Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Post With Two Possible Titles

Positively spun: “Everything’s BIG in America" (including this post, so pull up a comfy chair and get a glass of water)

Negatively stated:  "Now I Know Why the World Hates Us"

For the past two years, once a year, I have navigated to LAX around midnight to pick up a strange young lady to spend the next year living in my home, exchanging room and board, a few hundred bucks each month, and “the American Experience” for a flexible slave nanny to watch my children with me or take charge when I need to leave the house for some sanity to go to work.

After brief pleasantries, I put her luggage in my van as the exhausted girl quietly sits in the passenger seat. While we drive to my home, I steal glances at the strange traveler, watching the size of her eyes as she takes in the sights of West LA, then downtown LA, and finally into the foothill areas where I lived. It’s also a look that I see frequently on others faces whenever I am out alone with my 2 sets of preschool aged twin girls. Simply stated: “Oh My God, people do things big here.”

These girls are au pairs. They are matched with our family much like one finds love on the internet online. The hunters parents seek out prey the au pair by searching through the various profiles and pictures and deciding on several we want to get to know better. After a few Skype calls, we agree to live together, harmonious, for the sake of raising my children. One of these days, I’ll dedicate a post on what this means to me and what it could mean to you, if my dear reader needs childcare.

As our new family member sees our approaching Foothills outlined in the moon’s glow and hovering over our home, her eyes become the shape of saucers as she takes in the mountainous sight. I suppose I wouldn’t get this reaction of my new nanny lived in Austria, however the two girls I’ve had stay with us have come from the Brazilian flatlands and the Netherlands: both areas much like Kansas, without all the wheat. The next morning as the sun streams into her window, she’s amazed as our Foothills loom above the house, all aglow in colors of the foliage.

She comes out of her room, jet-lagged and blurry-eyed and sees me again. All 6 feet of me and carrying over 200 pounds of extra fluff. “Gi-freakin-normous!,” she thinks, as if street-English is her first language. Then she sees my husband, also sporting an extra 100 pounds on his 6’3” frame. Next come my kids, two of the largest 18-month old girls she’s ever seen – even larger than the ones in National Geographic, which of course my culturally enlightened nanny has been subscribing to since birth – followed by 3-year olds the size of the average kindergartener. Yes, each and every one of my girls has, at one point, been over the 100 percentile in both height and weight, and a few still sport those BIG labels. “Wow,” she says to herself. “I am a midget here.” (Of course, not only are my kids physically huge, they also talk big… and LOUD. There is no off button on my litter of girls.)

Since we get home at midnight, she doesn't get the grand tour until morning.  Here I am, appalled that my home has only 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms (1 of which she will share with me and all 4 girls). But, our house is even big to them. They are used to putting 3 or 4 kids in each room and having a whole family share one bathroom. To them, my too-small house is actually luxury.

She’s now been awake for about an hour. Time to go shopping: as usual, we are out of diapers and the foreigner needs to pick up some basic toiletries. Coming to America for a year with only two suitcases is rather limiting, after all. We all pile into our 8-passenger van. Europe does not have the concept of mini-vans, especially Holland where everyone rides bikes and Brazil where everyone takes the bus or walks. Cars larger than an Accord just blow their minds.  Americans live in excess.

We arrive at our destination: Wal-mart (or Target). Her eyes seem like they will spring forth from her face. Where she is from, their mega-stores are between the size of 7-elevens and Trader Joes. At their grocery stores, they are lucky if there are two brands of mayonnaise to choose from and even then, you are out of luck if 8 other people got there before you. At any given Albertson’s or Ralph’s in America, we have 15 brands of mayo AND 6 sizes to choose from.

An entire floor-to-ceiling row of cereal? One row dedicated to toothpaste and toothbrushes? Are you kidding me?

Wait til I take her to Costco or Sam’s Club! That’s next on the list and she is totally blown away. The ceiling heights of these massive bulk retailers, the sheer square footage, and the overall enormity of the sizes of STUFF that we buy are inconceivable to her. What do you mean… 48 rolls of TP in one bag? Who needs 20 pounds of potatoes at once? A 5-pound bag of shredded cheese? A 4-pack box of gallon-sized milk?

Where do you put all that stuff?

(Oh yeah, did I not mention that we have 2 refrigerators at home? A massive pantry/storage unit? And soon to have a sub-zero freezer?)

By the end of our shopping trip, she is freaking out and telling me excitedly about all the people in her life who would be amazed at the excess of what she just witnessed. I guess I have to say that our foreigners live much like those in Manhattan do… they buy the day’s consumables on their way home from work because there is no place to store anything, and there are always a bread shop, a meat shop, a dairy store, etc., along the main street where they live.

Our foreigners have no concept of an indoor mall. Both of my nannies spent countless hours (and dollars) the Americana and Galleria in Glendale. A cinema with 20 movie choices every day? A full-sized Target and 200 other stores in two building complexes taking up 4 city blocks? UNBELIVEABLE.

Oh, and the fast-food choices we have. Along our 4-mile portion of the one main street in our town (a noisy yet small out-of-the-way suburb of Los Angeles), we had 12 major fast food chain stores and a dozen independent fast food joints to choose from. Believe it or not, we were still missing a handful of fast food stores (no Wendy’s, Carl’s or Arby’s for us!). In my nanny’s small town, they had one McDonalds and it was NOT open 24/7. They had to drive 40 minutes to get to the next fast food joint. If they wanted a choice of a few burger places, they had to go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, both over 2 hours away, and the only 2 places in the entire country that had such excess.

Unfortunately, the same little town we lived in had “only” 5 real sit-down restaurants: Coco’s, Denny’s and IHOP, and 2 independent Mexican food places, but that’s still better than what was offered at my nannies’ home towns (and… I am sure, in many towns across America, but I live in Los Angeles and we’re used to this). We felt jilted that we needed to drive 20 minutes to a Target or a “real” restaurant, like Outback or The Cheesecake Factory, or to the movies. We also had two parks … one without any playground equipment 4 miles away, and the other which was a cesspool that attracted homeless transients and mental patients. Not the place to take toddlers.

When we moved into a “community-based” city in Orange County, my nanny – who had been with us almost a year at that point and felt she’d seen it all – was again bowled over by our new place. We added 30% square footage to our new place, including an extra bedroom and bathroom, plus a real dining room and a formal living room. The open area and vaulted ceilings are almost a waste of usable space! But, it’s only 2100 sq ft – fairly average – and clearly nothing like Aaron Spelling’s 56,500 sq ft 100+ room mansion on 4.7 acres in Beverly Hills.

Within walking distance of our new place is an indoor mall with 200+ retail stores, a Walmart, Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, Albertson’s, Baby’s R’ Us, Target, tons of banks, 3 well-equipped parks, and about 10 real sit-down restaurants (TGI Fridays, Red Lobster, Red Robin, Outback, Soup Plantation, Cheesecake Factory, BJs and more!!). In our whole town which can’t be more than 1 mile wide and 5 miles long, there are also 24 movie screens and about 20 more large restaurants and probably 100 small shops that sell food, including Panda Express, 4 Starbucks including 1 drive-thru, Goldsteins’, Chinese-food shops, etc. Nanny is in heaven. And completely broke.

I’m in heaven too. One of these days when I have money to spend again, I too will be able to enjoy the malls and restaurants… but for now, I’ll keep my gaggle of girls at home where it’s cheaper to exist and things aren’t so large.

The other thing we do big here (as compared to Europe) is celebrate.

Halloween? WOW… costumes and candy and spooktacular events, oh my! They don’t even have Halloween in Holland.

Thanksgiving was hysterical… especially cooking the turkey. Our food is big!! They are used to chickens that aren’t treated with steroids. Our portions are big. They use salad sized plates – we use serving trays for plates. The amount of food we consume (especially on holidays) is outrageous. (No wonder people in general are thinner overseas!) They use glasses that are 4-6 ozs for their drink serving sizes. At our home, we have 32 oz cups or sippy cups. That’s it.

In Holland, they think our version of Christmas is craziness… they don’t exchange gifts or put up Christmas lights. They just have a warm family dinner and celebrate the real reason for the season, without all the hoopla that comes with it in our world.

We celebrate everything… St. Patrick’s Day’s green-ness. Valentine’s Day’s red-ness. Easter’s bunny-ness. Chocolate for all occasions. Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veteran’s Day patriotism…. My nanny is continually amazed by all the American flags she sees that decorate homes, buildings, and poles everywhere, not just on those 3 days.

But birthday celebrations in America are in excess to the extreme. One of my acquaintances’ had a birthday party for her 5-yr old. They had a real miniature train that ran on tracks they set up which lined their entire street. She wanted to get the kid an elephant, but it didn’t work out. (An ELEPHANT? Seriously???) So there was a pony ride set up instead. And, of course, she had a popcorn machine and a cotton candy machine, entertainers, bounce houses, and goody bags for all the kids. I can’t fathom spending thousands of dollars on a kid’s party, but people do it!

For our 4-yr old twins, we had a simple party in our backyard with a few dozen people, including family, friends and their kids, and we served burgers and dogs. We did spring for a bounce house for the first time. And, THAT was still huge in the eyes of our nanny. I booked the elephant for their 6th birthday party. No, I didn’t.

So, are we a nation of excess? I think it’s fair to say we are a SPOILED county. But we certainly have fun, huh?

What do you think is excessive here in America?  I'm sure I didn't cover it all!


  1. Hahaha! I love this blog! It's exactly how I see Americans! Brilliantly written!