For an American family returning home after four years in Europe, New Kids on the Block is not just a rock group. It is an accurate description of a temporary way of life as we cross a time zone of adapting to America in the 1990s.
The sensations and impressions of reentry are more deceptive than those we experienced on arriving in France in 1986. There we knew we were strangers. Here we think we know what to expect. But the velocity of change in America has accelerated rapidly in our years away, making the details of the familiar surprisingly obscure at times.
It is not simply not knowing what the latest hit television programs or who the newest rock and sports stars are. That is a matter more of age than distance. I began to lose track of singers immediately recognizable to everyone else back with Joan Baez and haven't really caught up since. I was surprised to learn upon coming home that Denny McLain not only no longer pitches for the Detroit Tigers but has been in jail and, even worse luck for him, has become a radio talk-show host since I last thought of him.
Younger minds can leap these cultural time warps more rapidly. After one day at school, the household's 5-year-old was heard outlining to the 10-year-old who and what the Simpsons are, even though neither had seen the program. Through their conversations I also learned that the adjective "awesome" is no longer the property of sportscasters but of four mutant teenage turtles and their followers.
More subtle language changes also strike the newly returned ear. "Dweeb" had to be used several times in my presence before I realized that "nerd" was cast onto America's linguistic ash heap of history while I was away. A rash of news stories about price "spikes" establishes another mot du jour in Washington's chattering class.
We unpack new assumptions along with the cardboard boxes the moving van delivers to the doorstep. But some transatlantic ideas get quickly discarded. One is that people in Washington will be as interested in what has happened to us over the past four years as we are in learning what has happened here.
As Fleet Street editors say, other people's weather is not news. Slides, movies and monologues about other people's trips are not fun, either. American life seems even more straight-ahead than we remembered it, allowing little time or scope for curiosity about other countries and cultures.
One early September conversation brings into clearer focus the purpose of education today in Washington, where private schools routinely charge $6,000 to $8,000 a year per child and have long waiting lists. At those prices, parents can be excused for conjuring up visions of their children learning everything there is to learn -- and perfectly.
But the supervisor of one such school brushes over the 10-year-old's four-year investment in French language and in European history and geography to go to the point: the key admission tests for U.S. colleges are in English and math. The school is geared to making sure the student gets good grades on those admission exams when the time comes. The idyll of little scholars pursuing truth, knowledge and well-roundedness evaporates as the supervisor's pragmatic words sink in.
One of the most pleasant jolts of being newly arrived at home comes -- of all places -- at the gas pump. Even with the Saddam tax of the past six weeks, anyone used to forking over the equivalent of $40 in French francs to fill up the tank experiences nirvana when the pump shuts off at $23 for the same amount of gas in Washington. Why is that man smiling? long-faced fellow pumpers must ask themselves as I stroll to the cash register.
The refusal of American politicians to vote high gasoline taxes like those in Europe is commonly attributed to America's romance with the road and the automobile. But it has as much to do with different American and European attitudes toward taxes as toward transportation.
Europeans miss no opportunity to collect taxes up-front, and at a flat rate for everybody. While Washington relies on the graduated income tax as the big arrow in the federal tax quiver, most central governments in Europe rely more heavily on value-added taxesto raise their revenue. They take a far more relaxed attitude toward income-tax loopholes and outright evasion than does the IRS.They . . .
But there I go again, New Kid-ding on about what it is like Over There. It is not a permanent affliction. A man who can be cheered up by the low gasoline taxes in these times clearly is savoring reentry. That good feeling will probably last me until, well, say April 15.