Jabbing at America

May 20th, 2008

I have just finished reading Merde Happens, which is the third installment in Stephen Clarke’s series about a young Englishman’s experiences with foreign cultures. Unlike the first two installments, A Year in the Merde and Merde Actually (I skipped over the latter by pure coincidence of it not being sold at the Eurostar terminal bookshop when I was in need of a new book), this book is not about France, but about good ol’ U. S. of A. instead.

Our protagonist, Paul West, an Englishman who now permanently lives in Paris, finds himself in a dire financial situation related to his tearoom business. In order to get the money he needs, he signs up for a wackily-organized campaign in the States to promote UK as a tourist destination. He takes his French girlfriend along for the trip, and proceeds by car, train and plane from New York to Boston and back, then to Miami, New Orleans and Las Vegas, ending up in Los Angeles, all the while getting in and out of silly, sticky, and occasionally downright dangerous, circumstance.

I wasn’t planning to write a review at all. While the author continues to exhibit considerable wit and mastery of comical situations, the plot gets too ludicrous for my taste, the situations too grotesque and the jabs towards American culture too gratuitous. The latter, however, are based on outsider observations that echo my own “reverse” observations of Britain through the eyes of an American.

That tongue-firmly-in-cheek commentary on American customs and way of life touches on:

  • expressly outward religiousness (saying a prayer to the Lord for a cup of an afternoon tea is probably an exaggeration, but it echoes the attitudes of a nation that seems to make strength of faith an important qualification for a prospective presidential candidate) and the attendant puritanism and moralism;
  • contrast between Old World politeness and New World surliness (largely correct);
  • gun-loving culture and gun crimes (not that the latter is solely an American phenomenon, but I personally consider myself to be much safer in a society where guns do not occupy a large part of population’s imagination);
  • minuscule amount of action in an average American football game compared to the amount of standing around between snaps (offended Americans would undoubtedly retort that, in an average soccer game, the supposedly non-stop action consists of nothing but idle passing of the ball back and forth in the middle of the field; I can argue for and against both points of view, as it happens);
  • amazing prowess of assorted American servicemen who single-handedly thwart global threats in every which Hollywood movie (puh-leeze! James Bond is not British?);
  • intense and over-the-top security procedures for getting onto commercial air flights (some places are better than others, in both the States and across Europe; in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, for instance, we were offered disposable slippers to put on in place of our shoes which needed to go through the x-ray machine, but that was an exception; in Heathrow, the wait line for the security check is occasionally a torture on its own merits; if memory serves me right, the strict prohibition on all liquids in carry-on baggage – which came to life because of a UK-based threat – was relaxed in the States earlier than in England);
  • our reliance on things BIG – as in big cars, big refrigerators, big air conditioners, etc. (I know it is far from being “green”, but I refuse to apologize for my need to travel in comfort, have plenty of varied food on-hand, and remain cool in the scorching summer heat);
  • ridiculousness of ubiquitous food packaging labels of the kind of “this beverage may be hot” or “this food item contains nuts and may cause death” (anybody heard of any study that shows these labels actually save lives as opposed to being purely anti-litigation devices?);
  • etc.

Overall, somewhat entertaining, occasionally over-emphasized for shock value, at times downright irritating. Sadly, unquestionably indicative of the prevalent European views on America.

And then, there is one tired subject which comes up with seemingly every single Western European long-term visitor to the States.

Driving.

On more than one occasion, Paul observes that multi-lane traffic seems to be a free-for-all, with little consideration for either the laws of the road or fellow motorists.

And you know what? No matter how many time I hear that refrain, I think it is spot on.

I have now driven through a dozen of industrialized nations, and American drivers, on balance, are the worst of the lot. Incessant weaving between lanes. Complete disregard of a need to alert others of your upcoming maneuvers. I-am-the-king-of-the-road-and-I-can-slowly-drive-in-passing-lane-if-I-want attitude. When it happens in Germany or France or England, it’s an aberration. In the US – the norm.

The “laws of the road” are considerably simpler in the States, the roads are wider and straighter, vast majority of people drives cars with automatic transmission… Could it be that these conditions help breed inferior drivers? I honestly think that many American drivers would struggle with obtaining a full British driver license

… As I was reflecting on that, I moved into the empty left (nearside) lane with the intent of passing slower-moving cars in the main traveling lane. Most of the time, it is a designated bus lane, out of limits for cars, but on a Sunday afternoon, you are allowed to – actually, you are supposed to, – use it as the main traveling lane. At the nearest intersection, a minivan which I was passing suddenly decided to make a left turn, and I avoided slamming into it only by a forceful application of the brakes… The driver of the minivan was clearly British, and she neither had a clue about using the bus lane nor executed a turn properly. Which went to prove that bad drivers exist everywhere. And made my very American attempt to pass on the inside somewhat justifiable…

Books, European living

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