Lessons Learned in the USA

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.

And planned.
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.

It’s friendly.
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.

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9 Responses to “Lessons Learned in the USA”

  1. Alexa says:

    Matt, I *am* an American and I find this entry thrilling! I’ve never been to Texas but it seems like the “everything is bigger in Texas” stereotype holds true. We’ve got loads of old buildings, cobblestone roads, and bizarre traffic patterns in Virginia. Love that you watched Fox news.

    Just a friendly FYI from Asia–mayo is huge here and grated cheese has its place too! There’s actually a tuna roll (chamchi kimbap) here that’s loaded with mayo and really popular.

    Can you really not buy beer in convenience stores in the UK!?

  2. Matt says:

    Hah, I knew I’d be wrong on the Asian food stuff! In my defence I’ve never seen cheese used on anything Chinese or otherwise…

    You can buy beer in those places, but never at petrol stations (or usually not), or anywhere else directly connected to driving. Makes sense really…

  3. holly says:

    oh man, i so miss america after reading this. i’ve been craving an ‘american’ burger for days! i just can think of anywhere here (ie nottingham) that will live up to the monstrosities over there.
    also, the cars and the roads are immense. you havent lived until youve driven on a 7 lane highway in LA at night! that was freaking scary i must say.
    but yeah, i cant wait to go back one day! and im glad you had a great time! i was so jealous. x

  4. Char says:

    Fun post!

    If you want old(ish) buildings, crap weather and crowded public transit, I encourage you to check out Toronto during rush hour in December. Or any of the winter months. (Double-decker commuter trains were apparently developed to service suburban Ontario.)

    I’ll look out for chocolate-covered bacon when I’m in Texas in two weeks. BUT! I’m most looking forward to having deep-fried pickles again.

  5. tiffany says:

    the neat thing about the US is that the different regions can be like different countries all together. Next time you go you should visit the Pacific Northwest – seattle, washington/portland, oregon area. that’s where i’m from and it’s very different from texas and chicago. at the same time though, there are many similarities. I highly recommend it. :)
    Great article.

  6. haha wow, it’s actually pretty cool to see America through the eyes of someone from Great Britain. The only thing is I wish you had time to come visit California! If you were impressed by Texas, I KNOW you would have loved it here! haha

  7. Eric says:

    I’m sad this article was so short. I am making the move to London from Utah. I’ll agree to what Tiffany said above. Each state is like its own country.

    Utah has some interesting things to it. If you thought that Austin was laid out like a grid, Salt Like City was planned to be a grid and building are essentially numbered like grid coordinates (i.e. 900 South and 500 East is 9 blocks from the center of the city).

    One more fun thing for Utah that we are well known for are our liquor laws. We are the only state that defines what a shot is (1.5 oz) and you cannot serve mixed drinks beyond that size. Also until fairly recently we had a thing called the “Zion Curtain” where you would have to have a barrier between the customers and where alcoholic beverages were poured. Although this was typically glass so the whole point was useless?

    Your other posts are fun to read. Thank you for typing them up!

  8. Amanda says:


    I lived in Houston for a while and one of the things I first noticed was the humidity. The only way I can describe it to anyone is it’s like being inside a Butterfly House in a zoo.

    I agree with the vast areas of nothing. I live in a part of England that either has fields for crops and animals or is wooded. That for me was the main culture shock, seeing a lot of unused land.

    Great post!

  9. Janna says:

    Your article was so refreshing! I really enjoyed it. I recently went to London for the first time last year can’t wait to go back!