America is a confusing country.
It is vast, and for a foreigner, the contrasts can be quite confusing. The classic English cynicism is really a mandatory vice for someone who wants to cope. Having been to the UK twice over the summer, now is perhaps a good time to dwell on the real differences between our two great nations.
By which I don’t mean the minor issues, gun control, health insurance, a lack of a sense of humour, and the drive to police the world and borrow money to spend on “defence”. And I’m not quite brave enough yet to do the big one, religion.
I need to try and understand the differences in terms of the less obvious things.
For instance, I have to tell you that American men are very shy, they would never be able to cope with French toilet habits. Let’s look at the difference in public toilet facilities between our two great nations, at a football (sorry soccer) stadium. In the UK there are troughs in which the men stand elbow to elbow, and low betide you if you have any nervous reaction when the man next to you moves his elbow vigorously. In America, all urinals are individual, with several feet between them, and the insertion of “modesty” screens is very common.
Probably a reason to stay in America for ever, particularly if you have prostate problems like mine.
The place where many Americans are at home is in their car. I did meet a Texan businessman, in Houston, who actually caught a bus to work. But this is, of course, a very rare occurrence in this city full of big hats, big boots, huge belt buckles, and huge cars.
Driving in America is really quite different to Europe. The roads are wide, with no distractions like round-a-bouts, I feel the need to spell that one out so that the American reader can get the idea. It was very funny to watch the drivers struggling to cope when they put one in our neighbourhood a few months ago.
And most American states have a driving test that is impossible to fail. One of our immigrant gang felt the need to have a driving lesson before her test. The instructor was very insistent on pointing out the places to watch out for as they drove around. He then got out at the test centre, and got back in again. Yes, he was also the examiner. 15 minutes later and she had passed, without even engaging reverse gear.
The way drivers view each other, or particularly pedestrians, varies enormously around the country. In Colorado, drivers stop everywhere for those on two legs. But in Texas, or even Washington DC, the average car driver treats it as great fun to scare the life out of those less fortunate than themselves. In many places, put simply, the car is king.
Perhaps my strangest observation is the difference in the attitude to cleanliness in America. I don’t know how Americans ever get on in France, because most of them hate physical contact. Many rush away to spray their hands with antiseptic after having shaken hands. And in the supermarket there are wipes you can use to disinfect the handle of the trolley. And people use them, I’ve seen them.
But above all else, America is a vast place, with many different types of character, and many different belief systems.
There are 10 US states that are bigger than the United Kingdom, 26 are bigger than England.
I travel a lot, and so I see a lot of different places, I have now visited 24 states in the 12 months since we arrived. But I always try and remember that I only meet with a certain type of middle class, mainly white business person. I have absolutely no interaction with the 60 million people on food stamps, and so my political arguments have a certain irrelevance. My lovely American neighbours like to call me lefty, or the commie. But honestly, almost all of the American political infra-structure is further right wing than the main parties in Europe.
My advice to an Englishman in America? Don’t discuss politics, even my dear friend John in Deddington would be a commie to most Americans.
My travel brings many benefits, in the last 12 months I’ve seen the Mall in DC, the Falls in Niagara, and loads of Canyons in Arizona and Utah. But I still make the odd classic error. A month ago I was packing up to get on a flight to Memphis the following morning, and then wondered idly why the idiots at United Airlines had failed to send me an email reminder to check in. Oh dear, yes, I had booked the flight for 8pm instead of 8am, which was a very costly mistake to fix.
There are huge numbers of differences between the UK and America, no 24 hour clock, diesel fuel out of green pumps, light switches down for off, and a power system that dims the lights when I plug in the Dyson.
But what is there not to like? Great food, excellent service, really nice people, and a fabulous landscape.
I think I’ll stay for another year.