It is the third day of our thousand mile motor tour of a representative cross section of America: San Diego—Yosemite—Las Vegas—Grand Canyon.
We are sitting in a diner near something called the Santa Fe Loop, a historical site, presumably having something to do with railway trains. There are a lot of historical sites between San Diego and the Grand Canyon, marked by brown roadsigns. A reasonable number of the roads are historical sites in themselves, because they used to be part of Historic Route 66. My initial inclination is to say 'Ooo ooo let's go and have a look' every time we pass a sign but for the sake of Kevin's sanity, I suppress it.
There is a sign on the wall of the diner saying 'No dancing on the table wearing spurs.' This is a joke, but the diner isn't. It really does have high-chairs along a counter; I am really eating hot-cakes and bacon and I am genuinely not-in-England anymore. This morning I saw mountains and tomorrow I am going to see deserts. Granted, the Americans have the electric chair, back-to-front-baseball caps and no sense of irony, but in their favour, they also have mountains and free-refills of coffee in their diners.
The clock above the counter says it is only 10 AM. We've slipped into early sleep cycles during our tour; bed soon after 10 at night and on the road soon after 7 in the morning.
It occurs to me that 10 AM on Monday morning is the appointed time for a team meeting at work. Right now, all my colleagues are sitting in the meeting room drinking coffee from the office 'coffee' machine, talking about what they did this week and what they are going to do next week, while I am drinking free refills in a diner on the interstate surrounded by mountains miles from anywhere.
'It is five o clock in the evening in England right now.' says Kevin
'Oh. So it is' say I.
I would, of course, be deeply annoyed with any jumped-up-colonial type who adopted this attitude to England. Gee, is that a real fish-and chip shop, you mean your mailboxes are red, just like in those black and white movies, how quaint! But it can't be helped. I spent my first 48 hours being surprised by everything, and saying 'All Americans are...' on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Having grown up reading Spiderman comics, the very idea of having 'dollars' in my pockets, of getting to use the word 'dime' and 'quarter' is hugely exciting. Were I on holiday in deepest Bongo-Bongo with a pocket full of pobble-beads, it would simply feel foreign.
Kevin lives in La Jolla, a longish bus-ride from central, sorry, downtown San Diego. There are palm trees in his apartment complex, and he occasionally sees humming birds there. He works at the University. I arrive on Wednesday night; he has to go into work to solve a lot of pressing problems in X-Ray Crystallography on Thursday, so he gives me the keys to his flat, shows me the fridge and leaves me to enjoy my jet-lag.
I can't work out how the shower works; I pace up and down, wondering whether American taps turn differently; whether they require a key, or if the water is automatically cut off during the hours of daylight. I eventually venture up the road to the shopping mall; someone walking the other way says 'Hi there' vaguely, and I make a mental note that Americans are more willing than us to talk to strangers. It takes me a minute or two to summons up courage to push my first pedestrian crossing button; Kevin has warned me that jay-walking is an offence and you don't cross unless the green man is showing. I am disappointed that it's all green men, not 'Don't Walk' signs. I eventually pluck up courage to go into Ralphs the supermarket. I wander about for five minutes saying 'Ooo look the milk's priced in cents'; 'Ooo look they have the same makes of chocolate that we do'; 'Ooo look they sell bagels.' It's the trivial differences one notices most: the fact that you get a receipt and wait for your order in Burger King; the fact that you have to flush the toilet in the Gents. (Or rather, in the Restroom. That particular euphemism stops seeming hysterically funny after 24 hours.)
I had a vague romantic idea that I would only have to open my mouth and everyone would say 'Gee honey I just love your accent.' In fact, for the first few days, I was appallingly embarrassed about opening my mouth in the first place. I kept chanting the mantra 'Please don't let me do anything stupid' before getting onto a bus or going into a shop. I knew that if I were to get lost and have to ask directions, I would not be able to play the nonchalant common-sense chap who just happened to have taken a wrong turning somewhere could you possibly put me right? Merely speaking would reveal that I was a tourist who didn't have the faintest idea what he was doing. This would doubtless have had the effect of making everyone kind and helpful but I felt I would sooner suffer considerable inconvenience than let this happen. At one point the man in the sourdough pizza cafe said 'You guys aren't from round here, are you?' and I momentarily forgot what country I was from.
A man collecting signatures for a petition asked me if I was a registered San Diego voter and I admitted that I wasn't. He recognised my accent and told me a joke:
'A man phones up a lawyer to make an appointment. 'I'm afraid Mr Johnson is unavailable' said the secretary. 'He's gone to the United Kingdom.'
'Aw, gee.' said the man. 'I didn't even know he'd passed away.'
I thought that this was rather good. No-one else gets it.
It does genuinely seem to be true that all Americans—the cross-section of Californians I bumped into—are more communicative than their English equivalents. When I gave a tramp a quarter, he proceeded to follow me for five minutes telling me that he surely did appreciate it and saying you 'bless you' a lot. Staff in medium-sized shops say 'Hi there' when you go in, rather than regarding you as a mysterious intruder. People on busses have loud, raucous conversations with the driver; there was one lady whose whole life-story I couldn't avoid learning in the course of two bus-rides. To anyone brought up with civilised English sullenness this is, of course, unbearably horrible.
I'm sitting in the Starbucks on the mall, drinking my 'tall' capuccinno. Naturally, I assume that all American coffee shops say 'tall' when the mean 'medium' and 'grande' when they mean large. In fact, all Americans (apart, presumably, from the owners of the Starbucks chain) find it irriatingly pretentious.
A fat salesman seems to be concluding some sort of business deal on the payphone outside; one young man is explaining to his friend that he probably projected some of his own problems onto his girlfriend. Two old ladies are in the middle of debate:
'So I told her, I said to her, I said to her, I did, I said 'I'm not going.'
'Yes, but it was nice of her to ask.'
'Sure it was nice of her to ask. But I'm not going.'
'Don't you go if you don't want to.'
'I'm not going.'
'I'm not. I'm not going.'
I pick up the local newspaper from my table and start to read it. It has an intelligent review of a bad production of Madam Butterfly and some vaguely left-wing cartoons. I read a longish article explaining, in laymans terms, roughly what the difference between is between Plato, Aristotle, Marx and Hobbs's theories on the nature of government. How typically American I think, how excellently, typically American! Would you get an article on political theory in a British newspaper? Earlier, I saw the second half of a children's programme on daytime television—puppets and songs, out of the same stable as Sesame Street. A Mexican look boy is doing his homework; his mother explains she has to do her homework as well. She is studying history because she has to take her American citizenship exam. The little boy is surprised; he doesn't have to take a test to become an American. No, that's because he was born in the USA, but Mom wasn't, so she is what is called a 'Resident Alien' (cue jokes about The X-Files); but she has applied to become a full citizen, and if she passes her test, she will become one. At which point everyone sings a song about how you need lots of different ingredients to make soup, and, in the same way, you need lots of different nationalities to make up America. It's hard to imagine Zippy explaining British immigration policy to Bungle.
At the end of the politics article, a piece of small print says 'First published in the London Daily Telegraph.'
It doesn't undermine my theory. Americans are better at civics and national identity than we are. Maybe its because they are taught it at school; but then, we're taught religion at school and where does that get us? On the last Sunday of my trip, I spent an afternoon wandering around Bilboa Park—a complex of mock-Spanish buildings, botanical gardens and art-galleries nearby the famous San Diego zoo. There was a recital on an enormous open-air pipe organ. It never occurred to me that you could play jazz and big-band on an organ: I thought such a big instrument was only allowed to play church music and Bach. There was also a brass band, as there might have been in any English Park on a Sunday afternoon. Naturally, there were families with kids, old people sitting on benches, and teenagers messing around with base-ball caps and wearing their bicycles back to front. Having done the requisite popular songs and marches the band concluded with the Star Strangled Banner.
And, sure enough, people stood up; some of the people who were out walking with kids vaguely stood to attention or bowed their heads and more than one of the kids on bikes took off his baseball cap and puts it over his heart. It is just possible that you could get a theatre full of Englishmen to stand up to God Shave the Queen because, dammit, it's the Done Thing: but I got the distinct impression that these people actually meant it.
My initial reaction was, of course, to snigger and think up some joke about how a country could possibly have become a superpower when it calls toilets restrooms and the words of its national anthem don't fit the tune. In fact, my native cynicism deserted me. Well, I was on holiday. So I decided to envy these rustic Californians their unaffected patriotism. I wonder if there is any way of exporting it back to England? It must be wonderful to live in a country which feels good about itself, particularly when you also get free refills of coffee with your breakfast.