We’ve been here for under a week, not a particularly long time, but it already feels different to one of our past visits. The overwhelming feeling that we should be looking at things long-term is forcing me to make deliberate attempts to “adjust.”
If you’ve ever spent time in America then you’ll know that the surface similarities shield a wealth of subtle but significant differences between the cultures.
The first and most significant problem I’m experiencing is with the language barrier; no-one understand a bloody word I say. You might think I’m exaggerating about this, but it really is getting right on my tits. Today, whilst I was wandering around “center city” on my own, I decided to buy a coffee from Dunkin Donuts [sic]. The Asian (in the American sense of the word) guy behind the counter, was flummoxed by my seemingly simple request for a “white coffee” and passed me onto another guy (this time looking of middle-east extraction) to translate what the foreigner was saying. After a lot of very basic exchanges in which he deduced my requirements he handed me a white coffee and advised “it’s a black coffee, not white.” “When it’s got cream in, it’s white!” I responded and then we both started giggling. It didn’t have cream in it by the way, it was milk – over here, it’s called cream, even if it’s milk.
Michele and I have spent 12 years laughing at our linguistic differences yet now we’re here we’re both regularly getting surprised by the things that don’t translate. Here’s another one: it seems that over here the term “mains”, used to refer to the electricity supply, doesn’t exist. Not only that, but the concept of a word describing that infrastructure is also absent. So there is no simple way of describing “a mains lead” or “a mains adapter.” This took a while to figure out and people don’t seem to feel it’s a problem! Consequently there’s no simple way to discuss “mains wiring”; you have to flounder around using words like “wall socket”, “plug” and the technically vague “AC.” Madness.
And mobile phones…my god. If mobile technology was the yardstick of measuring a country’s development then America would be level-pegging with Nigeria.
We brought a couple of unlocked phones with us and thought that the quickest and simplest thing to do would be to buy a couple of pay as you go SIMs in the short term. Now, in the UK, you can go to pretty much any crappy newsagent, kwik-e-mart or corner-shop and buy a SIM for a fiver. No forms to fill in, no activation, no hassle. You put the SIM in your phone and you start dialing. Over here, the procedure is a perfect working example of a “right palaver.” Firstly you have a choice of only two vendors: T-mobile (pronounced teemobil) and ATandT (ew). Secondly, you have to find a mobile phone shop that knows what the hell you’re talking about, which basically means going to a shop directly owned by one of the networks. Finally you have to pay over $20 just for the SIM, and fill a load of forms, get it activated, and register your handset with the network. if you were unlucky enough to buy a handset with it, you would get a severely crippled piece of shit with all of the juicy and functional bits of technology turned off. Thanks, I’ll stick with my M600, which now feels like something that’s been transported through a time-warp from the future.