Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Matt's American Adventure: The Final Verdict

So Kate and I made it back to Namibia without any further problems and upon arriving back in Windhoek we were straight back to work as we had to pick up two volunteers who were joining us at Solitaire. Before I go any further Kate and I have to say a huge thanks to our student interns Jim and Leonie who did a fantastic job looking after the project whilst we were away; especially after talking to them and hearing about some of the difficulties they had to deal with. They’re awesome.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been very busy but it has been great to see the cats again and we’ve had a lot of fun with our volunteers who made getting back into the swing of things much easier. I have had a bit of time to reflect on my American Adventure and the following will be my humble impressions of the US of A, which just may well turn out to be the definitive description of American culture on the web!

Cultural Differences:
The first thing you notice is that everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, and it is wrong for this very simple principle I will now explain. Think of 100m runners lining up on the track, where do people line up from, the left or the right?
When you place down your favourite David Hasselhoff DVDS on a table from what direction do you place them in order of preference.....left to right of course! It just makes logical sense. When Americans enter onto a multi lane road they go against this basic psychological norm and have the overtaking, fast lanes on the left.  Also scientific studies back me up. Research in 1969 by J.J. Leeming showed countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right. It just doesn’t make sense America and I think you will all agree I have ended this debate once and for all!

I also noticed that even in fancy hotels there is a preference for a bath tub and shower combo, I never once encountered a bathroom with a separate shower unit, I’m not entirely sure I am in favour of this; I like a nice roomy shower and standing in a tub with a curtain drawn across feels a little claustrophobic. However, the space saving benefit is obvious, so I’ll let this one slide. Another curious bathroom related preference I noticed is that the water in the toilet bowl was more often than not at a very high level. Maybe this is because anything that goes in their has enough room for a proper swim and therefore reduces the chance of a blockage?  I am curious to be informed by some of my American friends as to why this is.
One big difference in culture we are not used to, especially here in Namibia is efficient customer service! The first time I placed my empty glass back down on the table in a restaurant and had it immediately refilled was a complete shock to the system, but a nice one! Now the impression most people have of American servers and store workers with the constant huge smile and ‘have a nice day’ mantra is not entirely accurate as not everyone seemed ecstatic to see me, especially some of the employees of Target we saw very early in the morning one day, but that actually helped reassure me that Americans are in fact normal people. Of course the big exception to the rule whilst out dining was the Church Brew Works, but for all of my other dining experiences the service was friendly, fast and efficient, the Namibian workforce could really learn a few lessons here, because in some instances the very notion that you want to order food comes as a big surprise to the server.

Americans are VERY patriotic. The star spangled banner is pretty much everywhere, from small ones stuck in gardens, medium sized ones hanging from people’s houses to gigantic ones that appear as you enter a different state. Quite often on TV and radio I would hear the phrase: ‘greatest nation on earth’. Now in my opinion being proud of your country is a great thing, I actually found myself wishing the UK would feel more able to display the flag rather than fall behind our national fear of ‘offending’ someone. However, NO country can claim to be ‘the greatest’ and I do wish Americans would stop saying it; as I say by all means feel proud of your country but I find it a little over the top to preach superiority over other countries. Having said that, the states did give the world, David Hasselhoff, Larry David, Bruce Campbell and Jack Bauer......
The Media:
Living in the middle of no where for four years you kind of forget just how ‘in your face’ western culture can be. I was shocked at the amount of adverts there are during a half hour TV show; I found it almost unwatchable. The commercial radio stations are much the same and it seemed no matter what time of day we headed out in the car we were guarantied to hear the same songs; as a consequence a song called “You don't know you’re Beautiful”  became the soundtrack for my holiday.......I of course now know this song to be by One Direction, a UK band made up of some of the lamest specimens of manhood I have ever seen.....damn my weakness for cheesy pop music!!!  The local TV adverts I found amusing with almost all of them being presented by the business owners themselves, especially injury lawyers and car salesmen - some clearly more suited for TV presenting then others. One of my best all American experiences was watching the Jerry Springer Show whilst eating left over wings, the worst was watching Fox News one evening; I am deliberately avoiding the subject of politics but wow, not even the UK's Daily Mail can compete with the biased, agenda driven trash I saw on this supposed ‘NEWS‘ program.  

Its funny, I love living here in the Namib Desert in the middle of nowhere, the scenery I work in every day is breathtaking but I can not deny my roots and I can’t help but enjoy the commercial trappings of a western lifestyle. I loved being able to go to a proper cinema, get my Macbook fixed easily and browse around stores like Target, Giant Eagle and Costco.  Ideas of maybe one day even living in the states were also encouraged by finding Marmite on the shelves of Giant Eagle, all I need now is to find a reliable source of crumpets and I will feel right at home!

As you may recall from my first American Adventure blog I had an interesting time entering the country due to the extensive security checks. During my time in the states I had conversations with foreigners and Americans alike who spoke of their dislike of what they see as ‘over the top’ methods. However, for me, whilst driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC I found myself trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been there then on 9/11 when an airplane was purposely crashed into it.......fact is I found it almost impossible to imagine, but yet that is exactly what happened. Viewing the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum I again had a reflective moment about that day 10 years ago and had the thought that maybe the amount of time that has passed and the constant repeating of those images has numbed those of us outside of America to the pure shocking nature of that day and how easily those hijackers were able to achieve it. So considering that, if I have to be taken aside and frisked in a room listening to Enrique Inglesias then so be it.

The People:
Its really hard to define a whole nation of people, especially for a country as big and diverse as the states and national stereotypes are not always accurate.....except when it come to the french of course, they actually do wear stripy jumpers, eat baguettes, say ‘ooh la la’ and have a national compulsion to block things with modes of transportation.

All I can say is that for the most part the American people I encountered were extremely nice and great company. Kate’s family and friends were fantastic from day one, welcoming me with open arms and boxes of Twinkies. As I mentioned earlier the servers in all the restaurants were awesome and I have to say a special mention to the staff from Delta Airways at Atlanta who were extremely sympathetic and helpful when dealing with the situation we found ourselves in due to Kate’s illegal passport. There are of course the exceptions; I am of course referring to the Church Brew Works bar tender, the shameless user of the Atlanta airport toilet, the twittering idiots at the Blue Man Group and the assholes who robbed our friend Ashley’s home just days after we had seen her. I am sure if I were to have stayed a bit longer I would have encountered some more rudeness but for now the people of Pittsburgh, Washington and Atlanta get a thumbs up!

The Food:
I believe I covered this subject in quite a bit of detail already, you could say this was the part I was most excited about and on the whole I was not disappointed. The sheer variety on offer is staggering with almost every street lined with whatever cuisine takes your fancy.  Most of the food is reasonably priced and portions generous....it is really easy to see why America has an obesity problem! So here it is, the final rundown of my American Cuisine Odyssey:
So, there we have it, that was my USA experience and I wish we could have stayed much longer. I want to again say a big thank you to all of Kate's family and friends who helped make it such a fantastic vacation. Final score for my American Adventure - Two Thumbs Up! :)