Wednesday, October 15, 2014

culture shock: Back the the USA

After 6 weeks in Europe, a combination of some work and more vacation, there's a bit of culture shock coming back the the United States.

  1. Sprawl: flying into SFO, the sprawl across the East Bay was extensive. Residential development in Europe tends to be more clumped: areas of density immediately adjacent to rural. Suburbia is much, much less extensive.
  2. Being immersed in English: this feels wrong, sort of like cheating. I'm not complaining, though!
  3. tasteless food: I cooked some California brown rice and cooked it. The taste, or rather lack, was a bit of a shock. In Switzerland, all of the food I had was rich and flavorful, fresh and good. A lot of food in the US tastes empty and stale, produced for quantity rather than quality.
  4. California stops: after assembling the Ritchey Breakaway and riding to the train on Monday morning, after my return Sunday night, at the first intersection I hit where I had right of way and cross-traffic a stop sign, a driver did a California stop: drifting through the sign without actually stopping. He knew he was letting me go, but it wasn't obvious to me. A big part of being on shared roads is to communicate your actions.
  5. bumpy trains: the Swiss trains were smooth as silk. On Caltrain, on some trains I can't even type on my keyboard due to the bouncing suspension. I actually experienced this first on my way home from the airport, on BART, which is smoother than Caltrain but the trains still look old, worn, and weathered.
  6. wide suburban roads: after Caltrain, I have a 3+-km ride to work. My usual way essentially ends with a left from Middlefield in Mountain View onto a highway frontage road. Middlefield is a suburban road, yet is 8 lanes at this point, so I need to merge across 3 then make a left across the remaining 4. 8 lanes? Even the intercity roads I was on in Switzerland, France, and Germany never exceeded 4 (2 each way).
  7. parking lots: generally, the amount of land squandered on asphalt here is appalling, both roads and giant parking lots surrounding every building. Even in Meiringen Switzerland, which is in an agricultural valley and thus land is abundant, the public parking lot is buried.
  8. lack of cycling infrastructure: In Switzerland especially, but additionally in France and Germany, grade-separated bikeways were common. I rarely see these here. There's plenty of bike lanes, but generally to get around on a bike you need to know the best routes In Basel there was the challenge of navigating the streets, but on roads with too much traffic there was almost always bike infrastructure: I didn't need to have any insider knowledge on which subset of the roads were bike-friendly. It's ironic that Proposition L in San Francisco's November election is advocating a "restoration of balance" for car-infrastructure. A comparison with Europe shows the present situation is out of balance, but well in favor of private motor vehicles.
  9. Lack of mobility without a car: I want to go to Low-Key Hillclimb week 3, Welch Creek Road, this weekend, but just getting across the Bay without a car anywhere resembling early morning is a challenge. In Switzerland you could pretty much get where you wanted, when you wanted.
  10. Street people: in San Francisco, they're everywhere. In Basel, I didn't see anyone camping in the streets.

I really do like it in San Francisco. I don't know if I'd be happy living and working in Switzerland: it's a much more dynamic environment here. But I certainly miss a lot about my wonderful time spent there.


Jonathan said...

Nice post. I moved from Vienna, Austria to Kansas City, MO almost 2 years ago. I was there for 4 years and became very accustomed to cycling around the city in dedicated bike lanes, living without a car and enjoying many small, winding car free roads up in the hills. At least in SF, you still have access to some form of public transportation and culture. KCMO is a sprawl city where everything is a 20 minute drive. My wife and I have justified this by saying that it would have taken just as long in Vienna to get there by train (subway, tram or regional mix), but what we miss is the walking - even to/from the metro stations.

I'll add two quick points to your list 1. cars that are respectful of cyclists. Because cars are not 100% prioritized in the city, when you get out on the country roads cars slow down and give you at least 1m when passing. I can't tell you the number of times I've been buzzed by large pick up trucks out on the roads in KC. 2. Some people aren't going to like this one, but limited gravel roads. I could look at a map of Austria and go ride just about any road on the map without fear of stumbling across a gravel road (not to say I never found myself on nasty roads I had no business riding). But there, a road is either asphalt or cobbled, rarely concrete or gravel. I will add that even on the small country roads the asphalt was generally in better condition than KC. Of course, this isn't the case all of Europe, Austria is a relatively wealthy country with strong Socialist roots, KC is agriculture based and republican. A very stark difference.

djconnel said...

Great comments. In Switzerland and France I did encounter some gravel roads, but all were in excellent shape. I also was thinking yesterday as riding through SF how there's fewer cobbled roads here, but a lot more potholes, and I'd much rather have the regular, predictable bounce of cobbles than the irregular random strikes of a decayed infrastructure.

But I agree SF relatively spoiled with regard to freedom from car use, a good part of the reason housing prices are so high here.

NadiaMac said...

Completely agree with your comments. Two additional impressions:
1) I was mostly a pedestrian while in Basel and after 6 weeks there still had not adjusted to the deference given to pedestrians by the cars and trams. Frequently, I waited at an intersection for a car or tram to blow through (my US pedestrian instincts kicking in) only to see the driver waving me through. I was on crutches for the last two weeks there and found that I could basically step off of the curb into traffic and it would essentially halt for me. Incredible.
2) I miss the amazing yogurt and cheese! Also, before going to Switzerland, I heard many complaints about the cost of groceries there from expats and locals. But, my whole foods bill yesterday crushed any of my Swiss grocery trips. In particular, the cost of cheese and dairy is much lower in Europe.