I've never been to Texas before, and I haven't seen much of it, but it's been a bit surprising (and disappointing) to discover that (so far, at least) it's not that different from anywhere else in the United States.
I suppose Texas is just like the rest of America, only more so. The roads are a bit wider, the cars a bit bigger, the landscape a bit flatter, the language a bit more Spanish. But you could wander through a suburb of this Texas city and not know what state you're in. At least not until you came across a patch of wild cactus, or a stray armadillo.
There's no way you could mistake it for anywhere in Europe, though, let alone Israel. Even though Israel has the same cactuses (the famous sabra cactus were originally imported from the American southwest), that's about the only similarity between the landscapes. That, and the absurdly mild winter. Both Israel and Texas are currently suffering drought conditions.
The longer I've lived outside the U.S., the more I feel like an outsider when I visit. Americans - most of whom have never left the continent - tend to envision the rest of the world in one of two ways: 1) It's just like here, but they speak funny, or 2) It's incomprehensibly different, quaint and primitive. They're both right and both wrong, but neither is terribly useful in understanding the world.
So what's different about America? Some odd thoughts and observations:
- Where's the flavor? I think I've worked out why Mexican food is booming in the U.S. It's not because of all the Mexicans - though that surely helps. It's because American fruits and vegetables are utterly tasteless. Cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelons, lettuce - they all taste more or less the same. Like chewing on a water-soaked towel. No wonder Americans buy so much salad dressing and salsa. Come to Israel, where cucumbers taste like cucumbers!
- Discount shopping. It's hard sometimes to appreciate that the land of wealth and opportunity is also the land of the big bargain. If you find cheap clothes in Israel, chances are there's a reason they're cheap. Israeli retailers seem to think 10-20% off is a low-low-price. Maybe it comes down to sheer economies of scale, but shoppers seem to have it much better in America.
- Ice machines. What is it about Americans and ice makers? They're in refrigerators, hotels, drink machines. I'm all for ice, but how much do you need? How convenient does it have to be? What's so hard about putting an ice tray in the freezer?
- Have a nice day! This annoys many Israelis - why should a total stranger in a shop care what kind of day I have? I disagree. I'd rather have an assistant with a phony smile than one with a genuine scowl, as too many Israeli shop clerks have.
But it's not just a symbol of superficial American customer service; Americans are genuinely smiley. This is a nation of optimists, and popular culture simply reflects that: The cheery breakfast shows, the bookstores and infomercials brimming with guarantees of self-improvement. Americans expect every story to have a happy ending, and every problem to have a workable solution that people of good will can achieve through hard work and compromise. That's (in part) why they can't understand the Middle East.
Or Europe. To oversimplify, Americans look around them and see boundless space and plentiful opportunity. Europeans look at life constantly aware that we will all eventually die.
And Israelis? Israelis see threats all around them, never sure how long they as individuals or as a nation will survive in a hostile environment. But they also see how much they have accomplished over the years despite that. People grow up, marry, have kids, acquire property, see the world. Cities are built, and highways, and forests and farms and universities and yeshivas. Ultimately, there's nowhere else on earth a Jew can feel so comfortable being a Jew. So they soldier on, in every sense of the phrase.
Looking forward to getting back home soon!