Traveling in the U.S. reconnects me with my roots. Over the past few weeks, I’ve passed through places in Virginia and Washington where I used to work and go to college. Revisiting old haunts evokes that odd, lopsided sensation of a place so familiar that not only do you know the street names, you know every single step of the way.
It’s like being with an old friend, yet at the same time, different, often in ways that are hard to define at first. Here on one corner, I discover a new store, while the one I used to know disappeared long ago.
These are the moments when I sense my deeply-rooted need to show my kids the real America I knew growing up. Being in the U.S. sends me into a kind of panic, making me feel like I have to cram a whole childhood’s worth of memories into a few weeks of vacation, eliciting much eye-rolling from my kids.
For me, the thought that my children might not be able to communicate with my family in America or relate to the culture has always been unimaginable. They know America from movies and TV, but my home is the real America. I want them to relate to it, too.
But I’m not sure what the “real” America is.
When they were 8 and 11 years old, we took a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That region of the U.S. was new to all of us, but some things are the same throughout the country, like the friendly guy in the Good Humor truck that drives through the neighborhood selling ice cream in the summertime.
On the dusty road in Northeastern Ohio where I grew up, nothing was going on in the endless hot summers. On those rare occasions when the middle-aged guy behind the Good Humor wheel got bored enough to come to Parker Drive, we scrambled to put coins together and rushed to the street lest he disappear before we had the chance to buy anything.
So when a Good Humor truck drove past our rental house in North Carolina during our short vacation, my heart leaped. Here was an ideal opportunity to show my kids a slice of American life – or in this case, a scoop. The truck was the same and so was the ice cream. But the Good Humor man? A friendly student from Moscow with a thick Russian accent.
I was taken aback. This didn’t jibe with my childhood memories. But no matter. My kids loved the ice cream.
The most exotic establishment in my hometown was Guido’s Pizza. I suppose Guido’s great-grandparents might have been from Italy; Guido himself was not. But the pizza wasn’t bad, and more Italian than the Dairy Queen fare that my sister sold across the street. It was also probably more sophisticated than the Mr. Hero’s steak sandwiches that I was selling on the other side of the intersection, which, to be fair, was not that high of a bar to clear. At the time I was more concerned with getting the smell of the 25-pound bags of onions that I had to chop out of my hair and clothes.
Seeking once again to show my kids how truly backward my hometown was – with the secret motive of proving how good they have it – I took them there to show them the establishments of my childhood. But my hickville narrative was instantly discredited by a Mexican restaurant located, ironically, just down the street from Mr. Hero’s. The owners were authentic Mexicans, meaning they were actually from Mexico, as opposed to Guido’s Pizza, whose owners were “fake” Italians. The food was delicious, and the staff was super friendly.
I couldn’t decide if I should be happy about the upgrade in my hometown or sad about the downgrading of the story of my childhood woes. I considered this at length while enjoying my tacos and refried beans.
When I recently landed in Miami, Florida, with no access to Wi-Fi, I resorted to my preferred, old-fashioned way of navigating: I asked the nearest person.
Miami, Florida, is also known as the secret capital of South America. My new friend spoke no English but was happy to help me google a taxi. I had a great exchange with this friendly fellow from Puerto Rico, all in Spanish. ¡Bienvenida a América, Brenda! I thought to myself. A year of living in Spain after high school has given me a permanent bias to all Spanish speakers, so I made sure to extend this conversation as long as possible.
Then there’s the iconic American diner, known to fans of American movies the world over. The usual diner experience is characterized by a poorly coiffed, middle-aged white woman chewing gum (slowly). She stands at your table, her weight on one leg, pen and notepad in hand, with a barely disguised disdain for you, who would dare visit her establishment, thereby causing her to have to take your order.
I looked forward to just such an encounter on a visit to Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, when I walked into a diner that had all the outward trappings of a traditional establishment. I was thrilled at the prospect of my usual order of eggs and toast with one pancake on the side accompanied by a bottomless cup of watery coffee.
Instead, I was met by a lovely young server who, judging by her accent, was not native to the U.S. She served us quickly and her fellow servers refilled our coffee, took our plates, and were overall simply wonderful.
I just couldn’t leave without finding out: where was she from?
“Honduras!” came the answer, with a big smile.
“Is everyone here from Honduras?” I asked.
She took a quick look around.
“No, just me. Everyone else is from El Salvador.”
Yet another American experience that has morphed since my youth. I kind of miss the old ways, I mused while pouring syrup on my pancake. And as I quickly got yet another refill on my coffee, I decided that as charming as the old ways might be, I was just as happy with the upgrades.
Title photo by Brenda Arnold: Condiments on the table of a diner