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Mobility Nation - On The Unfinished American Experiment

How the always changing 'work-in-progress' that is the United States of America looks to a European, where the past still holds everything in place.

See you down the highway...
See you down the highway...
Henryk M. Broder

What does an American need to be happy? A house, a car, a family to care about, and a wallet full of plastic. And, of course, a job -- sometimes two or three of them -- so he or she can pay off what they owe on the house and car, and feed that family.

So this, in theory, could lead you to think that Americans are like you and me. Yet, first impressions are misleading. There’s more than just the Atlantic between Europe and the U.S. -- there’s a huge cultural gap too.

Europe is like a house that generation after generation inherits: down in the basement are the remains of Emperor Charlemagne, Martin Luther, Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhelm and upstairs, on display, are paintings by the Dutch masters or German Expressionists.

The things that nobody wants to deal with on a daily basis are stored away: the First and Second World Wars, the Herero genocide, and the Holocaust. Joining them soon will be the Lisbon Treaty, which narrowly missed becoming the European Constitution.

Meanwhile, in the States, anything that's been around more than 30 years is considered an “antique” or “vintage”: furniture, tableware, cars, clothes, books. American’s may not sort their garbage, but they recycle everything through Thrift Shops, like those run by the Salvation Army, or at yard and garage sales where entire families, including Grandma and Grandpa, sell what they don’t want anymore.

If you’re not used to this, you might wonder: have these people just moved in and haven’t quite gotten settled yet? Or are they moving out and don’t have enough boxes to pack all of their stuff? This is the impression you get in many small towns, which look like an unfinished Lego landscape that the kids lost interest in.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule: In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a citizens’ initiative rescued an old train station from demolition and has since converted it into a hotel and conference facility.

The old railroad cars now serve as apartments for tourists who’d like something a little quainter than a Holiday Inn, although the area around the station is as dead as downtown Dessau after midnight.

Visitors from Europe -- whether from Amsterdam, Bern, or Krakow -- can only marvel at why real estate at the most desirable inner city locations are used as parking lots instead of being built on. Why aren’t the historic buildings restored instead of being left to rot? Why has the railroad, which was once the country’s capillary system, become little more than cause for nostalgia?

They will wonder these things until it finally hits home that America is a work-in-progress, a research and development department for applied mobility, a clock that sometimes runs too fast and sometimes too slow, but never stands still. Americans don’t wait until work comes to them: they move to places where there are jobs.

Five days a week, Howard, 63, is up before dawn to drive 50 kilometers to work and then 50 back again in the early afternoon. He works as a baker -- a trade he has no qualifications for.

After 35 years in the military, he could get by on his pension but sitting at home and mowing the lawn is not his thing. So, every month he drives almost 2,000 kilometers in his pick-up truck to get to his job and back – an expense he can’t even deduct from his taxes, as there is no flat commuter deductible in the States like there is in Germany.

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Patriotic car wash - SusanNYC

And it’s not only people who are mobile, the real estate is too -- getting passed from hand to hand.

Until recently, it was easier to buy a house than to rent one. A roof over your head is there to protect you from the vagaries of weather; it doesn’t mean you have to live your life in one place. In this regard, Americans are completely unsentimental.

Still, there is a symbiotic connection between a house and its residents, a car and its users, and the house and the car. They complement each other and add up to an organic unit.

If you could drive the house to work and live in the car, Americans would do it. In fact, they do do it: they just hook a trailer onto the pick-up and head off to wherever the next job might be.

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