Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and little h (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Thursday, 23 June 2011

U.S.A Observations

Photo above from roadside in Delaware.

So, we’ve been back in Canada for a couple of weeks now. We’ve been visiting with family and sightseeing in Vancouver and are currently holed up on Vancouver Island (it’s lovely!). Whilst the last post was our ‘last U.S. state’ post we thought we would finish the U.S. section of this trip (we were there for 3 whole months!) with a few observations on the state of the union, as it were.

We had a ball in the U.S.A. overall. Mark had been to a couple of states before but h and I had never set foot in the place and we only had movie and TV tips (and lots of British jokes about Americans) to go on. In fact it was not really what I expected from all of those… it wasn’t glossy or too loud or too noisy and no-one got shot. It was, instead, friendly, quite laid-back in many ways and more old-fashioned than I expected (the trains in Boston for a start – they made U.K. trains look like something out of “The Fifth Element”). I have to admit I liked the country in general much more than I expected to… I liked the size, the space, the food (especially in Louisiana!) and most of all, I think, I liked the variety (of countryside and accents and faces and… everything really). Britain, for all its good points (and h keeps reminding us of them all!), can feel claustrophobic at times and I can see why people like these big countries with their long, spacious roads and their endless places to hide (deserts, swamps, forests… they have it all!).

And the rest of the observations below are more specific and a bit of a mixed bag (and don’t take them all too seriously…):

The post
I remember ages ago reading snidey U.S. satirical right-winger P.J. O’Rourke on how terrible it is to have everything run by the government (because then everything is as badly organised and slow as the Post Office was his argument). Well, I’d have to say that if everything in life was as well run as the U.S. post office then the world would be a very happy place. As we travelled through the States (26 of them) we visited lots of post offices (in tiny places and in huge cities) and I was totally impressed by the reach of their post office, by all the local offices, by how smart and clean they were. In the UK we close more and more of our local post offices (making bigger and bigger queues in the ones that are left!) so it was nice to see so many P.O.s all over the place. Plus U.S. postal workers do things like collect mail that you want to send right from your house (imagine that! I couldn’t believe it). They’ll also just take letters from random strangers in the street and add them to the ‘to go’ bag. Amazing service!

British people never tire of laughing about how fat ‘Americans’ are but I’d have to say that overall we saw fewer obese bodies in the U.S.A. than we see at home. From what we saw a lot of the U.S. population is exercise-crazy (so many joggers!) and whilst we did see the big portions of food we also saw a lot of people taking some home to finish later. British people laugh no more – that distraction theory is not working…

On average I’d say U.S. drivers are better than U.K. ones (and better than Canadians too… ). US drivers keep to the speed limits most of the time and, most importantly, they keep their distance from other vehicles really well (of course they do have more distance to go round than us…). OK we didn’t travel in much rush hour traffic (and rush hours everywhere are crazy) but we did drive for miles and miles and miles and we didn’t get exasperated with some of the bad driving the way we do at home (though we were amazed by the number of pick-up trucks…). However we were also amazed that the driving is better because (a) everyone is on the phone ALL the time in the car (maybe that’s why they drive a bit more slowly – so they don’t drop the phone) and (b) indicator lights (turn signals, they call ‘em) are so rarely used that you wonder if most U.S. drivers know they exist.
p.s. Worst U.S. roads (in terms of condition, potholes etc.)– Michigan and California. Best roads…. maybe Ohio… and Oregon (of the ones we saw).

Extreme weather and disasters
It’s mad - no wonder they have more weather reports than you could possibly imagine. Tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, giant hailstones… I don’t know how they sleep at night. Maybe that’s why all the ads on TV are for pharmaceuticals (and they are) and there are more drugstores in one state than in the rest of Europe put together (OK, maybe I exaggerate just a little…).

There is a slight obsession with hygiene in the U.S. For example everything seems to come in a plastic wrapper (do individual plastic forks and knives really need an individual plastic wrapper each?). And that hand sanitiser stuff – it’s everywhere (not just in movies…).

Crazy Christians
We’d watched many a TV show that mocked some of the U.S. extreme (=stoopid) Christians (the title here is a quote from the TV show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) but nothing had prepared us for the high level nonsense of Crazy Christian radio, DVDs of real, actual prophesies and so on. The whole business is funny on one level but on others it’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t help thinking Jesus would be scared (very, very scared) in some parts of, say, Tennessee where there seems to be nothing but houses and churches. C’mon guys, he’d say, let’s have a library or a bar or something at least. There is more than just that one book, you know…

Because of the voltage level in the U.S. simple household appliances work very, very slowly. I’ve never waited so long for a piece of toast before!

Sometimes there are so many ads on U.S. TV that you forget what programme you’re watching (and then the one time they don’t put any ads on is between separate shows… so you don’t get time to switch off before being hooked in to another show/episode). Also the female TV presenters (especially on breakfast TV) wear even more make-up than their counterparts in the U.K. (and that takes some beating). Finally they really should get their own U.S. royal family for the TV stations (or they can have ours). Please. The sucking up to the royals on show around the time of that wedding was just embarrassing.

British people are not brought up to tip (well, in restaurants maybe – but not all over the place). In fact mostly tipping makes us uncomfortable (“can’t you just be paid properly, don’t you have a union… it would be so much easier for everyone?”). We have done the tipping thing while we’re away (though we noticed some Americans did not – for tour guides and so on) but it feels weird.

People in the U.S. get hardly any holidays from work at all from what we understand (no wonder they used to go in for those whistle-stop tours of Europe - who has time for more than 5 hours in Paris when you only get a handful of days off a century?). When we said how long we were away to Brits or Canadians most of them know someone who’s done such a trip or are thinking about one themselves. When we mentioned it to most Americans they looked stunned (how would a person be off work that long?). From what we hear they get stinking maternity time too. So much for the free world…

Sure there’s a lot of big houses and giant cars (hummers - who needs a car that big!) but you can feel poverty striped right through the country too. A lot of old cars, a lot of pawn shops, a lot of areas “no-one” wants to go to (though some of that is just old racism burning on…). But none of this is news really.

Road signs
There is something truly magnificent about the confidence you see on many U.S. roadside ad hoardings (everything is the “best burger in the world”, the “happiest place on earth”, the “tallest tree ever” etc.). Nothing is EVER undersold, underhyped or underplayed. I kind of liked it. If nothing else some of the signs were just very, very funny.

Credit cards
If you listen to U.S. TV and radio you hear a lot of come-on-now-people-panic ads about I-D theft (mostly encouraging you to buy something to protect yourself). However if they do have an ID theft problem then I’m afraid the folks down there only have themselves to blame because security measures are very poor. For example every café/restaurant we went to in the U.S. expected us to hand over the plastic (debit/credit whichever) whereupon they took it off into the back (we never do this in the UK anymore), brought back a receipt to be signed and then proceeded to never once check that the signature matched the one on the card. You can sign Mickey Mouse, Barack Obama… no-one ever checks it. We were pleased to get back to Canada where (like at home) they bring the card machine to the table and don’t just disappear with your card!

We expected to meet a lot of right-wing nutters in the U.S.A. but in fact we only met one (a Californian… in Utah). He told us that Obama had cancelled all the U.S. space programs because he only wanted moslems in space. Anyone know anything about this? And are they there yet?

They say that one day Spanish will be the first language in the U.S.A (don’t they..?). Well, in many places the change has already happened (and in others the Chinese are making good ground). It’ll be interesting to see how the linguistic change pans out… (anyone taking bets for the first State of the Union in Spanish now..?). No language ever rules forever!

I’d read a lot about U.S. downtowns and their demise (thanks to the surburban malls and plazas) and it’s true that many what we would call small towns really have no downtown at all these days. Many cities (big and small) though are reversing the trend and filling their centres with life and culture and activity again. Someone somewhere has realised that places without centres are just that… a bit empty and lost (though of course you can always find a drugstore when you want one…).

I’m sure there’s lots more we could say about the U.S.A…. but for now this much will have to do as we have big old Canada to get back to. We leave the Vancouver area in a few days and start to work our way east (just a few miles then… though of course it’s kilometres again now). But if in trouble we can always remember this sign that made us both laugh back in Ohio:

Has anyone already done a book of amusing U.S. road signs? If not I may have to think about that…


The Bug said...

Well that does it - if I visit Europe or Canada I'm letting someone ELSE drive! Wow - if we're better then the world is a big scary place :)

I find the religiosity to be fairly horrifying too - and I grew up with it.

I have to admit that we were pretty stunned at such a long vacation for you guys. I stort of started staring off into space & drooling... Maybe, despite the terrible drivers, I WILL move to Canada!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes but you drive in rush hour a lot, don't you (I'm sure I've read that on your blog)? Rush hour is another world... We nearly got caught in rush hour a couple of times (Austin, TX and Seattle) but just managed to dodge it in the end!

Obviously we won't be getting another long trip like this for a while (if ever). It'll take us a couple of decades to sort through all the photos for a start...


Niamh B said...

great post that covers a multitude - that's really sneaky about no ads between programmes - I'm watching alot of daytime tv now, and I think I'd go insane if i had american channels!!

Rachel Fox said...

It's bad for kid control too - hard to say 'bed after this episode' when there's no gap between episodes!

hope said...

Sorry, a new computer made for a big learning curve and a couple of headaches...I read this days ago!

I'm just glad you found the good, amusing, odd and slightly weird in your travels to round out your American experience. See, we're not all gun toting, war mongering, filthy rich know-it-alls. (We keep those folks in Washington, DC evidently).

I hope you'll look back on this trip for years with fondness. And I hope "h" realizes what a fantastic education you gave her!

Safe journey.

Rachel Fox said...

An education for us all! We loved it, Hope. Shame we didn't get to see more of the south - I really enjoyed the parts of it I did see.