We've just come back from a lovely holiday in the USA. I'm a fairly seasoned traveller - yet I always find the USA the strangest country to visit. Perhaps its because it all seems so familiar - from the movies and TV shows, and the fact the speak the same language - that the differences seem really bizarre.
Here are the Top 5 Weird Things about the USA:
During our holiday, we mostly paid with credit card.
In the UK, we use the Chip & Pin system. It's far from fool proof, and has some security weaknesses, but compared to the signature system used in the US, it's a breeze.
In a UK restaurant, the waiter comes up to me with the credit card terminal. I slot my card in, see the amount on the bill, add a tip, enter my PIN and hand the terminal back to the waiter. The machine spits out a receipt. My card never leaves my sight the whole time.
In the USA... well! The waiter hands me the bill. I hand over my credit card. The waiter disappears. The waiter reappears (hopefully!) with a completed transaction slip. I physically write in the tip I want to leave, calculate the total amount, sign the receipt, then walk out of the building.
The waiter doesn't check that I've signed correctly - or at all! I can't see if the waiter has decided to add an extra couple of dollars to my tip, or has cloned my card. It's utterly bizarre.
What's even stranger is the attitude to checking whether the card belongs to me. In every restaurant I went to, I handed over my card, scrawled a signature and left. In almost every store I went to, I had to hand over my driver's licence to prove that I was the owner of the card. Why the discrepancy?
So, in summary - weird and inconsistent!
The USA makes some of the best TV in the world - yet it makes the worst adverts. From my intensive scientific study of watching TV a few times, I have concluded that there are exactly two sorts of adverts shown in the USA.
First, "Do you suffer from any of the following conditions? Then you may need our brand new wonder drug Resplatulin! Guaranteed to improve the quality of your marriage. Side effects may include nausea, limbs falling off, uncontrollable bowels, and permanent death. Tell your doctor to prescribe Resplatulin today!"
The second type of advet goes something like, "Have you ever taken Resplatulin? New research shows it may cause hair loss, broken bones, heart failure, and nasal cancer. If you would like to sue someone for prescribing you Resplatulin, call our lawyers today!"
And so it goes - on and on and on!
Actually, the first advert we heard on the radio as we got into Las Vegas was
"Girls may look older, act older, and even say yes – but having sex with them is still illegal if they're under 16! Visit ShesNotOldEnough.com."
Don't get me wrong, I think PSAs encouraging young men not to be sex offenders is a good thing. But it speaks volumes that this knowledge isn't already drummed into people's heads. For extra WTFerry - listen to the disclaimer at the end.
This public awareness campaign was supported by the Nevada State Health Division through Grant # 3B01DP0009040 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent official views of the Nevada State Health Division nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When every advert needs a hefty disclaimer - often read at a breakneck pace, and then sped up - you know something is wrong.
I found driving on the wrong side of the road to be a fairly simple experience. Only once, after pulling out of a parking lot onto a deserted road did I find myself on the English side. It probably helped that I was driving a Prius - a car I'm familiar with - so I didn't have to worry about the controls.
There were five things which really weirded me out. They may well be confined only to San Diego - so my apologies to any other US city!
Firstly, there's no concept of an overtaking lane. In the UK, the idea is that you drive on the lane furthest away from the central reservation, when you need to pass another vehicle, you move to the next lane. Well, in theory! In the UK, I am rarely under-taken. In the USA, it seemed a free-for-all - drivers used whichever lane they damned well felt like for passing other vehicles. Which was made doubly confusing because...
Speed Limits are more like speed minimums. In the UK I'm used to driving at 70 and no faster - I stick to the speed limits and am genuinely angered by those who don't. In San Diego, I think there was a race to see who could break the sound barrier first! I was sticking to the posted 55MPH while being over- and under-taken at speeds I'd guess were double that. Amusingly, all the speed limit signs said they were enforced with RADAR! I wouldn't mind speeding drivers, but it seems...
Holding your cell-phone while typing on a laptop are suitable activities to perform while driving. I can kind of see that holding a phone isn't so much of a problem when you're driving an automatic transmission vehicle as compared to the manuals more common on Britain's roads. But texting? Glancing over at a laptop on your passenger seat? Yes, the UK has people who put on make-up, or eat while driving - but we've made using your phone an offence. Considering most phones come with a hands-free kit and Bluetooth kits are only a few quid, I can't see why anyone would hold their phone and drive at the same time. Mind you, it gives you something to do at...
STOP signs. I'm not sure how they're supposed to work, so when I saw one I stopped. Occasionally I'd reach a crossroads where all four directions had stop signs. So we'd all sit there and wait until someone was brave enough to make the first move. Dear America - get some roundabouts! Suddenly stopping and starting is useful practice for...
Traffic Lights. Here's how they work in the UK.
Green - Go.
Amber - this light is about to turn red, so hurry through, or slow down.
Red - STOP!
So far, just the same as the USA. However, in the UK we have...
Red and Amber - this light is about to turn green, so release the handbrake and get ready to go.
Yeah, the USA don't have that. So people spend their time at a red light waiting for it to go green, revving their engines or otherwise tensing up to move off instantly. Because, if you don't start moving the millisecond that light turns, everyone behind you will let you know exactly what they think of you!
I'm a vegetarian and, thanks to HappyCow I was able to find loads of veggie friendly restaurants. What I was not able to do was find anywhere which served reasonably sized portions! Almost everywhere we ate served up jumbo platters of food, with a huge serving of fries - or a salad dripping in dressing. Every soft drink was endlessly filled up - which makes it really hard to judge just how many gallons of high-fructose corn syrup you've ingested.
The sheer quantity of food, all at a reasonable price, was bewildering. Every restaurant was quite happy to give us a doggy bag of our leftovers, which was a small mercy.
Portion control when eating out is really tricky.
The USA has a strange relationship with its military. Perhaps it's due to these vast amount the country spends on defence, but I've never been to any other country which treats members of the armed services with such reverence in public.
Nearly every tour, museum, or leisure facility we went to in the USA had a separately discounted price for veterans or currently serving members of the military and their family. I don't think I've ever seen that in the UK or Europe. I'm not saying it's a bad thing - but it's very odd to see. I'm sure the armed forces are underpaid and that this is a gesture of gratitude - but I wonder if, in some subtle way, it acts as an incentive to enlist? The decision is obviously a lot more complex than "I can get 10% off at Sea World!" but the discount is pervasive and part of a culture which glorifies military service unlike anywhere else I've been.
Speaking of Sea World, a very weird thing happened there. At the start of the Shamu Killer Whale Show, the presenter asked for all members of the US military (and her allies) to stand so the audience could applaud them for "protecting freedom"!
Here's someone's video of the "salute to the troops":
This may, in part, be due to the large military presence in the San Diego area.
Again, I'm not saying that it's wrong - but, from my perspective, it's weird.
Weird Is As Weird Does
One of the great things about travelling is seeing what people take for granted. Every country has aspects which the locals take for granted. Sometimes they're great, sometimes their terrible, but in all cases they're part of the fabric of society.
I've been to countries where:
- Each toilet has a built in bidet and you can't flush away paper.
- Crossing the road takes nerves of steel.
- Restaurants don't open until 8pm.
- On street urinals are commonly used during the day.
- Cows walk in the street.
- Tax is included in the price tag!
America is a fun place to visit, but all y'all are weird!