Land of the Free for 30 Minutes

I just returned from a trip to the United States. I have lived in Germany since March 2015, and thus I’m not sure if things in the US have gotten worse, or if I’m beginning to notice it more. The three concepts that summarize my trip to the US: upsells, noise, and hidden charges.

The flight to the US was foreshadowing. Multiple attempts by the (American) airline to get me to buy their “rewards” card which I assume is a fancy way of saying credit card. Promises that I’d save so much money in the future with them. They also wanted to make sure I knew about upgrades I could buy in addition to the base service in theory provided by the cost of plane ticket: I could 1. check bags for free 2. board sooner 3. have more room 4. have more refreshments than provided to everyone else. The one thing that stood out here was that while they kindly offered mini TVs in the seats with video selection, they charged for headphones and played ads before every video you wanted to watch.

I arrived in the US, to be funneled through to the passport control area. The first thing I noticed was the blaring noise. There were around a dozen big screen televisions in the room, all blaring some special airport version of CNN, with the exception of the TVs right next to the passport officers, which had a video of Obama on loop welcoming everyone to the US. Beyond passport control and stepping into the airport was just as bad, except now there were hundreds of noises from people (all Americans) shouting into their cell phones. As I took a shuttle over to my transfer terminal, I remember some lady on a business call, and based on what she kept shouting into the phone, kept wondering what precisely made this call so important that it couldn’t wait until she arrived. And why my ability to have peace and quiet was somehow trumped by her need to share with the world how important she was. I suppose I could have tuned this out by popping onto the airport wifi, but even this was limited: free for the first 30 minutes, and then an offer either to purchase an hour’s worth, a day’s worth, or a month’s worth, all at “special rates.”

My next flight was even worse, because there was no food provided, which the airline used as an excuse to blare periodic announcements that you could buy refreshments at an additional price. Then they rolled a cart through and directly asked all the passengers “would you like to purchase anything”, while waving bags and cans in your face, as if to entice you to pull out your wallet. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these employees, who are probably being hustled by upstairs to turn as much of this overpriced crap as possible. And of course they only took plastic, which becomes difficult if you only have a european bank card and American cash you had assumed would be perfect for such emergencies.

Upon arrival, I had a ride from the airport to my destination. It turns out that in Suburban America, a wrong turn– highly likely on these homogenous streets– costs you up to ten minutes, because logical routes are blocked off by random concrete slabs that might as well have “fuck you” painted on them. I’m sure there is some sort of Freudian analysis behind this road design, because it certainly makes no sense otherwise. The other thing I noticed: police, everywhere. I think in the short ride from the airport to my destination, I saw more police randomly floating around the roads than in three months of life in Berlin. I heard no sirens, and saw no fires or accidents, so I’m not entirely sure what they were doing.

The final thing I’ll note here is all the hidden charges. In Germany, if you go to a store to buy something, there is a price listed on the shelf next to that item. When you take the item to the checkout, the number that shows up on the cash register is the same number you saw on the shelf. In the US, this is not so. I remember going to get an espresso for the cheap menu price of $3.20, and when I was rung up, the number that appeared on the machine was $3.50, due to taxes. Let’s reflect on this for a moment: what is the purpose of this? I’m pretty sure sales taxes do not change that much, and certainly not so often they require a hidden variable to be appended to your charge at the end, lest it varies day by day or hour by hour. Are Americans expected to do the math on their own, calculate X percent of the menu price of an item, and magically add it so they can compare it to the number that shows up on the screen?

It almost seems like this is a kind of social conditioning, where when you have two numbers that conflict, you’re supposed to automatically accept the number that the authority– in this case, the cash register– tells you. And if you have an issue, your only options are to bring it up to the low wage clerk who probably doesn’t care, or to file a “complaint” with a faceless organization that might take 6-8 weeks to respond, if you are lucky. In other words, in such a tiny semantic detail, you are being conditioned to mindlessly accept whatever shit is given to you. Maybe this is why Americans also tolerate the blaring tv screens, the annoying phone calls, the endless upsells and don’t even bother to question why prices for everything keep going up, and yet they are offered less in exchange for those prices every time.

But who cares what I think. After all, in Germany, my freedom lasts longer than 30 minutes.