body (most recently, Janet Jackson's boob) that much more offensive than repeatedly seeing somebody slammed to the ground, laying in a pool of blood with a broken neck?

On a lighter note. . .how quickly we've adjusted to the low rise, narrow streets of Amsterdam! Everytime we go back, Michigan Avenue looks bigger -- wider and taller! Of course it isn't, but it sure feels that way! It's a nice change from the narrow cobblestones.

And finally, how nice to come back and see all of our friends and know that just because we are away we haven't been forgotten. Our friends seem to get nicer every time we return!

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