Note: This is a kind of ‘guest post’ where I compare my recent (first-time!) visit to the USA to London. Enjoy!
It was with no small feeling of excitement that I boarded the plane for my first long-haul flight one morning at Heathrow. Despite being subjected to such a barrage of security questions before boarding that I couldn’t keep a straight face and wanted to shout “PASS!”, Mastermind-style, I had got through security and was somehow being escorted onto a plane to America. How did this happen?
The flight would take ten hours and would speed me to Austin, Texas – home to the 25 year old South By South West (SXSW) festival, covering music, film and “interactive”, which I was going there for as part of my job as a web developer at guardian.co.uk.
I snagged a window seat and spent most of the flight craning my neck to see the world unfold below me. The route went north from London all the way up to Iceland, then unbelievably (for me, anyway) passed the tip of Greenland and flew over Canada all the way down to Texas.
When I noticed the onscreen display indicating the plane was about to reach Greenland I was basically glued to the window, gasping like a little kid at the absolute majesty of the mountain ranges of ice below us as the sea turned into glaciers and echoing valleys. It was fascinating to see a place I’ll almost certainly never get to visit in the flesh, and I was almost ready to go home contented just after that.
Upon arriving in Dallas for my connection to Austin I had to make a speedy run through the airport, marvelling as I did about that fact that I was in America. The first thing to greet me were escalators everywhere, for even the shortest distance. I got through security with minimal fuss and was soon on the 30 minute flight to Austin, which barely registered after the 10 hour marathon of earlier.
I arrived in Austin a little exhausted – local time was 6 hours behind so it was 8pm, but for me more like 2am. I reached the hotel and, inevitably, my credit card was declined. Worse, my two work colleagues, whose flights were a few hours earlier than mine, hadn’t arrived. Sleep deprived and exhausted, I asked to pay for the first night on my debit card (which, thankfully, worked) and hit the sheets. In the morning I called HSBC USA and eventually made it through to a Scottish man whose voice I was unimaginably excited to hear after half an hour to American machines. He fixed the security errors and I was financially solvent once more.
By this point it was off to the conference itself to register and figure out the location. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty detail of the talks and meetups I went to as they’re already well-documented on the blog I kept for work, but you can read those here. What follows now are some more general thoughts on the experience that is the USA, in handy list form.
America is big.
This one sounds obvious and seems like a no-brainer, but seeing it from the air helps to cement it: enormous expanses of wide open spaces, the odd farm or ranch breaking up the fields and lakes. After 8 months in London it was refreshing not see people filling up every conceivable space with housing.
Well, perhaps not the scattered towns and shacks, but the cities are grids, perfect grids. Seen from above it’s almost like looking at a circuit board or something with perpendicular rows and columns of streets and houses. Compared to the gloriously anarchic structure of London’s streets, it was positively straightforward.
And it’s bigger.
Cars. They’re enormous. I saw so many pickup trucks and jeeps looking powerful enough to drive up a vertical wall that it became second nature. Roads were vast and enormous, with barely any pedestrians walking in favour of driving. Food was another increase in size: every portion of everything was enormous. Even bottled Pepsi is another 50% bigger than at home. It was usually cheaper too.
Food (this gets its own point too) is gloriously decadent.
On my final night in Austin we visited a hotdog bar and were given a basket of chocolate-coated bacon and cookies. Earlier in the week I’d eaten a pulled pork sandwich with fries that fed a whole group of us. BBQ was the order of the day and there were entire chains of restaurants dedicated to single desserts (pancakes, waffles, crepes). Street food was huge too, with vans operating out of car parks selling amazing and far-flung produce.
People occasionally seemed curious of us and our British ways, but they were always happy to please. That cliched image of the American service industry - with its “have a nice day sir!” and service with a smile – isn’t fictional and exists in apparently irony-free form. I can’t begin to imagine sandwich sellers or baristas greeting me with the level of fresh-faced enthusiasm and welcoming that I saw here. Secondly, we hired a pedicab ride to visit friends and found the driver, a long-haired anarchist squatter, hailing local families as he passed with a “how y’all doing?” which they warmly returned. Imagine that on the streets of Soho.
Television is insane.
TV news has ad breaks seemingly every few minutes, and those adverts are exercises in the unreal. They’re exactly the kind of thing you think they are – sugary, stock photo-esque imagery, with pretty smiling nurses telling you about “Expensicon, the brand new wonder drug that helps people like you. For just three easy payments of $33.95 you’ll see improvements in your skin, your libido and your dog. Expensicon may result in unwanted growth of limbs and should not be used by pregnant women, children under 12 or people called Gary.” TV news is similarly bizarre, with a Fox News anchor repeatedly (and apparently seriously) referring to mysterious “loony left-wing liberals” claiming Obama’s health reforms were a work of good. Every news event was reported in terms of its impact on America – the Japanese earthquake was flagged as having potential risk for some American warships at sea nearby. Perhaps this happens equally frequently at home and I just don’t notice, but it seemed unnecessary. One news reporter had to physically demonstrate how long 8 feet was by running and gesturing across the studio, which seemed oddly patronising.
Public transport seems to be fairly underused.
The Amtrak train station I boarded from in Austin was on the outskirts of the city and was basically a single waiting room. Obviously New York has its famous Grand Central, but perhaps in some places, the train is just seen as the reserve of the poor and infirm. A voice on the intercom earlier apologised for the ‘crowded’ train – I wanted to show them a commuter train in London. There were seats spare and everything on this monster two-story beast. The train tracks by the station, incidentally, were at street level with no fence or barrier preventing people from getting close to the enormous freight train laden with steel containers which passed through before my train arrived. That said, the CTA (Chicago’s equivalent of the tube) runs 24 hours and is one price ($2.20, I believe), one ride – wish it was the same back home.
There are vast acres of absolutely nothing.
On our (1000 mile) drive from Dallas, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, we passed pretty much nothing of interest, besides a few towns, the city of St Louis and the Mississippi river. Just miles and miles of highways (which, interestingly, were mostly unlit, relying solely on car headlamps to illuminate the road at night) and fields. Tiny towns flashed by as we drove, and fairly frequent sightings of American flags and “GOD BLESS AMERICA” on random billboards were sighted. Roadside attractions abound; we stopped off at ‘The Candy Factory’ and ‘The World’s Biggest Gift Store’ for petrol and passed ‘The World’s Biggest Rocking Chair’ en route to Chicago.
Convenience is king.
Austin had drive-through banks, and apparently in Las Vegas there were drive-through alcohol shops. Booze was also sold in petrol stations (fairly sure we don’t do that here) and there were off licenses on the highways themselves, which seemed to me like asking for trouble.
Even the exotic stuff is Americanised.
We ate at a place called the Flat Top Grill in Chicago where you fill bowls with predominantly Chinese/Thai raw ingredients (veg, meat, sauces, etc) and take them to a chef who stir fries them on the spot for you. Mixed in amid the beansprouts and teriyaki sauce were things like grated cheese and mayo – those famous south Asian condiments. Obviously you have to give the people what they want, but I found this bizarre even in a fusion food context.
Roads are occasionally unfathomable.
Drivers edge menacingly toward you as you cross on a green light (which is white, not green, for pedestrians) and they’re legally allowed to turn right on red lights while stopped, which can be confusing. My London instincts were telling me to ‘jaywalk’ frequently but I had to learn to stop doing this after annoying one too many drivers.
While I’m busy pointing out the differences, and trying not to be a poncy European mocking our American cousins, I actually had a fantastic time. The USA is an amazing country, if not only for its scale, and I met some incredible people, ate some jaw-achingly-good food, drank some surprisingly decent beers and saw some all-round cool shit. I’m not quite sure I’d swap it for London – I got a little nostalgic for old buildings and rubbish weather – but it’s certainly a sight to see.
My overall conclusion was that the USA is most definitely the ‘land of opportunity’ – it’s just that not every opportunity should be taken. Like eating a basket full of chocolate-coated bacon, for example.