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This page was last updated 18 June 2020.
This article is about my years in the US in the early 1990s. Some of it may be outdated, and of course these days anything that brings you in touch with their omnipresent secret service - immigration, permits, some public services - is far more difficult now. You are a potential terrorist until proven otherwise.
Contents: Finding a company • Obtaining the visa • Company paperwork • Working conditions • Housing • Transportation • Food and shopping • Culture • Safety • Earthquakes • Pounds and Inches • Updates in 2006 and 2012
This text describes how it was possible for me to work in California for many years after finishing my CS degree in Berlin. I write this down for people who are interested in doing the same, and need to know how to go about this. I also include a lot of personal impressions and experiences about life in the USA from the viewpoint of a European - you may decide it's not for you, or you may be all the more interested.
Naturally, these parts are personal opinions. The fact that in the end I decided to return to Europe shows that I may be too negative. I certainly love to return to California every once in a while (at least once a year). One thing is certain: if you do this, you'll end up feeling homesick no matter on which side of the Atlantic ocean you end up. To summarize the summary - if you have the chance to work in the USA, by all means do it!
In this text I mean US citizens when I say Americans. It's wrong,
I know, but it's common usage. Some of the following may apply to Canada,
but I haven't been in Canada often enough to comment on it.
Finding a company
This is the hard part, and the one I cannot help with. Before I went to the university, I worked for my father's company during school holidays, which among other things was a distributor for a computer company in the Silicon Valley. Later, when studying, my father suggested to make contact with that company for an internship. Personal connections made this happen, and I worked for a sister company (Aurora Systems, now part of Chyron) in San Francisco, for three months during the summer holidays. I was not paid but the company took care of the flight and the hotel. The next year I repeated this, and Aurora Systems was sufficiently impressed that they offered me a permanent job after I finished my degree, which I accepted.
When asking people who did similar things, in most cases it boiled down to personal connections, similar to mine in one way or another. A few people studied overseas and made connections there. This takes active searching. I assume that it is also possible to make contact at job fairs at trade shows such as Siggraph. Joining a local company and hoping that they will send you to work with an overseas subsidiary seems to be a theoretical option, but I never heard from anybody for whom it worked.
I took advantage of the fact that an internship involves little risk for the company. Since no salary, no social security, no benefits, and no work permit were involved, the company stood to lose very little if it had not worked out. The visa rules limit such an internship to the duration of a tourist visa, three months. I was lucky that the contact could be made from over here; if you do not have this advantage I assume it would be necessary to research possible candidate companies here and then fly over there and meet with them, at your expense.
(Don't send mail asking me for references, I can't help you with
finding a company and I do not have connections to land you a job.)
Obtaining the visa
Anybody working in the USA needs a work permit. As a foreigner, you are an "alien". Not the kind with the green skin and antennas on the head, but alien enough to go through a tortuous legal procedure. It begins with obtaining an H1 visa, which is a work permit valid for three years. An H1 visa is tied to a particular company, which means you won't be able to switch jobs. After these three years, one can apply for a green card, which is not restricted to a specific company. Green cards are valid permanently and do not need to be renewed until you leave the USA for one year, at which time the green card expires. This last restriction was introduced some ten years ago. Before, a green card was a lifetime work permit no matter where you lived.
The only practical way to get an H1 is to have the company that wants to hire you ask their lawyer to do the paperwork. It cannot be done in a reasonable timeframe without a lawyer. My company tried and failed, until they got a lawyer. (Lawyers have a very peculiar status in the USA, passionately hated yet indispensable.) Even so, the procedure usually takes six months, plus/minus three.
I had to provide an English translation of my thesis topic and the master's degree certificate, approved and stamped by the university, in triplicate. This means there is an unavoidable delay of six months between obtaining the degree and the visa. It felt strange - here I was with a straight-A computer science master's degree, and the US immigration office was treating me like a third-world shepherd (*). Well, three months later I got my visa, packed two suitcases, and moved to San Francisco. I first stayed at some friends' house until I found my own rooms. I was now a legal "resident alien".
(*)Here is an amusing opposing opinion. The comment I got from a Mexican self-proclaimed university graduate about this is "sure you are a fucking stupid European who never took a fucking shower, rape her own relatives, kill innocent people just for the croos, and so on............" He wrote all uppercase of course, but the pronouns are his. :-) Another reader opposing the opposing opinion remarks that "with an attitude like that he will soon be on the street corner asking for handouts from the Australian tourists". Couldn't be phrased better than that, Mr. Mexican.
Predictably there was no problem with the work contract. Aurora Systems offered an excellent benefits package. "Benefits" is the term for everything you get besides the salary. The main benefit is health and dental insurance, which are separate. I got 100% medical and 80% dental coverage after a waiting period of three months. This meant that I was uninsured for three months, after which the insurance would pay 100% of all medical expenses and 80% of dental expenses. This is unusually generous. Many companies offer less than 100% medical coverage, and less dental coverage or none at all, or a deductible (you pay the first $500 and the insurance the rest, for example). Waiting periods are also often much longer. Family members are usually not insured. There is no such thing as German universal coverage.
In addition to the benefits, I had to be enrolled into social security. Social security means unemployment insurance and retirement insurance, even though my H1 visa entitled me to neither. However, logic doesn't enter into this, so I had to get a social security number, and money was deducted from my paycheck every month. Not a lot. When I left the US, some small sum was reimbursed.
Most people who live in the US find they must own a car because the distances tend to be very large. My daily commute, for example, was 40km or 25mi daily. (Now it's 15km or 9mi.) This means you'll have to take a test at the DMV (Department for Motor Vehicles) to get a US driver's license. Your European driver's license is only valid for the first three months. I don't like cars and used a bicycle, so I went to the DMV and got a California ID, which is the same thing as a driver's license with a special note saying that I couldn't drive.
This ID stuff is really weird. In Europe we have European ID cards,
but Americans don't have ID cards because they feel that this would
mean ceding important personal liberty to the government. They do not
realize that the combination of social security number (SSN) and driver's
license (which in some states has the SSN on it!) is much stronger than
a European ID card - they identify every citizen uniquely (at least
when this rather haphazard system doesn't fail, as it sometimes does),
and they constantly need their SSN and license for all kinds of things -
cashing checks, any kind of government transaction, any kind of insurance
or medical transaction, and all kinds of other things. These guys have
serious privacy problems and don't even realize it - no sir we
are free people who won't tolerate ID cards, and here is my SSN and
my driver's license for your database. Really weird. Anyway, the DMV
will be on your itinerary.
Working conditions were surprisingly similar in the US, with a few exceptions. One is that the environment tends to be simpler. I worked for a long time in a cubicle before I got my own windowless office. Windows are for management and other nontechnical people, regardless of job status. A cubicle is a small compartment built from movable plastic walls. Normally large rooms are subdivided into countless little cubicles, almost all of which have no natural light. You need to read Dilbert by Scott Adams to truly appreciate cubicle culture.
The second exception is vacations. You get two weeks; three after a few years with the company. Americans are massively jealous when you tell them people get six weeks over here. My boss was very understanding; when the Berlin wall fell (Berlin is my home town) I immediately got a week off to fly home. You may be less lucky. This means that you won't see your family and old friends very much anymore.
There is little job security in the US. Unions have bad reputations and usually don't exist or are have no influence, except in some traditional blue-collar jobs. This means that if your boss decides he no longer likes you he is pretty much free to fire you on the spot and have you escorted off the premises. There was never any question of this happening to me but I have seen it happen to others. For you this would be the end of your stay in the US because your visa is tied to the company.
Smoking is banned in working environents and nearly everywhere
else, except outside and in your own home. Having worked with smokers
before this was great for me. Smokers are now having a hard time in
Europe too, but in the US they are really serious about this. If you
smoke and can't kick your habit you'll suffer in the US.
The cost of housing depends greatly on the location. I hear it's possible to buy an entire farm for $50,000 in remote parts of the country, but I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where property values begin an order of magnitude higher. The SF Bay Area centers around a large north-south bay that is connected to the Pacific ocean by the Golden Gate at San Francisco. There is a string of small towns extending south from SF all the way to San Jose at the southern tip of the bay, following El Camino Real road and two freeways. The Silicon Valley is roughly centered about Santa Clara, just north of San Jose. My company eventually moved from SF to Santa Clara, and to reduce commute time I moved to Palo Alto, an affluent town north of Santa Clara that is also home to Stanford University.
This string of towns is separated from the ocean by a range of hills which are largely undeveloped. Living close to the hills is much more expensive, and some of the towns are much more expensive than others. Palo Alto, for example, is expensive; Santa Clara with its shoddy apartment buildings along the freeways much less so. Some towns are pure "bedroom communities" and others are mainly business towns, which means that most people have a long and painful commute. Palo Alto is an exception, it has a bit of both.
At this time (2000) the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area has spiraled out of control. You are lucky if you can find a dingy one-room apartment in a bad part of town for $1000 a month, and you will very probably find yourself paying twice that. Living expenses are so high that a dollar is worth less than half as much as it ought to, based on exchange rates. Salaries are also higher but not enough to offset this. Still, the Bay Area is so attractive to computer workers that the population is still growing rapidly.
I decided not to rent an apartment but to share a house. Shared means that there are a number of bedrooms, several shared bathrooms, and a common living room and kitchen. Unlike in Berlin, these are usually not forms of alternate lifestyles for low-income students with multicolored spiky hair and tame white rats on their shoulders. Ours was an international mix of people with normal to high income. My motivation was to get in contact with others, and it worked out perfectly. If I had rented an apartment somewhere I would probably have stayed at home alone every evening (see Culture below), but now I had company whenever I wanted and a much better place in an expensive town, even with a little garden that I wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. If you ask me, this is the way to go.
When I first came to the US, houses were irritating me. They
seemed like makeshift shacks quickly thrown up in the cheapest way
possible. Windows looked like painted on, walls like cardboard, roofs
like cheap wooden shingles quickly nailed down on a simple frame. Well,
this is exactly what they are; houses except highrises in the big cities
are frames built from wooden beams, plywood, millimeter-thick fake
stonework or plaster, and little in the way of insulation except in new
developments. Looks weird to a European who is used to masonry walls
half a meter thick, but given the climate it works reasonably well and
it's earthquake-proof, which brickwork is not. Insulation is a problem;
one contributing factor to the fact that Americans use three times as
much energy per capita than Europeans on average.
Since people live in bedroom communities and work in other towns, they get to enjoy a commute nightmare every morning and evening. The towns are connected by huge freeways like pearls on a string, and traffic predictably backs up twice a day. The population density is actually fairly low because of the American Dream requiring a little house in a little garden, even if it's one of a hundred thousand identical others arranged in a regular grid. The result is called "urban sprawl", the way cities spread over huge areas full of neat little rows of little houses.
The result is that most Americans feel that cars are indispensable. Whether you want to need to go to the bakery, go to work, bring the children to school, go shopping, see a movie, it's going to be miles and probably several tens of miles away. They say that a European is someone who thinks that a hundred kilometers is a long distance, and an American is someone who thinks that a hundred years is a long time. This means that cars and huge expanses of concrete and asphalt dominate the towns.
You may have this mental picture of cruising along an empty freeway in a pink convertible Cadillac, but in fact you'll find yourself hemmed in by an angry honking mob of millions of drivers all trying to get to work all at once. People who have visited the US often claim that traffic is more relaxed than in Europe, and that is actually often true outside the rush hours, but when a certain threshold is exceeded on early weekday mornings and in the late afternoon the gloves come off.
I didn't have a car and did everything by bicycle. That meant I was completely independent of the time of the day and traffic jams. (In fact the day of the 1989 magnitude-7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake when all the power was down everybody got stuck in traffic except me.) A real racing bike was necessary to cover the distance (40km per day), and I really got into bicycle riding (see most of the rest of this homepage).
Public transportation systems in the USA are usually extremely poor,
with a few exceptions. San Francisco is one. It's fairly easy to get
around by bus, tram, trolley, subway (BART), and train (CalTrain). One
problem is that all these systems are mostly independent, don't
synchronize their schedules and stops very much, and have their own fare
systems. The systems extend outside the city. Especially CalTrain and
BART are very convenient to get into the city, and they take bicycles
for free except during rush hours. CalTrain, however, is primarily a
commuter service for the peninsula that doesn't run very often on
Food and shopping
You'll find junk food anywhere, but in the USA it's almost a way of life. European grocery stores and supermarkets cater to ingredients for good home cooking while US supermarkets stock up on Microwave TV dinners (not unlike airline food), "snack food" like giant potato chip bags, and long rows of refrigerators for frozen food. European stores tend to be small, and there are many different ones nearby. US supermarkets are like huge hangars that you could park two 747 aircraft side by side and still have room for a soccer field (French readers will know what I mean). They have names like Safeway, Lucky, or Vons, and are all pretty much identical. You walk into one of them, watch the rows of aisles receding into the distance, and know that there are approximately six edible food items you can buy there.
These grocery stores are a miracle in inefficiency. They might have twenty cashiers in a row, but no more than half will be open and it takes absolutely forever to pay. They will unpack, scan, and bag your groceries, slowly and deliberately, fighting the unwilling laser scanner. Groceries are packed in plastic or (rarely) paper bags, doubled so they won't come apart. Shopping carts would hold a horse and many people fill them up completely because it's a long drive and they come only once a week. Then they labor their way through the procedure to pay by personal check (remember euro cheques?) or ATM or credit cards. Meanwhile, you are steaming, whishing they would just get on with it. If you are used to the deadly efficiency of an ALDI cashier who has likely added up all your groceries in her head while her fingers blur over the keys for the guy in front of you, US "customer service" can be infuriating. They do have "express lanes" which are faster, but only if they accept cash only.
After spending much time in these places one begins to find the little secrets - a French or German bakery that sells real bread and not the plastic-wrapped "Wonder Bread" type of styrofoam, that have fresh produce and spices and imported food. There are even upscale supermarkets like Mollie Stones that are not bad at all. "Imported" is a quality statement in the USA - if it's imported it must be expensive and very good. Sadly it is. Not as good as the originals in Europe because they are either manufactured under license in the US, or have spent four weeks in transit, and another four on the shelf because few people buy expensive imports. Despite the importers, I had friends and family send "care packets" with food ingredients to me.
One very annoying feature of shopping is the sales tax. Most price tags and restaurant menus show the price without tax, which means that after the cashier has rung up all your items he'll add the sales tax. In Europe the sales tax is always included in the price on the sticker, in the US it's usually not. There are a few exceptions but I never figured out when to expect tax-included prices. The sales tax varies by state; in California is very high at 8.25%. Neighboring Oregon has no sales tax at all. Mail orders from companies with no local office are tax-free as well. In California there is a law that foreigners cannot get taxes back when they leave the country, despite some claims of merchants, and you may end up paying European taxes and duties on the price of what you bought including the US sales tax.
A 15-20% tip is expected in restaurants and taxi drivers. Restaurant
workers often work for minimum wages and depend on tips for income. I
usually add 20% and round up to the nearest dollar for small bills up
to $20 or so, and reduce the tip for larger bills.
San Francisco has a very active cultural scene - lots of museums and galleries and avantgarde art. San Francisco has the Haight/Ashbury, Berkeley has Telegraph Street, and there are a few others. Still, even San Francisco doesn't seem to have quite absorbed its role as the cultural center of the Bay Area; almost everything shuts down at around nine o'clock. Perhaps I am a bit jaded from Berlin, which keeps bubbling all night, and should check out New York instead, but it does seem strange.
Out in the suburbs the picture is grim. The typical suburb has two cultural centers where people meet: the mall and the multiplex. The former are giant parking lots with a cluster of depressing concrete stores in the center. Typically there is a Safeway, a Foot Locker, a Chiropractor, a palm reader/psychic, and assorted other chain stores. They are convenient for people who have to travel a long distance and want one-stop shopping convenience to save time. Except in selected places in San Francisco, there is nothing like the streets designed for strolling and window-shopping, with sidewalk cafés and a large diversity that one finds in Europe. The other place, the multiplex movie theater, plays assorted mainstream Hollywood movies on sixteen screens simultaneously. These malls and multiplexes are where people hang out. Sad. (I should mention that there is one complete exception to this urban nightmare - the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto is very pleasant.)
I have been in many places all over the US, and what never ceases to amaze me is the complete uniformity of the United States. To a European (but not an American), New York and Honolulu, to pick two extremes, are actually virtually indistinguishable except for the weather and the height of the buildings. The "American way of life" permeates everything, and it all looks alike.
Consider the distance between the US East and West coasts. If I draw a circle around Berlin with that diameter, it encloses cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Cairo, Helsinki, Istanbul, Moscow, Lisbon, and in fact all European capitals. Two dozen languages are spoken in this circle, which touches three continents. The distance between San Francisco and San Diego, both in California, would get me from Berlin to Paris, London, or Venice. In comparison, the US seem huge and bland. Perhaps for this reason, Americans don't travel much and tend not to speak foreign languages. Europeans can hop on a train and spend a weekend in Paris, which is an exotic lifetime dream for many Americans. It takes time to get used to this way of thinking, and for a European there is a sense of loss.
The other side of this is that there are huge uninhabited national
parks that you are guaranteed to fall in love with. Many of these parks
have been set up a century ago, and many are large enough to pack an
average European country into. Unlike the smaller central European parks
(there are huge ones in Sweden and Norway that I haven't visited) these
are true wildernesses - virtually no streets, no people, and park rangers
who primarily prevent human intervention. With a special wilderness
permit you can hike through the woods and know that there is no other
human being for hundreds of miles all around. Alternatively, you can go
where everybody goes, like the main attractions in Yosemite (pronounced
Yo-sem-ee-tee), but you'll see a microscopic and carefully managed part
of the whole park.
Hollywood mass-produces cheap soap operas that European television stations use to pad their programs. Although everybody knows they are fiction, they still form an unconscious impression of the US, and let me tell you it's not a favorable one. I didn't quite think that Americans routinely engage in drive-by shootings as a leisure activity but one pretty much expects seeing cops hunt down villains with squealing tires any minute. Forget all that; life in the US is basically amazingly similar to life in Europe, and crime is pretty much hidden from view.
However, two factors exist that suggest caution. First, a well-organized militia being essential to the well-being of the state (or so their constitution goes), about one third of US households own one or more guns, and they are amazingly easy to buy. It's considered a matter of democratic freedom and untouchable by rational thought. Surprise surprise, the guns actually get used, and lots of people get killed by them. Buying a gun to defend yourself, as many people feel they must do, actually increases your chance of being hurt or killed, but as I said reason doesn't apply here.
Here is another concerned reader comment: "Do us both a favor.... stay the fuck out of MY country. We've got too many sissy ass liberals as it is. Signed, One gun toting AMERICAN!" :-)
The second factor is stunning social inequality. You'll find ghettos with pretty names like "Chinatown", and districts where only blacks or Hispanics live who were never given a chance in their lives. For example, I was living in the high-income town of Palo Alto, well-isolated from East Palo Alto on the other side of the freeway where thugs practice with knives, car wrecks dot the cracked streets, and McDonalds has bulletproof glass in front of the counters. I am not making this up. (By 2020, East Palo Alto has been thoroughyl gentrified.) Amazingly, dangerous places like this often form in the centers of big cities, creating what Americans call their "inner city problem". Los Angeles is a prime example; do not walk on Broadway at night. Often safe and unsafe areas are just a block apart.
Put the two factors together, sprinkle with some redneck bigots, and you get Rodney King riots laying waste to entire city blocks.
[Edited June 2020] I used to have some comments on how American society works well together. But the 2020 events, most notably the murder of George Floyd ("I can't breathe") by four policemen, have finally changed my mind. The USA, below the surface, is a deeply polarized society, filled with hate and everyday racism. Every country has some 10% of occasionally violent intellectual bottom feeders, but the USA seems to be split right in the middle, and have chosen a clearly incompetent administration that is feeding the flames.
Anyway, the upshot is that while there is no place in Berlin where I wouldn't walk at any time of the night, I recommend some caution in US cities. Ask the locals to make sure you don't end up in the wrong part of town, especially when you are looking for a place to live.
Poverty is very visible. San Francisco, a tremendously rich city with a population of 800,000, has nearly half as many homeless people as the whole of Germany, population 80 million (accounts differ; how does one count homeless people?). When you walk through downtown streets at night, you'll find a dirty pile of rags in most doorways, often with a parked shopping cart full of plastic bags nearby. There is someone sleeping in that. There are unbelievably filthy people staggering down the street, and panhandlers asking for "spare change" all over the place. Some are demented and scream unintelligible things at people. There is no universal health care or welfare system. In fact, there is a law that nobody can receive welfare for more than five years of their life.
Americans, on the other hand, find the European welfare and health care system bureaucratic, and cannot understand why the government should intrude on the freedom of taxpayers by taking away money from them and giving it to people "unwilling" to work. The lack of compassion I see in the US has made me much more sympathetic to the somewhat higher tax rate and higher mandatory social security payments in Europe, as opposed to the dog-eats-dog attitude in the US. Cost in Europe is not as significant as people think because the US health system is fundamentally broken, and unaffordable or inaccessible to a large percentage of Americans - it is designed to make private investors rich, not to make people healthy.
By the way, homeless people are almost never a safety concern. They
are usually very polite, and if you turn down a request for money they'll
say "thank you, have a nice day". Try to stay upwind.
If I talk about safety and the Bay Area, I should mention earthquakes. There are quite a lot of them, but most have a magnitude of three or less. A magnitude-3 earthquake feels like a truck driving by - a little vibration, some glass may rattle, and that was it. Most likely you won't notice.
I was in Redwood City south of San Francisco when the magnitude-7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake struck in 1989. It was a strong rolling ground movement with great amplitude, and lasted some 20 seconds, which is very long (and feels longer). The foundations cracked, parts of the suspended ceiling came down, and everything that wasn't bolted down or on wheels (including everything in the inventory room) fell to the floor. Everybody was running out of the building on instinct. The power failed. Telephones did not.
News coverage in Europe made it look as if California had just fallen into the ocean. There was heavy local damage - to the Nimitz freeway whose upper deck fell onto the lower deck, killing 62 people, and some areas in the San Francisco Marina district and Santa Cruz. The areas hit hardest were built on landfill (places that used to be sea). Our home in Palo Alto was built on bedrock and suffered no damage at all (which was good because all houses have gas, and most houses are not bolted to their foundations and would slide right off). In San Francisco I saw a few houses that slumped into the street or were reduced to a huge pile of wooden rubble, and other houses whose facade fell off and others that were propped up with railroad rails. Curbstones dropped into the ground as if it had become liquid. There were large gaps in some streets.
But overall the situation was largely normal. Most places were undamaged or only slightly damaged. It was more like after a bad thunderstorm and not at all like a major disaster. Don't avoid the Bay Area for fear of earthquakes - there may be some theoretical danger but it's extremely unlikely that you'll get hurt. Compared to the danger of getting killed while crossing a street it's not a reason for concern.
The biggest worry after an earthquake is whether this was the main
earthquake or just the first shock, and the Big One is going to follow.
Ater an earthquake there are weaker aftershocks for hours that rattle
frayed nerves. Californians tend to ignore the problem completely, but
it's a good idea to take a look at the disaster guide in the phonebook.
Pounds and Inches
All the world is metric, except the US and Burma. You will have to memorize factors to compute a set of measurement units that absolutely don't make sense. For example, sixteen ounces are one pound, twelve inches are one foot, three feet are one yard, and 1760 yards are one mile. (Of course there are three different types of miles.) There is an entirely unrelated set of units for cooking. There are obsolete British units that have the same names but completely different values. Some units such as bushels have different values depending on what they are applied to (but most likely you'll never have to use them). Some conversion factors are not integers. One liter of water weighs one kilogram, but if you ask an American how many pounds a cubic foot of water weighs, his brain will implode and he'll ask why you want to know. (The answer is 62.4279 lbs, I think.) It's pure insanity.
Memorize that one pound is 453 g, one foot is 30.48 cm, and one mile is 1609 m and you should be fine. Also memorize you height in feet and inches and your weight in pounds. And bring a pocket calculator when you visit a grocery store!
Postscriptum, added in early 2006
Most of my experiences described in this text date back to the mid-90's. US policy since 2003 no longer stands for freedom and democracy, but for illegal attacks on other countries for profit, for torture, terror, mass killing, and human rights violations. In the eyes of the world, the USA used to be Coca Cola and Rock'n'Roll; now the USA are Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. (And Hadita, and My Lai.)
I used to spend two or three months every year there since I moved back to Europe, but for the past two years I have refused to visit. It has become a very inhospitable place. US Americans are given a massively distorted view of the world by a largely centralized and dysfunctional press, which makes it difficult for them to understand why the rest of the world no longer respects their country. (Although at least here in Europe, we are well-trained to distinguish rogue governments from the people.)
Postscriptum, added in March 2012
Listening to my friends and the news, what strikes me is the venom and dishonesty of the current primary debates. If debate is the right term, kindergarten fistfight seems more appropriate, a competition to find the most narrow-minded and least educated candidate. [2018 update: they have definitely found him.] I have high hopes that it won't matter, but if one member of this Republican freak show (to borrow the Wall Street Journal's term) gets elected I'll be worried.
The Obama administration was welcomed by many Europeans because it replaced the "Manchester capitalism" rhetoric with one that Europeans are more familiar with, especially for those less fortunate. Some try to discredit it with the word "socialism", but to us it's really more a matter of compassion and solidarity.
Some are disappointed because Obama was unable to keep all his promises, on issues like Guantanamo, military expenses, and a more equitable tax system. But overall, given the mandatory two-party system and the latest mid-term elections, it's astonishing how far he got. There have been several examples in US history of fixing serious problems with rapid innovation.
I have always felt that after the end of the cold war, the US would be on their way from a "superpower" to a normal, if large, western country; very important but not the leader. This has happened to a significant degree. I just wish it hadn't be so abrupt and destructive under George W. Bush; the world is still suffering from the aftershocks.
Post²scriptum, added in November 2018
I feel a mixture of worried and amused, now. It's becoming clear that the current administration is damaging the US more than anyone else, but I am not sure that those who fill the vacuum left by a shrinking US will do a better job. The US aristocracy, a.k.a. top 1%, is happy because they get to skim an ever larger share off the national wealth, and the Dow Jones reflects that, but what is everyone else thinking?
Maybe not much. In Europe, the stereotype says that Americans are stupid - in the sense of lack of education, like not speaking foreign languages, not being able to find France on a map or name the Canadian Premier - not in the sense of lack of intelligence. The current administration, and by extension those who voted for it, have changed this impression. It's puzzling to me because many of the brightest people I have ever met are Americans, but California is clearly not representative of the country!
Post³scriptum, added in June 2020After four years of Trump administration, massive rifts are open in American society, deep racism especially by those who are supposed to fight it, and loss of preeminence in the world, I do not have hope that America can return to the free society that the world used to admire. The American century is over and that is a good thing, but I fear that this realization will make life in America worse, except for the top 1%. Because of defects in the US constitution, it is not possible for new political parties to rise to put the country on a new course, so I fear that we will see more discord and violence in the future. Good bye America, it is sad to see you go.
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