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What I Learned as an American Living in London During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Even subtle cultural differences change how a country handles crisis.

On March 3rd, 2020, I left New York City to go spend three months in London with my longtime partner.

You likely recognize that date as shockingly close to when all hell broke loose around the world thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I was leaving NYC, there were already stirrings of unease surrounding a mysterious new virus that was making its way from China to the States, but very few people thought it would be anything but a passing inconvenience.

As it turned out, I likely already had the virus when I departed New York. I began running a fever the day I arrived in London. Still, I figured I had probably just caught a cold on the plane (this was before we knew what we know now, that the coronavirus was already extremely prevalent in NYC by March 3rd), and there was no way of knowing for sure, because tests were only available to people in the hospital with COVID symptoms. Soon, my partner also came down with symptoms.

As we recovered (we were both lucky to have relatively mild cases that lasted only a couple of days), we watched London slowly close down around us. First, theaters and public venues began to close, then office workers were told to stay home. Throughout it all, there was a reigning sense of calm and acceptance among the British people, even as the rest of the world began to panic.

BBC.com

The complaints I heard from British friends and acquaintances were never about the lockdown measures, but rather about the conservative government's hesitance to take more drastic steps and the lack of clarity surrounding what they expected the population to do to prevent the spread of the virus.

Still, I was struck by the difference in tone that I saw on my social media from American friends discussing the pandemic and the calm acceptance of the British people around me. Every post by an American discussing the pandemic used the word "I" over and over again and had a generally panicky tone. Meanwhile, the British were speaking with "we" and jokingly mourning their inability to grab a pint and watch football.

Sure, this composure was not true of every single citizen in the UK, just as panic was not every American's reaction, but there was a distinct difference in the responses I personally saw. In general, people who lived in London seemed quick to ask how they could help each other and their country, while many Americans seemed ready to batten down the hatches and take on an "every man for himself" attitude.

I was struck by this sign I saw outside a local corner shop in London:

Image of sign asking if anyone needs anything during COVID-19

Everywhere in London I saw examples of collectivism. While images were coming out of America of totally bare supermarket shelves thanks to people hoarding food and supplies to ensure their own comfort and safety, in London I watched two older women argue over who should take the last packet of chicken thighs. Both women insisted the other should have it.

Now that I'm back in the US, I haven't seen a thing like that in my local grocery stores, and while I know mutual aid networks are flourishing and neighbors are assisting each other in cities around the US, I've still been struck by our general lack of visible camaraderie.

It's no secret that the British government handled the COVID-19 crisis relatively poorly, but I was still struck by a sense of hard-fought unity I felt I shared with every average Londoner.

The British aren't an overly expressive people, but they're extraordinarily cordial. We Americans usually think of this kind of British decorum as a stuffy relic of the past that's only relevant in the event of an afternoon tea at Harrods, and perhaps that's partly true, but COVID-19 showed me just how deep this cordiality goes.

British decorum is not a form of politeness that's just about saying "Please" and "Thank you" or moving out of someone's way on the sidewalk; it's the kind of regard for your fellow man that makes it second nature to wait patiently in line if that makes a supermarket safer. It's an innate sense of obligation to each other that makes wearing a mask on public transportation an obvious and inarguably appropriate step to take during a deadly pandemic.

Sure, Brexit proves that nationalism is just as alive and well in England as it is in America, and in many ways Boris Johnson is a slightly less terrifying version of Donald Trump. But my time in Britain showed me that nothing can rid the British people of their ability to weather a storm as a united people, while I can't say the same of America.

On March 20th, Boris made the historic decision to close the pubs in the UK. For context, even during WWII, when London was being regularly bombed by the Germans, the pubs mostly remained open. This was the only time during my stay in London that I saw a collective outpouring of emotion.

I walked to my local pub out of curiosity that night (I had been two weeks without symptoms and told I was fine to leave the house), knowing that it would be closed indefinitely first thing the next morning. What I found was a sensibly socially distanced crowd of people laughing and singing and drinking together to mark the unthinkable day when the pubs would shut. Everyone was fast friends with their neighbor, and even the drunkest among us kept their distance and used hand sanitizer often. But there was a feeling of unity in the pub that night that I have never experienced in America. A sense that, as a people, Londoners would get through this by looking after one another in ways their government had nothing to do with.

Londoners survive; that's what they do. But the part of "keeping calm and carrying on" that doesn't fit as neatly on a poster is the additional impetus to help one's neighbors in big and small ways.

As we're forced to reckon with the failings of the American government during this time of political, social, and economic turmoil, I wonder if we should not also be looking at the pervasive sense of individualism that's so innate to our culture. I'm not even sure I fully recognized it until it became starkly obvious to me in contrast to a different culture.

Yes, the American government failed us in the way it handled the COVID-19 outbreak, but shouldn't we also interrogate our personal inability to care for each other without strict mandate from the government? Shouldn't we consider that true change can't come to America until we start taking personal responsibility for each other? Yes, we need to deconstruct the systems of oppression inherent in the American government that allow for widespread injustice. But we also need to ask ourselves everyday if we're asking the government to do the work that we aren't doing ourselves.

In the wise words of people who have been doing mutual aid work for generations: We keep us safe. It's time we take a page from Londoners' book and consider that politeness isn't just nice; it can also be an act of radical resistance.

Randonauting for the First Time: Here’s What Really Happened

The Randonautica app led me to a mysterious empty road. Researching it led me to conspiracy theories, quantum physics, simulation theory, manifestation techniques, and chaos magic.

The trip began with a wrong turn.

I drove confidently down the street until I realized I was going in the wrong direction, and veered down a dead-end to turn around.

Immediately, I wondered if this was symbolic, a sign from the universe that I should turn back. On a randonauting trip—at least if you adopt the open-minded and deeply superstitious mindset of many of the app's roughly 10 million and counting users—everything takes on a weird and ominous meaning, adopting a number of potentially divine implications.

The app led me down the street, out of my immediate neighborhood and up some of the windiest streets in my town in upstate New York. Treacherous even on the sunniest day of summer, the serpentine road set me on edge. Suddenly, a car veered towards me out of nowhere, forcing me to swerve.

When I arrived at the destination, all I saw was forest on both sides, two parallel ravines on the edge of the paved road. I opened up the Randonautica app as if it would give me some kind of wisdom about what I was supposed to find.

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4 Easy Ways to Make Fighting Climate Change a Part of Your Holiday Traditions

Reduce your carbon footprint for Thanksgiving and beyond

Are you worried about your carbon footprint this holiday season? There's a limit to how much the responsibility for climate change individuals can take when industry is the true locus of the damage, and governmental regulation is necessary to reign it in. Still, with all the travel and the piles of food piled on top of other piles of food, it's easy to see why some people are taking note of the waste and pollution that results from these annual occasions. Does that mean we should give up these rare chances to celebrate and share with far-flung relatives?

Most of us aren't interested in that option, so how do we balance all the positivity of the holidays against the shocking environmental impact they bring? There's a number of methods you can add to your holiday traditions to help minimize your carbon footprint. Hopefully some of these options will fit into your holiday plans and reduce any stress about your carbon footprint.

Travel Less or Travel Better

holiday travel

Whether you're celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, or Hanukkah, travel is likely the biggest factor contributing to your carbon footprint, but there are a lot of ways you can minimize your impact. Obviously the best way to cut down is to stay local for some or all of the holidays. Many young people prefer to celebrate "Friendsgiving" in their transplant cities and set aside time for video calls with family, rather than trekking back to their hometowns. And if you just don't like your family, pointing to environmental concerns is a perfectly legitimate excuse.

If that's not an option for you—or if you really love your family for whatever reason—choosing buses and trains over cars and planes is always a plus, and selecting a location that is convenient to the greatest number of attendees can make a huge difference. And if you're thinking of travelling to New York City for the Christmas tree lighting or the New Year's Eve ball drop, don't. They're awful.

Get Cozy

cozy couple

Winter heating is hugely wasteful. Any time you see icicles hanging off the side of a house or building, that's a clear sign of heat seeping out into the world. Insulation can go a long way to cutting down on both waste and costs, and signing up with an alternative energy provider like Green Mountain Energy can do a lot to minimize your impact, but there are other strategies that can help you do more while getting you into the holiday spirit, all of which can be summed up with two beautiful words: Get cozy.

Bundle up in your warmest sweater and a pair of thick socks. Share a blanket and some cocoa on the couch with your loved ones. Keep each other warm in one cozy room, rather than heating the whole house. A space heater can be a great way to cut down on your emissions and encourage your whole family to get a little closer.

Get Creative with Your Gifts

coupon book

Green and eco-friendly gifts are a nice idea and can be really great if they're taking the place of a more wasteful purchase, but there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and the waste that goes into the manufacture, shipping, and packaging of green-branded goods generally outweighs their benefits.

The greenest option is probably the one you haven't gotten away with since you were ten. A book of coupons for chores and favors doesn't cost you or the environment anything. But if you lack the courage to try pulling off a scam like that, there are some pricier experience-gifts that are a lot more eco-friendly—and a lot more memorable—than an solar-powered phone charger or a pair of pants made from bamboo. A gift card to a farm-to-table restaurant, a voucher for a massage, or just a donation to the Human Fund (or, you know, a real charity) are all great options that don't require wasteful wrapping. Alternatively, if you can make a gift yourself, you'll be a real hero.

Cut Down on Your Meat and Dairy

holiday meal

Okay, this is a big one. After travel, the food that we eat—and the food we throw away—are responsible for the largest portion of our carbon output. Meat is generally the biggest contributor, but red meat is particularly bad. So if you usually have a ham or a roast beside your turkey, cutting that out is a good move. And if you can cut out the turkey itself—or even just choose a smaller turkey—that's even better.

There are obviously other factors to consider, like the distance your food has to travel, and the amount of water that goes into its production, but you may not want to get your PhD before your next meal, in which case, cutting out meat is a simple and effective way to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. Meatless Mondays are an easy step that more people are taking these days, but if you're really concerned about your impact this holiday season, you can offset the added emissions from travel by cutting out meat for a few days, a week, or a month at a time.

If we made that kind of practice a part of our holiday traditions—cutting out meats for some portion of December—we could go a long way toward pairing back holiday emissions. With recent advances in meat alternatives from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, you might find the change easier than you would think. And if enough of us pick up the habit, the agricultural industry will have no choice but to shift toward more sustainable foods.

10 Books Every (Informed) American Should Read

In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.

Author Isaac Asimov once said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.

The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.

Here are 10 books every (informed) American should read:

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

If you don't read the Steinbeck classics, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, you're doing yourself a disservice. But, if there's only one Steinbeck book you do make time for, make sure it's his autobiographical travel memoir of taking his lumbering RV and charismatic dog across America. He makes due with whatever conversation and company he finds, not driven by any great American ambition other than finding moments of connection in a diverse landscape.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

One of America's most loved authors, Heller's humor and biting observations capture the precarity of individualism in the face of war. The foundations of American cynicism and anti-war sentiment are encapsulated in the eponymous bureaucratic rule of Catch-22: "a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved."

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

As much as the movie adaptations of Frankenstein's monster are icons in America cinema, the philosophical depths of the novel are sadly lost. Individuality and personal responsibility are two major burdens that neither creator nor creation are capable of managing well. There's also something to be said about the element of spectatorship that Shelley frames the novel with, as the story unfolds through a series of letters and switches narration like a mind-bending Black Mirror episode.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates manages to capture both the history and enduring tension of race relations in modern America in what Toni Morrison calls "required reading." Written as a letter to his son, Coates' writing is an alchemy of memoir, oral history, and calls to action. He aims to explore how "Americans have built an empire on the idea of 'Rae,' a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men...What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live in it?"

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This classic fantasy adventure isn't a political science essay or a philosophical treatise, but the payoff is just as strong–if not stronger. Alienation, otherness, nihilism, and, above all, personal resilience take Arthur Dent through the galaxy after his home (along with the rest of earth) is destroyed one casual morning.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

In the same vein, this sci-fi novel is like Machiavelli's The Prince retold as a dystopian space saga. The value of individual innocence in the face of the greater good is challenged. The series explores the moral boundaries of powerful men using innocents as weapons in a war they can't understand.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Gray's book of essays explores the contradictions inherent in what we understand modern "feminism" to mean. Mixing humor with sharp observation, Gay targets issues as banal as choosing pink as her favorite color as well as timelessly complex matters such as domestic abuse and abortion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This one also gets named on every list of "books you need to read" because of its plain and eerie predictions of how dependent society will become on media for its opinions and worldview, as well as entertainment.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you can't read the entire canons of solipsism, emotional psychology, and the art of satire, you can absorb the whimsical explorations of The Little Prince. Put simply, a boy prince journeys from planet to planet, each populated by a single adult. His conversations with each one create "a heartfelt exposition of sadness and solitude." Originally written in French, it's universally poetic.

1984 by George Orwell

Knowing the references isn't enough with this classic; again, you have to read it for yourself in order to see dystopian America in your mind's eye. From the cognitive dissonance of war crimes to the contradictions of government propaganda, you need to come to your own conclusions about what an Orwellian future looks like.



Transportation Update: Is Train Travel Safe in the US?

This may surprise you, but train wrecks are actually more common than many people realize.

In late January, an Amtrak train ferrying a large group of Republican lawmakers, staff, and family - including House Speaker Paul Ryan - from Washington to White Sulphur Springs collided with a garbage truck in Crozet, Virginia. The train was traveling at roughly 60 mph when the engineer pulled the emergency brake, but it was too late. The driver was ejected from the truck and killed. The crash came on the heels of deadly Amtrak crashes in North Carolina, Washington, and South Carolina. In 2017, there were more than 2,100 crashes at public and private U.S. railroad crossings, killing 274 and injuring 807.

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