I’m back in one piece from Sin City, and I really only have two words to describe it:
Before I get into all the sordid details however, I wanted to mention some of the contrasts I noticed between Australia and America. I’m swiftly developing a bit of a crush on the ol’ US of A, but at the same time it baffles the hell out of me.
Note: Before I launch into my commentary, I should point out that when I refer to America and Americans, I’m basing my observations on the tiny percentage of the nation I’ve experienced, ie. Los Angeles airport, Las Vegas strip, Arizona, and a US naval base in Japan. I’m not sure if any of this applies to the remaining 99% of the country – although I have a strong feeling I’ll find out at some point.
In Australia, we deal with America on a daily basis. We watch your TV shows, listen to your music, see your movies, eat your food and look up your Youtube stars. You’d think that with Australia’s saturation in American culture, nothing would be surprising for an Aussie wandering around the Land of the Free. You’d be dead wrong. It was confusing as balls.
I’ve discovered there are only eight people in the USA whose accents I can understand, and that’s the cast of The Big Bang Theory and the cousin with whom I visited PNG. Everyone else might as well have been speaking Xhosa. People would say something to us, and Nikki and I would stare blankly at them for a few seconds, hoping if we bought some time the words would eventually trigger response in our Antipodean brains. When this failed, we’d look at each other, hoping the other one had got the gist of the conversation. Then we’d look vacantly again at the speaker, and finally stutter a confused “Um, sorry?” This process, coupled with our accent, ensured that wherever we went people assumed we were brain damaged. A lot of Americans really struggled to understand us too – on our second last day, we spent a few hours at the hotel bar drinking cocktails and chatting to the bartender. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the conversation went like this:
Us: So how long have you been in Vegas?
Him: What? [unintelligible comment]
Him: [unintelligible comment]
Us: Sorry, didn’t quite get that?
Us: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN VEGAS?
Him: [unintelligible comment]
This went on for literally two hours.
God damn, everything takes forever in America. We waited in customs for an hour in LA. We waited about twenty minutes to check in to our hotel, because there were only two receptionists processing about fifty new arrivals. We waited to be seated in cafes and restaurants, we waited for food, we waited for pizza to be warmed at the food court, we waited for traffic lights, we waited to get into clubs, we waited for bartenders to come back so we could pay them, we waited and waited and waited. No one is in a hurry in Las Vegas. Probably because everyone is either drunk or coked up.
This was unexpectedly confusing. One person seats you, then disappears. Then someone else comes and takes your drink order. Then another server takes your food order, and repeatedly tops up your coffee or diet Coke (the free refills nearly blew my mind…I think I yelled “I LOVE AMERICA” every time someone freshened my coffee). Then you’re meant to tip them based on…something. Smiling? Drink top ups? Quality of food? I had no idea, so I just left 20% each time. I found our dining experiences were vaguely unsettling, because I was never sure if servers were genuinely friendly or just putting on a show for a good tip. In Australia, if a waiter or waitress is warm and friendly it’s because they want to be, not because they’re expecting me to leave a tenner on the table. Maybe I was overthinking things, but it always left me with a weird feeling.
Paying at bars:
The first time we bought a cocktail at the hotel bar, the waitress didn’t ask us for money – she just gave us our drinks and wandered off. We later learned that the bar is like a restaurant, and you keep ordering drinks until you indicate you’ve consumed a sufficient quantity of gin, at which point they’ll leave your receipt in a little cup in front of you. I’m not sure what’s stopping you from leaving without paying. We ended up with free food at one point, because no one rang it up – we actually went up to a waitress and asked to pay for it, and she told us not to worry (I think that was another “I LOVE AMERICA” moment).
My god, Americans are blunt. There’s no “Hi, how are you?”, no smile, no eye contact. I thought it was terribly rude at first, until I realised that people are friendly and helpful; it’s just they’re not decorating it with the layers of pleasantries we employ in Australia. They cut straight to the chase, and it really threw us off balance. As an example, the customs officer at LAX was a scowling old bastard that snatched our passports, admonished us for coming up to the counter together when we weren’t related, then in a mildly threatening monotone ordered us to record our fingerprints and look into the camera. After doing so, he told me I’d taken a beautiful photo, and told Nikki he liked her better as a brunette (her passport photo is blonde). This ‘geez, what’s up your arse…aww, aren’t you sweet!’ turnaround happened so often, we felt like we were being waterboarded.
Aka ‘restrooms’. I don’t understand why the toilet water is so close to my bum. It’s unnerving. Also all public toilets have a giant gap between the door and the frame – if I can see people washing their hands, surely they can see me. I do enjoy the automatic flush sensors, but they gave me a bit of a fright the first few times. “Well, better zip up my pants…OH GOD, POLTERGEIST!”
Holy hell America, can you guys build a grocery store. Nikki and I visited a Safeway in Arizona, looking for road trip snacks. We spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out in which aisle the chips would be – with crackers? Nuts? Cookies? Then we realised there’s an entire CHIP AISLE. Right opposite the beer aisle. Near the in-store Starbucks. Next to a cabinet holding every kind of ready made lunch imaginable, and stacks of sugar-encrusted cookies that were literally the size of my head. I could have spent hours in there. YOU GUYS HAVE CHEESE IN A CAN. And sleeping tablets next to vitamins. I just…I can’t. Mind blown.
I love disgusting food, I really do. Give me chips, cheese, pizza, chocolate – I wolf it down. Except I can’t deal with the American version of any of those delightful things. The packaged food is so processed that I’m not sure it’s even food any more. The ‘whipped cream’ in our key lime margarita was hydrogenated palm oil. Doritos burned off our tastebuds and Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups sloughed off our dental enamel. The cheese on my chilli beans was a vibrant, unnatural yellow, and it tasted like glue. The pickles are salty and the salami is vinegary. Everything contains high fructose corn syrup and/or meat.
I was being a fantastic vegetarian until I set foot on US soil. A mushroom burger is just a regular burger with mushrooms. Vegetable tortilla soup has mince. A chilli bean burrito has beef AND bacon. In Australia, everything that’s included in a meal is listed on the menu description, and it took me a while to learn this is not the case in America. Nikki can’t deal with spicy food, and it turns out ‘spicy’ has a completely different definition in the States. No matter how many times we asked a waiter “Is the so-and-so dish spicy?”, the answer was always “No, not at all!” – and inevitably, half an hour later Nik would find herself with a flaming tongue and cheeks afire, gulping down her cola while I frantically picked pieces of bacon out of my nachos.
Then there are ‘sides’. Everything comes with a side! Do you want fries with your sandwich? Caesar salad with your pizza? Spring rolls with your stir fry? Bagel with your omelette? I was pretty excited about this for a while, but my poor stomach was definitely protesting at the amount of food I was trying to shovel into it.
One amazing food item that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live without: jalapeno poppers. Oh. My. God. For the uninitiated, they’re jalapeno peppers stuffed with cheese, then crumbed and deep fried. Oily, cheesy, stroke-inducing nuggets of pure joy. If I ever move to America, it will be for jalapeno poppers. Or possibly black men, but that’s another blog post.
My biggest bugbear: why are the speed limits posted in 5 mph denominations, when the speedometers in cars go up in tens?
Secondly, the freeway on-ramps are nowhere near long enough for traffic to merge properly.
Thirdly, I don’t understand the fuel bowsers. Apparently you need to pay in advance if you’re paying in cash, and they’re not terribly excited by foreign credit cards. I got so flustered in Williams, Arizona that a greasy old mechanic came over to help me out, then promptly hit on me. Luckily I was wearing my decoy wedding ring.
On the plus side, motorists seem a lot more polite than in Melbourne. Everyone stays to the right unless they’re overtaking, and when they do overtake you they don’t drive right up your backside and then pull in metres from your front bumper, like they do here. I didn’t get honked at once, despite driving like…well, a Melbournian.
Calm down with your flags, America. Driving back from Arizona to Nevada (I really love saying that), we decided to start a flag tally. We counted twenty-nine American flags in less than fifteen minutes – and this was freeway driving, not cruising through town. On the positive side: no matter how drunk we got, we never forgot what country we were in.