Monday, November 25, 2013

The Business Traveler

No games, nor programming today. Instead, I wanted to put down my first trip to the States, goddamn 'Murica, Stars and Stripes and bold Eagles. Everyone has an opinion about our infamous cowboy friends. Varying from an example of freedom, technology and overall Coolness, to arrogance, war-seeking and financial crisis causers. Whatever you think, the overall trend hasn’t been a positive one in general.

With a bit of common sense, you can understand the average American isn’t directly responsible for big shot bankers screwing up, or its blood thirsty policymakers with double agenda’s. Just like the average Iranian isn’t responsible for its malicious regime, or average Russian for their corrupt not-so-Gay leaders. Of course, we vote for such leaders and people sometimes say “A nation gets what it deserves”. Western greediness reflects in its policy, narrow mindedness will bring scary leaders, and overall lack of IQ didn’t do much good in this world either. But what I’m trying to say is, it isn’t all black & white. Europe having a bunch of greedy crooks in Bruxelles doesn’t mean the average European supports them. Hence we didn’t even democratically vote for them.

Moon Shiners
But when I think about America, the words “Dumbness”, “Overdramatic” and “Shallowness” come to my mind. And not just “thanks” to MTV shows such as Jersey Shore or Supersweet 16. Man, I truly hate MTV. A few millennia ago you could watch nice music clips on that channel, but nowadays only the stupidest of the stupidest show their stupidity on MTV, compiled for ADHD children with a maximum concentration span of 4 seconds. But not just MTV, even Discovery or National Geographic turned from informative into nonsense documentaries. I don’t give a crap about crap talking crab fishers. What exactly is informative about a bunch of guys buying garage junk? If you aim a camera at some Dutch folks in an office, they will nervously giggle and hide for the camera, not knowing how to behave. But in America it seems as if everyone was born on (sex)tape. Shameless arguing all the time instead of just working, and sharing their deepest emotions with the camera. It’s as if the average American person could switch their emotional state from “I’m like soooo happy” to “Oh my God, Oh my God, oh my God!” to “I hate you, I want to die” in a split second. What a ridiculous show.

Right. These kind of TV shows imply a shallow, instable American character. Add Hollywood on top where action hero’s jump of buildings on a daily basis or music stars inspiring our kids while walking half naked on the stage. All in all, a weird bonanza, and you understand the rest of the world has kind of a weird image(mainly caused by Americans themselves) of the USA. The scary part is that, despite its dumbness, we (European) still swallow and copy this “lifestyle” regardless.

Well, time to visit America and see if it’s really all about hamburgers, big mouths, crying pregnant teenagers, and Duck Dynasty.

As you may know, I program harvesters for a living. This lady comes from our American partners. For a change not a million times bigger than its European counterpart, but big-ass nevertheless.

The “Yank Tank”
If I had to book a vacation to America, I would probably visit a big city, visit touristic spots, and still don’t really know what America is all really about afterwards. Well, I definitely want to make a Hangover road trip with friends one day, but basically the expensive flight tickets stopped us from doing that so far. Fortunately, you don’t have this cost consideration when such a trip is work-related. And neither will you see much of the touristic spots. 99% of the American landscape is filled with wild nature, farms, and widely scattered tiny villages. Cities like New York or L.A. are definitely important as an American “export product”, but we easily forget about the rest.
For work, we were visiting a partner company (Oxbo). You might have seen their machinery on cornfields for example. So, you can probably guess that these meetings didn’t take place in a big city. Swap the Devil Advocate skyscrapers for Countryside & construction plants in the middle of nowhere. Well, almost nowhere. Minnesota doesn’t have a dense population, but small cities or Minneapolis were still within reach with only 45 to 90 minutes driving… Which sounds like an infinity for a typical Dutch guy like me. If you drive for an hour in Holland, chances are very big you crossed a border and speak a different language.

We often make jokes about Americans and their obsession for oversized cars plus additional oil thirst. We wooden-clog-cheese-windmills know everything better; we pick the bicycle. Good for the environment, good for our health. But we tend to forget that the Netherlands is a miniature compared to most other countries in the world. In contrary to Holland, most of the American infrastructure wasn’t designed for cyclists. Hence not even for walking. But even if it was, I don’t see you carrying shopping bags for more than a mile, or going to work if you had to bike for more than 40 minutes. Cities or larger villages might be different, but the country side is really a far stretched version of what we are used to. And probably due the low population density, facilities like shopping malls or schools are combined as big buildings somewhere on a central location. Whereas we have lots of small shops and little schools spread all over the place. In other words, you won’t be anywhere without a car in America. At least not if you prefer to arrive in time on your job and rely on goods from a shop.

The size of the cars on the other hand might be a bit ridiculous. Not just the landscape is stretched, everything is stretched. The very first thing I noticed in America when leaving the airplane was the toilet. It was made for a Brachiosaurus. Then we rented a car. I was just explaining my colleagues I was looking for a car after many years of being carless. Not too big, not too small. Volkswagen Polo or something. Well, that would look like a joke in America. Every single car in that airport garage was at least twice as big. I can imagine a pick-up car is useful on the countryside, but c’mon. Also the automatically opening/closing doors and Kingkong sized cupholders (not one but two) in the car doors confirmed my prejudice about ordinary “bigger better fatter”. Even though the majority of the population is still sort of religious, Modesty is difficult to find sometimes.
Where we say “enough is enough”, they aren’t ashamed to step further.
Don’t hold on back on comfort.

Speaking of big vehicles, games, and our work. Received a nice email about a game called “Landwirtschaftssimulator” (agricultural-machine-simulator). Seems that a company called “Giants Software” made this game in 2008, and also used some of our Ploeger machines. The German guy who mailed was busy upgrading the 3D models of our machines in Blender. I don’t expect this game to beat GTA V, but it fills me with proud to see your work back on the field, Youtube, or even in games by enthusiasts. Maybe I should stop T22 and start helping them hehe.

Pork-stuffed Fries with crusty lard please
BUT! We drove quite some days before we had to refill the tank. So for such a beast, it wasn’t that consuming. And as for fat… I may have to watch my mouth. Because from all people I have seen there, I was probably one of the fattest myself. And no, I’m not THAT large either (big boned, you know) so the average person just wasn’t really obese. At least not where I visited.

Yet America is dangerous when it comes to easily gaining those pounds. As you saw, we take the car for pretty much everything. And although these area’s weren’t crowded with homo sapiens, the letter M occurred more than just once. It seems to me, that "having a good time" is really about stuffing yourself here. In (North) Europe, kids gather in narrow streets filled with bars to get themselves drunk (and get annoying). In America kids gather in plaza’s filled with restaurants to stuff themselves (and get fat). Again, this subtle cultural difference probably has to do with factors such as population density, norms, or a 21 age limit for alcohol.

Anyhow, the food wasn’t automatically hamburgers only. Actually, I had tasty & creative meals most of the time. And you can grab an orange with your breakfast, eat a banana at work, have lettuces with diner, or order water instead of Cola. But the problem is the temptation. I had a normal breakfast with juice and cornflakes. And… an extra doughnut or syrup wafer. Just a little one, but still. Lettuces have a fattish dressing, and the extra cheese on an otherwise healthy pasta doesn’t help either. On top, the proportions are fairly big. In Europe you pay a goddamn fortune for 2 thin sauce stripes on an empty plate. In America you get more than you can eat for a fair price. Same with the drinks. They really seem to love Cola. A guy next to me in the airplane ordered a Diet Coke. Sounds ok. But you can skip the word “Diet” if you order another 6 in a row like he did.

All in all, the extra yummy calories are everywhere, and since ordering food or going to a restaurant is so normal here, you can quickly fall in bad habits. You don’t have to, but it requires some discipline. So, it kinda surprised me to see the average person not being chubby in this region.

Bone apetit. Barf.

Land of the Free
“Fat” isn’t the right word here, but “Big” applies very well when talking about pretty much anything else. Obviously, there is space enough on this continent so why don’t make the roads wider, the parking spaces bigger, the buildings larger, the ceilings higher, and the toilets bulkier? At least it fits with the landscape, which is impressive. Of course I only saw a tiny, rural portion of America. It wasn’t very hilly, but the large cornfields, dusty roads, forest patches and rivers running behind the houses deliver a much more adventurous landscape compared to the boring Dutch one.

Don’t get me wrong, I can really enjoy seeing our cows graze in the green grass on a foggy morning. But it’s all tiny, and very “man-made”. Holland is absolutely flat, and tiled in a systematic way. Every square inch is used for something, and it’s nearly impossible to find a random point where you can’t see another house, road or lantern. We adapted the landscape to our needs. Truly a specialty of the Dutch, and very efficient. But at the same time, not very exciting to explore. Hard to find some wild nature here in the first place. America on the other hand adapted to the nature, and that gives some spectacular sights now and then.

What I liked is the variety of houses in America. Not a single one looked the same. Most made of wood and a bit old fashioned maybe, but I like that. In Holland we have qualitative good stone houses that can survive a storm. But they all look exactly the same, and the tiny fenced gardens aren’t exactly what the Americans would call “freedom”. It’s a bit ironic when we are accusing the Americans for playing Big Brother and spying the world. While we are being watched every single day. Maybe not by shady agencies, but by our very own neighbors, in our silly little gardens. If I give a party or fire an air rifle, the neighbors could complain and call the police. Which is why we have dozens of, sometimes absurd, rules to regulate everything. No campfires, no fireworks, no noise after 22:00, can’t paint your house in any color, can’t just plant a tree in your garden or make a shed that raises above the fence, no this, no that, argh.

And then I hear an American guy in the car talking about he bought gunpowder or likes to shoot with a real gun in his garden. Not a problem, because he can’t even see his neighbor houses. Now who is free really? Of course rules differ in the cities, and every pro has its con. Freedom isn’t for everybody. But I understand more and more why Americans are keen on their privacy, and patriotic about their forefathers who made this all possible in the first place. When talking about the Weapons Act, it’s quite obvious that there is a correlation between the quantity of guns and accidents. Obviously, one shouldn’t have access to a gun when he or she is in an emotional state of mind. But at the same time, it’s a deep rooted American principle to be “Minding my own business.“. He should be able to whatever he Goddamn pleases to do, whether that is owning a gun or making a rocket launcher in the shed.

We European want freedom like anyone else, but at the same time we don’t resist while one after another prohibition gets added to the book. Really, we, and especially Dutch, are tame sissies compared to the American in some of these aspects. Think whatever you want about war, but saying I’m ready to fight and die for my country –believing in its principles- really is something. Sure there is hypocrisy and stupidity about quite a lot of things in America, and their foreign policy hasn’t been honest I think. But we European shouldn’t forget that our wealth and privileges didn’t came from nice talks either. Rakes, fire, wars, exploration, colonies, protecting our believes. Pacifists can be pacifists because blood was shed to make a foundation first. Americans might be a bit too dramatic, we on the other hand might be too na├»ve.

Working all day and having early sunsets, it was hard to capture a "real American" scene. But basically this shot could have been taken anywhere in Europe just as well... Except in the Netherlands then, where you'll find a house or pig-shed otherwise every square meter.

Average Joe
Hamburgers, big cars, patriotism, a little bit more comfort requirements than really needed. But more important, how is the average American? Well, on our meeting I met Americans from West, East and mid-north America. Way too little people for making up reliable statistics, but nevertheless. I didn’t recognize any Snooki, George Bush, Hulk Hogan or Honey Boo Boo behavior at all. Which is a good thing. Well, not a surprise really, but they were all just normal guys. No emotional shouting and hugging at work, just capable people devoted to their work. Most are open, and have a good sense of humor. Neither did I found them shallow. The guys who I met before remembered a lot of what I told them in earlier conversations about family, hobbies, et cetera. “How is Tower22 going?” for example. Just a signal that they were actually listening and also the new faces I met were genuinely interested.

The funny part is that these guys were talking about shows like Duck Dynasty or MTV Cribs with the same kind of disbelief / amazement I have. In other words, those TV shows really don’t represent an average American. Although, at least that was what one of the guys told me, it can vary quite when going to the cities. They considered the Las Vegas people for example “crazy”. Course, every country has differences between provinces, rural and urban, or layers of society. And in America those differences might be a bit more extreme. But don’t forget the country is huge as well. I think an East coast American is a lot more similar to a West coast American than a Western Europe Frenchman compared to a Eastern Europe Bulgarian. Cultural differences are a lot bigger in Europe really.

Another detail I noticed was the company hierarchy. In Holland it’s not uncommon to have the CEO eating sandwiches with the warehouse guy. Hence I’m not really high in the company hierarchy (though I’m the only programmer in Holland so I’m in sort of an exceptional situation), but I can walk in the director’s office any time and make a joke. Which is quite different than neighbor countries such as Belgium or Germany, where (as far as I know) the hierarchy is far more strict. I expected the same from our American partners, but it really wasn’t. Big chief shaking hands with the intern boys, remembering my name and have a chat, et cetera. Obviously, I like that. Although I believe in respect for the higher ranks, and discipline is sometimes dangerously low in some (Dutch) companies, people feel more involved and thus more productive when being embraced by the “big guys”.

Quite different from what I can remember from the movies, although one of the guys I talked with again confirmed differences between urban and rural companies. What we see on TV is often based on the cities, a different cup of tea. Anyhow, the point is, I didn’t feel like an Alien or “Englishman in New York” as Sting would say. We could laugh at each other’s jokes, have a nice talk with everyone, and learn from each other.

All in all, America isn’t a bad place to live. And neither is Europe (or at least the places I have been). Probably my body weight would quadruple when living in America, and I sure think they can be hypocrite or over-reactive on certain things. But sometimes I also wonder what the hell I’m doing here in a small boxed in house while I could have some serious “get off my lawn! + shotgun” property in America for the exact same price. Anyway. We shouldn’t complain. Neither should we found our judgment on movies and all of those stupid TV shows. We American and Europe have a lot in common (hell, most Americans came from Europe, didn’t they?). Too bad our leaders and other big shots sometimes almost remove the worldwide-relation-grenade pin when screwing up with needless conflicts, Financial crisis or other dumb policy. But at the bottom line, we can get along I’d say, so let’s keep it that way.