29 January, 2010

It’s the little differences

After I had been in the US for nearly a week, a friend asked me what differences I had noticed.  What I noticed most on my first day was how similar everything is.  Not that I was under any illusions that things were going to be wildly different.  The US is not a foreign country to Australia.  We speak mostly the same language, eat the same types of food, watch a lot of the same television.... it’s not exactly the same as going deep into Asia and living in a hut with some local goat herders.  Each counts as travelling abroad but it’s obvious that I was taking the softest option while still technically being outside my own culture.  Okay, so they drive on the other side of the road and say “sidewalk,” instead of “footpath,”  but we already knew that. 

With my only mental image of America having been formed by television, magazines and the internet, what struck me most was how “real” everything seemed.  Mainly, because it is.  Being in a room there was just like being in a room anywhere else.  Not that I didn’t expect it to be, but it was interesting to see the US for the first time without the haze of television.  Because they use the NTSC colour system (known in the industry as Never The Same Colour), there is always a bit of a haze on US produced programs after it has been converted to PAL.  It was interesting to see how the US is actually a real place, not just a thing they have on TV. 

After confirming that America was real and tangible, I was again struck by how similar everything is, but then, if you’re seeing airports, freeways and hotels, there isn’t going to be that much difference.  I think they’re all pretty much the same everywhere.  It also made it fairly predictable that the first major difference I would notice would be at the hotel, and as strange as it may seem, the first major difference I noticed was how the toilets flushed.  I looked in the bathroom and mentioned to my dearest that we might have to call maintenance as there seemed to be something wrong with the toilet.  When she asked why, I showed her how the water was three quarters of the way up the bowl.  She said, “Um, yes.  And?”  The toilets I’m used to have the water level at the base of the bowl and the cistern water just piles on top of it to flush everything down.  What I discovered is that theirs lower the water first, and then a jet pushes it all around the S-bend before the bowl fills up again.

Okay, so it’s a pretty banal observation, but it’s honestly the first thing that struck me as different. 

The second thing was how hotel rooms don’t seem to have fridges unless you’re in a suite.  Often when I’m in Melbourne, I’ll just get an economy room at the Vic, since all I want to do in the hotel room is sleep.  These rooms don’t have a bathroom, but they still have a television and fridge.  What US hotels do have, is an ice bucket in every room and an ice machine on every floor.  In its own way, this does make more sense than running a fridge in every room, regardless of whether the room is occupied, and probably only used about half the time when it is occupied.  For the things most people would a hotel fridge for, an ice bucket is sufficient and much more economical, both financially and environmentally.  But then, the following week, our friend told us about how her mother needed a fridge in a hotel for her diabetes medication and they wanted to charge her $25 a night to hire one.  (In San Francisco, that would barely have paid the occupancy tax, but that’s another story)  After that, I was more torn on the pros and cons of not having a fridge in the room.  Perhaps they could keep some standard rooms with fridges for those who need them, and the rest without, in the same way that the Vic has cheaper rooms without bathrooms for those who really only want a bed for the night.

After taking in the hotel and getting some information about local transport, we got a shuttle bus back to the airport where we picked up a train in to the city centre.  Yes, San Francisco has rail transport that goes right to the airport!  What a simple but brilliant idea!  (For anyone who is confused, that sarcasm is directed squarely and Melbourne’s transport system)

We didn’t have time to do any real sightseeing, although we see them turn a cable car around on a turntable.  The main purpose of the excursion was to keep me awake until evening to minimise jet lag and make sure I got a good night’s sleep before getting up at sparrow-fart for the flights to New Orleans the next day.  During that time, we had a late lunch at Burger King to see if fast food really is the same the world over.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do any more gratuitous Pulp Fiction quotes and rest assured, I did not stick to fast food for the whole trip.  I must confess that, in the interests of trying everything the place had to offer, my attempts at vegetarianism were put on hold for the duration of the journey.  If anyone wants to call me a hypocrite for that, it’s a fair cop.  I can also tell you that Whoppers are just as ordinary over there.

Another thing I discovered was something that I should have known all along but still wasn’t prepared for.  Morgan Spurlock was right; serving sizes are massive.  I usually go for the medium sized drink but found that in the US, ‘medium’ means a bucket as opposed to a vat – certainly bigger than a large size here.  I made a mental note to only order small drinks in future. 

On the way back to the hotel, through the stations and suburbs, we found that all the houses are a lot more densely packed but for the most part, lots of it could have been parts of Melbourne.  It didn’t help that the place is full of gum trees.

I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's just – it's just there it's a little different.


  1. There is a difference between motel and hotel. Motels don't have fridges while hotels do.
    The first things I noticed: Fast food is bad, everything is fake, I mean, Italian food is a crazy lie, donuts taste like oil with sugar (I love it) and you can throw papers inside the toilet depending on where you go.
    Motel in Brazil is a place where couples go to make love. Here, a motel is one affordable hotel. Rail transport to go to the airport is a great idea.

  2. Two experiences I had:

    In a Burger King, I asked for a Whopper with no "tom-ah-to". I had to repeat myself several times before she said "oh, you mean to-may-to".

    On a train from New York to DC, I asked a guard where the rubbish bin was. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I gestured with my rubbish that I was looking for a receptacle for it, and he said "oh, you mean the trash can".

    I was most struck by how insular people in the USA are. I was there for a month and in that time saw very little news from outside the US and people in general did not have a great understanding or even curiosity about the rest of the world.

  3. Ah Kelly, you are so right when you say they have no curiosity about the rest of the world. They don't know their own history. Many people think Columbus discovered America (USA).
    Women here don't date guys without money and car. People are materialist and you are what you have in your bank account.
    I know one girl who didn't want to date a guy because he has bad credits. That's why many American men marry women from other countries.
    There are many good things about the country. I like the fact that you go to a store and can find a pair of Levi's jeans for $40,00 from the smallest to the biggest size. Cars are cheap. Anyone can buy a nice car for $4.000,00 or less. Electronics are cheap too.
    What bothers me is the lack of hygene in the restaurants. They just put the knife and fork on the table, without any protection, no paper, I don't know in other cities but here is KC this is how things are.

  4. I'll have more to say on prices and perceptions of insularity later.

    I was aware that I would have to amend my language a bit. There's nothing wrong with that - it's their country and I'm the visitor. So I knew cases would have to go in the trunk and I would have to say fries instead of chips.

    The one thing I had trouble with was my habit of saying "ta," instead of "thank you," when getting my change, but no-one seemed to notice.

  5. PS - you've been tagged! http://kellyansapansa.blogspot.com/2010/01/apparently-i-am-beautiful.html

  6. Oh? Thank you. Leave it with me.

  7. I thought USA was very foreign at first. They don't speak the same language, eat the same foods.

    The toilet differences never crossed my mind.

    Michelle, I haven't been there since the auto industry died but I doubt you can buy a decent car for US$4000. Maybe a 30-year-old Impala. Cars that don't break down daily probably start at $30000.