I have been reminded this week about a Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder” in which a hunter goes back in time to kill a T-Rex and inadvertently changes both the course of history and the way that some words are spelled. By the seemingly innocent act of accidentally killing a butterfly 60 millions years ago, the present day is subtly different, and yet the same. After a few days on Cape Cod, this is how I am beginning to see America, more particularly a small part of New England, when compared the “Old England” which is home. New England is like England might be in a parallel, but close, universe.
We have been to the United States only once before, about 9 years ago, when we visited Florida for what was to be our last two week holiday as a family. Florida never struck me as being a “genuine” place and I was convinced that we were never offered, let alone saw, any of the real America, not even on the Gulf Coast. Whilst Cape Cod is hardly bereft of tourists and every thing that goes with them (us), I do get a sense of some real life going on here too and it’s in this real life interaction with people that it quickly becomes obvious that there is more to our differences than Churchill’s “common language”, or more than 200 years of post-colonial separation. Now, my lack of experience over here is bound to lead to some things being more obvious than they might be to those more familiar with the country, and many of the observations might appear naive on my part. For that, I apologise in advance.
However, it’s the little things that really do make a difference and that you do notice. The big things, like driving on the right are obvious, but familiar to most Britons abroad, of course. Subtly, though, Americans are worlds apart from the British.
The language is an obvious one and I’m not talking about the obvious and, if I’m honest, often more logical spellings adopted over here. We passed a private drive this morning where a sign said “Private. No Exit”. No exit? What about entry? Do they allow anyone to drive onto the property, but not leave? Or how about a sign as you approach a built up area which says “Thickly settled”? Quite charming, but a little archaic, I’d have said.
Road use and signage is a huge differentiator. I have no idea why 6.7 litre, V8 off road vehicles are so popular here. Everyone seems to drive at 40 mph, or less. Even on the highways, where the speed limit might be 60 mph, no one drives any faster than that. This might be fear of getting a speeding ticket, I suppose, but there are relatively few police cars watching and waiting. No cameras, of course. An American driving in the UK must be scared witless by the speed at which we drive on dual carriage-ways and motorways. And everyone is extremely courteous. People let you out onto main roads, even when they don’t have to. They have odd “all flashing red” cross-roads, where people actually just take it in turns to cross the junction. This kind of thing is unimaginable at home.
The road signs themselves need a serious overhaul. Basically, if you don’t know where you’re going, tough luck, the signage won’t help you. You might get a green sign actually on a junction, telling you to turn left or right, but there will be no pre-warning, and seemingly no centralised plan as to how to describe a route or hierarchy of destinations. Maybe this is one of the reasons why they drive so slowly. I wonder what the accident levels are like, when compared on a per driver mile basics?
Then we have the money. What a great idea to have every note to at least $20 the same size. And the same colour, with only very subtle hints of a difference. I’m not colour-blind, but someone who was would find it pretty much impossible to tell the difference, without reading every note for its denomination. It means that every note has to be individually checked before being handed over to the assistant. I suppose that’s not a bad thing, per se, but it does make it much more difficult to know at a glance how much cash you have in your pocket at any one time.
We have found it impossible to eat a light lunch since we have been here. There is no such thing as “just a sandwich”. A sandwich has to consist of about half a pound of meat on a massive bun and come with a portion of fried potato of some description, a pickle, coleslaw and some salad. And it has to cost you about $12. The simple two slices of bread with a couple of slices of ham inside for three quid is completely unknown. Yesterday, we asked for a coke to go with our meal and the waitress brought at least a pint, and then came along and plonked a second one (each) on the table, without being asked. I don’t actually want to drink two pints of diet coke at any time of the day, thanks. I have no problem with the concept of “free refills”, but I would prefer to be asked, rather than it be assumed. One can have too much of a good thing and that second pint was just wasted.
The Americans we have met have in general, been very courteous people and not just on the roads. The “Have a nice day” thing and “You’re welcome!” every time you say “Thank you” seems to be genuinely meant, most of the time. This is very much not like at home, where many people in the service industry think that they are doing you a favour just by being there to take your money. And it’s the British who were supposed to be polite…
They are a friendly bunch too, happy to strike up a conversation in a shop, restaurant or on the ferry. Much more so than at home, where the British reserve is very much to the fore. I quite like that. I am convinced that it’s the accent that makes people ask about you, though, not that they have any real, genuine interest. But I may be wrong about that. Twice, now, we have been asked whether we went to “The Wedding” recently. That strikes me as being a bit odd, and somewhat naive on their part, as if everyone in the UK went to the wedding. Maybe they were just referring to going to London to stand on the street and wave a flag, but I’m not sure they were.
From what I have seen on the cable television in this cottage, it amazes me that the US produces any quality programmes at all. The system that brought us The Sopranos and The Wire, seems, for the most part, to rely on religious programmes shot on a $400 video camera, local news, which rolls every 10 minutes into another 10 minute weather forecast, and game shows which might have been innovative in the 1960s, but are looking somewhat past their best now. And there are hundreds of channels to choose from. The most amazing thing is that one can choose to watch The Sopranos at 7:30 in the morning. Clearly no watershed, which surprises me for a nation which appears to retain a moral background, but also some people must watch it, otherwise the tv station wouldn’t broadcast it at that hour.
Then there is the flag. You are never more than 100 yards away from another stars and stripes. If you look around you and can’t see at least four flags, then you are either on a yacht or somewhere in the forest. I knew from the Florida experience that this was the case, but that was in 2002, when 9/11 was still much more raw than it is today. And I understand fully that a nation fighting two wars a long way away needs to keep it’s home fires burning. But, I have been surprised at the prevalence of the flag. It was Memorial Day here a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t think that made much of a difference. At home, even for royal weddings, we just don’t do this sort of thing. Guilt, probably.
That really sums up quite a lot of the differences between our two countries. Or, my country and the American Nation. I have noticed that there is a difference there too, but that’s one that I still haven’t quite worked out yet. In Kennedy’s time, it was still a “country”, but now, it’s a “nation”. I wonder when it changed?
We have been in this small part of New England for nearly a week now and whilst I could imagine myself living here (as one often can while on holiday), I could never call it “home”. I haven’t said anything new or original here, and I will hold up my hand to any charges of cynicism on my part, but these kinds of differences between us are immediately noticeable, especially to those of us who rarely come here. There are, no doubt, dozens of other examples of such things. We have much in common, but much that divides us and makes us two very distinct peoples.
One of the Plymouth Brethren must have killed a butterfly.