Cultural Differences: US Impressions

Before going into the serious topics on my list for posts, something lighthearted to conclude my US adventure.

Although I have visited the United States many times, last year was the first time I did so with someone who had never been there before. Previously, I simply tried to fit in with my family’s life, and didn’t take much time to compare and contrast it to my home life in Italy. It was as if I was simply a different person there, and I accepted the differences as just a new normal for the time that I was there.

This time, it was different, and I found myself not only noticing these differences, but pointing them out and smiling at his surprise and amazement.

So here it is, in no particular order, my first sort of listicle for FtB.


When people say that the portions are huge in the States, they fucking mean it. Yet, ironically, the cheaper the restaurant, the larger the portions seem to be.

That’s OK though, because it is not at all frowned upon to take your leftovers away with you. We fought our cultural inclination to at least try to finish what was on our plate and always had a quick dinner with us.

We actually had to concentrate on our pooping technique. The toilets are approximately half filled with water. This gave me significant splash-back concerns, and my boyfriend some… well… let’s try not to dip in it concerns.

Speaking of toilets. There was not one single toilet, not in the restaurants, motels or even the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, that was equipped with a toilet brush. That also made life a little awkward.

The cars were huge, automatic, and many lacked the front license plate.

The speed limits on the freeways were maddeningly slow. Clearly, it was purposeful to maximize ticketing, as I lost count of the speed traps we passed after the 6th on the first day of driving. Ironically, as the speed limit increased from state to state as we crossed into Oregon and then California, the number of people speeding also increased as well.

In California, everybody speeds.

The speeding issue was made more difficult for me given the automatic transmission. Luckily I had driven an automatic car once or twice before, but it did force me to glance at my speedometer almost as often as I was keeping my eyes on the road.

I was thankful for the automatic car in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which had some of the steepest streets I had ever seen in my life, including the ones in the mountain towns of Italy. Given that everyone in the States has an automatic car, if you are waiting on one of these cliffs for a green light, the cars behind you stop right on your ass. If I had managed to rent a stick shift like I had originally hoped, there is no way I wouldn’t have gotten into half a dozen accidents.

Circling back to California. It turns out that the expression “It’s always sunny in California” is a big, fat, lie, or at least partially. It turns out, Californians make a big deal about separating “Northern California” and “Southern California”, and that expression only applies for the Southern bit.

What was amusing to us, however, was that Californians consider the top 5/6ths of the gigantic state to count as “Northern California”.

In fact, we froze our butts off the entire vacation, until we finally made it to Las Vegas.

People greet you when you walk into a supermarket.

Most of the houses we saw were built of wood. Not big logs, not wood frames with cement walls, but wooden frames and sheet wood walls. Storms in such houses would scare the shit out of me.

Smoking is incredibly frowned upon. In Oregon, a sign on our motel door informed us that smoking within 40 feet of an entrance was prohibited, and that throwing a cigarette butt on the street was punishable by up to 30 days in jail. And yet, they sell cigarettes in the pharmacy.

That’s not all they sell at the pharmacy. They sell everything from beauty products to toys to greeting cards to electronics to bacon, milk and cookies. I’m sure they also sell medicine in there somewhere.

I always thought that my mother’s irrational avoidance of poorer neighborhoods was elitist and snobbish. Then we wandered into some bad neighborhoods. Yeah…. they’re pretty scary.

When you buy stuff, the price listed does not factor in sales tax. It makes you painfully aware of how much you spend in taxes, which perhaps fits with how much people complain about them.

French fries in the States are breaded. I don’t know why.

I knew that the people in the States were more religious, but I never thought there would be more than one religious radio station. In some parts of the road, they were the only radio stations available. It was a little creepy.

Also, Christian pop music is a thing. Sometimes it took a few minutes before we realized they were singing about Jesus.

Speaking of pop music, Despacito was every bit as ubiquitous there as it is here. The only difference was that the Jusitn Bieber version was the one that was played ad nauseum.

When you buy a fountain soda, you can refill the cup for free. What I don’t know is, why then is there more than one size of soda? Why would anyone spend extra money on the big one when they can buy the small one and just fill it up again?

At diners, they also refill you coffee continuously until you tell them to stop.

But, if you buy a coffee to go, make sure to wait a good half hour before you drink it, unless you want to speak with a lisp for the rest of the day.

My boyfriend was becoming seriously dehydrated after discovering that the water in every restaurant tasted decidedly of chlorine. I knew that the water in drinking fountains is far worse and have gotten used to the taste of restaurant-tap water over the years, but he couldn’t get past it. We became eco-shitty and bought a bunch of bottled water after that.

I promise I made every effort to recycle those bottles, but was amazed to find that recycling was a lot harder to do than we have become accustomed to. The US was the first country in which I had ever seen recycling, but many towns, cities and motels still don’t give visitors the option to recycle.

Whipped butter is a thing. It’s butter, but with the consistency of whipped cream that spreads on your bread effortlessly.

Because they always bring you butter with your bread when you sit down at a restaurant.

We saw both the most densily populated areas and the most remote houses we had ever seen in our lives. We could pass a house that literally had no neighbors for dozens of miles. When they say rural, they mean it.

But the most striking impression of all?

The natural beauty in the United States is breathtaking, because it is pure fucking wild. The fact that Europe has been populated for far more centuries by humans who insisted on shaping the land they lived in means that even what we consider to be “open country” has a manicured look to it that is just not the same as the real thing. In the States, you can see scenery that seems untouched, and it is so different to anything we have ever seen before it is probably as close to a spiritual experience as two stauch atheists such as ourselves can get.

And the crown jewel of that scenery?

The Grand. Fucking. Canyon.

People make such a big deal about the Grand Canyon that I thought it would be overly touristy and a little boring. I am ashamed to have thought that. Both my boyfriend and I stared at it in amazement and, no matter how many pictures we tried to take, you just can’t capture the magnitude of it. We finally just sat and stared, and I am not ashamed to admit a tear came to my eye as I took it in.

One thing you have to know about it is that there is absolutely no safety rail, net, or cord whatsoever, and even that is a departure from anything I had ever experienced. I have been on cliffs before, but always there was at least a short wooden fence to keep any wanderer from getting close to the edge.

Not at the Grand Canyon. There is absolutely nothing between you and the vast expanse in front of you. There is no one there to tell you to stay back from the edge or crowd you to one side. We just sat on a rock on the very edge and drank it in, until the fading light made us catch the last shuttle back to the parking lot.

All in all, we had an amazing time there.




  1. seachange says

    Really? Who is going out of their way to make eye-contact in the toilet? You are not there in the bathroom to greet people, you are there with business in mind. Furthermore, you are standing up, they are sitting down so for eye-contact you have to work at it, at least a little.

    If someone can see your feet at a glance, they don’t have to embarrass you or them by checking the door and can walk to the next stall.

    Bathroom regs in the US are not so strictly enforced and this does mean that a solid door would mean a chokingly smelly room, it’s just not required that there be enough ventilation otherwise so open-ish doors are good.

    Homeless folk will set-up and live in a stall that is ultra-private.

    In a men’s room, some folk will do sex if the room is totally enclosed. Not that the open doors stop all of them, and the gaps do provide access for the gymnastic…

    Speaking as someone with claustrophobia and IBS, I would freak out if I knew I had to go and the only places to do it had small, sealed cubicles. Goddesses, I love all those gaps.

  2. thoughtsofcrys says

    @sonofrojblake @seachange I realized I have quite a bit to say in response to both of your comments so I would like to quote the two of you and make it the topic of a follow up post if you don’t mind!

  3. sonofrojblake says

    @seachange: You rather vindicate my last sentence with all of what you said

    Who is going out of their way to make eye-contact in the toilet?

    Weirdos. I have observed that in the US, these are not in short supply.

    for eye-contact you have to work at it

    That’s what makes even the prospect of it so disturbing to anyone who favours privacy (i.e. normal people).

    If someone can see your feet at a glance, they don’t have to embarrass you or them by checking the door and can walk to the next stall.

    Again, this just comes across as weird. Avoid embarassment for either party by simply designing the door correctly in the first place. Indication that the stall is occupied is achievable by a simple indicator operated with the lock, such as that employed on literally every public toilet door in Europe. There is absolutely no justification for anyone outside the stall needing to see any part of the inside of a locked stall without either standing on a box or practically lying on the floor. A gap of an inch or so at the bottom is plenty, and the top should be a minimum of 6’6″ if not flush with the ceiling.

    The rest (poorly enforced regs, likelihood of filth and odour, prevalence of the homeless, sex in the stalls) merely reinforces the impression that there is the US and then there is the civilised world.

  4. seachange says

    4) There’s a famous award winning foreign film in the US from Germany called “Taxi zum Klo”. So at least some European toilets are not magically impervious to folks having sex.

    And these locks and indicators, they always always work?
    You may quote me, Chrys.
    Another reason for the gap is so that the door swings open if not latched. I have experience running for the toilet and not realizing since the doors were well-fitting (there are some like that here) that I hadn’t latched it. The latch was connected to the “occupied/vacant” label, so not only was the door openable anyone outside could reasonably assume I was not there by the label.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    these locks and indicators, they always always work?

    Nothing always always works. Is that a good argument against traffic light or contraceptives?

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