Love, life and lies in the suburbs

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The United States has been called the first suburban nation. Europeans love to live in cities, but Americans prefer their own big house on a plot of land. They're happy if they never have to visit cities, which are seen as noisy, dirty, and crime-ridden. Americans prefer to be around people just like themselves in homes just like theirs, writes our French correspondent Claude Miller.

I am French. I love the great European cities such as Paris, London, Madrid, Lisbon, and Rome. These are fantastic places to live and work. History and culture are all around. There's a diversity of people and opinions. You learn tolerance in big beautiful cities.

My first stop in the United States was New York, a huge, pulsating city as exciting as any other city in the world. It's up there among my top three world cities. It's a great, albeit expensive, place to live and work. But it's not typical of America.

Suburban life

If you want to taste American life in a way Americans like to live it, you have to move to the suburbs with their detached stick-built homes, double garages, manicured lawns, acres of shopping malls, parking lots, and drive-thru fast food joints.

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To a European accustomed to city living, the American suburbs are lifeless, soul-destroying, lacking in culture and history, and so dependent on car ownership that moving from A to B without a car is a huge pain in the a-s.

Car ownership is a big part of the American freedom project, as is owning your own home on its own plot of land. Perhaps it's a last vestige of pioneering spirit, which drove people west in covered wagons to claim their piece of paradise.

Europeans in their millions fled to America to escape poverty, urban squalor, religious persecution, and oppressive government.

It's not surprising that they wanted to build something new. They did not want to repeat old mistakes. They no longer wanted to be reliant on arthritic, state-run religion which cared little for the individual. They didn't want government stealing their money in the form of taxes to fund colonial expansion and war.

Those moving in their millions to America sensed that if only they could shake off the shackles of old Europe, their energy and effort would result in a good life, where their own effort would give them all they needed. They didn't need government telling them what to do, and they didn't need state religion telling them what to think. They wanted to be free.

Desire for freedom

This wonderful human project based on the desire for freedom and built on the notion that the individual can provide for him- or herself has turned into its exact opposite in the American suburbs.

Where once individualism and freedom were praised and loved, today they are hated. Conformity is the king and ruler in the American suburbs.

If this sounds extreme, try converting your suburban front lawn into a vegetable garden. Chances are you will be stopped before you have planted your first row of lettuce.

Invite friends round for a party in your backyard. Enjoy yourselves just a little too much, play your music just a little too loudly and it won't be a neighbor politely asking you to be quiet, it'll be the cops pushing you up against a wall.

Milwaukee suburb

When I moved to the a middle class suburb ofMilwaukee, Wisconsin, in order to finish my PhD on suburban living, I was questioned by local police on five different occasions for totally unremarkable and innocent behavior.

I have fairly long hair and a beard. One week after moving into my home, the police came round to question me because a neighbor was worried that an Arab had moved in next door. The neighbor had complained I had been speaking Arabic in a threatening way on the phone.

In fact, I was speaking French to my sister in Calais on a very bad cellphone connection. I was speaking loudly so she could hear me.

No beer please

The second time I was questioned was because I walked from my house to my mailbox, a distance of 20 yards across the street, with a bottle of Heineken in my hand. A neighbor called the cops to complain of my public drinking.

The cops informed me public drinking was not allowed in their burb, so I was cautioned and told not to do it again. Asking who had ratted on me, I was told it was confidential information. Informants have a right to privacy, unlike the man walking to his mail box with a bottle of beer.

Third time unlucky

The third time I was questioned, the police were almost apologetic. A university colleague had just returned from a trip to Marrakesh, Morocco where she had been studying businesses run by women. She gave me a gift of a small rug made by a team of women in a Moroccan village.

The rug made me sneeze, so I hung it on the clothesline to air. A neighbor, obviously spying with binoculars, spotted the camels depicted on the rug and called the police to say I was flying an anti-American flag from the Middle East.

Retired marine

This time the cops told me who had made the complaint. It was a retired U.S. marine living in a house whose family room faced my kitchen window and veranda. It seems he had been watching me for a while.

I decided to go talk to him to calm, and possibly eliminate, his fears.

I knocked on his front door, no anwer. I walked to his back door only to be attacked by his dog and hear the guy screaming, You are trespassing on my property. Remove yourself from my land.

Number 4

That led to my fourth questioning. This time the police wanted to know why I was trespassing on my neighbor's property. I told them I just wanted to talk to the guy to explain I was a doctoral student at the university. The police told me I had no right to enter the man's backyard uninvited.

I asked the cops: Why is my neighbor allowed to spy on me with binoculars while I am not allowed to go ask him why he is invading my privacy with his spying? The cops told me the man was allowed to do whatever he wanted in his own house.

I asked them, Am I allowed to walk naked around my own house? The cops said that was a very strange question to ask. I was not allowed to do anything that would offend people in the neighborhood.

By now I was beginning to feel persecuted, forced to participate in a game that was rigged against me. Not matter what I said or did, it was going to be interpreted as though I was a troublemaker.

Right to privacy

I was also beginning to question the Americans commitment to freedom, tolerance, and individualism. I was not being accorded a right to privacy. My freedom was not being respected. And my individualism was being abused.

The fifth time

The fifth time the police questioned me was the most ridiculous.

I had cooked myself a breakfast of bacon and eggs, placed the plate on the table in my backyard, went to fetch a book to read, and came back to find my neighbor's dog eating my breakfast.

I shouted at the dog, which started barking and growling at me. This made the retired marine come rushing to my fence, screaming at me, Give my dog back you Arab motherf-cker. You have poisoned my dog!

I told the man as calmy as I could, Please come and get your dog, sir.

The man went into his house, and five minutes later the cops arrived and arrested me.

The remains of my breakfast were seized and sent off for lab tests, the dog was rushed to a vet, and I was told I would be responsible for the bill.

Richard Rorty

My neighbor told the cops he had seen me placing food on my table which I had then left, obviously with no intention to eat it. Actually, I was inside the house looking for my copy of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and Social Hope.

The story ended sort of ok. The lab tests revealed that my bacon and egg were just that. The dog suffered no traumatic effects. And my neighbor was told nothing could be done about my suspicious behavior.

Bye, bye burbs

After that event, my patience had run out. I sold my house, gave the burbs a short goodbye, and moved back to the city, where my beard is tolerated and folks don't call the police when I am eating sushi or any other foreign food.


By Claude Miller