Sunday, 5 June 2011

Good Scot/Bad Scot: Being in America

I figure I might as well give my thoughts on what I hate and love about America through the medium of flip-flopping Scotsman.  Now, some of these are only problems if you're a foreigner in a strange country: I can't imagine many Americans feeling the same, though hopefully they sympathize.  In addition, a lot of the Bad Scot entries aren't problems per se, more like culture clashes that the belligerent Scot in me treats as monstrous inconviniences (as is the way of the belligerent Scot).  Onward!

The bloody heat!  Jingsaleery, I can't understand why anyone from Scotland would voluntarily move to such a harsh, unforgiving environment as Arizona.  This is the sort of country where leaving a glass of chocolate milk outside in the sun will end up boiling it sufficiently to serve for hot chocolate.  I am quite confident that if I'm left alone in the desert from more than a day, I will dry up like a prune, leaving nothing behind but a wrinkly pile, partially burned where my glasses focused the sunlight into solar deathrays, my beard and hair having rolled up and transformed into a tumbleweed.  A tumblebeard, if you will.  Truly a future not worth considering.

Thank goodness for air conditioning.  This technology is nothing short of a godsend.  I don't understand why it isn't widespread over in the UK, it's ingenious.  Granted, I have to put up with constant rhetorical questions about how the pioneers could survive without air conditioning (I guess they, you know, figured out a way to survive without air conditioning, unlike modern soft civilized folk like myself), but it's worth it just to be cool.  I'm a bit of a boreal creature: cold doesn't bother me, in fact I staunchly prefer it.  I take ice in my drinks even in winter, I put my juice in the fridge, and I don't wrap up in chilly weather.  Heat is my kryptonite, can't stand being too warm.  It's like being smothered with cotton wool made of steam.  What's more, my clothing habits are so entrenched that I always wear two layers - always - which usually means at least a vest and an open shirt, but never anything in between.  Long sleeves are common, too.  Combine this with the insulating beard and long hair, you can see the problem.  So anything that makes me cool makes me eternally grateful.

Just a shame you can't drink the water straight from the tap without gagging.  Good grief, I know we're blessed in Scotland with sparkling clear springs that taste like the sweet tears of the Highlands, but how in blazes do Americans live without beign able to just put the tap on and drink?  They have to have their own bottles of drinking water put in the fridge - insanity!

It's all good though, since drinking water is very inexpensive over here.  In fact, everything's inexpensive over here.  Prices are fantastic.  I went into a Starbucks, and I was astounded to see that the coffee was no less than a third of what you'd pay over in Scotland.  A third!  And it isn't just drinks, everything's cheaper.  I could've bought an entire other suitcase to buy all the value-for-money goodies!  Infuriatingly the region coding means I can't take DVD or games, and the crazy electrical sockets means I can't bring over other electronic devices, but hey, dinosaurs!  I got dinosaurs for a steal: a Camarasaurus, Giganotosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Dilophosaurus and Scutosaurus for only 60 bucks!  60!  I'd be lucky to get two of those for that equivalent price over in Scotland.  Now I now how the Poles feel coming to a land of plenty.

I think I'd enjoy their goods a lot more if their currency wasn't so useless.  In Scotland, each coin is fairly distinctive: tiny copper penny, big copper two pence, tiny silver five pence, medium silver ten pence, small hexagonal silver twenty pence, big pentagonal silver fifty pence, heavy gold one pound, even heavier silver/gold two pounds.  It's fairly easy to discern from the bronze-silver-gold dynamic, and using size to split different groups within that scale.  You won't accidentally give someone a fifty pence when you meant to give them a penny.  In America, I have to squint damn hard to see the difference between a nickel and a quarter: for a difference of 20 cents, they're infuriatingly similar to each other.  I can't think it's only foreigners who have this problem.

So too are the notes: one pound is forest green, five pounsd is blue, ten pounds is brown, twenty pounds is burgundy, and so on, and the notes are even a different size from each other.  It's a veritable rainbow.  In America, however, all money is not only the same size, but the same damn colour, meaning you have to look very carefully to see whether you're giving someone a 1 dollar bill or a 100 dollar bill.  It drives me mad.  MAD.  MAAAAAA

Luckily, the people in America - at least the ones I've met - are very friendly and eager to help should you get into difficulties. The girl at Starbucks was so helpful I practically fell in love with her, and that's not just because she said she loved my accent.  Perhaps she thought I had significant mental health issues and was treating me accordingly, or perhaps she was just nice: I know not, I care not, for she made a homesick Scot's life a little bit easier.  Plus it helped she called me "buddy" every day.  That said, even the people who are clearly having a long day were nice, like the Blimpy girl (the name of the restraunt chain, not a comment on her appearance, especially considering she was a slip of a lass).  She had clearly been working from dawn, but she kept smiling and showed remarkable patience to the three Scottish ladies who can barely figure out a Subway back home at Scotland, let alone this Blimpy place.

Of course, even their friendliness can't help you when you do or say something that's a mark of respect in Scotland, but the height of rudeness or lack of class over here.  Take meals, for instance: in Scotland, cleaning your plate is good manners.  It shows that you enjoyed your host's food so much that you ate it all up, and it also shows that you're grateful not to be a little starving African.  Leaving an unfinished meal is apparently symbolic of your displeasure at the host's cooking skills, and that unless you cannot possibly eat more, you should make an attempt to finish it - to the point that you'd even encourage someone else to help you finish.  Not so in Red, White and Bluetopia: leaving no food on your plate is apparently taken as a gesture that your host is ungenerous, and didn't give you a big enough portion: leaving some food behind is some subtle cue that your host did indeed provide plenty of food.

It's things like this that make me appreciate Star Trek, where alien cultures with their own mores and beliefs highlight how arbitrary and silly our own customs are.  But then, what do you do when you just eat... however much or little you want to eat?  I mean ferchrissakes, how did we get past the stone age when so much depended on how much or little someone's supposed to eat?  No wonder there are so many wars when the way someone eats is considered alternately offensive or honourable.  Seuss was right in his seminal treatise The Butter Battle Book.

And speaking of meals, of all the things that you could sell at a place called Dairy Queen, why would you not sell milk?  At a place called DAIRY.  QUEEN.  THEY DO NOT SELL MILK AT DAIRY QUEEN.  What.

But these are complaints of civilization: how can you stay mad at a place that has such vast, magnificent, and - to a Scot, at least - practically alien landscapes?  My first night, I went to sleep not hearing the howls of foxes, the cries of owls, or the shrieks of whatever the hell that bird is that keeps screaming at 3:00 in the morning: I heard strange, foreign, unusual cries.  Birds, but like none I heard in Scotland; insects blissfully unlike the dreaded midges or the fiendish cleg; mammals which I'm sure are very different from local critters.  I awake and look outside to see not the freakishly gigantic local breed of herring gull, nor the battle-scarred pigeons, nor any foxes or rabbits.  Instead, I see creatures as unknown to me as if it were another planet: bizarre, stout little birds with preposterous quiffs, often trailing a train of chicks like an avian wagon train; dwarf rabbit-like creatures no larger than guinea pigs; wee lizards I can't quite identify, mostly because they're so small I can't get a good look at them, and because lizards aren't exactly commonplace in Scotland.  Even the insects are curious in shape and sound.  It's fantastic just looking out the window or sitting on the patio, watching the strange wildlife pass by.

Oh, wait, I forgot the number one thing I cannot stand - sales tax.  BLASTED CONFOUNDED FIENDISH SALES TAX.  Right, in Scotland, we have the value added tax all sorted out before you get in the shop.  They check the price, it's stuck on a sticker, sticker's stuck on the item.  Customer comes into the shop, picks it up, sees the price, gets his money out, pays for it, out again.  Sorted.

Apparently, this system is foreign for Americans: no, they apply the sales tax only when you get to the blasted till, so unless you precisely calculate how much tax you'll have to pay in addition to what's on the price sticker, you don't know how much you're going to have to pay.  What, exactly, is stopping retailers from printing out stickers that have the sales tax already calculated so that the customer isn't fiddling about with change, or unexpectedly realise they didn't account for sales tax when they went out for their groceries?  Am I insane for thinking this?  I mean, the one thing I want to be constant is to look at the price of a product, and pay that price for the product without having to think about advanced calculus, how the precentage varies based on the product in question, and WHY IS BUYING A BOTTLE OF SNAPPLE SO DIFFICULT IN THIS LOGICFORSAKEN COUNTRY BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH

Well, ultimately, I'm having a great time in America.  The good outweighs the bad.  Except the sales tax, because TAE PUTNEY WI' SALES TAX.


  1. I actually had a proper LOL moment at the mental image of your beard becoming a tumbleweed! You should keep up this travel writing lark.

  2. I love stuff like this, getting other perspectives on things we take for granted (and vice versa). I don't recall ever having trouble distinguishing a nickel from a quarter but I guess we're just used to it is all.

    Not sure what was going on with the plate cleaning issue. The way I was raised we learned to clean off our plates, too, because throwing away food was considered crude in a world in which there are so many starving people. I guess it varies from household to household, place to place.

    And the U.S. tax system is a complete nightmare all the way around. Anyone who suggests otherwise is from a different planet.

  3. Tap water taste - depends on where you are. Then again, I am not as sensitive to the taste of tap water as some others seem to be.

    Coins & paper money - yes, I know. On the other hand, when dealing with British paper notes of differing sizes I think - how in the hell do they have uniform wallets?

    Sales tax - by state, actually. Some states have none at all, which makes people very excited until they realize that the state government is making up for it with property taxes or something else. The best deal is to live on the border of two states. Where you live is where there is sales tax and low property rates, but you shop in the other state and drive their revenue collectors barmy. (I grew up at such a place)

    Dairy Queen. It's a fair cop. I am sure there are other inaccurately named stores, but none come to mind just now.

  4. Hurm, this is a good post, I'll try and address some of your concerns.

    The Heat is, how shall I say, atrocious. It's horrible in fact. I hate it. I don't believe a single speck of my DNA honestly believes I'm where I'm supposed to be. I totally sympathize with you. On the other hand, I find that northern England/Southern Scotland has a lovely climate.

    Tap Water changes from place to place, in parts of Florida its so sulfurous it comes out of the tap stinking of rotten eggs. In parts of the Appalachians its got so much magnesium in it, it will run through you, in the words of George S. Patton, Shit through a goose.

    Region Codeing and power consumption. In my experience most off the shelf DVD players in the UK are region free, that was something of an Eye Opener to me when I was there last. Most electronics are also manufactured now that can use any/all power sources, check the box, if it has a little 110v - 240v then you can use it back home, you just need an adapter for the plug, they cost about 3$ at the airport. If it dosen't have that 110v-240v then don't even think about it.

    Our Currency is in desperate need of a revamp, and its supposed to be in the works. Swapping out the cotton paper for Tyvek, different sizes to assist the blind, embossing the numbers, different colours, and the possible departure of the 1$ bill since the Coin is far cheaper to produce. Its the heavy gold one, but I doubt you've come across any. You should take one home as a souvenir, especially if you can find one of the Sacagewea ones.

    The Nickle/Quarter thing is less of a problem I think, the nickle has smooth edges, the quarter is ridged. If you want to talk about really confusing, we used to have a coin with Susan B Anthony on it (She made our first flag) and it was Octagonal, but was so similar to the Quarter, and she looked so much like George Washington that you can still sometimes find them today mixed in with quarters.

    However, and this I will point out as a contention. Stuff's cheap to you because the Pound is still much higher than the Dollar. To me, that stuffs still not cheap. I've actually found DVD's and CD's to be cheaper in the UK on the whole, if you shop smart. Books and Coffee though I'll admit tend to be much cheaper here, even when factoring in exchange. Sales tax is entirely regional, several states don't have one at all, and several have huge ones cause they don't have an income tax. word to the wise, stay away from Florida. Its something I've just come to estimate. in my state/county its 7% so if I buy something thats 10$ I hand the checkout person 11$ and get change back. This is unreliable method however as sales tax breaks down by the county level.

    The Food on your plate thing is entirely regional, but on the whole yes, our portions are ludicrously large and I usually turn a meal from a restaurant into 2-3 depending. I don't quite follow you about dairy queen however, as they serve Icecream.. which I always thought was real milk. Certainly more than Mcdonald's anyway.

    I think your dwarf rabbits are Pikas.

  5. I'm also enjoying these. Dairy Queen has the perhaps the best plain vanilla ice cream I've ever tasted, though I'm no connoisseur.