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Americans are some of the most patriotic people I’ve ever met. As well as the anthem, the flag is a big part of life for many and they are all over – I counted over 500 while on a road trip in Florida before giving up. To show your respect if the anthem starts up, stop whatever you’re doing and face the flag until it’s over. Then it’s business as usual.
Big yellow school buses
Every morning and mid-afternoon you feel like you have stepped into a movie - there are so many bright yellow school buses around. Beware if you are driving; if they stop to let off kids, you must stop too whatever side of the road you are on.
My experience is largely from around Georgia where they absolutely love their dogs. Even Paris doesn’t have this many pooches around and they come in all shapes and sizes, not just pocket-sized ones! And, unlike Paris, you don’t have to watch where you step; owners are very responsible and clean up after their dogs.
Driving is generally pretty easy here. The signage is great and the lanes are clearly marked. A few things to keep in mind:
I’ve been surprised to see how little awareness there is of the need for environmental protection. It’s not a Trump thing, the previous administration was very pro-environment, but compared to what we are used to the recycling facilities are limited, single-use plastics and styrofoam are everywhere (even in big hotel chains), and there is little information about energy efficiency or reducing consumption.
If you’re looking for fast food, you’re in the right place! Fast, often fried, food is a big thing here – it’s convenient and very easy to find. It is possible to find healthier food options on the go, but you do have to look for them. Restaurants will always have healthier options and dishes typically come with a salad as a starter. You may want to ask for the dressing on the side if, like me, you prefer dressing on your salad rather than salad with your dressing – but I’m a self-confessed fussy eater. As for food portions, what you hear is largely right – they are very generous. Most of us will be able to get two meals out of any restaurant portion so ask for a box to take your leftovers home. It will probably be styrofoam though.
A sore topic of debate for my American friends and me. I don’t get the need to carry a gun, but I’ve learned not to question the constitutional right to bear arms, regardless of whether it’s as old as the country itself or that times (and guns) have changed. Georgia may have an ‘open carry’ law, but unlike in the movies you don’t see people walking around carrying a gun and it is a safe place to be. If guns are your thing though, or you've always wanted to give it a go in a controlled environment, there are plenty of indoor shooting ranges for you to try. I've been a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I even managed to hit the target most of the time!
A very typical southern style of bar, filled with country music, and two-step and line dancing. I ended up in the biggest one in the country on a night out in Fort Worth, Texas, where they even had their own indoor mini rodeo! Can’t get more Texas than that. Hilarious fun and worth going for the people watching if you don't like country music.
Always carry some form of ID, as you will be asked for it no matter how old you look. I thought they were joking when they asked me to show ID in the supermarket when I was buying a bottle of wine. And no, it wasn’t a way of complimenting me - they wouldn’t sell me the wine until I showed ID! You don't have to carry your passport around though, a driver's licence will do.
Tone down the sarcastic British humour, it’s not used half as much here! A few will get it, but it will be lost on most.
Kennedy Space Centre
If you make it to Florida, this is a must-see. Experience the thundering, shuddering take-off of the Apollo 8, see the launch pads of rockets past and future, and lose yourself in a 3-D film of the earth from space. I aimed to spend a couple of hours here and left after six!
There is a huge Latino culture here. Everywhere you go - in the south anyway - you hear Spanish spoken all around and Spanish language options are available for almost everything. In Miami, it felt like native Spanish speakers outnumbered English speakers and more often than not people are bilingual.
There is a palpable sense of respect for those who have served or who are still active in the military, and it is humbling. On hearing that someone is on active duty or has retired, people will thank them for their service, a phrase that is heard frequently. Companies also show their respect by offering benefits and discounts to military personnel and veterans.
I have barely scratched the surface with this one, but the ones that I have been to in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida are stunning. The Smoky Mountains and Everglades are just a small part of the country’s incredible outdoors that I’ve been lucky enough to explore. Any chance you get to visit one, grab it with both hands and you won’t be disappointed.
Americans are very friendly and will chat to you anywhere, any time. And they are so, so polite! For someone who is a bit of a chatterbox, I love their friendliness and outgoing nature and it makes me feel a lot less self-conscious (and weird!) when I start randomly chatting to someone in the cafe queue.
I’ve been here during presidential election debates and recently been through the midterms. While people can feel very strongly about their political views and turning on the TV means you are bombarded by debating pundits, in day-to-day life you are unlikely to come across anyone looking for a political discussion. All the same, I’m steering well clear of this one!
Q-Tip (and other random words)
They speak English, but not as we know it! I’ve had plenty of funny looks when they have no idea what I’m talking about and I feel like the foreigner that I am when I ask someone to repeat what they said for the fourth time (and I still don’t get it!). But I’m slowly learning to say tuh-may-toe.
I’ve counted as many churches as flags, especially here in the south. Religion is a big thing and people aren’t afraid to talk about their faith. Another topic that can get people very excited, and one that they do engage in conversation in.
Looking for a good way to spend five hours on a Monday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday? Look out for football – college, NFL, little league…it can be hard to get away from if it’s not your thing. Baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and even soccer (football to the rest of the world) are hugely popular though and catching a game is great fun. Look out for 'tailgating' options too, where you get to drink and snack in the run-up to kick-off. Similar to our picnic in the park or on the grass, but in the car park.
There are plenty of public transit options, but many still prefer their cars. Metro systems are considered unsafe by many (largely because they don’t use them but in reality they are no more or less safe than any major public transport system). I hear that there are major investments in rail coming though so perhaps things will change…
For those of us who grew up with American TV shows and movies, U-haul trucks always seem to make an appearance, usually either at the beginning or at the end. And they not only really do exist, they are frequently spotted on roads and highways. I always imagine that whoever is in them is heading off to an exciting fresh start in a different state...just like in the movies!
America, land of the car. And truck. And monster truck (with such names as Titan, Silverado, and Ram). Without wheels you can’t get very far, so get your international driving permit before heading over. You see more and more cyclists around but it is still a recreational thing rather than a way to commute, so provisions for cyclists still have some way to go.
There are plenty of hiking and walking trails, but without a car you are a little more limited in getting around unless you are in the city centre. Outside of that, the infrastucture for pedestrians is not as widespread and primarily designed with cars in mind. I have often found myself cursing when pavements (or should that be sidewalks?) randomly end with no warning. If you are planning on walking, be careful!
Cars, food portions, buildings, roads. Supersized America. Revel in the big-ness that is this country, you don't see it anywhere else.
Heard from morning till night, hey y'all is a very southern greeting. Short for 'you all', y'all is used by everyone in almost any context. Join in and use it every so often and they’ll love you!
Ok, slightly random. But Atlanta is where they film the hit TV series The Walking Dead, so if that’s your thing then there’s plenty to see!
I hope you've enjoyed a whistlestop tour of US life. Happy travelling and have a great day y’all!
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The USA Travel Series