'My woeful experiences are better than yours'
Monty Python devotees will recollect the sketch of four affluent Yorkshiremen who enjoy after-dinner cigars and vintage clarets while discussing how tough things were when they were young.
The gentlemen exaggerate accounts of the hardships they endured growing up in the north of England, from having to suck on a damp cloth for nourishment to living with a large family in a hole in the ground covered by a tarpaulin. The sketch parodies society's tendency to exaggerate stories of misfortune.
So, when my young colleague, Hugh Bauer, complained about the long queue he had to endure at OR Tambo's passport control on his return to South Africa after a 14-hour flight from Sydney, I was quick to top his tale of woe. I bemoaned my two-hour wait at New York's JFK after flying 16 hours from Johannesburg. It's not only the rigorous inspection procedures each visitor into the US undergoes that cause the delay, but also that SAA arrives shortly after packed flights from Israel and India.
No matter how fast you sprint ahead of the passengers on your plane, you always seem to catch the tail end of the masses on those other flights.
A middle-aged Israeli man, who was ahead of me in the queue, resigned himself to the long wait, which was made more wearisome by his kvetching (complaining) wife. She questioned the authorities' failure to consider the aged and the very young. In a desperate effort to repress her frustrations, he pleaded with her in Yiddish to be grateful that she wasn't one of her eygene (kin) a century ago, who spent days in quarantine on Ellis Island after a lengthy and arduous sea voyage across the Atlantic.
Eerily, at the exact time I was waiting in line to have my passport stamped, 100km away, 20-year-old Adam Lanza was making his way to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, armed with three semi-automatic firearms and a shotgun. The shooting of 20 Grade 1 pupils and six staff members left America numb, creating further fault lines between the conservative factions who favour the constitutional right to bear arms and the moderate centre who back government's responsibility to prevent [gun] crime.
In a country that hardly faces the threat of invading forces from its neighbouring territories, few free thinkers could get their heads around the lenient regulations that permit individuals to accumulate arsenals of assault weapons under the pretext of self-defence. The debate raged on in the media for days against the heartbreaking backdrop of videos and photographs of the children and their brave, young teachers who were brutally murdered - one little boy, Noah, was shot 11 times.
The rift in gun politics between the right-leaning Republicans and the centre-left Democrats played out more acrimoniously in the dispute about mandated tax increases and budget cuts. As we know, a compromise deal on tax increases was reached in the early hours of January 1, which averted a financial crisis that could have sent the US and global economies into a deeper decline.
The pact postponed discussion on much needed spending cuts and the raising of the debt ceiling - the level of US sovereign borrowing - for two months. The parties somehow appear to have declared a truce until the passage of President Barack Obama's inauguration on Sunday, but expect the bitterness that has divided the nation about the state of America's finances to continue into the immediate future, undermining the Oval Office, creating uncertainty in markets and causing unpleasant feuds among friends and family.
One good thing, though, about the US is that politics don't interfere with the smooth running of the country and its peoples' will to pull together in a crisis. Though rebuilding residences in New Jersey and the boroughs of New York that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy could take years, there was little noticeable evidence of the storm's damage in Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quick to restore the city's infrastructure and its transport systems. During the three weeks I spent in New York City, not once did I encounter delays on the underground or out-of-order traffic lights on a grid that extends the length and breadth of the busy metropolis. Within minutes of snow falling, the snowploughs were dispatched with military-style precision across the city to ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians.
New York puts on an extravaganza for the millions of tourists who visit the city during the festive season. The store windows on Fifth Avenue are decorative masterpieces, Times Square is an ongoing hive of activity and maître d's welcome guests into their restaurants no matter the time.
But to enjoy what New York has to offer you must learn to endure sub-zero temperatures. A 15-minute queue outside the Metropolitan to see a Matisse exhibition was about all I could handle. When the line at the Guggenheim for a Picasso exhibition extended around the block, I grabbed my family, hailed a cab and headed for Uncle Vanya Café on West 54th Street for a hot bowl of borscht and a loaf of bread.