It’s hard to write first impressions of a country that’s so large and varied; I imagine the different states can feel like completely different countries at times. On my recent trip to the USA, I literally scratched the surface. I visited three cities across two different states and know I cannot claim to have ‘seen’ or ‘done’ America now. However, as it was my first trip to the USA I came home with a few reflections and observations that I’d like to share. On of the best parts of travelling is seeing the differences in a new place to what you are used to. Sometimes you come home questioning what you need to or could change as a result of your experience, and other times you come back and are happy to return to your version of normality.
One thing I’m very happy to leave behind in the USA is their public restrooms. Admittedly most of the one I used were clean and had toilet roll, which is more than can be said for a lot in the UK, but there was very little sense of privacy. The individual toilets are literally stalls with quite short walls and huge gaps under all the doors. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about being locked into one as it would be incredibly easy to escape! However, if I was a few inches taller I would almost certainly have been able to see over the doors and walls, an experience which wouldn’t have been pleasant for me or the other toilet occupants. I pity tall women in America.
Customer service and tipping
This was something I knew to expect before I arrived in the USA so it didn’t surprise me that much, although it did take some time to get used to adding 20% to all of our food and drink expenditures. Having worked in hospitality in the UK I would like to think I gave good customer service because I like to be a nice and helpful person. You don’t expect tips, and if you are left something then it’s unlikely you’ll actually get to take it home. But it’s different in the US where tipping is expected and actually gives that person money to live off. Someone actually told me that they could count on one hand the number of times that they had tipped only 10% and that was because the service had been terrible. In Europe if the service was terrible you wouldn’t leave anything! As a result, everyone working in the hospitality industry was incredibly friendly, but the cynic in me found it difficult to gauge how genuine this was.
Additionally, good customer service and customer experience aren’t necessarily the same thing. There were a number of times when as a visitor an experience could have been improved by a simple sign explaining that something was closed or had been cancelled, rather than having to queue up with everyone to speak to the friendly staff member who would patiently answer the same question they’d just been asked by everyone else.
House plots and Space
As soon as you leave the centre of a city, and head out towards the suburbs and countryside, you are left with a sense of space. America is a big country, it’s bound to feel spacious, but even so it felt as if everyone had their own room. Partly this was because most of the houses were detached, and had some of their own land. Some of the houses were huge! But even those which weren’t mini castles felt much larger than the standard English family home. The other things which contributed to the sense of space were lack of home borders and boundaries. Few properties had fences or hedges, and certainly not ones which enclosed their entire plot of land as is common in the UK. It felt like it would be easier to get to know neighbours, and so whilst you may lose some privacy, there would be a much greater sense of community.
Use of Straws
A strange thing to pick out, and one I probably wouldn’t have blinked at even two years ago, but I was shocked by the number of plastic straws being used everywhere. Pretty much every drink we ordered came with a straw, and one that had already been helpfully unwrapped and put in your drink for you so you knew there was no chance it could be saved and used by someone else. I’ve got so used to straws either not being offered, or being replaced by paper straws that it was a shock to be confronted by so many plastic straws. Similarly, staff in shops seemed very confused that we were happy to use our own bag or manage without, rather than use one of their flimsy plastic bags. Being mindful about single use plastic doesn’t seem to have taken off in the USA yet…
Fast food everywhere… It’s a bit of a stereotype that Americans live off hotdogs and burgers, and that you can find fast food everywhere – but I can now see what that’s based off. There does appear to be an abundance of fast food outlets which makes it very easy to pick something up for lunch on the go. The equivalent of Boots or Tesco meal deals don’t appear to exist in the US (or at least we couldn’t find them) so if you’re looking for a convenient and cheap lunch whilst you’re out and about, it’s all too easy to get something from a fast food outlet instead.
I was also surprised by the number of people who appear to eat out or buy a take-away multiple times a week. This is much more frequently than I ever would back at home but I guess if there is a ready availability of cheaper food then it’s a popular option.
Chocolate and Curry
Continuing on the food theme, if there is one reason why I could never live in the USA it would be because I can’t stand American chocolate. I was warned before I visited that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but obviously I wanted to try it for myself… We visited the Hershey’s store in New York and I couldn’t even finish the small bar we were given as a sample. I don’t think I’ve ever not finished a chocolate bar before! One of James’ favourite memories of the trip is me wrinkling up my nose after taking a bite and exclaiming “It tastes like poo!”. Never again.
I’d also been warned about curry in the USA. This wasn’t something that I actually ended up trying, mainly because there was a complete absence of it. We were also told that it was nothing like the ‘amazing curry’ that we get in the UK (which depending on where you are from could be quite laughable given I’m led to believe that what we consider as curry is far from authentic).
Baseball, American Football, Ice Hockey… Sport is a big part of American culture and it appears that everyone has a whole range of fan merchandise. Everyone seemed to be up to date on all the different leagues and games taking part, and even college sport has a huge following. I can’t imagine anyone having an interest in British university sport outside of the university circuit, but apparently some towns without a team, or with a not particularly good team, will support their college team as if it were professional. As a non-sports fan this felt a little overwhelming, but I was also impressed by the community spirit that this fostered (particularly in Buffalo) and the amenable nature of sports fans in the US compared to the UK.
I was aware before visiting the USA that America has a very large military. I was also aware that there’s a lot of pride in this in certain communities, but I wasn’t prepared for how much of an emphasis on the military there appears to be in everyday life. Lots of shops and tourist attractions had special discounts for veterans or those currently serving. Veterans and serving members of the military were given a special welcome on board flights and invited to take their seats ahead of everyone else. At a baseball game, a special feature was given to a veteran between two of the innings, and then all veterans and members of the military were asked to stand so that they could be given a round of applause.
Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the number of American flags that we’d see over the course of our trip. In the UK you tend to see Union Jacks outside of important buildings, when the Olympics is on, or when there’s some sort of royal event. There seemed to be Stars and Stripes absolutely everywhere we went. People even had them hanging in their porch or stuck into their front garden. I guess it was good to see such a sense of national pride, although quite a few people we spoke to admitted that they wouldn’t put their flag up until the current government and direction of the country had changed.
I know there are large swathes of the USA that aren’t particularly diverse, and that by visiting cities we were always likely to see diverse populations, but the cultural diversity we saw was something that still struck me. America is a country made up of immigrants, so you can expect to see people of all different races. Some people believe there are over 800 languages spoken in New York City, which is an incredible number! I was surprised to see a number of notices were displayed in both English and Spanish, which is another nod to the diversity of the USA.
Perhaps as a result of it still being quite a young country, or because everyone has a different story, there appears to be a lot of interest in heritage and many people have a better idea of their family history and origins that I imagine a lot of Brits do.
Have you been to the USA? What did you think?