Once again, I am that guy. In case you didn’t know (care), I was away for a couple of weeks on holiday in America. It was a lot of fun, but the blog clearly suffered – no updates for over a month?! You were well into the territory where you wonder if maybe he’s given up on blogging. Well have no fear (disappointment), I’m back up and running.
Today’s blog will be about my holiday, and thoughts in general on Amercia. It will be marginally better than sitting through a slideshow of my photos. On the basis that I’m not known for original formats (and if it’s good enough for fucking buzzfeed), I will continue with the numbered/bulleted list trope that seems to have recently infested my blog:
Good things –
- Regardless of what any American will tell you , the roads in the USA are really good. Which I suppose makes sense when you consider the amount of driving they do. Some of the roads (I was told) hadn’t actually been surfaced with the final top layer because the local council ran out of money, and yet they are still manifestly smoother and nicer to drive than basically all of the roads in the UK. Also, you Americans don’t know what expensive petrol is (it’s like expensive gas) (joke alert!). I filled our hire car’s tank at a cost of $40 (about £25). I genuinely don’t remember the last time a tank of gas (actually a liquid vapour anyway, no?) cost less than the notes in my wallet, so that was a refreshing improvement. Also, you can turn right on a red light, which makes a lot of sense, and they have countdowns which tell you when the lights are about to change, which is also rather helpful. In short, America is actually a place where driving can be a pleasant experience.
- Navigating in the USA is pretty easy. Well, it certainly is if the satnav you have works (ours didn’t). But even if you have to resort to paper maps, the way that most cities are set out in blocks makes everything very straightforward once you figure out what’s going on. I have real trouble with street names in the UK (“you know ravenscar avenue, yeah?” why would I?), so knowing that 5th street is between 4th and 6th is a treat.
- California is a great place. Everywhere that we visited was clean, naturally beautiful, and made me consider briefly whether I should be moving to live here permanently (answer: not quite, but close). We did drive through quite a few smaller communities not geared up for tourists, and while it was obvious that not everyone lives in luxury, it still seemed generally pleasant. Note, we did not go anywhere near Los Angeles, which would arguably have influenced this opinion significantly.
- EVERYBODY is super polite. America’s well-known policy of paying waiters/waitresses in tips, rather than a fixed (secure) salary has some notable downsides (and don’t think I support it exactly), but as a consumer it is a fantastic concept. If you get into the mindset that every time you are rude to a customer you will probably lose half an hour’s wages, it appears that you can quickly become genuinely happy to be serving them (or at least really good at pretending to be). And if you’re polite to me, it puts me in a good frame of mind, and I’m much more likely to be polite in return. It creates a circlejerk of nice behaviour, and that’s fine by me. But even people not working on commission are capable of smiling. Like the driver of a free bus who should, by rights, be sick of idiot tourists (me) not understanding how the stop request bell works. I am quite sure that bus drivers in London have a secret sweepstake about how far they can make people run after them, and still refuse to let them on. In America, you can wave at a bus across the street, and I guarantee it will wait for you.
- America has great animals. I will now interrupt the numbering system to announce that following the trip, I have decided to change my 3 favourite animals (this section sponsored by Milgram):
3. The sea otters. Happy chaps
2. The freaking BEAR we saw in Yosemite national park. He would actually have got the top spot except that the 4 people who saw him all inexpicably lacked the presence of mind to actually take a photo
1. The marmot. He neatly combined the idea that maybe I could reach out and stroke his back, with the thought that if that turned out to be wrong, he could easily sever my finger.
Now the not so good things –
- The above good things can quickly fall apart when you really don’t want them to. For example, when we arrived in San Fransisco, I walked to the local newsagent to buy the public transport tickets that we needed to get around the city over the next few days. I was told, politely enough, that they were sold out, but if I walked 2 blocks thattaway, the next newsagent would have some for sure. Nope. The next place didn’t, but if I walked… etc. After being told this maybe 3 times, I realised that maybe they just didn’t give a shit. Also, I had now walked 8 blocks away from our hotel, and I was migrating out of the nicer neighbourhood into a place called the Tenderloin. The name brings up thoughts of a pig’s vagina, and in that regard its quite an apt name. It was the sot of place I didn’t really want to go to. In the end, I actually felt reasonably safe, (in America, police protection will always be afforded to the white man), but it would have been better not to have to do it in the first place. Also, I got a bit lost on the way back, and when I went to the front desk of the poshest, whitest hotel I could find (know thyself), I was politely told that no, they would not be providing me with directional assistance at that time (fuck you, The Wyndham San Francisco!). But I did steal a map from them when I left, so I officially had the last laugh (and found my way back). That wasn’t a great afternoon.
- Las Vegas is weird. It is not my sort of place, frankly. If you leave Las Vegas in any direction, you quickly find yourself in really, genuinely beautiful wilderness. The desert isn’t some featureless wasteland, its stunning landscapes that are frequently used as film sets, and contain awesome wildlife and stuff. But the city itself is something else. Some day, America will find itself in a less prosperous position that it is currently in, and when that happens, I truly believe that Las Vegas will be used as a case study into why. They built a city in the middle of a desert, drained the nearby water sources to keep their front lawn looking lush, and they use electricity just to blast powerful beams of light into the sky just to incentivise you to gamble. Admittedly the electricity is mostly hydroelectric, but still, they surely could have found a better use for it? And the gambling. When the casino you are in can afford to deck the public toilets out in Italian marble, you don’t have to wonder for very long as to whether the house usually wins or not. And yet people still wander in, empty their pockets and wander back out. It’s interesting, and some parts are great, but it isn’t the bit where streetvendors flick prostitute calling cards at you…
- Immigration is not so great. We entered the US through Canada (because we flew via Toronto) and it was relatively ok. But still awful on an absolute scale. I don’t want to rant about this at length (again), so I will gloss over the fact that I got swabbed for traces of drugs TWICE on the way in (behaviour which would surely be illegal anywhere else). However, I cannot ignore the following exchange between a tourist and immigration officer while queueing for the body scan machine:
“sir, don’t even think about it!”
“sir, I know what you’re thinking, and i’m warning you, don’t try it.”
“i didn’t say anything?”
“sir, I could tell that you were thinking it”
“i’m just standing here.”
“i’m telling you NOT to leave this queue”
After maybe 30 seconds, I turned around to exchange a silent “wtf” glance with the guy in sympathy, and he was gone! Not in another queue, not anywhere in sight. I think I saw a guy arrested for thought crimes, and if that doesn’t terrify you, you need to think a bit harder about it.
- Walking in America is not as easy as driving. I decided to hike a short trail in Yosemite to see one of the giant sequoias. Helen decided to wait for me at the bottom. A sign at the head of the trail said “tree – 0.6 miles”. I didn’t have a compass or even a map (because I dropped it), but I am quite good at walking and navigating on the fly, plus the path was very clearly marked. After maybe 5 minutes, I checked my watch, because obviously if I walk in one direction for too long, I had missed the tree, and probably got lost to boot. 11 minutes after that, I come across a sign saying “tree – 0.4 miles”, which suggested I was walking at less than 1 mile an hour. About 9 months ago, I walked 50 miles in 14 hours, including rests, so I dispute that claim, especially seeing as it took me another 3 minutes to complete the final 0.4 miles, suggesting I then ramped it up to a much more ambitious 8 miles an hour for the final stretch. America, your signs are bollocks!
- Despite what you might hear, there aren’t many fat people in America (the bits we saw). Admittedly, you do sometimes see a pink blob parking in a disabled bay, but generally people are not flabby. However, they are mostly big. The gyms were busy, but full of people pumping iron. Never mind that they’d collapse trying to walk 0.6 miles, ‘fit’ in America means muscular.
Now, I don’t want to end on a list of bad things, so I will close with a final good point – the food. Portions have shrunk (or I have grown) since I was last in the USA, but that didn’t really matter, because I was generally getting double breakfast. I ate a lot of Helen’s food because she was suffering quite badly from morning sickness. Which means that, yes, my wife is pregnant and in February 2014 I will become a father!