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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Big, Fat American Life

Welcome Back to my Big, Fat American Life

(Note: all prices are in US dollars. To convert to NZ dollars, add about 20%)
Riding with the 'hood pack

It’s like we never left. Being back in Spokane after a year and-a-half away feels like coming home after a week’s vacation. You ask yourself: Did I really go on a trip? Did we really visit Disneyland, Mexico, Italy…? Or wherever your travels took you. In our case, I wonder, Were we just in New Zealand? And ten other countries? Nah, can’t be real.

As we crest the hill on I-90, Spokane’s skyline pops into view.  Pine trees dot the landscape. The Coeur d’Alene Mountains flank the area to the East. The day is gray, and somehow, the sky looks different. Maybe it’s the fact North America has an ozone layer, and New Zealand does not.  The atmosphere in En Zed feels thinner. Go outside on a clear day without sun block, and you’ll crisp like a turkey set to broil.

I remain in the right lane, turning South onto Highway 195. I’m surprised to find driving on the right side has returned so easily, after more than a year of thinking, “left, left, left.” Once we’d weathered the first nervous 15 minutes, ride-side driving fell into place like riding a bike (I still occasionally tap out a quick two-step, forgetting where Honda installed my steering wheel: It’s on the left, dummy. Not the right).

My heart beats faster as the rental car climbs the hill into our old neighborhood.

                “We’re home, kids!” I say, excitedly.

                “I remember this!” says Finley (who claims to remember every place we ever go, even when he’s never been there before).

                “I hope Rachael’s home,” says Fiona, as we pass her best friend’s house.

                “I hope Ryan gives me my Jeep,” says Finley.  

We enter the house. Our house.  We’re sharing it with my friend, Jennifer, and her two kids, ages 14 and 12.  We hug our new house mates before touring the place. Our place. I step into the kitchen and gasp:
                “Oh my God! It’s so big! And beautiful!”

I’m talking not about the kitchen itself (which is big and beautiful) but about my hulking, vertically-divided, brushed stainless steel refrigerator with built-in water and ice dispenser. The fridge we used at the villa in Papamoa, NZ was built for little people – just big enough for a head of lettuce and a liter of milk (and the milk would spoil after two days). The freezer was downstairs, in the garage. I never used ice because of the hassle factor. Now I can luxuriate in ice – crunching it and drinking icy beverages ‘til I’m blue. It strikes me I didn’t even buy this appliance – it was a gift from the congregation at our church, St. John’s, after Sean died. We received so many meals during his illness, we ran out of shelf space. So parishioners chipped in and bought us a fridge. Now, we have two complete refrigerator/freezers – one, flaunting its good looks in the kitchen, the other pinch-hitting in the garage.

My house mate’s 14-year-old laughs as I stare at the silver show-off.
                “But it’s YOUR fridge,” she says, bemused.

I run upstairs to gawk at my bedroom – rather, my master suite. It, too, is enormous.  The closet’s big enough to get dressed in, perform pilates or host a small gathering. The attached bathroom includes two sinks, a corner soaking tub and separate room with shower and toilet. The water in the sink emerges from a single faucet, not two taps (many older homes in NZ have separate taps for cold and scalding water). Everything looks relatively new and bright. There’s so much light in this house. Americans do lighting really well. We live big, fat, 100-watt American lives.

I could never afford my house in New Zealand. You can buy a home like mine, with five bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms in Spokane, for around $275,000 (or less, depending on location). This house in NZ would cost two or three times that much. It’s highly unlikely I could ever live in anything like my American house Down Under.

I hear a noise, a sudden low whoosh and then a hum. It’s – it’s the furnace. We have a furnace! A metal cylinder in the basement uses natural gas to heat air that blows through vents under the floors. The process warms the ENTIRE HOME to an even temperature. You can live in your home in winter without wearing a jacket or hat. It’s amazing. Very, very comfortable. Such contraptions don’t exist in New Zealand. If you’re lucky, you have a couple heat pumps you begrudgingly operate when the weather turns cold in July and August (in fairness, it rarely snows on the North Island and the coldest temperatures I experienced were around the freezing mark).

The home we moved into across from the ocean at Mount Maunganui has no heat pumps. That means the house likely teems with damp cold in winter. It’s tough to shake that wet Chihuahua feeling. It’s reminiscent of camping, something I barely tolerate outdoors, in summer. Indoor camping just pisses me off. I tried it during a couple July weekends in NZ and exposed my inner bitch. No one wanted to speak to me when they saw the clenched, chattering teeth. 

So what if it rains the entire first week we arrive in Spokane? We have a warm home. And a giant fridge. With an icemaker. A big, fat American appliance.

We also enjoy an enormous, 15-year-old washing machine, plus matching dryer we use recklessly. I wanted to embrace the dryer during our initial reunion, but it was full of my roommate’s stuff. Dryer intimacy waited ‘til Week Two.
Hello, Lover

My dad and stepmother, Kathe, arrive in Spokane about the same time as us. They stay at a hotel near the hospital, since all our beds are full. They greet us at the house with smiles and hugs. Finley says,

                “You don’t look any different, Grandpa and Grandma Kathe.” This makes the grandparents happy.
Dad and Fiona

The morning after our arrival, I bring Fiona and Finley to school. It’s the same place Fiona attended kindergarten. We arrive as the pledge of allegiance resonates over the loudspeaker:

               "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America..."

What an old-fashioned idea. I didn’t know they still did the pledge in schools. How very American.

Fiona and Finley immediately recognize several faces in their classrooms – kids from our neighborhood. My kiddos are happy to wave goodbye as I leave.

I execute my first back-in-the-States grocery store trip. My list is only six items long, but, as usual, I leave the store after spending $120 and 45 minutes gawking and choosing. We have so much selection. And it’s so cheap! Compared to New Zealand, it’s cheap. I buy a gallon of milk for $2.50. The same amount (about four liters) in NZ would cost $7.00.  Bacon: $2.88 for just under a pound (1/2 kilogram); cereal: $2.50 a box; Greek yogurt: $2.88 for a large tub (about a liter – ¼ the price in NZ); brownie mix: $1.88 ($4-5 in NZ – I refused to buy brownie or cake mix there); a bag of 10 tortillas: $2 ($5 in NZ). Lest you think I'm obsessed, I used to be a consumer reporter - shopping and price comparisons were part of my job. They're still part of my DNA. 

The young check-out guy makes small talk as he scans my 49 items.

                “So, have you done anything exciting today?” he asks.

I want to respond: “YES! This. Grocery shopping is VERY exciting.”

I don’t say that.

Up the hill, at Trader Joe’s, I spot a bottle of Vin-Koru New Zealand Pinot Gris for $5.99.  It’s made from grapes from the Hawke’s Bay, where the Partner grew up. I tell Pete later, via phone, I could probably ship him a case cheaper than what he could buy it for in NZ.

                “You can’t buy any wine for $5.99 in New Zealand,” he says.

True. Cheap Kiwi vino (or South African imports) starts at about $8.

I stop at Fred Meyer to refuel my Honda Odyssey minivan, whose tank is nearly empty – it’s sniffing fumes. I whistle as the pump’s numbers settle on $52.50.  I have the same model minivan (two years older) in En Zed, and pay around $80 (US equivalent) to fill up. I know four-dollar-a-gallon gas really sucks for Americans, but try spending six dollars per gallon or more and driving just as much.  

The make-up aisle in Target provides a similar, overwhelming experience: dozens of brands, more than an aisle’s worth of beauty-in-a-bottle at (compared to NZ) rock-bottom prices: Maybelline mascara: $4.44. I buy three. Maybe I can sell them in NZ, where they cost more than $20. Each. I had no idea Maybelline was a luxury brand, on par with Lancome or Clinique.

And I understand now why Americans eat out so much. It’s cheap. A large lunch salad with shrimp costs half the price of a similar salad Down Under. Free coffee refills flow from urns like water. No one charges extra for condiments. Belt-busting bread baskets are free. A $2 hamburger? It’s here. No wonder we’re super-sized (though the obesity rate in NZ is nearly 28% - not far behind America, at 36%).
It is, indeed, a big, fat American life.

Beyond the superficial, I revel in the substantive aspects of My Spokane: friends I still laugh with as though we’ve never been apart; the church family we grew to rely on during crisis and beyond; neighbors who’ve never forgotten us – one of them hosted a welcome home gathering; two other families have fed us dinner in their homes (both families said Grace before the meal – another distinctly- though not universal - American act); one neighbor helped me hoist a king-sized mattress upstairs. Another spent an hour-and-a-half hitching up our old tent trailer, then driving with me to the repair shop. These folks owe nothing to this former gypsy and her children. Their acts of kindness speak to the people they are.

Americans are busy, busy, busy. Yet our friends have still made time for a prodigal daughter and her offspring.
Spo-friends: Jennifer, Lisa, Kathleen

And so, for the first week, I’m thinking, Pete who? New Zealand where? Why consider returning when I can have ALL THIS: My friends, My family, My heated home. My clothes dryer. It’s the big, fat American life and a bag ‘o chips, too. Why complicate matters? Why commit something akin to financial suicide to live on a remote outpost north of Antarctica?  

Hmmm – re-entry’s easier than I’d imagined. This is what I'd feared and hoped for. Piece of (giant, chocolate, buttercream frosted) cake.

For the first week.

Wait. I’m fooling myself, because there’s more. A lot more. I’ll tell you next time…

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