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My recent American (re-)discoveries

by on Sep.01, 2010, under Reflections

Don’t get me wrong. I love America. Whenever I visit, I feel right at home and that I belong. INS/DHS records will show that I am a frequent and regular visitor (or, if you prefer, “legal alien”) and my year as a foreign exchange student grants me the lifelong title Former Volunteer American (with all its privileges). It’s just that Americans do some things a little… …different than the rest of us. Not wrong, but not necessarily right either. Just different. Different can be good and different can be downright funny. Here’s a few examples of what I mean:

  • Americans play football with their hands. While hilarious and extremely difficult not to laugh at, this somewhat more padded version of rugby is in fact, once you get to know the game, very entertaining and much more strategic than what meets the eye. But to call it football?! There’s not even a ball involved, is there? Padded Rugby, Toss the Bean or Beantoss all seem like more appropriate names. Feel free to adapt! For the love of the game.
  • Few people in America eat with a knife and fork and of those who do the approach where the food is first processed into tiny food cubes which are then consumed one-at-a-time using the fork only (then shifted from left to right hand) dominates. Baaaaad manners! How do you get to respect a person (maybe even do business together) who doesn’t eat with a knife and fork?
  • While often being the subject of debate, it is apparent that America wouldn’t last ten minutes without its vast illegal immigrant work force (Mexico being overrepresented) and that this labor – by European standards – is dirt cheap. How else can there, on any given day, be more store attendants/sales advisors than customers in a typical Footlocker store? People who’s job description essentially consists of “arrange lines” (which, by the way, most of the time is done superbly). Being guests at a more upper class restaurant in NYC recently, we noticed that even the waitor had assistants (notice the plural). Unbelievable. And yet we read about self-appointed sherriffs – complete with sidearms – patroling the southern border in the hunt for illegal immigrants, the same illegal immigrants who – like it or not – constitute a cornerstone of the American society. If illegal immigrants are so unwanted, how come it is possible to work, live, go to school (!), see the doctor, etc. in America (as long, ofcourse, as you pay for it) without blowing the cover of your (non-existing) immigration status and face immediate deportation? America wants you. America needs you. They just don’t know it yet.
  • Tipping is not included. Becoming more and more common, restaurants nowadays typically add 15-20% “gratuity” to your restaurant bill. The reason is obvious. No other country in the world has the tipping culture that America has and, consequently, America has somewhat of a problem explaining (in a begging but yet non-begging way) to visitors that the price on the check is actually not the price but in fact something else (much lower). Let’s face it: if American employers would pay their employees decent salaries, this wouldn’t be a problem.
  • The size of the portions served at restaurants is… well, they are unbelievably big; to an extent that it becomes ridiculous. Appetizers are generally a small serving of food served before the main course, but imagine that the appetizer is so big that there is no room for a main course to get my point. Or that the side sallad is served on a full size plate and would easily go for a main course in Europe. Finally presented with your main course, it is all too obvious that the size of the serving is obese in itself and that even if you take the dog into consideration (their favorite excuse) there is enough food on your plate to feed a school class. See a problem, anyone?
  • American beer has a far nastier reputation than it deserves. While there are still plenty of undrinkable crap (like Bud Light) in circulation, good American beer actually do exist (and I’m not talking about semi-drinkable beer, like Miller) in for instance Samuel Adams from the Boston Beer Company (who even have the good sense of complying with the German reinheitsgebot of 1486) or Brooklyn Lager. It’s just that you rarely see Americans drink it. While still funny, the following old joke may simply not apply anymore: Q: “What does American beer and making love in a canoe have in common?” A: “It’s fucking close to water.”
  • While we’re on the subject of beverages, American coffee deserves a special note. Everywhere else in the world a coffee Americano is known as a brew consisting of hot water in a cup being brought in to the same room as one coffee bean for a maximum period of 30 seconds. It’s see through. Looking down at your obligatory cup of coffee at any given hotel breakfast in America you can actually see the bottom of the cup. Yes! Really! Coffee is not supposed to be see through. If it is you didn’t do it right. When my mom – a coffee drinker of rank – visited me in America she brought instant coffee from Sweden “to compensate things”; she would ask for a desert spoon in the restaurant and then bring up her instant coffee which she kept in a pill jar (my dad is a pharmacist) in her purse and spoon up her coffee to a drinkable standard. It’s that bad.
  • Driving in America is simple and straightforward. Roads generally hold very high standards, although toll roads exist (make up your mind: either collect through taxes or by use – not both), everything is well signed and parking is a breeze (both in finding parking spots and in the size of them – most will fit a regular sized boat and still have plenty of room to spare). They used exit numbers several decades before us. But only a short distance outside the downtown area of any American city your are expected to drive a car. Walking is unheard of and public transportation is both severely underdeveloped and generally regarded as very suspicious. I once walked from home to the local Kroger’s for groceries, a distance of 2km/1.2mi, and more than one car stopped and asked me what the problem was (in very friendly ways). To Europeans, that is very funny. But then in Europe there were first cities, and then came cars. It’s the other way around in America.
  • Hotels in America generally also hold a very high standard. It’s far, far ahead of France or Britain where that indiscreet smell of dogshit and mould tend to greet you (I travel a lot so don’t argue with me on this one). Irons and newspaper to your door is standard, of course. However, breakfast and wifi are generally not included in the price and especially the more upper class hotels will try to rip you off on wifi while it’s free and fast(er) down on the corner at Starbucks (or even in the lobby). Most retailers in America also carry free wifi, but not only out of respect for your integrity. Another thing to be aware of is when it says “continental breakfast” which in America translates to coffee and donuts…
  • When most countries have tried to unify standards, America stands out as our not-that-standard (and not-that-interested either, for that matter) neighbor in the west. It takes a while to get used to their old school measurement system (pounds, feet, ounces, etc.) that no one else uses and once you do you can’t help but wonder why they don’t simply abandon it. Immediately. Learn from the Canadians! It’ll be worth the effort, trust me. They have even kept the “AM” / “PM” way of indicating time of day and refer to the 24h clock used in the rest of the world as “military time”…
  • Americans understand and appreciate the concept of comfortable better than most of us, and consequently there are cupholders to be found literally everywhere which, ofcourse, is outstanding. A clear sign that the bartender has spotted you as European is when he/she asks if you’d like a glass to go with your beer. It’s with beer glasses as it is with knives and forks; few Americans use them. But it also hits on the American dress code which is, shall we say, casual. Men dress in oversized suits and expect to be taken seriously and women wear sneakers with their dresses. Show up at the hotel breakfast in your sweatpants or gym clothes? Wear your baseball hat inside? No problem in America.
  • Online banking in America means that you generate a check on the bank’s website and then you print it on your own printer and post it to the recipient by snail mail. For real. No, seriously. This is not a joke. A check?! In 2010?! Please don’t tell me you use fax machines too? Exactly how online is this approach? And here we thought they were civilized…
  • Although legend has it that the first credit cards saw daylight in America, their use is peculiar enough very limited in your everyday life. Cash is king, although most department stores and restaurants will normally accept credit cards (don’t be deterred when the cashier brings up the 1950s style carbon-copy card reader from some disclosed corner of the counter beneath the cash machine). But not taxis, McDonald’s or the newsstand down on the corner. No chance. Forget it. Not even American Express. Not even in 2010. Retarded. Unexpected.
  • One thing I particularly like with America is the fact that the price on the price tags states the price of the commodity excluding taxes. I admit that this was annoying at first, but it’s actually very good as it makes the size of the tax burden transparent. Everyone will immediately become very aware of a tax increase, a fact that most people find very appealing. On top of that, it gives you a math exercise everytime you buy something.
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