USA from European eyes
The following post was started during our vacation in New England. I started to write down some random observations, differences, thoughts as a European travelling through the USA: positive and negative ones. For that last category: please, do not feel insulted by anything that I write down. It's just really my personal thoughts during a short visit where I might lack background knowledge or where I am influenced by a different background etc.
- When you order a soda/pop, you always get a straw in your glass. However other drinks do not get a straw. Why is that? I always felt like a little child when I got a straw...I really can manage drinking from a glass already :p
- Drinks are huge! Meals are huge! I always had to leave the table with a swollen stomac ! During those 2 weeks I have not eaten any dessert. No wonder this country has a habit of using doggie bags. I'd always be able to use a meal and drink twice: half of it consumed in the restaurant and half of it consumed at home. At least I'd not feel as guilty as in Belgium when I can't finish my meal.
- It's very handy that there are tourist information offices everywhere. And that you get 'resort maps' full of tourist attractions. However at a closer look, many of those attractions are the local pizzeria, a craft store and other commercial businesses. I am more interested in the name and history of an old building e.g. the church or town hall, the house of a famous inhabitant, the history and culture and stories behind. I don't travel to go shopping. If those are attractions, anything is an attraction. Unfortunately those 'sponsored' maps left me wondering which church we drove by or whether that big beautifully renovated building had a specific history. They could not give me the answers and they were impractical for me although I totally understand the commercial logic of sponsored maps. It's just that label "tourist attractions" in the legend, that annoyed me. The maps itself did come in handy to drive through the bigger cities!
- You are allowed to turn right at a red stoplight! Whoo scary if you are not used to do so.
- In Europe there is a prejudice that Americans are way more fat than an average European or at least that extreme overweight is much more common. Our first impression in Philidelphia airport seemed to reinforce that image: heavy people where wobbling through the hallways frequently if they weren't driven in some kind of cart, while nobody seemed to stare at them (although I had to restrain myself not to turn around). It also looks like some skincolors are more prone to weight gain, must be a social class thing. Later on during our vacation I didn't notice this as much anymore. ...I also had to think back to point 2.
- When it is not hot outside, when your drinks have been refridgerated, it is NOT necessary to full your glass 60% with icecubes! It is tooo cold, it gives me shivers down my spine. Since the drinks are too big (see point 2), by the time I finish my pop it's very watery!
- Waiters are much more polite and welcoming in the USA than in Belgium where waiters keep much more of a distance and try to be more invisible. It probably makes our waiters look rude in the eyes of a foreign visitor in Belgium. "Hello my name is x, I'll be your waiter tonight. "how can I help you tonight" 'Do you wish anything else", ... In general our waiters on vacation were very cheerful etc. which is quite nice. Then I am always suspicious that it is not genuine and that they just want to get a bigger tip. I guess that is a justified motivation, only I am not part of a tipping culture. We've probably been really rude as we had no clue on how much tip we were supposed to give. After some questions to SMID, we realised we had been very lousy tippers. Sorry , we didn't mean to. I am just used to "service included " prices and I am already happy that I don't forget to leave a tip!
It also often happened that we were still eating and the waiters already brought our bill on the table to use "when we were ready, no rush" even before we had had the offer for a dessert. I suppose this is meant to be polite , yet in Belgium it would be the opposite. If you get your bill unsollicitedly in Belgium, I'd never set a foot in the restaurant again as it would be a sign that they want you to leave asap. In Belgium, the customer needs to have the opportunity to eat dessert, finish the meal with a freshly set coffee (not one that's been boiling for an hour already) , keep the conversation going at the table etc until he wants to leave and until he asks for the bill.
I found it also found it funny that a lot of waiters told us their names, one even wrote it down for us. Huh? Is that because we are supposed to know their name if we have a complaint? Or do they think we would tip more if we know them in person?
- In a conversation in our B&B , the lady was in awe about the number of vacation days we get (legal minimum of 20....very often around 30) (in france approx 40 days, I believe) and the number of legal holidays: 10. I had no idea that Americans would have that much less vacation days. Some foreign expats in Belgium had pointed out once that Europeans take so much vacation and travel that much. I had never realised there was such a difference.
The B&B lady was also in awe about our social security system (Belgians go on average 11 times a year to their doctor and a doctor visit costs nett around 5€...waiting lists is something we don't really know, ...), the fact that university tuition is only about 500 € when I studied and that we can get our degree as a result without too many student jobs, student debts, etc....
Her jealousy decreased however when I told her that approx 50% of my wage is taxed, and that my employer needs to pay an additional 50% of employer taxes to the social security system. The labor cost in Belgium is one of the highest in the world.
- The American society relies much more on private intiatives than on public/government initiatives. Belgians reason "hey I am paying already so many taxes, so let the government take care of that" (see point 8). Americans seem to be hostile/suspicious towards government involvement and any increase in taxes. Even American democrats would not want the European level of government involvement, I believe. Since I grew up here, I don't share that feeling at all.
yet I admire the level of community involvement that many Americans display: volunteering in church school, in their children schools, in service clubs, 'friends of the local historical society or museum', ... I felt lazy as a European and selfish. And yet I was disturbed by the begging of the numerous organisations that tried to collect money to restore their lighthouse, or to keep their museum running or to .... So much fundraising/begging going on.
- Fire departments seem to take such a prominent role in New England villages. The death of some fire fighters in service was all over the Boston media when we arrived. Either it does hardly ever happen in Belgium or we do not pay much attention to it.
But the New England fire departments are also very visible in the villages: the tiniest village consists downtown of a white steepled church, a white steepled hall and the fire department building. I am sure foreigners can drive exstensively through Belgium without seeing our fire department buildings, yet they always seemed to jump into our attention during our trip. They don't seem to take such a special place into our society. Would that be because we have no wooden buildings? Or does our society not place 'heroes' in the center of attention?
- The smalles North-American village has its own museum of some sort, well advertised in the tourist information office, funded by local mecenae (see point 9).
- In the USA you see people having jobs that would simply not exist in Belgium eg pointing the correct queue at the airport, bagging groceries in the supermarket, ...
I suppose labor is too expensive in Belgium (see point 8), yet I can't help wonder if such a job feels rewarding to do?
- I can't watch tv in North America....they just broadcast little bits of shows in between the tv commercials....gosh it drives me crazy! Thank goodness we still have a few channels without advertising and the other ones still only have half as much advertising. And publicity interruptions during a news broadcast (and the multiple chitchat between the hosts) makes the news look like a show without any objectivity...Or I saw the wrong news broadcasts, :p.
- I love take out coffee and breakfast restaurants!! It's pretty hard or rather impossible to go out for breakfast in Belgium. Now we could just get up and go....and stop anywhere when our stomac started rumbling. And you can just get coffee anywhere ... Perfect. I didn't drink any of those (usually they are those glass pots that are just boiling over and over again, ....can't be good. ) but it ensured that Jan made plenty of stops and I could go to the washroom. Pretty handy :p.