I love the USA, its a Disney masterpiece, it’s a cheesy pop key change. American culture assumes the best in you and rubs off on you. It is however, boring talking about stuff you like, its much more interesting to pick through the confusing, unsatisfying aspects of experience – here are 5 things that stick with me after my work little trip a couple of weeks ago.
1. Am I poor?
Inequality is real and you can feel it as a chord playing deep in the background. One thing that felt weird to me is how many different classes they had for what order you board a flight – even on a tiny city hopper where everyone basically gets the same seat.
I’m used to easyJet or Ryanair’s: ‘Priority’ and ‘Non-Priority’ – the whole point of this is that if you get on the plane first you can have first dibs at the overhead bin, and Priority costs about €10.
The US’s biggest airline Delta has 8 levels of passenger prioritisation, and somehow my company booked flights always had me in Basic Economy which meant I had to get on last, I didn’t actually get a seat assigned til the gate (still not sure if that’s normal) and probably saved DTN a few hundred dollars. One thing that surprised me was almost nobody else was in Basic Economy, maybe 1 in 20 passengers stooped to my depth. Why didn’t they? Wouldn’t they have saved some money – is this supposed to be embarrassing? A conversation with a colleague in the Minnesota office made me wonder more as she lamented about DTN giving us in the ‘lowest of the low’ ‘trash’ tickets…
The thing is its the same seat on the same plane with the same snacks, but the Airline seems to take every opportunity to re-enforce this classification system as if it really means something more.
2. They’re so fun to talk to
As a European in the US you’re surrounded by people who talk and act like ‘in the movies’, its easy to feel like you’re the main character. They understand you immediately, they express themselves so fluidly.
There is no clumsy fumbling over words like I feel in the UK or Netherlands. We in Europe try too hard to ensure we communicate the most precise representation of our thoughts and feelings. Americans like to play their part and live life with the contrast turned to 11. They say things because they sound clean and cool and they’re having fun – not because they need to be said.
This makes every American feel sincerely friendly in an un-selfconcious and reliable way. Which I think allows strangers to strike up a bit of small talk a lot more often than I would ever observe in Europe.
I enjoyed every little chat with every Uber driver because I genuinely felt they were happy to be driving me around. Service workers and taxi drivers in Europe tend to be clinging to a sombre dignity at some level – a sense that ‘I am a human to be respected first, and your reluctant taxi driver second’. In the US service workers have an attitude more like a friendly guide dog or (more charitably) a grandparent, who really just wants to help and is pleased to be able to.
3. TV ads are weird
I watched a bit of TV in my hotel room. It really feels like 30% of TV ads in the US are pushing prescription drugs, each one being sold as a catch all solution to whatever problem you might have today. Each one encouraging you to push your doctor to prescribe it to you. Each one having half of its total length being a disclaimer listing all the possible side-effects, so long it completely loses any practical utility.
There was also these unusual charity drive ads I hadn’t seen before. One to send food boxes to hungry holocaust survivors in “Eastern Europe”… It said that “Time was running out to reach the last remaining holocaust survivors”. It showed old ladies crying.
This really creeped me out and felt both obviously manipulative to the viewer and patronising to the ‘victims’. Okay this might be incredibly insensitive of me but its 2023 and the holocaust ended 78 years ago. They may as well be ‘reaching survivors of the Titanic’. Any old lady living who suffered the holocaust must have been about 4 at the time, she has lived a real life through the entire 20th century, she doesn’t sit around crying waiting for the Americans to show up with a box of fruit and a camera crew.
What it does show us is the power of a good story, how the holocaust lives in our collective consciousness as a sort of ‘base hell’ so much so that these ads are clearly still able to make money by essentially just pushing the right buttons.
I’ve only been to the US twice as an adult and each time the most uncomfortable moments I have are always about waste. The bins themselves are huge and welcoming, they suggest you could never throw enough away in your lifetime to make a dent.
In the UK we’re put to shame when wasting food, unless we have a very good reason like we’re about to throw up. When I was last there in 2019 what stood out was how big and thick their disposable cups were, and how it seemed totally acceptable to eat half of your burrito (the size of an overdue baby) and discard the rest.
This time when I went with some colleagues to a ‘BBQ joint’ for lunch, I was surprised everyone chose the large soft drink. You could refill the cup as much as you wanted, so getting the large just meant being able to carry more at the same time. But the large was about 1L, the medium was about 500ml. Everyone drank 1 cup and then filled it back to the brim before getting back in the car.
I mean I actually like this, you’d never go thirsty, its just the volume of consumption that stands out to me. Its so much better than Dutch restaurants and cafes that serve their soft drinks in tiny, heavy 200ml glass bottles at close to €4 a piece like the pepsi max within is some kind of precious champagne to be savoured slowly. And don’t expect free tap-water you absolutely wont get it. If you’re a human that ever actually becomes thirsty, the Netherlands is not for you, America is.
5. America is fine
Its easy to read online or hear podcasts describing the mess that America is in with crumbling infrastructure, intensifying racial tension and broken politics – all of which is probably true. I got the feeling though that these things are probably overstated by the US-centric world we live in.
The real problems at home are probably worse and not in the spot-light. Europe’s inflation is driven more by the war than money printing. More people in Europe don’t have the salaries to absorb this inflation. Economic problems become social problems. Racial tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims (especially in France) are probably much more ugly and have much more potential to flare up than embedded racism in US institutions. I don’t know I’m just vastly speculating but if feels like in the US at least, everything is going to keep being fine for a long while.