Professor Joe Goldblatt
The world’s busiest airport is Atlanta, Georgia’s Harsfield – Jackson Airport. This is where I received over and over again my first greeting upon returning to America for an extended visit after fifteen years in the diaspora. It was not a recorded warm welcome but rather it was a stern warning to remain alert and vigilant in helping to combat human trafficking. This announcement was played over and over again until it was eventually mind numbing. Atlanta, the home of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, is a leader in terms of economic development, media, sports and entertainment programming and sadly, child sex trafficking. One example of the severe messaging conveyed over and over again by officials in this, America’s thirty – sixth largest city, was this chilling statement on a poster “If someone forces you to do something you do not want to do, you may be a victim of human trafficking.”
This sobering warning was part of the beginning of my return to the nation of my birth following many years of pandemic forced separation. In 2020 I was invited to serve as visiting professor at the New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M Tisch Centre of Hospitality. However, due to the rising number of Covid cases in the city known worldwide as the Big Apple, my visit was ultimately postponed until Spring of 2022. We carefully planned our return journey to include reunions with family and friends in the midwest and and deep south of the United States before finalling settling into my post in the city that apparently never sleeps.
Our flight to Amstredam and then on to Detroit, Michigan was unsurprising except for being welcomed aboard the flight by a smiling flight attendant who gifted us with Purell handywipes to sanitize our hands and perhaps the many surfaces we would come into contact with on the airplane. As the plane touched down in the good ole USA, the captain warmly announced, “Thank you for letting us take you back to Detroit.” I suddenly felt as though I was a character in my personal version of the sequel to Back to the Future.
The next flight to a nearby mid – sized mid western city included several warnings mid air that “Wearing face masks is not optional and is a federal regulation. Any refusal to wear a mask may result in large fines and your permanent removal from the airplane.” I immediately hoped that this removal would only be activated once the plane was on the ground. The stern recorded warning concluded with “You may only remove your mask for eating and drinking and then must immediately replace it to comply with federal regulations.” As eating and drinking were my “out card” for removing my uncomfortable mask I ordered several cocktails and settled into my seat for the short flight to a mid sized city surrounded by cornfields in the American mid west.
America is famous for the size of its meals as compared with those served in other parts of the world. The American Mid west is as the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg once defined “the hog butcher for the world” and therefore, I was amazed at the large platters of larder that were continually placed before me. At one posh dinner the server handed me an extensive menu that included the following description of a side “If you would like a complement for your steak, we suggest hash brown potatoes with melted cheese.” I decided to take a pass on this additional opportunity to fill my gullet with the often fresh and increasingly more delicious midwestern cuisine.
According to the airline staff I randomly spoke with, Americans have returned in full force to domestic travel and this was evidenced both in the southeastern, midwestern and other airports of the USA. Each terminus was teeming with passengers who snapped up astronomically high priced items such as a “Happy Birthday” greeting card at the bargain price of only £7.00 (envelope included) or a small re-usable water flask branded with the name at the local destination at the highly resistable price of £20.00.
Once I finally settled into my midwestern city, I invited the locals to share with me their impressions of Scotland, of America and of the potential similarities and differences between our two cultures. To my immediate surprise, most Americans told me that they were deeply disappointed with the way the Covid 19 pandemic was handled in the USA and enthusiastically commented on how they admired the high levels of uptake on vaccinations that Scotland has achieved. They said over and over again that the early messaging in America from its leaders about the importance of vaccination was confusing and unhelpful.
They also told me that their knowledge of Scotland’s government and our continuing conversation about independence was not top of mind in their daily lives. Whilst my friends and family had a general knowledge about Sctotland being part of the United Kingdom, they readilly admitted that they had not been further informed about Scottish independence during the years following our referendum in 2014.
My peer group of older Americans told me over and over again that whilst they believe there have been may achievements in technology, science and other fields in the past decade, that America, socially and culturally is now more divided than ever before. They attributed this great divide to, in part, the lack of effective education in state and independent schools that could through improved civics lessons produce better informed and more engaged future citizens and also media bias and sensationalism.
When I asked them what is best about America and Scotland I heard over and over again that my American friends and family firmly believe that we are two nations with similar values regarding the importance of education, tolerance, and compassion for others and that we must work together to build upon these share values to create a better and safer world.
As my airplane rose into the blue skies above the endless golden prairies of the midwest, I once again watched the pre – flight recorded video announcement and noted that all of the actors were wearing face masks and also attempting to use their eyes to intensely indicate that they were smiling confidently as they imparted the key safety information. Simultaneously, I wondered if this sense of restraint as evidenced by masks was signifying the harsh reality of continuing pandemic infections in Scotland and the USA depicted acts of caution or hopefulness or both? Perhaps, as my journey to re – discover America continues to unfold, I shall find this answer and many others as well.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is writing a series of articles about his views of the USA and Scotland during his two month journey to America. He is serving as visiting professor at the New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality in New York City in Spring of 2022.