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How Fragile is the American Dream?

How Fragile is the American Dream?

In 1994 my Company was opening a new Office in a suburb 30 miles North of Detroit and I was offered a Management position there. My Wife and I discussed it long and hard, we lived in the Welsh Valleys with our 2 sons and we were both unhappy about their prospects. We had a good standard of living, but we had heard great stories from a friend of ours who regularly visited Michigan on busines.

Part 1  – Welcome to Detroit

Well here is my story, back in 1994 my Company was opening a new Office in Rochester Hills a suburb 30 miles North of Detroit and I was offered a Management position there. My Wife and I discussed it long and hard, we lived in the Welsh Valleys with our two sons who were 9 and 7 at the time, and we were both unhappy about their prospects. We had a pretty good standard of living, but we had heard great stories from a friend of ours who regularly visited Rochester Hills in Michigan on business. The houses were huge”¦”¦..the weather was fantastic”¦”¦”¦..cost of living was cheap”¦”¦”¦..salaries for Engineers were great etc. etc.

We were given the opportunity of an all expenses week visit to check out the place, so we had nothing to lose. After crossing the Atlantic, the weather got worse and we were flying in a blizzard, our fuelling stop was in Montreal and it was minus 16 degrees and all we could see was SNOW, huge great piles of it, we both looked at each other and raised our eyebrows, with a “well it’s a new experience anyway” kind of look.. After they had de-iced the wings we took off once again for our final destination.

We landed in Detroit in the coldest winter for 20 years, with snow up to 2 feet thick. A part of my job involved traveling quite extensively to many airports, but I had never before encountered such a confusing and unfriendly airport. It took us ages to find a taxi, when we did we discovered that the driver not only spoke little English, but despite telling me he knew the address I handed to him, he clearly did not. This was clearly demonstrated when after only about 100 yards he pulled over to a taxi rank and got out and asked for directions. It got worse when the American taxi drivers who were having a quiet smoke couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. One of them came over to the taxi and had to explain to me how to get there so I could tell out driver, not an auspicious start to our new life.

So we headed north out of the Airport up the I75 and eventually saw a sign for Rochester Hills, after that we made two stops at gas stations so I could ask directions because of course they couldn’t understand the driver and he couldn’t understand them!

I was getting more and more irate and my wife was telling me to calm down as we seemed to go in circles, we then saw the Hotel at the other side of the freeway and the driver asked me which way he should go. At this point I lost it, I had been told that the journey should have taken us about 45 minutes, and to this point if had been nearly 1 ½ hours. I told him I was a bloody visitor, he lived here and as a taxi driver was supposed to be able to take me to where I needed to go without my directions.

When we finally got to the Hotel I had been watching the meter because I had been told to expect how much to pay and it was much much higher, I muttered to my wife “if he expects me to pay that he has another think coming” as she shushed me and told me to calm down. Anyway the driver looked that the meter, smiled shook his finger to indicate that it was wrong and wrote down a reasonable price, so my blood pressure returned to normal, but his tip was sorely lacking. The final straw was when we got our luggage out of the trunk; we found that it had been sitting in a pool of water. The driver beat a hasty retreat.

We looked wearily around at this alien landscape we found ourselves in, there was snow ploughed into mounds 10′ high, icicles hanging from the Hotel were 2′ – 3′ long and looked ” pretty” but  “dangerous” at the same time and it was frigidly cold”¦”¦”¦.we had arrived.

We checked into the Hotel which was warm and welcoming and found of course that unlike many European Hotels there was no restaurant.  We were pointed in the direction of the Coffee and muffins, but we needed something more substantial as we were starving. The receptionist told me that there was a restaurant, “just across the parking lot”.

We dropped our luggage in our room and decided to walk to the restaurant”¦”¦.. bad decision. The description of “just across the parking lot” made it sound close and easy to walk to. Maybe it would have been on a nice summers evening, but this was as I said the coldest winter for 20 years. Our British coats and scarves were totally not up to the job and in addition we got disbelieving stares from cars that passed us as we trudged across what seemed like miles of frozen, ice covered parking lot into a bone chilling wind. We managed to make it but both had our gloved hands over our faces and our scarves wrapped around our ears. Little did we know back then that not a lot of walking is done when one has a car, even in nice weather, in the dead of winter we were obviously “not from these parts”.

It taught us that what we had previously thought of as cold in Britain was not cold at all and that assumptions can be dangerous.

Entering the restaurant was a fantastic relief, the smells of the food and the warmth”¦”¦”¦.whew.

We had a great server who laughed when we told our story about our “short walk”, and got our first introduction to the barrage of questions about your choices that one faces in all American restaurants

{mosbanner right}It was quite exhausting, but when the food arrived in what to us were epic proportions it was amazing. We had each chosen a 3 egg omelet with cheese and ham, with rye bread, jelly, muffins and hash browns with coffee and Diet coke. They were the biggest omelets we had ever seen and it was also our first experience of free coffee refills. We were nervous every time the waitress filled our cups thinking we were going to be charged for it, so we asked her how much the refills cost and she explained to us, phew what a relief.

When we had finished, neither of us were looking forward to the cold walk back, but now we were warm and knew what to expect we made it OK.  Had a nice warm shower back at the room and were tucked up in bed at 10:40pm. both of us wondering what tomorrow would bring.

When we woke up and looked out of our Hotel window, it was immediately clear to us that we were looking at totally foreign world. There were no hills in sight, just a flat vista of snow covered buildings and trees, it was strange to see that although the sun was shining, nothing appeared to be thawing.

Well that was how we arrived in America, in search of a better life, a classic case of chasing the American Dream.

Part 2 – Living the Dream

In our case we did find it, we had a great standard of living, big houses, large cars, great vacations and an income far higher than I would have been earning in the UK.  For six marvelous years we travelled all over the States, had barbecues with our friends on our deck and enjoyed lovely summer evenings as we got merry and said to our ex-pat friends, “this is the life eh?”. Wintertime we went skiing, skating or snowmobiling, in the Fall we went to Pumpkin Farms and had hot cider and donuts, at Thanksgiving and Christmas we got together with our ex-pat friends who had become our “family”.

Then in 2001 it all started to unwind”¦”¦”¦

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