…and pretty much everything else. Given how close it is to Britain in terms of history, culture and time, it is interesting how unusual America has made everything when left to its own devices for a few hundred years. The differences felt starker than I have noticed in most other places that I have been to, perhaps because I was expecting things to be much more similar.
I travel to a lot of different countries, and yet it is astounding to me the number of things that are lost in translation in the same language. Here are some of them from Minneapolis that had me laughing like a child;
This was really unpleasant for me. The moment I stepped onto the plane from Amsterdam to Minnesota, it became apparent that there were people who genuinely believed in Christian religions and made no bones about talking about it openly and loudly. I am not going to devote much time to it in this particular blog, except to say this; outside of small communities in the UK that take it seriously, I come from a culture where religion is largely dismissed and ignored, with the occasional gentle pat on the head when religious types turn up and say something nice. It was really scary to be surrounded by people who treat religion like it is all real.
The ingredients for food don’t vary all that much the world over, but the way it is put together in America is quite honestly odd. Everything I saw was largely based around convenience. While they do have fresh produce, the vast majority of the shelves (in the supermarkets at any rate) were full of things that had been pre-cooked and stuffed into cans. Anything that you can think that you might possibly want to cook together (and plenty of things you frankly wouldn’t in your worst nightmares) has already been combined and packaged for you. No doubt with massive doses of high-fructose corn syrup, and usually with cheese and bacon. If it doesn’t say cheese and bacon on the front, check the ingredients on the back.
There is weird stuff all over the place;
…in the pharmacist…
…on the side of the road…
…and I have of course saved my favourite Walmart till last…
Shopping, customer service and niceness
In addition to the aforementioned oddness of the products offered when out shopping, there is a very different attitude towards you as a paying customer in the States. Everyone who walks through the front door is immediately put on a pedestal. A lot of the American service-based industry is reliant on tips to bump up frankly shoddy wages, and while this is not the case in shops, the same level of terrifying attention seems to be mandated in large corporations.
While in Target, wandering through the fresh veg looking for carrots, some guy who was replenishing stock turned around with a big smile and said,
“Are you finding everything OK?”
What, the bright orange pointy things? Umm, yeah actually. See this big sign right here? The one that says the name of the thing I am looking for? That helped…
I genuinely found it really intimidating how overly friendly everyone was, and how willing to get up in my business they were. I am used to a lifetime of aloof politeness, being allowed to get on with my day largely uninterrupted. Whenever anyone asked how I was in America, inquired whether I was having a good day, I was really taken aback, and didn’t know how to respond.
What bothered me about it was that it was plastic, forced, fake…but they were trying really hard not to let you know that. Someone has written it into their contract that they need to be seen to be helpful, friendly and interested, on pain of something awful I imagine. It’s a service model that has been now picked up by corporates outside of the States…but it’s a thing that we really aren’t very good at it in Britain. If you are eating in any chain restaurant across the country these days, you will find that halfway through a mouthful of your dinner, some bored youth will flounce over and ask “Is everything OK with your meal?” without even the vaguest pretence of giving a shit.
In Britain, we all know that work sucks, and anyone who appears to enjoy what they are doing needs to be treated with a certain level of distrust. If someone says “Y’awright?”, we all know they aren’t ACTUALLY asking if you are alright, and they do not require a response. It is simply a polite acknowledgement of your presence – the type that is used as social lubricant in a country where there are so many people trying to occupy the same space at the same time.
…I handle that way better than someone who is pretending to care because corporate policy says they should.
They don’t have a national healthcare system in America, so you find people are dealing with a lot of frankly concerning conditions with home remedies.
The pharmacy (which had a drive-through window, by the way) had a mind-boggling array of different types of plasters and bandages and lotions and potions and salts and scrapers. It really was a dark window on the life of a nation. Or at least the section of that nation that can’t afford proper healthcare.
As a driver, it all seems largely straightforward, but there are a couple of things that scared the living shit out of me in America.
Intersections. They don’t believe in roundabouts, for reasons best known to themselves. Instead, they have ‘intersections’, which are just overblown crossroads. In the States, the roads are longer, straighter and wider, and this contributes to a sense of a massive amount of space where some huge vehicle might appear out of the blue – travelling really fast – at any given time…on the wrong side of the road, no less.
My nervousness was not helped by the fact that you can actually turn right into traffic when you are sat at a red light, and no, I still don’t understand why that is OK.
Indicator lights. They are red on most American cars. Fucking RED. Just like the brake lights. My friend told me after picking me up from the airport, “There are no indicators here” and I thought she was simply joking that no-one bothered to use them… No, they are just completely indistinguishable from the other lights on the arse end of a car. I honestly do not know how anyone ever thought that was a good idea, but don’t expect to ever understand what other road users are about to do in America.
Trucks. All of the haulage vehicles have noses on them, unlike in the UK where the front of the cab is flat. The only time I ever normally get see trucks like this is in sinister American movies, and it made me feel really quite uncomfortable.
God bless America, its alcoholism, and its multitude of microbreweries. It is the one place that I have truly felt at home in terms of my beer consumption. I admit that everywhere I went was hand picked by my friends so this might not be true of all places, but I feel like it is fairly representative. Every bar had a good selection of beers from local breweries, and the liquor stores all had a wide variety of those local beers, the breadth of which I only ever see in the UK in the biggest supermarkets.
Also, they ID everyone, everywhere. Which is funny when you are British and they can’t figure out what your ID is even supposed to be. I never realised what a laissez-faire attitude UK establishments take towards checking legal drinking until I got out to America, where I can only assume that the fines for serving alcohol to people who shouldn’t be drinking are quite significant.
Please allow me to leave you with one of my favourite things from the Mall of America in Minneapolis;