I'm off to the US tomorrow, and I'm trying to prepare myself for the culture shock. Most people can't understand why I find things other Americans take for granted‚ like driving on the right side of the road, so odd. But after seven years abroad, I feel more like an alien in my home country than a natural born citizen.
It's not so much the speech, though I'm shocked when Southerners take four syllables to pronounce a word like "drops". I still speak American English like a native, albeit one who has an odd way with "water" and "butter".
Rather, it's the day-to-day getting around that I find alternately baffling, frustrating, or simply amazing.
Those amber waves of grain have been mowed and turned into huge parking lots—some of which are meant to be roads. But they no longer function as such, due to the many impediments placed in the way of the driver.
Take traffic lights, a ubiquitous feature of US roadways. God shed his grace on America along with thousands of miles of concrete, and then crowned it all with multicolored traffic lights—which don't have the good sense to turn yellow before going green the way they do in the UK.
The few traffic lights in Britain are mostly for pedestrian crossings rather than intersections. My small town just added two new pedestrian crossings when the new Tesco opened, which drivers found a huge impediment and pedestrians, who were used to dashing across the high street, found equally annoying.
Which is to another odd thing: shopping in the UK is mostly done on the "high street" which is sort of like Main Street in the US, only it's not a concept, it's an actual street. It may not be named "High Street", although often it is, but it's the main road in a town where most commerce takes place. (Our high street is actually named Packhorse, a common street name here. Other roads are named for where they go, which means London Rd and Oxford Rd are, naturally, the same road.)
Shopping in the US, on the other hand, most often takes place at or near a mall. Surrounding a mall are dozens of large and small stores, connected by a system of super-sized carparks requiring an advanced global positioning system just to navigate. It reminds me of a giant pinball machine, with your oversized car the pinball, searching desperately to find its way out of the maze. Or at least to the empty parking space nearest to Target's red front doors.
And Target—is there any place more beloved than Target? Even Michelle Obama was recently spotted pushing a red shopping cart (with its wheels spinning in only one direction, mind you!) through the wide, spotless aisles of TargGHAY, as Americans ironically refer to the upscale discount superstore. How many times have I walked into Target, intending to buy one thing, and I come out $200 later with a shopping cart full of cheap t-shirts and polka dot serving bowls and a rug to match?
It's like every high street shop, combined into one giant red bullseye. With free parking!
I am convinced the main reason I hate to shop in the UK is the lack of convenient parking. I willingly walk miles every day for pleasure, but when I'm shopping I can't bear the idea of parking a quarter mile from the shops and dragging purchases back to my cramped car in its too small parking space. Opening the car door without hitting another car is like performing delicate surgery in a toilet. (Which of course is never said in America, unless you sell plumbing fixtures. Americans go to the "bathroom" or the "restroom" though many women go to the "little girls' room".)
Most amazing of all, though, is that at most large American stores you can shop 24/7! (A term Americans invented to describe the proper functioning of commerce.) That includes Sunday, since blue laws, in the spirit of unbridled consumerism, were abolished ages ago. Even chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble are open until eleven p.m. But I like to go early, when I'm wide awake at 5 a.m. Those aisles at the superstores are even wider then, and I can wheel my ungainly shopping cart unhindered through corridors freshly stocked with a fabulous array of items. I find things I never knew I needed, and almost never regret purchasing. Like socks. Polka dot socks, to match the throw rug and the serving bowl.
And when I pay for my purchases, I can slide my non-chip and pin debit card through a little machine myself, punch the proper buttons, and never hand it over to anyone else! Likewise, it's easy to get more cash: drive-through ATMs are everywhere. It's like scoring extra points by hitting the right bumper in the pinball game, except you score some extra cash when you drive through an ATM.
Americans are experts at driving through things. There are even drive thru gas stations. In America, you can fill up your huge tank without having to go inside the service station—you just slide a credit card through the slot on the pump and when you're done, you can race off. At least until you hit the first red light.
Roads are generally wide enough to serve as emergency landing for distressed jumbo jets, yet all that concrete is deceptive: Many lanes are for turning only, which means you have to sit through—you guessed it—more red lights. By the time it's your turn to go, you've forgotten why you wanted to turn in the first place.
Maybe it was for fast food: there are approximately 160,000 fast food restaurants in the US, where of course the term "fast food" means you drive through a dedicated lane where you interact with three different fast food workers and 30 minutes later you finally receive your order at the last window.
Yet supermarkets, surprisingly, don't sell the variety of ready meals that they do in the UK. But they make up for it by the wide variety of food available right at the till. By the time you've finished shopping in a Super Sized Wal-Mart you're so famished you reach for one of the candy bars conveniently located by the check out. Some Raisinets ought to make the drive home easier—surely this is what they mean by fruited plain!
Oh, America, you are indeed beautiful, despite your quirks. If only you'd embraced roundabouts the way you embraced the drive thru. Then I could get to Target much faster.