Tuesday, March 5, 2024

America: Freedom, volleyball and the 'L.'


Shiringul, 21, was impressed by our rail public transportation system.


     Americans have no idea what we have. Not a clue. If we are ignorant of our own country, we're completely, blind pig ignorant of the world.
     Okay, that's unfair. I haven't met most Americans. I should probably water that down. Many Americans seem to have no idea what they've got...
     Which is still a shame. Because nothing makes you love American more than travel.
     Not that there aren't wonderful places in the world. I remember coming back from Paris, looking at Chicago, and thinking, "Why do I live in this cowtown when I could live in Paris?"  
    But I didn't move.
    Travel also offers the opposite. A reminder of wonders we take for granted back home. I was in some Haitian backwater, years ago, waiting for a bus to take me back to Port-au-Prince. As the only blanc within miles, I drew a crowd, curious and eager, with people imploring me, "Help me come to America! Help me come to America!"
     Finally I had enough. 
     "Why?" I asked one man. "What do you hope to find in America?"
     He got very serious and thought.
     "In American, I understand," he began. "There are roads that go over other roads...."
     At that moment I realized that I hadn't seen a single overpass in the whole damn country. And if you had never seen one, the idea of one road lofting into the air and overleaping another road, well, it would be a wonder, hard to wrap your head around.
     Think of that next time you go under a viaduct. 
     I thought of that moment last Tuesday, talking with two Afghani sisters for my Friday column on immigrants applying for their residency permits. Next to travel, speaking with newcomers is an excellent window into our world, a mirror to notice what we might not see otherwise. 
     I asked what it was like, coming to America.
     The older sister, Zeyah, answered in such a ethereal fashion that I didn't try to summarize it in the paper. She spoke of walking across the campus of Northeastern Illinois University. That's it. She didn't exactly specify what about that walk was extraordinary. To be there. Walking across campus. With so many other different types of people. And trees. Going ... wherever she pleased. With no one watching her, keeping tabs on her, following her, placing demands on her. Her whole life suddenly in front of her, her life now hers, to do with as she pleased. That's the sense I got anyway, maybe I was projecting.
     I asked her younger sister the same question. What is being in American like?
     "America ..." she began, succinctly. "It's a dream."
     How so?
     "So cool. So clean. I have my freedom."
     For instance, she can decide whether to wear a hijab or not — an option unavailable to women under the Taliban. She can work, go to school, choose what to study, play on a volleyball team.
    That much got in the paper. But there was more. She said something about lack of insects here. I asked her what made volleyball in Afghanistan different then volleyball here, and she gave a long answer which boiled down to: coaches, supervisors who know what they're doing and help.
     She mentioned something rarely gets cited when the glories of America are being recounted.
    "We don't have trains in Afghanistan."
     "Trends?" I said, misunderstanding her accent. "Like music trends?"
     "No trains," she laughed. "Red Line. Blue Line. Oh my God."
     The 'L.' You might think trains make noise and have delays and people smoke on them now. To her, they mean you can go wherever you want. I checked the train situation in Afghanistan. A couple lines in the North. Kabul started trying to put in a train system. Last year.
    I live by the Metra track. I can turn my head and see trains. Honestly, I'm already glad they're there. The commerce of the country, and convenient as hell for me. But I'm also going to try to remember that they're also somebody's dream come true.


  1. Grew up near the "L" tracks. Took them for granted. Then I spent years in places where there's no L"...all year round...not just at Christmastime. Southern Michigan, Illinois corn country, Colorado, northern Florida. When I finally returned home, I didn't take the "L" for granted anymore. I appreciated it, and I loved it. Still do.

    You don't have to come from another country to dream about the conveniences in commercial centers like Chicago. Plenty of isolated places, with little development or progress, right here in these Untied Snakes. Places without trains. Or overpasses. Or inland seas of available, drinkable water. That's gold, Mr. S...gold! We have so much...

  2. Hmmmmph. She likes the CTA?

    She'd die and go to the Promised Land if she saw the Paris Metro.

    1. Paris's unemployment rate is nearly 8 percent. Chicago's is closer to 5. Plus it's a socialist state — that leaves a lot of government workers to empty those oatmeal box-sized garbage cans. Beautiful, yes. But at a cost.

    2. What "L" stop is that, Mr. S? Merchandise Mart?
      Can't read the name on the station sign.
      Doesn't look familiar anymore. I've been gone a long, long time.

  3. Read this on the bus this morning heading downtown, going under an overpass literally as I came across the sentence about overpasses. Much to critique but much more to be grateful for in America.

  4. I met a Russian woman several years ago who was enthralled by the grocery store. Again, so many choices, but it also reliably has all the staples you need. She told me she and her brother would get an orange in their stocking every Christmas and it was always their favorite gift. They knew it cost their parents dearly, and the oranges tasted so good! She said she ate her orange slowly, and savored every slice.

  5. "There are roads that go over other roads...."

    Whoa. That really put it into perspective for me. Thanks.

  6. One of the most important aspects of traveling (especially to other countries) is to become immersed in other cultures. Even a horse with blinders on will notice the change in the taste of their oats.

    A passport is a ticket to seeing the new, and the old, in a light you've never seen them before. Don't it always go to say, that you don't know what you've got till its gone.

  7. We do take much for granted indeed.

  8. Back in the eighties, when the Solidarity movement was rocking the world, a friend of ours was visited by a history professor from Poland. He said, approximately, "I took her to New York and she said 'We have big cities too.' I took her to Washington DC and she said 'We have lots of monuments.' Then I took her to the library at my state college and her jaw dropped and she said 'Open book stacks!'"

  9. In the early to mid 90’s I was a guest instructor at the Albanian National Police Academy. Albania was just coming out of communism, and there were shortages, strikes and spotty utilities. A beautiful country with friendly and outgoing people. Some of the officers had been to training in the U.S. and we asked their impressions. Stores were a big hit, with so many options. Orderly traffic and stop lights at which people stopped. Clean air…we were in Tirana, and the pollution was bad. In my youth in the army in Germany (early 70’s) I had occasion to visit east Berlin. Store shelves empty, ancient cars and awful infrastructure. Both of these experiences opened my eyes to what we have here. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.

    1. Marty, in the very early days of Covid, I was in my local Trader Joe's. Many of the shelves were bare. All I could think was , this is how it is in Many places in the world all the time.

    2. I was stationed in Germany as well in the early 70's. I wish I had gone to Berlin. Back then you had to get permission to go to Berlin since it was East Germany. And if you drove you were told not to get off the road. I am Jewish so it felt kind of strange bein there when the end of WW2 was not that far in the past.


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