I’d only ever spent five days in the USA prior to my trip to San Francisco. It was back in May 2001, when the twin towers were still standing proud and tall and Tadpole was nothing more than an unfertilised egg in my ovaries. The weather wasn’t particularly kind to us on that trip, either. But Mr Frog and I bought cheap lightweight waterproof jackets on our first day and resolved to do everything we’d planned, regardless.
I remember getting the same nagging feeling of déjà vu back then too. Every time I sat down at the counter in a diner and the uniformed waitress refilled my coffee I felt like an extra on a film set. Every time I stepped off the pavement to try and hail an elusive taxi, it was as though I was re-enacting a scene from one of my favourite television series.
But this eerie familiarity didn’t mean that absolutely everything was how I expected it to be. It wasn’t, because however much I’ve been exposed to all things American by books and films and TV programmes for the past thirty-six years, there were still surprises. Tiny little culture shocks – scoring low on the Richter scale – that simply caused me to pause for a moment, to frown or to repress a giggle.
Random examples of things that amused/bemused me at first encounter include:
- The tone of the announcements made over the tannoy on my US Airways flights. I was expecting Sweet’N Lo insincere politeness, but instead they varied from schoolmistress bossy to downright surly;
- Waiters saying ‘pardon my reach’ when setting down my order as though they were terrified of violating my personal space without my say so;
- The odd, discontinuous shape of toilet seats in public ‘restrooms';
- The take-away section in shops called ‘grab and go’ which sounded like an invitation to try out shoplifting;
- Advertisements for specific brand name drugs on TV, exhorting patients to ‘ask their Dr about…’ and reeling off side effects at breakneck speed;
- The food stand in a Fisherman’s Wharf market proudly advertising that it sold the city’s ‘finest pig parts';
- Being expected to pour maple syrup over my French toast, bacon and eggs;
- Nickels and dimes. I brought home a huge wallet-full. Couldn’t memorise how many cents they were worth, for the life of me;
- Being asked if I wanted cream for my coffee and finding out that in this context, ‘cream’ actually means ‘milk';
- Finding out that Heinz make mustard in a glass bottle shaped like a ketchup bottle. Who knew?
These were just a few random thoughts I scribbled down on the plane home while watching truly awful in-flight movies (tip: avoid ‘Made of Honor’ at all costs, even if you are a fan of McDreamy). It might have been a red-eye flight, but I knew sleep wasn’t going to be an option (even with the help of over-the-counter sleeping aid pharmaceuticals purchased at Walgreens) when I discovered that my economy seat only ‘reclined’ by five centimetres.
If anyone has any culture mini-shocks of their own they’d care to share in the comments box below, be my guest…