School buses and Coke

US School BusSchool buses. There is nothing quite like an American school bus. I don’t know why they have to be that colour, but it’s cool. Maybe they found people just didn’t spot them unless they were big, yellow and with lots of stop signs attached.

After a few days on holiday in America, the school buses became a bit of an obsession with me. I just had to get a good photo of one. Australian school buses are just plain buses, so it would be just as much a postcard as a piccy of the Grand Canyon.

At first I couldn’t snap one. They’d be past before I got the camera out. They taunted me. Until we stopped in the little town of Jerome, Arizona (proud to announce the arrival of the town’s first bank machine), and I snapped one coming down the main street. Of course, once I got my photo, I’d see fleets of them everywhere – typical, eh? But it didn’t matter – I had my picture of the big yellow school bus.

The USA is one of the last countries still to hold out to metric. Imperial measurements rule. There is nothing more confusing than to attempt to buy a drink that’s 12 fl oz, when you not only don’t know how much a fl oz is, you don’t even know what it stands for. I got by though – I’d just look at the sizes on offer and choose the middle one. That way I knew I wouldn’t be getting anything pathetically small or ridiculously big.

But I get the feeling that metric is sneaking in… it’s taking over by stealth. It’s on the stuff that nobody reads – the nutrition information. Well, almost, the energy/fat (it’s energy if you use it, it’s fat if you don’t) is in calories instead of kilojoules.

There was one other thing measured in metric, something that I didn’t expect. Coke bottles. Yep, the ol’ two litre bottle of Coke is alive and well in the USA. But the cans are [some amount of fl oz] that brings them out at only 355ml! Ripped off! No wonder I still felt thirsty after drinking a can of Coke; I was 20ml short of quenching my thirst! Americans! Rise up! March on the streets! Demand your 20ml of Coke!

Things from home

People apparently want to know more about our big trip to America last month. Oddly enough, the people who want to know the most are the Americans. Either they just want an outsiders view, or they’re trying to make sure we had a good time there. Which we did.

If you live in Seattle, and you know someone visiting from Melbourne, be sure to take them down to the waterfront. Seattle has half a dozen trams from Melbourne down there, and it’s probably the spookiest feeling in the world to be sitting in a vehicle (a) that’s such an obvious reminder of home and (b) as far away from home as you are. What really makes your jaw drop is to see the old notices for the tramways band playing at Wattle Park. Just plain weird.

Seattle’s Space Needle is cool, too. You’ve seen it painted onto the back of the studio set on Frasier – well I’ve gone up in it. Quite apart from the view, the design of it is just so olde-sci-fi that it looks like a prop from one of those early Flash Gordon series.

Seattle also has ferries. Stepping out onto the deck of a Seattle ferry in the wind is possibly one of the coldest things I’ve ever experienced. The wind doesn’t obey the normal rules of aerodynamics – it just seems to go through you rather than around you.

Actually, we didn’t spend all of our holiday in America – we got to nip into Canada for a couple of days too, on the pretence of going to see Vancouver, but it was mostly so I could get another stamp in my passport.

Crossing the border was a bit intimidating actually. Because my wife and son have dual nationality, I was the only Australian in a car full of Americans. They didn’t even have to show any ID – I was the one who had to get out for a grilling at immigration.

At first I thought they’d be really friendly. I spotted the picture of Her Maj Queen Liz on the wall and thought they just wanted to say hello and welcome to a fellow Commonwealth person, and compare notes on socialised medicine. Turned out to be a quick quiz about where we were going, how long for, just a short conversation to see if I’d suddenly break down and shout “Oh stop playing games! You know all about it! You know about the mysterious white powder in the lining in the suitcase… you know about the huge amounts of currency… you know about the false passport in the name of Gonzo McGillycuddy.”

Just as well I wasn’t really concealing anything other than that I really needed to go to the toilet. But it still made me a bit nervous – knowing that a cough at the wrong time could result in some customs guy ramming a rubber-gloved hand up my arse for a rummage around.

In the end they were just friendly and business-like, and I got my precious passport stamp. Driving on into Canada, things began to look more familiar, as the miles turned into kilometres. The money was different colours… they had $1 and $2 coins… but there was still the confusion of VAT and tips.

News in the USA

Following the air disaster in Florida, it’s time for the FAA to start asking the hard questions: Who in their right mind would choose to fly on an airline with a name as tacky as “ValuJet”?

Actually, while in America, we heard of what would have to rate as the silliest air crash ever. I’m sure you all remember it. Little seven year-old Jessica, trying to be the youngest ever to fly across the USA. Is the human race OUT OF OUR MINDS?! A seven year old, barely able to reach the pedals?! Where does it end? My son Isaac has just turned one, should he be the next to try for the record?

Watching the news in the US was amusing. I’m at a safe distance, so it’s probably safe to name names: KNVX, Phoenix. This station has a news service that fulfils just about every cliche of bad news reporting you could think of.

They don’t just have theme music. Nope. They’ve got some DJ announcer and sound effects when their logo comes on.

[deep voice] This is KNVX News, Phoenix. [KNVX logo flies onto screen with a swoop, then four punch sounds as the letters N E W S appear]

And the newsreaders! What attitude! While one would read the story, the other would shake his/her head in disbelief. Then for any story where anybody had screwed up anything, they’d look at each other and make a snide remark, with the tone of voice that normally goes with the words, “how *stupid* can you get?”

It was comforting to see that on other channels, like here in Australia, there were newsreaders who just *read the news*.

The odd thing about most of the free-to-air broadcast news services was that “world” news was mostly from elsewhere in the United States. It wasn’t until the massacre in Tasmania that we saw some news from home. Triffic, had to be that, didn’t it.

Thankfully CNN was much better. Okay, so there was a lot of crap on the cable channels, but there was a lot of good stuff too. The moment the Australian cable carriers bring through VH1 and a channel that gets C-Net, I’ll pounding on their doors to sign up (instead of the other way round).

After some investigation, we found the secondhand Levi’s trade route across the Pacific Ocean. It starts in little corner shops in American cities, and ends, with huge markups, in shops in the parts of the world with extremely gullible people, like here in Australia. Beats me what’s so special about 501s anyway.

But some Australians are fighting back. Let all the Aussies know — someone has invented something called the “Outback Steakhouse”, a chain of restaurants all over the USA. There you can find Australian beers (including Foster’s imported from Toronto!) and all sorts of alleged Australian delicacies with silly ocker names.

I’ve lived in Australia for all of my twenty-five years, and never once before have I heard of the “Bloomin’ Onion”. *I* think it’s just a big Crocodile Dundee cash-in. But let me tell you, they do serve *damn* good food there. So get down there and have a steak. And have a XXXX for me.

(That reminds me. Saw a great Foster’s ad in a bar in Seattle. A truck is struggling over a sandy hilly terrain. The wheels slip… then at last they grip on the ground, and it moves forward, pulling a rope behind it. The caption appears “Australian for Dentist.” Then a Foster’s can appears and it says “Australian for Beer.”)

And home again

Immersing myself in the local cultureWell, it’s good to be home. After four weeks away, you start to miss the niceties of home – the mess in the spare room, the vomit-coloured carpet, the washers that need replacing.

But our trip to America last month was well worth it. We got to see so many interesting things, and to discover that America is just like Australia – except for the bits that aren’t.

The great thing about going anywhere where you have relatives is that they are almost always hospitable enough to sponge off – at least for accommodation. Usually it’s a consequence of

(a) them feeling guilty about how much you paid in airfares
(b) them being thoroughly nice people.

A lot of the time they insisted on paying the restaurant bills, too. It became sort of a game – who could snatch it off the table quicker. A few almost got ripped to shreds in the process.

Actually, I was a bit alarmed that most of the friends and relatives we met were dentists, lawyers, Amway salesmen and/or Christian fundamentalists, but apart from that they were all really nice.

Different

If there’s one thing that I noticed as different in America, it wasn’t the driving on the other side of the road – it wasn’t the 50 channels but nothing to watch – it wasn’t the laughably quaint gun laws – it was quite definitely the plumbing.

America, as a nation, seems to have decided to eradicate the humble plug. No basin, no bath that I saw had a conventional plug. They all had weird push-button plugs that work with varying degrees of effectiveness. In fact, none of them worked. They all drained water as slowly as an alcoholic with kidney failure.

They have also largely done away with the conventional wash tap. But they haven’t quite decided on what should replace it. Some basins have handle-type taps that turn the same way, others turn different ways for hot and cold, which once left me trying to turn the cold for over a minute when I didn’t remember which way I’d turned it on.

Some taps have a joystick. Others (particularly public toilets) have push buttons with a timer so they run for a few seconds after you let go. Some have really really stupid push buttons which run *only* when you have them pressed down, making it impossible to wash both your hands at once. And if you only had one arm, you’d probably need to bother someone into running the tap for you. Not a good look.

“Hey man, can you reach over and hold this down?”

“Get away from me, you pervert.”

I suppose you’re expecting me to talk about the corolois effect (or however the heck it’s spelt), and how the water goes down the toilet in a particular way in particular hemispheres? Okay. In Phoenix I clearly observed the water going down the toilet ANTI-CLOCKWISE. Now that I’m back in Melbourne, I will just go to the toilet and flush and observe.

…a few minutes later…

Okay, it went down clockwise. Is this always the case? Is it caused by the way the Earth spins? Or is it just a theory designed to keep the kids interested in science? Perhaps we’ll never know.

I must have a quick rant about toilet cubicles. Some, for instance the McDonalds near the south rim of the Grand Canyon, have cubicles with apparently strategically placed gaps in the doorways so anybody and everybody can see what’s going on while you attempt to take care of business! Very off-putting, I’m telling you! I ended up holding it, and taking care of business at the Canyon.

(No, not *into* the Canyon – Oh heck, you know what I mean.)

Seattle, Washington

The first thing you notice about Washington state is the abundance of green. Most of it is green, a contrast from Arizona, which is mostly dust. And whereas Arizona is dusty because it’s dry, Washington is green because it’s wet. Makes perfect sense.

In fact, while in Arizona L’s uncle had told me “Washington’s really nice… if you like green”.

For Australians (and others) reading, it’s probably worth mentioning that Washington state is completely different to Washington, DC. George Washington is obviously a very venerated person in the United States, because about half of everything is named “Washington” somethingorother. There’s cities called Washington, the state called Washington, streets, suburbs, schools, buildings — everything.

We’ve been doing a lot of the touristy-pop-culture things. We’ve eaten at the cafe in Twin Peaks and had a look around Snoqualmie Falls… had our pictures taken in Roslyn, where they filmed Northern Exposure… gone past the motel in An Officer And A Gentleman… seen the same view that Frasier has from his apartment window… had lunch at the restaurant from Sleepless in Seattle… checked out the bloodstains in Kurt Cobain’s garage. Whoops, just kidding…

I’m still getting used to the American money. Having now become accustomed to ATMs which ask me if I want my transaction in English or Spanish, once I get the money in my hand, or heaven forbid try to spend it, I have to check it all very carefully. Australian money is colour coded, for people like me who just can’t be bothered looking for the numbers. US money is all green. No shades, no different sizes no distinguishing features except for the different numbers and the startingly similar different pictures on each.

The other thing that sometimes still throws me is the idea of sales tax, which is added after the total is calculated. So you’re expecting a nice even $1.00, and you actually get $1.08, and have to scrabble around for some extra coins. And tipping. In Australia, nobody expects a tip, and few get one, but over here the waiters and so on seem to expect an extra few dollars. Oh well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

In the supermarkets here they have all that stuff which when imported into Australia we pay a small fortune for, if we’re foolish enough to decide we want it. You know, Cherry Coke and so on. But today I found an imported jar of Vegemite, normal size (whatever that may be) for no less than US$5.95! Ah – so there is justice in the world! (And shipping costs…)