Saturday, September 27, 2008

"That's SO American!"

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in America on September 2, was that all of the conversations I overheard on the street were in English--so weird! From that point on, I paid extra attention to all of the non-Austrian things that stuck out in America...had I really been gone so long that these very normal, everyday American things suddenly seemed like exceptions rather than the rule? I decided to photo document these things I observed in New York, Connecticut, and Virginia and then collect them into some sort of lesson for my students this coming year. So, rather than explain my comings and goings of the East Coast Tour in copious detail, I'll let these photos speak for the impressions of a young ex-pat......


...Strip malls are an American phenomenon. For one thing, it presupposes urban sprawl--you need space for both the long strip mall and for the spacious parking lot. Secondly, it's very much a product of a car culture: they're really set up for people who drive there.

ENDURANCE ARTISTS ...This photo is of David Blaine's latest stunt in Central Park: to hang upside down for 60 hours without a safety net above Wollman Rink. [N.b.: Only hours into his stunt, he came up for medical checks and to relieve himself (apparently he was unable to drink and use a catheter upsidedown as originally planned), and proceded to do so once and hour until the end of the stunt. Even the finale didn't go as planned, which was disappointing even for skeptics such as myself.] This (and other stunts) was financed by Donald Trump; it seems so amazingly American that one could make a living by hanging upside down or standing on a pillar or remaining submerged in water for ridiculous amounts of time.

GIANT APPLIANCES...Things are generally smaller in Europe than in America, including most (large) appliances like refrigerators. This fridge happens to be particularly large (I'm in the photo for scale), which is something I'm pretty sure you wouldn't find in Austria.

WALL-TO-WALL CARPETING ...Most Austrian residences I've seen have hardwood floors with rugs. Wall-to-wall carpeting--especially on a staircase--is not something you'd really see over here.


...This sign indicates that there are no alcoholic beverages allowed in the park, which is true of just about every public place in America (with the exception of the Long Island Railroad!). There is no such law in Austria; however, alcohol was recently banned on Graz's main square to discourage the punks from loitering at the fountain. The mayor thinks it's working.


...This is the size of a typical American grocery store. Austrian-sized grocery stores would maybe be the size of the produce section.


...Houses and apartments in Austria do not have closets--instead you put your clothes in a wardrobe. Sometimes you can have the wardrobes built into a nook in the wall, but it's still very much a wardrobe and not a closet. This concept of each room having an actual door to a little storage space is pretty American.

DRIVE-THRU BANKING ...The first time I mentioned drive-thru banking to my students, they asked incredulously, "You mean, like McDonald's?!" They couldn't understand why you wouldn't want to go into the bank to do your business. I couldn't understand why you would. Drive-thru teller windows are such a mainstream part of everyday American life that we don't even think about it.

WAL-MART...No American community would be complete without a Wal-Mart. And amidst complaints that it takes away from local/small business, it really is more cost-effective to buy that big bottle of shampoo for the same price as the small bottle at the corner drugstore. I love Wal-Mart. So far there's nothing similar over here.

GREAT PUNS...I included this because there aren't as many puns (it seems) in the German language. At least, you don't hear them or see them quite as often as you would in English. Perhaps we're more of a punny culture.


...At this barbecue chain, they serve your drink in a pitcher, presumedly because in the land of free refills you're likely to drink that much anyway! Here they just cut to the chase and give you the pitcher to drink from up front. And it really does make a difference how much you drink if you pay €2,50 for 0.2 l of Coke, or if you pay $2.50 for all-you-can-drink Coke. Or, on second thought, better make that a Diet Coke.


...again, this is a major part of being a car culture, but the parking lots you find in America are about 3-5 times as large as the average Austrian parking lot. And the spaces are bigger--just like our cars.


...Note that you've already got the Christmas decorations (foreground) on sale with the Halloween decorations (background). Austria actually gets a bit of Halloween (thanks to America's cultural influence), but those decorations probably won't surface for another couple weeks. Christmas decorations won't surface for another couple months!

BIRTHDAY CAKES...You won't find sheet cakes here loaded with gobs of sugary icing. The cakes are also generally drier and less sweet than what the typical American palette is used to.

THE CEREAL AISLE ...The thing I love about this picture is that it's your typical American cereal aisle. Let me repeat myself: It's a cereal AISLE. Yes, the whole aisle is for cereal! So let's consider this word problem: If your average Austrian grocery store aisle is half this size, and if (maybe) half of that aisle comprises the cereal selection, then how much more of a cereal selection do Americans really have??

HAMBURGERS...You can get hamburgers in Austria, but they won't look like this! This was one of my first American meals--a taste of home!

SELECTION ...There is so much CHOICE in America. This is the selection of tomato sauce in the local market in Washington Heights--about the size of your average Austrian grocery store. Still here, the selection of tomato sauce is amazing. No wonder I have trouble making decisions, having grown up in an environment such as this!

TRASH COLLECTION...This is typical New York: the trash gets put out on the sidewalk to await collection. Alas, this is also why New York is particularly stinky in the summertime! You'd never, ever find a system like this over here: it's much too unsanitary and unpleasant, and besides--it's an eyesore!

SKEEBALL...OK, so this is a minor difference, but it's a shame nonetheless.


...This is a typical American mailbox, with the flag put up to alert the mailman (sorry--mailperson) that there is a piece of outgoing mail. In Austria, you must deliver all outgoing mail into an official street mailbox, even if you have your regular mail delivered to your home.


...Unfortunately there is no root beer in Austria. But if there was, there is little chance that it would one day grow up to become a root beer float. The whole float idea hasn't really reached Austria yet, but when I suggested it to a select few Austrians, they wrinkled their noses in disgust.


...The Austrian idea of locking a bike is vastly different from the American way! In Austria, bikes are typically propped up and the chain put through the back tire. This basically ensures that no one can roll the bike away, but it would be so simple to just pick the bike up and walk off with it! I've often marvelled that more bikes aren't stolen over here. In contrast, I took a picture of this guy in New York locking his bike the New York way: chain through the back tire, heavy-duty chain through the front tire and chained to the street sign, and removing the bike seat to take it with him.


miss clara said...

Hehe - I can relate. You never really realize what America's like until you have something to compare it to. The overarching theme that has stuck out to me since coming back from Peru is the incredible amount of resources we consume per capita (for instance, driving our big cars to strip malls for jumbo-sized sodas and hamburgers). By the way, I wouldn't be surprised if Walmart makes it to Austria soon - last year they bought a stake in one of Peru's supermarket chains.

PS: LOVE the picture of Joe & his root beer float.

Amanda said...

English definitely does sound weird if you've been abroad for a while! While Wal Mart hasn't caught on in Europe yet they definitely do big-box stores like Ikea, or this chain in France called Auchan which is kind of like Wal Mart. I find Auchan to be much nicer than a lot of American big-box stores, but I tend to like lots of French things better so I'm probably not the best person to ask about this. :p

Can't wait to hear how class goes during year 2!