Before I start this huge post about all the interesting, surprising and weird things about America that I found on our first ever trip there recently, I just want to do a bit of a disclaimer. Here it is:
- These things are based on my first ever trip to the USA. We went to San Francisco and Boston, with a few day trips to their nearby towns. So this first impression is gathered from visiting just two cities out of a whopping massive country that’s completely different from one area to the next. I’m very much aware that no one, two, three or even 10 cities can be representative of an entire country, especially one that ginormous. However, ‘Amusing first impressions and funny/weird things I found when visiting San Francisco and Boston and some of their nearby towns’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And who doesn’t love sweeping generalisations about everything from toilet water quantities to the pronunciation of ‘herbs’?!
- Also, I absolutely loved both places we went and had a right hoot there. So this is a highly positive/light hearted post for the most part. There are of course, some negative aspects to the US – like anywhere. I touch on a bit of that side.
Disclaimer over, here are 42 (I tried to stop at 40, soz) weird things about America, or rather things that I found amusing/odd and general first impressions on my first ever trip to the USA…
1. There is SO much water in American toilets. WHY? Also, massive gaps between the door and the wall and the door and the floor. It’s quite unnerving when you’re trying to have a wee.
2. Everyone is so incredibly friendly and talkative. Sitting up on a stool at the bar is essentially an open invitation to discuss your entire life with the people next to you. And it’s brilliant and not weird at all once you’re there, even though it sounds horrifying as a concept. People are so open and instantly pally. Sometimes, we’d be sat at a bar chatting away to two people who we’d assumed were a couple and then one would get up to go and say how it was nice to meet everyone… Yep. They didn’t even know the other person. But they’d just spent an hour talking to each other like they’d known them all their lives.
3. People fly flags a lot. In the UK, a flag is only really a thing for racists or Spice Girls.
4. Getting a cup of normal tea (that’s ‘English breakfast’ to non-UK people) wasn’t as hard as I’d expected. In fact, it was easier than it is in most of Europe. But be warned. They don’t do kettles in hotel rooms (much like some European countries don’t, to be fair) so I’d recommend hiring an apartment if like me, you 100% need a brew first thing in the morning to even be alive. Both apartments we stayed in had electric kettles. I’m specifying electric because (and brace yourself for this next one one…)
5. … Sometimes they think when you say ‘kettle’ that you mean an antique kettle like you’d put on the stove to boil water in Victorian times. Electric kettles are not in every household there. I know, I know.
6. If you like brunch (who doesn’t), you’re in the right place. I have never experienced anything like the brunches in the US. Everything was amazing. And if you’re veggie or vegan, don’t worry about being faced with wall-to-wall bacon. There are eggs every which way you can think of and avocado toast and French toast and vegan pancakes and muffins and chia puddings and hash browns and cheesy waffles and all the fruit. These are just a few of the reasons I came back unable to do my skinny jeans up.
7. The old ‘American portion sizes are HUGE’ thing is only semi true. It really depends on where you are. While a lot of places do do INSANE portions that no human could ever get through, it’s not always the case. In SF, some of the places we went had completely normal portion sizes. Which leads me onto my next point…
8. … Even if somewhere has ginormous portions, not everyone eats it all. Doggy bags for your leftovers are completely normal and many people expect to take half of it home to have the next day. You can also order one thing to share between two, which has the added bonus of saving money. You don’t have to gorge yourself. Although, you’re on your hols so it would be rude not to overeat at some point. And yes, this is the kind of attitude that means my jeans now don’t fit.
9. Cash in note form is surprisingly confusing. Why’s it all the same size and shape?! How are you meant to find a tenner after a few drinks? And coins are often quite useless.
10. Public transport does exist in some places, but it is hard going. As mentioned, this was our first trip and we don’t drive so we’d specifically chosen two cities with allegedly good public transport. Maybe it was good by US standards but it was dire compared with Europe or Japan (okay, being unfair with Japan there because who can compete with that?!). The trains and buses are very rudimentary, they’re all run by different private companies so it’s hard to find one transport map that lays every line over it so you can use it all in a joined-up way, and they don’t always run that late. Also, trains are SLOW, even compared with Northern Rail. And that’s saying something.
11. Cars are huge, roads are huge and there aren’t pavements everywhere. I don’t drive, so the car-centric culture was probably the one aspect that really hit me hard. It’s just so, so different from anywhere else we’ve been over the years. Both SF and Boston are not at all as car-mad compared with other cities either, so it would be an even bigger culture shock elsewhere.
12. Tipping is a massive deal. We’ve all heard about this, but it really does permeate everything. Just pay staff the living wage FFS. Then if someone is exceptional, a tip will really mean something, rather than just be expected so that the poor employee actually gets what they should anyway. You also have to tip for random stuff like the hotel staff carrying your suitcase. In restaurants, they usually have these tablet-style screen things that you can sign and tip on.
13. Mostly, advertised prices don’t include tax. You never really know the price of anything until you come to pay for it. This can get awkward if you’re on the dregs of your change.
14. Waiters and other service staff are SO enthusiastic. No wonder, you might think, with their income relying on tips instead of a suitable wage. But a lot of them genuinely seem to be keen for you to have a good time. I was really surprised that I liked this, but I did. This kind of chirpy service works really well in the US because it’s real. It fails miserably when people try to import it to Europe because it becomes fake and irritating.
15. The quality of food is very high. We ate SO well. I’m trying not to go on about food too much in this post because I’m currently starving and it’ll kill me thinking about all the delicious things I devoured, plus I want to do a post all about food separately. Anyway, it was easy to find incredible vegan options everywhere we went, as well as fresh seafood, innovative tasting menus, cuisine from absolutely every country and culture, and plenty of healthy dishes too. All the stereotypes about greasy fried muck were 100% not true where we went.
16. Adverts are completely different. You know when you get a faux-cheesy retro advert on telly for double glazing or something? Lots of American adverts are actually like that in all seriousness. The person talks directly to the camera asking them to buy whatever it is. They’re also on constantly. You seem to get more adverts than actual TV programme. No wonder everyone is turning to Netflix.
17. Also, you get lawyers and pharmacies advertising on TV. Surreal.
18. Contactless payments haven’t caught on in the way they have elsewhere. You still have to put your PIN in a lot and in some places, you don’t need your PIN but you can physically sign for it and the waiter wanders off with your card and you just have to trust them. I adored that trusting attitude (although contactless is much less hassle).
19. Everywhere is air conditioned! I had heard this, and totally understand why they have it in hot places, but I wasn’t expecting it to be on during cool weather. It played havoc with my contact lenses being blasted dry. So take layers and eye drops.
20. If you like
pina coladas peanut butter and peanut-butter-flavoured stuff, you are in for a TREAT. I knew PB was serious business there, but oh my. It’s everywhere and it’s glorious. As we have already established, my jeans don’t do up now.
21. Baseball is a thing. It’s like rounders and equally dull. I really hate every kind of sport apart from horsey ones but this was especially unfathomable. We went to see a game of it to see what it was all about, but I’m sure most people were there just to eat, drink and have a good old shout.
23. Americans say com-POST-ing instead of composting. I’d never heard this on TV before! It was my favourite thing immediately and I will now pronounce it like that 5ever.
24. I don’t know if it was just the places we went (which goes for this entire list, remember? Disclaimers and all that) but everywhere is a lot more dog-friendly than I’m used to in the UK and Europe. There are doggies fluffing about in most cafés, bars and breweries as well as parading around the streets. I spent about 60% of our time there spotting cute dogs, petting cute dogs and talking to dogs’ owners about how cute they were. The dogs, that is. Not the owners.
25. It would be proper hard to get by without roaming data on your phone. You should probably plan for this before you go. Of course, we didn’t have roaming data abroad in Europe at all until relatively recently, but it’s a much harder thing to go without in the US. I don’t think either of our phones got on well with WiFi there either – it was painfully slow when we connected in cafés and bars. We bought a lifesaver of a SIM to use there with £10 worth of data on it, which meant we could navigate more easily and get Ubers if we needed (I don’t agree with Uber’s ethics, but we’d have struggled at times otherwise).
26. You do get the sense that you’re really on your own. People are kind and will help each other, but there’s no social safety net to look out for you. Without the NHS and much public transport, I of course did know this before going. But you actually notice it when you’re there.
27. Super-hoppy craft beer is a big deal and has been for a long time. We all know it’s taking the rest of the world by storm but that it’s usually served in hipsterville, which could be off-putting for some. Well in the US it’s just normal, so you don’t need any facial hair to enjoy a craft beer bar (although in some areas of SF, if might help).
28. As already mentioned and unsurprisingly, a lot of the American stereotypes are not true (in every area) and that definitely goes for guns. At the mo, all you hear about the US on the news involves the horror of guns. We didn’t see any shops selling guns or anyone casually walking around with a gun, and everyone we chatted to who brought it up were 100% abhorred by them. Of course, like the stereotypes of huge portions/religious nutcases/Trump supporters and every other negative thing you hear about America, this’ll be area-specific. The police do carry guns though, which is weird to see.
29. ‘Entree’ means main course, not starter. Despite sounding like it should mean that. I don’t know how I didn’t know this given how many episodes of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA I’ve binge-watched.
30. Particularly in SF, the scale of homelessness is shocking. Many of the homeless people have mental health issues and are clearly suffering. I work in Manchester in the UK, a city that has a huge homelessness problem. But the situation in SF still shocked me. It was much less in Boston but still upsetting. The (presumably) untreated mental health problems among the homeless community also mean that you have to be careful in certain areas, unfortunately. But people are kind, and I saw a lot of locals giving out food and money or just stopping to chat.
31. People absolutely understand most British English vs. American English differences, i.e. they know what you mean if you say lift instead of elevator. Food terminology might be more confusing but we did okay. Scones, biscuits, jam, jelly, shrimps – it all means different stuff but you can usually work it out.
32. There’s a glorious supermarket called Whole Foods that sells everything you didn’t know you needed to eat and more. Shopping there is a serene and wondrous joy. It is an actual crime that we don’t have Whole Foods in the UK (other than a few clustered together in stupid London). It’s clearly my spiritual home. Bring it to the North West PLEASE.
33. Fire engines make a really disturbing noise that sounds like the end of the world is nigh.
34. This is a hard one to explain, but a lot of everyday stuff is very functional with a capital F. Things that you sort of barely think about like traffic lights, bins, toilet doors, trains, fences – they’re often noticeably perfunctory. With trains, it’s like someone shoved some metal together and went ‘There you go. It runs, doesn’t it? What more do you want?’, whereas in most other places I’ve been there’s some element of style to it. It’s especially stark when these rudimentary designs are sat next to beautiful architecture, too.
35. It sounds wildly obvious, but remember that the Americas are a continent and states in the US are like vast countries, all different. Even just between SF and Boston, it was v much a world of contrasts. I don’t think you could ever grasp it as a whole.
36. There’s a huge amount of identity based in a) supporting a sport team and b) having been to a university. You can get branded clothing for either, to wear from head to toe. I kind of get the love for your uni, but the sport thing is beyond me (as already mentioned, I despise all sports unless they involve horses). I suppose people are really obsessed with football (or should I say soccer) here, but I’m sure the % of fans who own team-branded socks/belts/underwear (?!) will be double in the USA.
37. The scale of the place is ridiculous. I mean, we’ve all seen the USA on a map so you know that bad boy is a whopper. But when you’re there, popping down a road is never popping. It’s a full-on marathon. Everything is really spread out and massive – even in less car-centric cities where people do walk a lot. Crack those blister plasters in your bag because you’re going to be walking off all the brunches and desserts sharpish.
38. They say ‘erbs’ for ‘herbs’. Yes, the H becomes silent. No idea why. It’s magnificent. I did actually know this beforehand, because as already admitted, I have watched an unhealthy amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, but hearing it IRL was still great.
39. Drinks come in fluid ounces rather than ml or pints. I knew the US still hadn’t converted to the usual metric measuring system, but beer coming in anything but a pint was still a novelty. Make sure you have a rough idea of what’s what, or you could end up with about two litres of a 10% IPA. Good luck with that.
40. You can’t get some good old Ibruprofen gel for a sore leg (from all the walking!) without a prescription, but you can casually pick up some insanely strong sleeping pills that are illegal in the UK. Right.
41. There are laundromats everywhere. I assume people do have washing machines at home, but they must be getting enough business to keep going… how?
42. Americans really don’t get much annual leave. So don’t rub it in too much that you’re there for two weeks. Do mention it though, because they’re so friendly that they’ll whip out a notepad and start scribbling down an entire itinerary for you featuring all their favourite places. Several people did this for us! And I think that’s a heart-warming note to end on.
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