Category: L’America

L’America: Why Do U.S. Americans Call Themselves, “Americans?”

One of the things people from outside the United States are not happy about is the fact that people inside the United States call themselves Americans, and the country itself America. That’s not fair, they’ll say, after all America is much larger than just the United States!

It turns out that the logic behind the naming is simple: while in much of the world, the number of continents has been fixed at five (Africa, America, Asia, Europe, Oceania), in America, there are seven continents (Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Oceania).

That many people think it’s five you see in the Olympic emblem, where the five colored rings represent the five continents. Red is for America, Yellow for Asia, Black for Africa, Blue for Oceania, and Green for Europe. That’s of course in keeping with the most cringe-worthy racism you could apply to the question.

That it is seven fits America’s predilection for Biblical numbers. Seven seems meaningful, God-given, necessary.

Of course, neither is right. Europe, for instance, is visibly just the Western end of Asia, separated from the main continent only by a middling chain of mountains that top neither “continent.” Oceania, on the other hand, is mostly a whole lot of water and a startling choice for a land mass, which is what a continent is meant to be.

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L’America: What About the Supreme Court?

Today, liberals are up in arms all across America: in two opinions, the Supreme Court of the United States has established that (most) corporations can disregard the law for religious reasons; it also found against mandating agency fees to unions by non-unionized members.

Really, liberals have been up in arms against the current Supreme Court for a while. President Obama denounced several Supreme Court opinions, in particular Citizens United (on campaign finance). Ever more ancient is probably the most famous ruling (outside the United States): Bush v. Gore, which handed the presidency of the country to George W. Bush.

What Is the Supreme Court?

America’s Constitution knows of three branches of government: the executive, led by the President; the legislative, represented by Congress; and the judiciary, led by the Supreme Court. This is not a whole lot different from many other countries. A fundamental difference, though, is that America’s Supreme Court takes on both the role of ultimate appellate court and of constitutional court. Those two are commonly separated in other countries and co-equals.

The Supreme Court has complete freedom when it comes to deciding the cases before it. It can overrule any court in the land and its decisions are always final, with one important exception: the court may overrule itself whenever it sees fit. The Supreme Court also can find any act and any law unconstitutional, in whole or part. The only limits to its power are enumerated in the Constitution or are the consequence of its lack of enforcement ability.

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L’America: What’s So Great About America?

When I moved to America, back in the ancient days, my friends tried to dissuade me. “Don’t move!” they’d say, “You won’t like it!”

I asked why, and the replies were scattered. There was a cluster of “Americans are so shallow!” in the mix, but mostly it was about trivialities like, “Their bread is terrible,” or “You can’t ride your bike anywhere.” My friends clearly had no idea of what life in America is like.

Then I moved, and I saw the opposite situation: Americans generally don’t know much about other pleaces, peoples, and cultures. So, when asked, “What’s so great about America?” they sometimes fail to find a workable answer, because they don’t really know where, when, and why America is different.

Having bridged the gap, I found that America is really different and better than the culture from which I moved. But the reasons it is so are not the reasons either side of the divide would enumerate. And that’s very sad, especially for America, because not knowing what sets you apart makes you likely to abandon those distinctions. So here, for you, my summary, in hopes it might lead to more awareness. In a separate post I might write about the misconceptions that exist.

1. Americans are fundamentally honest. Yes, I know, there are lots of crooks here. Even if the news were not full of reports of crooked politicians, CEOs, companies, etc. you’d evince that from the simple fact that America has the largest prison population of any nation on planet Earth.

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L’America: Poker Face Cool

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Before moving to America, I always wondered why poker is such a popular game over here. I mean, we used to play it back in Europe, and of all the card games, it seemed the singularly stupidest. You look at your cards, you try your luck, then you see who’s got the best deal. End of story. Yes, there is a negotiation component, but the only thing it really does is measure your willingness to pretend you are better off – or worse off – than you really are.

The other card games I was used to were more intelligent and less dependent on sheer luck. Even Scopa, our favorite in Italy, was entirely dependent on your intellect: namely your ability to remember which cards had been played, and to guess by looking at the sequence of plays who still had which card.

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L’America: The 411 on Thanksgiving

Charlie Brown ThanksgivingWith the holiday behind us, I got my usual load of questions about Thanksgiving. What is it, why is it such a big deal, and what does it look like?

To give you an idea of what it feels like to an outsider, I’ll tell you the story of my first Thanksgiving after moving to America. There was one before that, but it was a coincidental Thanksgiving while vacationing in Hawaii, so that doesn’t really count.

My first real Thanksgiving was in Portland, OR. I had moved in June, so I was still very fresh to American culture. Thanksgiving meant little more to me that a holiday in the middle of the week, and strangely it seemed that everybody in the office had stopped working for real on Wednesday. Many would not show up on Friday, which is something I knew very well from Italy, where it is called ponte, or “bridge” (from holiday to weekend).

On the day itself, I had already heard the supermarkets were going to close early (actually, at all, since most of them are always open). I went to one and decided to get a frozen dinner. And since it was Thanksgiving, I would honor the tradition of my new home country by eating a frozen turkey dinner. They came with mashed potatoes and side of veggies (which I still pronounced “vegghies”).

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L’America: What’s the Nuclear Option in the Senate

If you are confused about the changes to the filibuster rules in the United States Senate, read on!

Hooray! There is something new to explain! You have all heard about this Nuclear Option that Senate Majority Leader (Democratic) Harry Reid pushed through, and you don’t understand what it’s about, what’s going on, and why it’s a big deal.

I am not a Constitutional expert by any means, but I’ve been following this for a long time and here is my (potentially totally misleading and confusing) recap:

What Is the United States Senate?

OK, I’ll start at the basics. The United States Constitution provides for a bicameral system. There is a “lower” house, which is called House of Representatives. Its members represents geographical districts with roughly equal population, such that its composition is more or less representative of the general voting populace.

The “upper” house is called the Senate. It is composed of two members per State, called senators. While the two houses are completely different in composition, they have roughly equal powers. The only real difference is that the lower house (or just, the House) has exclusive rights to start fiscal legislation, and the upper house (or, the Senate) theoretically advises the President and his/her Administration.

This advising function ends up meaning that the Senate is required to confirm many of the President’s choices. This includes treaties, but also nominations to important functions in government (including the cabinet) and Federal Court appointments, including the Supreme Court.

What Is the Filibuster?

The senators bring forth motions and bills to the floor. These are discussed as long as required. When the senators are satisfied that the discussion is completed, they vote to end discussion and proceed with a vote. The procedural motion to close discussion is called “cloture.”

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L’America: Wireless Service

Note: I should be writing about the mess in Washington with the Continuing Resolution and the Debt Ceiling, since that’s what you readers keep asking about. Maybe later, but right now I have Washington Dysfunction Fatigue Syndrome

There I am, in 2013, and I need new cell service. It’s mostly a work thing: I need a newer Android device with Bluetooth 4.0, and that means a new contract of sorts. Which gets me to explaining the weird way the American wireless carrier system works.

In the rest of the world, you (mostly) have phones and carriers. The two are merrily separated. You buy your phone, you get your SIM card, you put your SIM into the phone, and you are good to go. When you don’t like your phone no more, you get a new one and put the old SIM into the new phone. If you find a cheaper carrier, you get the new SIM card and put it into your old phone. Simple.

In America, it doesn’t work that way. Your phone is typically tied to your carrier in a way much deeper than just by a SIM card. Your phone won’t work on any other carrier (except for roaming with the corresponding charges). Even after your contract expires, that’s typically true and your phone or other device will essentially be an electronic brick with no connectivity.

The first reason for this is purely technical: America was the first to adopt a wireless standard, and it failed to make the standard for the world. That’s been the case for TV, too, and the result is that most of the world uses PAL versus America’s SECAM. In the phone world, most of the world uses GSM, while America is split between the older standard, CDMA, and GSM itself.

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L’America: Buying a Car From a Dealer

One of the first things you’ll need when you move to America is a car. Sure, there are places where you can (and should) do without – Manhattan, for instance. All in all, though, America assumes everybody owns a car, which translates directly into the typical distances you travel to get from anywhere to anywhere.

For the average American, the car is the second-largest expense they will make (the first one being their home). As such, it’s a really important choice, and you should think a lot before committing to anything.

Just kidding: grab your pile of cash and waltz to the nearest dealership. That’ll do the trick!

In all seriousness, car buying in America is fairly complicated. More complicated than buying a house, say, because there it’s almost automatic that you need a mortgage, which means the bank ensures that you don’t get totally ripped off.

With cars, the tension is between the dealer/owner, who wants to close immediately, and you, who should want to compare. In your disfavor, you don’t really like dealing with the buying, so you try to close as fast as you can and get a good deal.

So far, that’s true in the rest of the world, too. What’s different in America is that most people here buy cars with loans, which means they can afford a variable amount of car. When the best you can haggle is a $10 a month discount, you become less price-sensitive.

I would love to be cute and funny here, but you really need good directions. So no joking allowed.

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L’America: My Take on the Zimmerman Case

[Note: this is an update of a post I wrote and published briefly before the verdict came out. Respect for the rule of law made me take down that post, as I thought it implausible that a not guilty verdict would be reached.]

“Do I have to fear for my life if I come visit you in America?”

That’s a question a friend of mine from Germany actually asked, in reference to the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. In Germany, it’s rare that you shoot someone and then walk away as if nothing happened. That a trial could end in acquittal seemed worse than strange to her. It seemed like something was completely wrong with the judicial or legal system.

First, for all my foreign readers, it appears that the verdict was correctly interpreting the law of the State of Florida. It is also true that the law in the matter, Stand Your Ground, is not unique to this state, but is similarly enacted in a number of states. This does not include the Golden State of California, where I live. So if you want to come and visit me, anyone that shoots you will probably be landing in jail. So please do come and visit.

Second, as far as I am concerned, I feel I would have been much more Treyvon Martin than George Zimmerman under the circumstances. When going through the events of that night, I just think of everything that Zimmerman did wrong – for instance, never identifying himself as armed. If I were walking home alone at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I would be unarmed and I would potentially end up dead because some guy thinks I am creepy. So, I will refrain from visiting Florida until they sort out this thing.

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L’America: A Trip to the Supermarket

One of the first things I do when in a new country is visit a supermarket. It’s not that I necessarily need food, it’s that I want to see what people eat. Every culture has its idiosyncrasies baked into the aisles in the supermarket, and I believe you learn more about people by seeing what they eat than by assiduous studying of tour guides.

In Italy, for instance, aisles and aisles offer an endless selection of olive oil, different kinds of pasta, canned tomatoes, and coffees. Even the smaller supermarkets have outlandishly good bakery sections, with a variety of fresh breads and cookies on display. On the other hand, the frozen goods are stocked in a single refrigerator, tucked into a corner far away. Modern megamarkets deviate, in that they offer a lot more frozen goods (because people buy in bulk, and hence some of it is going to end up in the freezer, anyway), but not much change otherwise.

In Germany, the thing that stands out the most is the absurd quantity of sweets. The chocolate, cookies, candy, dessert sections fill up the entire place. The chocolate bars alone have a prominent display that grows exponentially near any “chocolate holiday,” that is Christmas, Easter, and Santa Claus. Bread and meats are underrepresented, because Germans typically buy those at specialty stores (baker and butcher, respectively).

In America, things look a lot different. Actually, looking at it, you can understand a lot about America as it is today by just looking at its supermarket aisles.

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