Thursday, February 02, 2006
The American dream, seen from afar
Yesterday Meaghan and I were interviewed for television. One of the local Kragujevac channels is starting a show about interior design around the world, and they were curious about what kind of spaces Americans live in. (For those of you in KG, it's on Channel 9, and our episode should air Monday 13 February at 10 PM (22.00).) I always try to avoid speaking on behalf of "Americans," but we did describe the apartment and neighborhood where we lived in Brookline, Mass. before we moved out here. One thing that struck me during the interview was that the presenter asked about the "American dream" of owning real estate. This has always seemed a bit odd to me, as I'm scared to death of owning real estate. Between mortgages, points, prime rates, closings, settlements, and all that mumbo jumbo on one hand, and mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, buying washing machines, and fixing boilers on the other, my picture of the homeowner's life is pretty nightmarish. Maybe I'm just too young, seeing visions of a "grown-up" life of parenthood and homeownership that limits my conversational possibilities to my (hypothetical) newborn infant's bodily fluids on one hand, and home improvement projects on the other. Enough about my neuroses. The question is, what does the American dream have to do with real estate? Whenever someone mentions the American dream - and it's rarely, if ever, an American - I have to ask them what they picture. The best answer I've heard so far (from Meaghan) is that it's the principle of being able to live your life the way you want, and the idea that anything is within your reach if you work hard enough to get it. I can understand how that would connect with real estate if you come from 17th-century England or communist Eastern Europe, where everyday people were simply not permitted to own land unless they moved away to settle in the New World. Still, America is far too interesting and diverse a place for its guiding principle to be symbolized by a yuppie/Pleasantville scene of 2.4 kids and white picket fences. My own American dream is currently taking place some 6,000 miles from the US. Even as an American expat in Serbia, I recognize that I have certain rights and advantages that are not available to my hosts. I have steady, if short-term, employment from the U.S. government, I can travel to any number of neighboring countries without a visa, and I'm a native speaker of the world's #1 international language. To me, this freedom of movement is as much a part of the American dream as any right to own property. If you think about it, the apartment that I rent now, four small rooms filled with big Serbian furniture, expresses my personal version of the American dream better than any two-car garage.