BACK-IN-THE-USA, PART IIO Magnitude
Mar. 8 - The first thing that struck me when we stepped out of the terminal in Newark was a difference in magnitude. It was as though Denmark had been constructed in 3/4-scale. Everything in America seemed bigger. It also seemed chaotic and untamed, but it was the sheer size of things—stupid things, like the signs in the parking lot—that leaped out at me before the staggering disarray of things had time to register.
Which isn't to say things in Denmark are small—they're not, and as a people the Danes are among the tallest people in the world—but the sheer tidiness of Denmark makes it visually manageable. You're rarely overwhelmed by visual stimuli. Even the thousand-and-one neon signs of Copenhagen's Rådhusplads are neatly arranged in orderly rows.
Naturally, many things in America really are measurably larger than they are in Denmark, and many of those things were on display as we began our ground journey north.
Newark Airport itself, for example, could swallow Kastrup whole. The northern stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike has more lanes and traffic than you'll find anywhere in Denmark (and the cars and trucks are, on average, much bigger—though the difference isn't as significant as it was when I first visited Denmark in 1997 and giggled about all the wind-up toys cluttering the streets). The George Washington Bridge would probably only be the fourth-biggest bridge in Denmark, but its daring leap from Fort Lee to Manhattan is still awe-inspiring in a way that Denmark's soaring spans are not. And the sheer endlessness of the urban sprawl around New York is home to several times the population of all Denmark, let alone Copenhagen. (Our old neighborhood of Astoria has nearly half as many inhabitants as Copenhagen.)
But I'm going to step out of those specifics and back into generalities for a minute, because the specifics aren't properly communicating the essential difference that struck me as we continued north: the American anarchy that throws itself at you from every direction, that gives you come-hither looks and what-you-lookin'-at sneers, that constantly beckons, lures, shoves, attracts, repels, cajoles, demeans, entices, seduces, and assails you. Denmark simply isn't like that. The craziest parts of Copenhagen on the drunkenest nights of the year aren't like that.
This isn't a particularly insightful observation. America's obviously bigger, more populous, and more heterogenous than Denmark. Maybe big democracies are just inevitably more anarchic than smaller ones—that would sure go a long way toward explaining India.
But never mind whether or not I'm being insightful. I'm describing "the first thing that struck me" in America, and there it is: it seemed bigger, wilder, noisier, more dangerous. If Denmark were a small and elegant clock, beautifully designed and accurate to within 1/1000th of a second per century, America would be some gargantuan Rube Goldberg contraption with crazy giant hammers, mice in cages, cats wired to electrodes, and lots of whirling, buzzing, blinking accoutrements—and it would only be accurate if you looked at it just so, with your eyes squinted like this—although you might lose an eye in the process. And even then it'd be just as likely to give you the weather as the time.
Hunter S. Thompson, who blew his brains out while we were visiting (hopefully not because we were visiting), long ago coined the phrase "the land of the weird" to describe the United States. There is something boisterous and unpredictable about America. We're not the biggest or most populous nation of the world, and we sure as hell haven't cornered the market on crazy, but we're the only major player on the world stage that shines a spotlight on its weirdness—the aims a camera on it and beams it out to the world. Just glance at the international headlines swirling around Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart for a sense of our depravity—and the world's insatiable appetite for it.
America also seemed dirtier to me. Not just dirtier, but sloppier. Not just sloppier, but—I mean, let's face it, organization isn't our strong point. On the contrary: the liberty that comes from not being physically organized by government fiat may well be one of our strongest points. But this still has certain manifestations in the physical world that can be jarring when you've been away from them for a while. Denmark has done everything in its power to prevent their real estate from becoming a commodity, because (I'm told) they're terrified that if that were ever to happen, the Germans would immediately buy up half the country for their summer retreats. American real estate is a commodity. Every acre of our habitable land is exploited for its full potential. We're willing to hit our nation with the ugly stick in exchange for more housing, more commerce, more transportation. Copenhagen's housing shortage is a product of its unwillingness to allow unfettered development. As a Dane with considerable American experience once pointed out to me, "everyone complains about the real estate market, the housing shortage, but no one wants to let anyone build anything." That's obviously very different from America, where the answer to every question seems to be, "let's build!"
And so our jumbling cities and sprawling suburbs, built one on top of another, spilling over into each another. Not something you think about very often when you live there, but very apparent if you've become accustomed to the orderly layout of Denmark.
But I'm running out of time and I'm not even sure I'm making any sense. So here's what struck me: if America didn't exist, a schizophrenic, alcoholic, lecherous third-rate copywriter would have had to have been invented to dream it up.
And I love it.
* * *
"But, Moron," you may be saying, "yesterday you said you'd be riffing on a single photo for each bloggy almanac about your trip. That was kind of abstract and disjointed to be coming out of a single photo, wasn't it?"
Not at all. This is the photo that got me thinking about it:
That's Molli having a bath in my parents' kitchen sink. There are probably sinks of that size and depth in Denmark, but I haven't seen them. I found myself looking at that picture and reflecting unhappily on the phone-booth-sized bathroom and diminutive kitchen sink we're dealing with in our own home... and next thing you know I'm waxing nostalgic on American magnitude.
And from there it was just free-fall.
* * *
On March 9, 1454, Amerigo Vespucci was born. He was an Italian explorer who made many voyages to the new world at about the same time as Columbus. The two continents of the new world were therefore named for him, and it wasn't until the seventeenth century (Greenwich time) that North and South Vespucci were renamed the Americas.
Today is also the birthday of Emmanuel Lewis (1971), Bobby Fischer (1943), Raul Julia (1940), Yuri Gagarin (1934), Irene Papas (1926), and Mickey Spillane (1918).
It's Baron Bliss Day in Belize, Labor Day in Australia (probably observed Monday, and Provincial Anniversary in New Zealand.
Happy Hump Day!
© 2005, The Moron's Almanac