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  • Seven years ago my husband and I got married.

    Almost twenty years earlier Christophe had spent a year as an AFS student in Massachusetts. His American family are always ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ to both of us. They are wonderful, hardworking people and we had visited them in Boston not so long before.
    They made the trip to Europe for our wedding, and they offered us the most incredible gift: a fortnight road trip in the desert states Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

    So my husband and I made a trip we had never expected to make, in their company. We saw Bryce National Monument, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, the pueblo towns of Mesa Verde and Monument Valley.

    The beauty of the landscape blew me away. The incredible red rocks, the long hours on the road with nothing but bare, dry land on all sides. In Europe nothing is ever ‘far away’ if you compare it to this. Belgium is a country the size of a handkerchief. Driving for two hours one way to get to your job is not an exception in the States. In Belgium, if you get into your car in Brussels and drive for three hours in any direction, you will have left the country. Houses are everywhere and free space is pocketed away between rows and rows of buildings. It’s a stifling place to live, even though I call it home.

    So here were these magnificent vistas, this old old country under endless blue skies. It was an unforgettable journey. And yet, it was also my biggest culture shock as yet, and I spent moments of agony during that trip.

    If you go abroad, lots of things are different of course. Meal times, the things people eat and the way they eat them. Driving habits. Manners and manierisms. There is a lot of common ground between most cultures, but it’s the tiny differences that sting when we least expect it.

    But that which I was having trouble with, were not the small idiosyncrasies.

    To European eyes, Americans are huge polluters and massive consumers. Not once was I able to finish the portion on my plate in a restaurant, and after a while I started surviving on apples. My stomach was simply too upset with all the fat and sugar. The car we drove (a Chevrolet Suburban that would easily fit four and luggage for a fortnight) used enough gasoline for two medium-sized European vehicles put together. We didn’t have to pay for any of it, Christophe’s incredibly generous American parents simply wouldn’t allow it, but it only made us feel more guilty of spending so much, sometimes needlessly.

    This massive consumption culture of instant gratification rang false with the purity of the landscape it was situated in. It was unrooted and out of place, like a spray of bright pink bubble gum meandering through the desert. I had a hard time swallowing my unease. And then we reached the Indian reservations.

    I’m sure we didn’t see the worst of it. I know that because of the heart-breaking photographs I saw made by Aaron Huey of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
    I only saw relatively well-to-do Navaho people and the Hopi slums near Old Oraibi.
    I only saw a poor Hopi woman gently but proudly beat down an offer made to her by ‘dad’ to let us into their sacred town when it was not allowed in return for money (something this otherwise gentle man called her stupid for behind her back).
    I only spoke to a few Hopi men sitting on a patio trying to scrape together a living by carving statues for tourists. They invited Christophe and me to have a drink with them but we couldn’t – we were expected to get back in the car and drive to the next expensive hotel where we were supposed to spend the night after having a lavish supper.
    I only heard an Indian guide dressed as an old bohemian sing a song for a bunch of tourists somewhere on a ridge near Canyon de Chelly. But the song came from his heart, and the silence afterwards answered him. The land came alive with the touch of this man’s voice.

    In my head I heard someone say: we can never again go home.
    In the silence following his song I wept.
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