By snapshot I definitely do not mean photo because anyone who knows me, knows I consider taking photos some kind of punishment. I once spent six months in Africa and didn’t take a single photo. That is not a brag, it’s actually pretty stupid and embarrassing. I only joined Instagram a few months ago. Words are my preferred medium OK!
I do however want to capture these initial impressions I’ve had of living in America, before they start to seem totally normal and not worth even noting. It’s already starting to happen.
I’m thinking back to that day a month ago when I got off at Gates subway station and dragged my luggage up those Sesame-Street looking sidewalks. So fresh, so naive, not so young. These are some of the things that have struck me in my first weeks.
> The sidewalks are so very wide. And really quite dirty.
> People are so friendly! This is the big one. In my neighbourhood – Bedford-Stuyvesent (Bed-Stuy), in Brooklyn – when I’m walking around some people actually say hello to me. Like a neighbourly “hello”. Whaaaa!
Not only that. People in New York (America maybe?) just talk to each other. It sounds really stupid but the first time someone addressed me on the train I really had to think hard before responding. The lady had just asked me where I got my shoes from but it really struck me how casual it was. In Australia or the UK it would be something like, “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you where you got your sandals?”. But it was the relaxed familiarity which got me, just, “Hey where did you get those sandals?”
I can’t even tell you how many times people have complimented me on something I’m wearing. “Hey I like your dress, it looks great” said the lady walking past me as I was checking out some stuff on a sale rack on the street. “I really like your skirt” said the lady at the bus stop.
This happens all the time here, and I don’t think it happens because I’ve upped my fashion game here (I have not). People here just have a thought and let it pop out instead of suppressing it. I was wearing a Metz shirt while going for a run and a dude in a car at the crosswalk beeped and gave me a grin and a thumbs up. Not in a creepy way! In a ‘right on!’ way. It made my afternoon!
I know it seems bizarre to be so surprised by all this but I’m telling you – 5 months in Sydney, 6 months in London before that, and years in Mexico before that and I’ve never had this level of random stranger interaction. Literally every day you will have a random stranger interaction. Big cities can be lonely places but at least here people actually acknowledge your existence. Just today I was in Target absorbed in quite an emotional conversation on the phone and a lady said, “Your backpack zip is open hun”, and as I turned to look she said, “Here, I’ll closed it for you” and was gone before I had a chance to say thanks. She didn’t even steal my wallet. Thanks random lady!
This is turning into the longest dot point in history but I have something I need to add here. I don’t know if people from the USA realise this, but as a sort-of American in disguise, I have been privy to a bunch of – I’m not going to say racist because I do know what that word actually means – but let’s say extremely negative opinions that are shared very openly and frequently about Americans. I would say in Australia and the UK it is completely socially acceptable to talk shit about people from the US. They’re too loud, they don’t get sarcasm, they are so fat, so stupid, they love guns etc etc.
In Australia less so – perhaps because we sit somewhere between the US and the UK in terms of cultural references and humour. Case in point: when I was DVD manager at JB HiFi in Parramatta some decades ago (almost!) I sold an equal amount of DVD box sets of Seinfeld and Red Dwarf. But British (and Irish) people are particularly smug about being generally more refined, hilarious, and clever than Americans. And they are not afraid to openly say it. I’m telling you because I have been present for many such conversations.
It’s actually not even my ‘American-ness’ that makes me baulk at that kind of trash talk. It’s largely the influence of my father, who is an Englishman, and while still being very very very English has always extolled the friendliness of Americans that he experienced while living and working here for years.
And I have to say I have mostly found that to be true. OF COURSE you get all sorts of people in all countries, I know that well. But I will say I have a couple of heartwarming American stories that feel, well…very American.
I will tell just one now, in this most elongated dot point of all time. I was on my way back from Coachella where I had flown in from London to meet my awesome friend James from Sydney to watch Rage Against The Machine play in their first gig after a 7 year hiatus in 2007. Obviously, that was just rad. On the way back James was driving to Vegas with his dude friends and I was getting the bus from Palm Springs to LA. My bus turned out to be delayed by about 12 hours, and I spent that time with the rest of the huge group of disgustingly dirty festival survivors camped out in this dingy little bus stop in the desert. That actually worked out just great because I ended up meeting a crazy Canadian called Courtlen who is still a great friend to this day.
However, the main thing I remember is that a neighbour who had observed this mass of filthy humanity, instead of giving us a wide berth, actually came over with several trays of freshly baked cookies to gift to us. How nice is that?! At the time I remember trying to imagine someone in Australia or England doing that and I simply could not. Again, maybe it’s just me. I’m not saying we’re all dicks and Americans are amazing, but there is a certain commitment to friendliness and hospitality in this culture that I know some people find confronting or disingenuous, but that I just love. So there.
> The drinks are so fucking strong. I, ahem, do enjoy a drink and would say that it is seldom that I get really plastered since I can hold my liquor. Again; that is not a brag, it’s actually pretty stupid and embarrassing. But since being in New York I would say 2 drinks is kinda my limit. Or should be anyway. They free pour here, almost always! I was speaking to a new friend here who was horrified when I told him just how strict it is in Australia. Like if you serve someone too much you can be liable if they are in an accident later. Or was that in Canada? Anyway, the point is bartenders don’t even have to do any kind of safety training here! The culture is just so different. My friend actually said “I would feel so offended if a bartender, especially somewhere I was a regular, pulled out a measure”. Wow.
Also, never order a cocktail at a place that doesn’t specialise in cocktails. I don’t even drink many cocktails let alone have high standards, but every one I’ve had (mostly old fashioneds) have been godawful. Just get a beer and a shot and be done with it.
> Groceries are terrible. I already knew this but jesus christ they are even worst than I remember. I do not intend to make this a complaints list, and I’m not one of those people who is going to compare where I am to everywhere else (see, I haven’t even mentioned coffee!) but this is almost fascinating to me. You can’t even buy an individual banana here! Ok you can buy an overpriced one in a bodega but in the majority of local supermarkets you have to buy a whole bagged bunch of them. It’s super weird, the small supermarkets are so expensive that somehow Whole Foods is actually cheap in comparison if you want to eat healthy stuff and vegetables. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a bodega and walked out empty-handed because I couldn’t find any actual food. Again – this is not a complaint. After walking out of said Bodega I will generally wander into a pizza shop where the food is already prepared, hot, cheap and delicious and makes me very happy. Problem solved.
> I hear Spanish spoken absolutely everywhere, one of my favourite things about being here.
Oh no I can’t think of any other dot points! I guess I am turning native!