Earlier this spring, we were invaded by squirrels—a gang of…
My very first car had a manual transmission: it was a red ‘91 Jeep Cherokee, which my father and I purchased together when I was twenty. It took a couple of weeks for me to get used to driving a stick shift, for me not to stall at an intersection or when pulling out of the driveway, but after I got the hang of it I came to love that car. I loved driving it around town, whether to class or to nowhere, and it not only felt like my car because I was its owner, but also because I felt I had so much control over it as a car with a manual transmission. And although I’d borrowed and driven my parents’ cars before, my Jeep was the car that made me enjoy driving.
I’d been resistant to driving beforehand, whether in high school, when taking driving lessons from my parents (though mostly from my father), or after I got my license, when I could borrow a car for an errand, for work, or for school. My resistance in high school came from my father and I having always argued during my lessons—which frustrated me, making me want to give up on the idea of driving altogether. I hated my father’s critiques. I hated the fact that there was always something to be said about what I did in the car, about this turn or that stop, and many times I told myself I’d rather just ride my bike or the town bus instead, because driving the way my father wanted me to was too difficult.
My mother wanted my father to give me most of my driving lessons, I’m guessing because she trusted him as a driver more than she trusted herself. My father holds a commercial driver’s license, a CDL—he was once a semi-truck driver, and, once upon a time, was a taxi driver in Chicago. He’d had a lot of driving experience. He was a man who knew things about the road. He would teach me to drive in a way my mother couldn’t.
Another part of my resistance to driving comes from knowing that when I’m in a car with an automatic transmission it feels too passive to me. Take this not as a warning that I’m zoning out on the road—it’s just that, mechanically, I prefer my total engagement with the road to be paired with my total engagement with the car. I enjoy the sensation of the clutch. I like paying attention to my gears. This is the only way I take joy in driving.
When I drive my parents’ cars during summers when I visit them—not owning a car where I currently live in southeastern Ohio and having moved there from Chicago—I find myself having to adjust to their cars in multiple ways. The first is that driving a car doesn’t fit with the metaphor about remembering how to ride a bike—it may be easier to just get on a bike and go after you’ve been away from one for a while, but with a car it might be best to take it easy before getting into traffic.
The second adjustment is having to remember that I don’t need to use both my left foot and my right hand to drive. This is odd for me because, even though I haven’t driven the Jeep in ages, I should still know how to drive an automatic.
Because fewer cars now come with manual transmissions, I wonder whether I’ll ever be be a happy driver. Like many people I’ve spent much of my life as a passenger, riding in cars first with my parents and then with my friends and then, after moving to Chicago, using public transportation, which I’ve come to prefer to getting behind the wheel any day. And having studied abroad a couple times, I’m also often nostalgic for the easiness of walking in European cities, wishing that more American cities possessed a topography built for the stroll.
As much as I’m thinking about driving here I’m also thinking about its alternatives, because I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older just how much I prefer being a passenger, even how much I prefer to walk or ride a bike. I’m brought here to think here about my old Jeep as a lost love: I’ve found myself now having to navigate less magical alternatives, a little bit persnickety about the ways I enjoy getting around.
I’ve been living in Athens, in Appalachian Ohio, for a little over two years, and I have zero complaints about what I see when I exit my front door, or when I walk from my house to my university’s campus. While I do consider how much more convenient things might be if I did own a car (Athens is a considerably small town, just ten-and-a-half square miles in total area), the scenery is easier to take in when on foot, moving slower than when in a car and seeing the hills in the distance as still images rather than ones whizzing by.
Ohio, at least from what I’ve heard, has held a reputation for being “quintessentially American.” While it might not have bits of vastly different cultures in it the way New York City or California do, much of its land has remained untouched. Its people enjoy their locales, frequenting the same paths on daily walks or bike rides, frequenting the same pubs during nightly outings. There was one night when two older gentlemen sitting beside a professor and myself at a bar cordially introduced themselves, gave us a drink they didn’t want to finish, then left after taking a couple shots. “Welcome to Athens,” my professor said, and I responded merely that I could get used to this.
“Quintessential Americanness,” at least in the definition I’m looking for here, might include a neighborly friendliness, an appreciation for the place where one lives, and a willingness not to glamorize it at all. “There isn’t much here,” many Ohioans I’ve met have said to me about this place, but their tone is far from debilitated. They’re happy with “not having much,” however they might define much, and no one talks about their dreams of living in faraway places.
It gives me the impression that I’ve begun to think of this place, to a degree, as a kind of utopia: Not one where everyone around is made richer by the economic prospects here, but one where residents find bliss within this geography. When my professor gave me a breakdown of Athens, he said that many people have stuck around after finishing school to open businesses just for the sake of sticking around. “It’s really nice to be in a place where people don’t want to leave,” he said, and I understood this feeling with clarity.
I’ve told a few friends about the ways this place reminds me of Prague, in the Czech Republic. While walking around Athens won’t give me the sight of any thousand-year-old buildings, I’m reminded of Prague by the streets made of bricks instead of asphalt, by its river, by my ability to walk everywhere. Prague itself is a city on a hill, and Athens is a town within many hills, and it’s been pleasant to walk both up- and downhill here, knowing that I’m not scanning for skyscrapers but rather for picturesque peaks.
But to compare this place (which is ostensibly American) with a city in Europe feels odd at best, and offensive at worst. I’m glad to be in a place again where I’m forced to walk so much, given a break from driving, because driving and the necessity of driving remind me that I’m in America. We love our cars and our open roads here, and we love to drive around, but there’s something about now being in Ohio that feels strange—perhaps the actual strangeness isn’t the place I’ve found myself in, but that it’s me who ended up here.
I once read somewhere that Susan Sontag liked to call herself a “natural European.” This is a complicated sentiment, for sure, in part because it can bring into question what makes a “natural American.” Sontag was American, she was raised and befriended and educated by Americans, yet she found herself unwilling to define herself by an American patriotism.
I joke when in Prague about Czechs possessing a “beer belly patriotism,” that one can’t be a good Czech without appreciating beer and greasy food, but this phrase also makes me think of things like the NASCAR subculture in certain pockets of America, and the idea that one can, if they wish, define their Americanness through a love of leisure.
I sometimes want to side with Sontag by also calling myself a “natural European,” but when I say this I have to place the qualities of my own character into two separate columns. Natural evokes the things that are already part of my preference and temperament—my dislike of driving, my dislike of guns, my love of wine at any time during the day—and shows me that many of the things I favor aren’t characteristically American ones. In Europe it’s easy to look down on things like binge-drinking or gun cultures, or even things like Hollywood, but in the U.S. it feels like making a list of the things I don’t like is a kind of self-imposed exile, wherein the popular response to my list would be something like “If you don’t like it here, then leave.”
One night in Athens, on a walk home with a roommate, I told her about how romantic I am with real estate, always looking at homes and imagining myself in them. “Do you have a dream home?” she asked me, and I told her I hadn’t figured that out yet. But I now think this may have been a lie. I’ve lived in many apartments, in part to rail against my parents’ love of big houses, and I’ve romanticized these apartments because something about their comparatively small size has felt cozy to me. I’ve lived in four-bedrooms, in two-bedrooms, in studios, living in a townhouse is still on my to-do list, and I imagine a small cottage as being perfect. But real estate is not a buffet,
I realize, and I have a feeling that the sampling I’ve done has just been one way of railing against an American pride in homeownership.
I’ve probably felt the same way about cars, having enjoyed my years in Chicago without one, even if owning a car might have made it easier to see friends in different neighborhoods or shop for groceries. My using the train there was both resistance and indulgence, reminding me that, it’s possible for me to be quite a happy commuter in the U.S.
I love public transit, in fact. I love every city in the U.S. and elsewhere with a subway system. I love streetcars the most. And I’ve thought that being a passenger is far from a bad way to live, and that maybe it’s this above all things that could make me a “natural European” like Sontag—Americans like driving because they like ownership, control, and freedom, but I myself feel more free when I’m being carried. I feel more free to read, to listen to music, to stare off into space, and
the contradiction in my freedom here might be an inquiry of its own: Is my “passengerness” a kind of leisure, which is an American enjoyment, or is it a resistance to my American living?
Living in Athens has made me wonder what it means to resist the U.S. while loving it at the same time. The summers here are an ensemble of American experiences, from regular barbeques to celebrating the Fourth of July, and I appreciate the fun in all of this. This has also made me see, though, that maybe the benefit of European cities is that their distance from American ones allow for a distance from American experiences, from American habits.
One of my favorite essays is E.B. White’s “Farewell, My Lovely” (originally published as “Farewell to the Model T”), in which White shows off not just his love for the Model T, but also the meaning it held for other people who drove one. It was a customizable (even if dangerous) car, and one could feel proud of the fact that their Model T could get a signature look by way of customization: A way of assuring others on the street that no one else could have a Model T like theirs.
White’s essay, when I first came across it, reminded me of my Jeep, even though it was nowhere near as customizable, nowhere near being able to make it as mine as those old Model Ts were. But I understood why White was happy to own such a thing: It was the car that changed America, and to own one was to feel like you were a part of something American—just as for many today, to own a car, period, feels like “doing your part” in being an American. There’s something off-putting about it for me, though—maybe it’s the idea of car loans and car payments, or the insurance, or the maintenance, or the obvious class distinction that owning a car can hold, that has made me put off owning another one for so long.
To say that to own a car is to make one more American is unfair, especially to those in places where owning a car isn’t necessary: like Athens, or like any of the numerous cities in the U.S. where it’s possible to ride a streetcar or the subway.
Maybe because I grew up in a rural town and am now in rural Appalachia, or maybe because I got to taste for so long what it means to be separate from car culture, I’ve had trouble resolving my feelings toward once again living in a place that has a car culture. What maybe needs to be resolved here, what needs to be reconciled, is how to cope with once again living in a place where a car can feel like a luxury instead of a necessity.
What is there to do, then, in a place like Athens, to feel like I’m experiencing the town the “Athenian” (i.e. local/American/ Appalachian) way? How can I maintain a naturalness here without giving in to the luxuries within reach? Is it possible that, if my immediate thoughts in Athens can be about hills and trees instead of about cars, I’ve found myself in my ideal geographic bubble? Is it possible that I’ve found myself in a place where, whether I’m being snobby about it or not, I’m not required to question my Americanness?