Seeing the USA in a Dodge Van, Part 3

Finally! After 82 days, more than 10, 000 miles of driving, and 27 destinations we’re glad to be home in Istanbul. It’s hot now, and in a few other ways life isn’t perfect, but it is comfortably familiar. Walking again – to the neighborhood stores and restaurants – feels natural here, whereas where we’ve been for the last three months, outside of a shopping mall or a recreational area, it felt strange to walk, and we walked very little.

It’s a fact that in America practical life requires driving. That said, with a vehicle, life in American towns and metropolitan centers can be wonderfully convenient. Unlike much of the rest of the world, in America, streets are mostly wide and traffic is mostly well regulated. Parking is rarely a problem, and stores are large, well-stocked, and full of choice. If, at times, Americans feel alienated by the fact that practically all retail shopping occurs on corporate sales floors designed to be blandly familiar and where no employee may know your face or name, well, that’s just the way of modern life. Neighborhood family-owned businesses mostly belong to the past.

Because Kay and I live abroad and visit the United States at long intervals, we’re struck by the changes that have occurred in our absence. Because ours, this time, was a road trip, we couldn’t help noticing that highway driving seems faster than we remembered. If the posted speed limit is 65 mph, nearly everyone is driving roughly 10 miles per hour faster. In the past, when I drove that way, I would be stopped by the state police. This doesn’t seem to happen much any more so it would seem that drivers feel free to drive faster.

Another change is the risen cost of living. As travelers, we ate many meals in restaurants, and even in the most casual ones, the prices were noticeably higher. The fact that menu prices buy portions too large to eat at one sitting means that diners take home what they don’t eat at the table. This is an American practice that we’ve never seen widely imitated in other countries. Kay and I find being confronted by super-sized portions to be off-putting. One evening in an Italian restaurant, when I asked our waiter why he brought me so much on my plate, he replied that if the restaurant didn’t serve so much, customers wouldn’t come. I don’t remember this phenomenon from my youth. When did it start?

Another American restaurant practice that we’d like to see abolished is the addition of a local sales tax and a tip to the food and beverage total. In upscale restaurants, this can be a significant addition. In Turkey, as in European countries, a value added tax is national and is figured into menu prices, as are the salaries of the servers. Occasionally, but not too often, there is a notice on the bill that service is not included. Usually, the price of items listed in a menu is what you pay.

A welcome change is the advent of the modern motel where all services are contained within a single multi-storied building close to a freeway exit. These places have a dining room where breakfast, consisting of a choice of fruit; yogurt and dry cereal; bread, English muffins, and bagels; and self-made waffles are offered as part of the room price. Sometimes there are scrambled eggs and sausage or bacon.

These motels with comfortable beds usually have a small fitness room, as well, which I used whenever available. The sleeping rooms often have small refrigerators and microwave ovens that one can use to store and reheat the dinner one couldn’t finish the evening before. This class of motel is newer and cleaner than the older ones, and the cost of the rooms, if reservations are made on-line, represent a pretty good value.

American road trips have gotten easier and more comfortable through the use of GPS technology that sure beats squinting at a map or trying to remember someone’s spoken directions. The downside of technology is the danger of drivers talking on the phone and texting while driving. The New York Thruway has pull-offs designed especially for those who need to send or receive a text.

Another danger, at least a potential one, is America’s gun culture. Why do so many Americans feel they have to go around armed? In other countries, where order prevails, most citizens would not be allowed to walk and drive around carrying concealed weapons, nor would they want to. We like to think we are rational creatures, while actually our emotions control us to very large degree. Guns go off and often in the wrong places at the wrong times.

Herkimer County, New York

Our observations about America are informed by our experiences living and traveling outside it. We can’t help this. We don’t think anyone can live and travel extensively outside his or her own country and not come to see it newly or at least differently. Both Kay and I spent nearly all of our pre-retirement lives living and working in the U.S. We wouldn’t have the lives we have now were it not for the opportunities we found there. We love returning for visits. Each time, we travel freely to different parts, discovering and rediscovering its varied beauties.

History and culture are the domains that interest us most, and, in the first two accounts of this voyage, I’ve written about a few of the cultural opportunities we’ve had. We had a few more in the final leg, and I’ll just quickly highlight them for the record.

On a Saturday early in June, after spending the day in Portage, Indiana, lolling on the sunny deck of a cabin cruiser as guests of my nephew and his wife, our party that included my sister and her husband headed for a restaurant called Fish Camp in Michigan City. On the way, we stopped at a site on the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to view five homes that were built as models for 1933 Chicago’s World Fair, dubbed the Century of Progress. After the fair, these homes were relocated to the lakeshore where they stand today to be examined and admired. One of the five was being renovated and was hidden under layers of construction wrappings.

Florida House

Of the others, the most striking is the orange-pink Florida, an elaborate beach house with features like air-conditioning that didn’t exist widely when the house was built.

Armco-Ferro House

The Armco-Ferro House, designed by architect Robert Smith, Jr. of Cleveland, was meant to be mass-produced and affordable at $4,500. It was built for the American Rolling Mill Company and has no frame. It’s exterior is covered in reflective panels.

Wiebolt-Rostone House

The Wiebolt-Rostone House entitled “Made in Lafayette – Experiment in Home Building” was created by Walter Scholer, an architect from Lafayette, Indiana. It is built of an inorganic material called Rostone, a combination of limestone, shale, and lime.

The Wood Eternal

The fourth house is a glorified log cabin entitled “Showcase for Progress ‘the Wood Eternal.’” It is set high on an embankment and off limits to visitors, but I captured a photo of part of its exterior. It was built of cypress by architect Murray D. Hetherington, who my sister says designed several homes in the Chicago neighborhood of Beverly where she and I grew up.

Chicago River

We spent several days in Chicago seeing family and friends. On one occasion, walking downtown toward the Museum of Contemporary Art where we had been invited to lunch, we took a stroll along the city’s River Walk admiring the wonderful architecture, both new and old.

A few of our final days were spent at the home of friends in Oakville, an exurb on Lake Ontario southwest of Toronto. Among several pleasant memories of that visit was listening to a radio broadcast of a program that our friend Jenny wrote and hosted for a local jazz station.

That same day we took in an exhibition of the work of Banksy. It was an eye-opener. We knew little about this fugitive street artist who has become famous in the art world. We had never seen so much of his work. What we discovered was how political, ironic, and witty Banksy is. On our own, we would have had trouble finding this exhibition held in an industrial building in an obscure district of Toronto.

Some of you know that Kay and I are cinephiles. Fortunately, we know others bent the same way. Our Canadian friends have a dedicated home theater where we watched two adaptations of Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment. The first was by Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki and is entitled Rikos ja Rangaitus. True to his style, it is set among joyless working class men and women of Helsinki. We enjoyed watching it as we do all of Kaurismäki’s films.

While Rikos ja Rangaitus is freely adapted from the novel and runs a normal length, the Russian version that we watched next is a period film, faithful to the novel’s structure, and runs nearly four hours. It was directed by L. Kulidzhanov and is regarded by many as the novel’s greatest adaptation.

Another friend, who lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and is passionate about film, entertained us with eight films in two days and an evening. Among the highlights were Jezebel and The Little Foxes, both Hollywood classics, starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler. A third starring Davis and produced by her is A Stolen Life, in which she plays twin sisters with different needs and personalities.

Far-fetched but still moving was Mervyn Le Roy’s Random Harvest, starring Ronald Coleman and the multi-talented Greer Garson. It’s given us reason to see more of her work.

This voyage gave me some unique opportunities to pursue my interest in my family’s history. My cousin in Appleton, Wisconsin is the caretaker of an important archive that includes albums belonging to a late uncle who filled them with photos he took over several decades.

Eric Built a Go-Cart

Among them are some surprising finds, including this one of me with a go-cart I built as a young teen in the 1950s.

I did further research at the Herkimer County Historical Society and among a myriad of distantly related cousins who still live in that lovely part of upstate New York along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal.

Cemetery in Town of Poland

Together with one of my cousins, whom I’ve known for many years, Kay and I drove all over the county visiting cemeteries where my ancestors are buried. What fun!

The road trip of 2018 was a long one, the likes of which we’ll never repeat. Its primary purpose was to see friends and family who are either very old or very ill. Two of these were literally at the end of their lives at the time we saw them and have since passed away. It was very fortunate to be able to spend a short time with them during their final days.

We’re not sure where our next U.S. visit will take us. We have some ideas, but we’ll have to wait and see.