To kick off the New Year, here’s a slightly offbeat A-Z list of some of the less-known differences about life in the USA for an expat Brit:
Appliances: Huge. Especially fridges and washing machines. Our “standard” size fridge is about three times the size of the one we had in the UK.
Beer: Cold. Really cold. Sometimes the mugs in restaurants actually come out of the freezer so they’re covered in ice (which helps to disguise the often non-existent taste).
Cheese: Basic. Very little variety except in hard-to-find specialty shops. “American cheese” barely qualifies as a food product.
Driving: A necessity. Otherwise you can’t get There from Here (except in the heart of the biggest cities, when getting behind the wheel can be considered suicidal).
Electricity lines: Overhead. On poles, like telephone wires — which makes so much sense in a country prone to things like hurricanes, tornados and violent thunderstorms.
Fur babies: Your pet dog or cat. Really. It’s a thing.
Great British Bake Off: Obviously, not a thing over here, but you’d be hard pressed to find any TV show that has that level of national obsession. I can’t think of any show that is universally watched — except the Super Bowl (annual American Football final — more on this in late January).
Humidity: Nasty. Across the south and east of the country it’s a weather phenomenon in a category all it’s own, complete with humidity ratings. (And in August it’s brutal.)
Ice cream: Always. There is no weather too cold that Americans won’t serve ice cream. And no flavor that you can’t find (jalapeno? sweet corn? bacon?). It’s like crisps in the UK.
Judges: Elected. They run for office, collect campaign contributions, and make promises.
Kilometers: None. The metric system has made zero inroads in America; here, it’s all pounds, inches and gallons.
Low mileage: Cars. They get staggeringly-low miles per gallon; 25 mpg is normal, some SUVs get as little as 12 mpg, and a Prius getting 46 mpg is considered “awesome.” (see Petrol, below)
Milk: Homogenized. All of it. Which means the stuff can last 2-4 weeks in the fridge but there’s no such thing as cream on the top. And tea just doesn’t taste the same.
Naan: Rare. Tough to find outside the larger cities. Chinese restaurants are to America what Indian restaurants are to the UK.
Oxo: Nope. Doesn’t exist here as a food brand, so don’t bother looking for those beef stock cubes.
Petrol: “Gas”. Staggeringly-cheap. Varies by city and state depending on supply and local taxes, but the current average across Pennsylvania is $2.58 a gallon. (Assuming 3.8 liters a gallon and an exchange rate of $1.23 per pound, that translates to about 54p a liter.) (see Low mileage above)
Quidditch: Really. There are teams and leagues and the 2016 Quidditch World Cup was held in April in South Carolina. (I’m not making this up: http://www.usquidditch.org)
Rabbits: Suburban pests. Our back garden (see Yard below) is full of them, but you can never find the burrows.
Sales tax: Ubiquitous. Varies by city and state, and NEVER included in the listed price of anything. So, that bottle of shampoo that has a $4.99 price sticker will actually cost you $5.29 with the 6% Pennsylvania state sales tax added on. Same with hotels and cars, which adds a hefty mark-up to the final purchase price (unless you live in the lovely little state of Delaware, which has no sales tax at all).
Traffic lights: Straight to green. After red, there’s no friendly get-ready red-amber combo first. Makes accelerating away from the traffic light feel like the start of a Grand Prix race: aaaand GO!
Umbrellas: Rare. Which is odd, considering it rains here on the east coast just as much as in London or Leicester.
Visitor etiquette: Iced. When you stop by a friend’s house, they routinely offer a cold drink, loaded with ice –water, fruit juice, soda, even (shudder) iced tea, whatever the season. If you do get offered something hot, it’s always coffee, maybe hot chocolate in the depths of winter. But not tea.
Wild life: Extensive. Even here in the heart of the great east coast conurbation. In the past 20 years, our back garden has been visited or inhabited by deer, mice, racoons, squirrels, voles, turkeys, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs, foxes and a skunk. Plus birds from tiny hummingbirds up to big predators like red-tailed hawks. And don’t get me started on the list of bugs…
Xmas lights: Everywhere. Widely festooned on the outside of urban and suburban homes starting right after Thanksgiving in late November, and left up as late as mid-January. Sometimes tastefully-draped ribbons of white lights around windows and trees, sometimes garish riots of color (including lights shining onto the house itself), and often with added life-size inflatable statues of Santas, deer, and snowmen (sometimes inside a clear inflatable globe).
Yards: Gardens. The general name, whether front, side or back is yard, not garden. So, people will say “my back yard is over-run with rabbits” when the “yard” is actually a beautifully-landscaped suburban oasis.
Zebra crossings: None. Cross a road at your peril, unless you’re at an intersection with a traffic light. But, this is America, where people believe in lawsuits as a deterrent so even traffic lights are not sacrosanct. In any case, odds are you’re driving, not walking.