I’ve been traveling to the USA regularly since the mid-90s, for family trips and then business conferences and book research. The pandemic years meant a long hiatus (for us all!) but recently I went back to the US for my first trip in a long time and it felt quite foreign in many ways. I’d forgotten so much about how our cultures differ, and I thought it might be interesting to record my thoughts before I get used to it all again.
- Context and my history with the USA
- Flying again post-pandemic
- Arriving in Phoenix, Arizona, and some immediate differences
- Visiting the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, and a day trip to Sedona
- Other things I’d forgotten about the USA
I’d love to know what you think about our cultural differences, so please leave a comment, or tweet me @thecreativepenn or contact me here.
I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, USA, from the UK for a week in early May 2022 for a business conference on the Creator Economy.
It was my first trip to the USA since restrictions have eased post-pandemic.
Covid hasn’t gone away, of course, but it’s certainly more manageable, at least as I record this a month later in early June 2022.
I have been on one other trip since restrictions eased, to New Zealand to visit family in November 2021. That was a far more significant journey in terms of travel time and we spent 10 days in quarantine and then couldn’t do much because of Covid, and it was for family reasons to a country I lived in for years and am a citizen of, so I’m not counting that trip as travel.
The USA is very different from the UK, perhaps even more so than I remembered since I’ve been away so long, and Arizona has a very different climate, so I wanted to record this episode while it’s all still fresh in my mind.
Context and my history with the USA
I’ve been traveling to the USA since the early 90s when my mum moved to Oregon and then San Diego, although she later moved to New Zealand to be closer to me in mid-2000s. Outside of those personal trips, I’ve mainly visited for work and conferences and blended those with other aspects of travel. I’ve been to New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charleston and Savannah, St Petersburg, Florida, New Orleans, Austin, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, Boise, and Portland, and some of those multiple times.
I am very at home in the USA, and think a lot of the country and its people. Many of my friends are American, many of my readers and audience and community are American, many of my financial investments are in USA companies, and I’m a user and a shareholder in some of the biggest American companies. I’m certainly a fan, in general, although every country has their problems and darker side, for sure.
The USA is also a huge country and places and people are so different between the states, so my comments are just a snapshot in time based on one particular place. I thought it might be interesting to consider our cultural differences as well as how it felt to travel again.
While all pandemic restrictions are over here in the UK, I had to do a Covid test within 24 hours of flying to the USA. It’s the most expensive test to get as it’s rushed and you can’t check in until it’s done, so it certainly added stress to the pre-flight process.
I also had to complete extensive documentation on the Verifly app, which included documentation of my vaccinations, test result, and other forms along my with ESTA, which allows me entry after the US government check up on things. I’d forgotten how much paperwork traveling can take, and it has certainly increased since the pandemic, especially if you are not a citizen of the country you’re traveling to. Check what you need before you travel, even if you have traveled to that country before as it might have changed.
It’s a 10-hour direct flight from London to Phoenix on British Airways. After almost 28 hours to get to New Zealand, 10 hours was a breeze! The flight was fine, I watched some movies and read.
There is also now an American Express Centurion Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3 so I spent time there after check-in. Frequent travelers in the USA will know the variability of these lounges, but this is a good one, especially in these quiet times before transatlantic travel picks up again. I kept my Amex business credit card specifically so I could use these lounges, and it’s always been worthwhile in the years I traveled more regularly to the USA. We also use the airpoints for Emirates flights to New Zealand. Gotta get those airpoints, somehow!
A few people wore masks at the airport, but not many. I wore mine in crowded areas, but it’s not a requirement in the airport or on the plane to and from the UK.
I’m triple-vaxxed and I’ve had Covid and I want to get on with life, so the prospect of catching it doesn’t worry me now, but certainly if you are concerned, then I would still avoid airports, for sure.
Arriving in Phoenix, Arizona, and some immediate differences
Phoenix is an amazing airport to fly into. The luggage trolleys have ‘America’s Friendliest Airport’ on them and it did feel like that. There were no queues and the customs officer smiled and welcomed me back to the USA. Having flown into JFK, O’Hare, and other big airports many times where you’re treated like a problem, it was a dream to arrive at such a lovely, small, welcoming airport.
I got an Uber to the resort hotel and used Uber throughout the trip. I love being able to use the same app as I use back here in the UK and also in New Zealand. It has all my payment details, business and personal credit cards, my ratings, and saved places. I always ask Uber drivers whether they like the service and pretty much all of them are positive and say it’s their job on the side and they like the flexibility of being able to work when they want.
Cars are one of the biggest cultural differences I noticed this time, as it is essentially impossible to walk anywhere. Not just because of the heat, but mainly the lack of a safe way to walk. One morning, I needed to get about 15 mins walk away and had to get an Uber because of the highway. It wasn’t safe enough to walk.
The cars in the hotel resort carpark were also enormous. The height of some of the radiators were as tall as me. I have never even seen cars and trucks as big as these. Maybe that’s an Arizona thing. We have mostly small cars in the UK and Europe, because we live in smaller spaces, and we have to park on the roadside a lot of the time.
We also have walkable cities and use public transport a lot. We don’t have a car and I walk 8-10 kilometers most days, and longer when I actually ‘go for a walk,’ which is 20 kilometers along the canal on a Sunday morning.
We also have a cafe culture so you can sit on the streets and a lot of the older city centers have pedestrianized spaces, so you can walk into town, sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by. One of my favorite simple pleasures is walking from my house to the cafe in front of the medieval Abbey and the Roman Baths and sitting there for a coffee and then walking home again. There are also three wonderful bookstores minutes from each other, which of course, I have to pop into, for research purposes of course!
The American coffee culture is a lot more functional. Grab caffeine and go, or just drive through. I sat in a Starbucks one day and wrote in my journal, and 99% of the people were in and out, no stopping.
I did visit the older part of Phoenix, but even the area with a few more shops was dominated by roads and cars. I was able to walk around in New Orleans, which is so European, but even in NYC and San Francisco in some areas, but the sense of just casually walking places seems to be missing in the USA, as it’s designed for cars. It was similar in Australia, which is modeled more on the US, whereas New Zealand is more like the UK.
The resort hotel for the conference was on the outskirts of Phoenix, and it was pretty much as you’d expect. There were acceptable options for food but most people had a car and went offsite. There was a golf course, a spa, and a water park, and the rooms were American-sized resort-style. It was lovely to see hummingbirds in the bushes around the golf course and the birdsong was beautiful when I walked around in the dawn.
Hotel rooms are almost always much bigger in the US, and the beds as well. Americans — and Australians — are often appalled at the size of hotel rooms in the UK and Europe, and our beds are never as big as yours. I also find the American toilets weird, as they have such a huge area of water. Ours are, once again, much smaller.
There was a Keurig coffee machine in the room which I appreciated — but this is another difference from the UK. We always have a kettle in the room and some tea bags, but rarely a coffee machine. You’ll get some sachets of instant, and in the more upmarket places, maybe a Nespresso pod machine. In the US, you get a coffee machine, and never a kettle, so I have to make peppermint tea with water heated up through the coffee machine, which makes it taste odd, but I do it anyway.
The time difference from the UK to Phoenix was 8 hours, so the jet lag was a pain. 6 pm in Phoenix was 2 am UK, so my evenings were written off as I was asleep early most nights. I get terrible jet lag and we can’t buy melatonin tablets here, so I didn’t have any with me, and didn’t get any for a few days. But I like being up early, so I woke up around 3 am most mornings and got some writing done before going for a walk in the dawn light. I managed to almost finish How to Write a Novel, my next non-fiction book, in the hours before the conference even started every morning.
When I did finally get some melatonin, I also bought one of your enormous packs of 200 Advil. This is another difference. Here in the UK, if you want painkillers, you can only buy the basic ones in packs of 16 or max 24, and if you want something stronger, you need to see the pharmacist. For us, ‘something stronger’ is what some Americans pop before breakfast!
When I visit, I always make a trip to a Walgreens or one of the big drugstores. They are a cornucopia of medical delights that we mostly can’t access here without a prescription. There are pros and cons to both approaches, of course!
I took my melatonin when I got back to the UK and it helped a lot with the reverse jetlag, so I was happy to get some at last.
Visiting the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, and a day trip to Sedona
I love the desert landscape of Arizona and visited back in the mid-90s when my mum lived in San Diego and I came over for a visit. We went to the Grand Canyon and Sedona back then and also visited the Biosphere between Phoenix and Tucson. The memory of that visit sticks with me to this day and I brought it to life in the climax of my thriller, Stone of Fire. You couldn’t really get an area more different from Bath in terms of climate, landscape, and culture.
I arrived a few days before the conference so I could have some desert time. I visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, which is highly recommended if you love desert plants and cacti, in particular. Many were in flower and there were hummingbirds sipping at the nectar. We don’t have hummingbirds in the UK, so it felt very exotic as I walked through the gardens in the heat of the day.
It was definitely too hot for me, like the hottest days in a UK summer heat wave. Not that hot for people who live there, but I should have gone earlier in the day. I had to take a break halfway through and sip an icy cold drink in the shade to cool down.
I wanted to see the saguaro cacti in particular, and many of them stand on a hillside in one part of the park. There was also an exhibition of Chihuly glass sculptures which echoed the lines of the cacti in different places.
Definitely recommended if you visit Phoenix.
The next day I did a day trip to Sedona with Detours American West, which picked up and returned to a nearby resort. It was a well-organized trip and the driver/guide was friendly and helpful, stopped regularly enough for comfort breaks, and made the day out a good one. I would definitely travel with them again.
We started out at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, then visited Bell Rock, then a viewpoint with dramatic scenes of the red rock valleys and formations. I love the red rock landscape. Something about it resonates deep in my soul. I felt the same way in the red interior of Australia in the Northern Territory. That terracotta red is my favorite color.
We had a few hours free in Sedona village, which is both super-touristy and full of tacky gifts, but also laid-back with good eating options and great views, if you find the right place to sit. I had a glass of chilled rosé (with a lot of water) and tacos overlooking the red rocks. If you go, definitely make sure you have a view with your lunch.
On the way back, we stopped at Montezuma’s Castle, which is nothing to do with Montezuma and is not a castle! It’s a simple Native American cliff dwelling from the Sinagua people, built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Visiting there with a bus full of Americans made me realize another big difference between our cultures. The UK and Europe are full of historical sites on a much grander scale. Perhaps we take them for granted, as they are everywhere. The Roman baths near where I live were built 60 years before Christ, 12 centuries before that cliff dwelling in Arizona, and the Abbey was established in the 7th century, and then the city developed from there. We consider ancient sites to be more like Stonehenge, which was built 5000 years ago, rather than 500.
This is one reason we moved back to England from Australia in 2011. I missed the rich historical, religious and cultural places that we almost trip over here in the UK, and I felt the same in Arizona. I love to visit the desert, but I need the human element of creativity, which results in architectural wonder, culture, and religion. For all our faults, we humans can create great beauty.
In terms of climate, Arizona is incredibly dry, and it’s easy to dehydrate. I drank lots of water but I found my skin dried out a lot, and even my eyeballs and my nasal passages got really dry. I used moisturizer and eye drops and nasal spray and also Vaseline in my nostrils, but even so, it’s a super dry climate. Drink a lot of water, even when sitting still.
Other things I’d forgotten about the USA
Prices of items in a store are always confusing. In the UK, the price quoted is the price including taxes, and tipping is for great service, not a necessity.
In the US, the price is quoted without taxes. So if it’s $5.99, you need more than $6 to pay for it. Plus, you need to tip everywhere, which also adds to the price. So it feels a lot more expensive and you never know how much you need if you’re paying cash, which is confusing.
Also, if you’re paying by card, the server walks away with it and processes it somewhere else. That does not happen in the UK, and if it does, we run after it as they might be skimming! We keep hold of the card and it’s processed at the table with handheld devices. I use my Apple Watch most of the time now, even in a restaurant, as they bring the device to the table. I hate seeing the server walk away with my card in the USA. It makes me so nervous!
The food is different here, too. Part of that is the sheer amount of it — both the portion sizes, but also the amount of choice in the USA. I went to an eggs place for breakfast and the menu was several pages of variations, although they didn’t have scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, which is my favorite brunch and common here. I’m sure it’s common in other places in the USA.
On portion size, we generally drink European size coffee in what Americans consider tiny cups.
The food is also a lot sweeter, there is sugar in everything, even unexpected things like bacon. Seriously, you don’t need maple syrup in your bacon! It’s good on its own.
It’s really hard to find food with no sugar in general, especially as a tourist with no car. My stomach is pretty much always upset when I come to the US. I was so sick in Savannah one time, based on eating some of that rich Southern cuisine, I had to go home. I was so miserable. It’s funny really, because some people worry about getting a stomach upset in places like India, but I cycled through south-west India for several weeks and put on five kilos because I ate so much delicious food and never had any problems. It’s about what you’re used to, I guess.
Of course, I know there’s also a lot of great food in the USA and if you have a car and you can shop at WholeFoods or local markets, there is a lot of great produce, but since I never have a car and am a tourist, I always find it difficult to eat simple food with no sugar.
Also, if you’re in the UK, you won’t need to ask for a box to go at the end of your meal. Firstly, because our portion sizes mean you will finish your plate, and secondly, it’s considered rude by most places. Perhaps that’s changing now with more Americans expecting it, but certainly I’ve been brought up to consider it the height of rudeness to ask for a ‘doggy bag.’
Other differences. The water was soft in Arizona, and my hair was lovely and soft too, after washing. Here in Bath, in the south-west of England, we have to use fabric softener for our clothes, lots of conditioner for our hair, and there’s limescale in the kettle which you have to clean out now and then.
While I was there, the Roe vs Wade discussion started once more after a leak from the Supreme Court, and it brought up another distinction between our cultures. While we have plenty of people of faith in the UK, we don’t have overt religious discussions in the media or in government. In England, at least, abortion is about health. Religion is a completely separate thing.
Huge American flags also puzzle me. There was a massive one on the hill above the resort, the biggest one I have ever seen.
Very few British people would ever fly a Union Jack, even if they considered themselves patriotic. However, I’m recording this over the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend in the UK, so there are union jacks everywhere. But they’ll all be gone on Monday after the event, for sure.
Although I’m comfortable in the USA, people comment on my accent, which is lovely and I’m happy that people like it, but it’s also a reminder that I am the ‘Other.’ I like that feeling when I’m traveling, although it’s usually much more intense when the language spoken is not English and I can’t understand signs or conversation around me.
Here in the UK, we have a class system and a hierarchy of accents, and we have a lot of accents in such a small place. In fact, we have hierarchies of everything, and that’s definitely less of an issue in the USA, or at least it seems that way. There is inequality, of course, but less hierarchy.
Communication styles are different too.
We rely on a lot of sub-text here in the UK. We might say something and mean something completely different, like “I’d love to catch up sometime,” might actually mean, “I never want to see you again.” It depends on the context, the body language, and other things which we can’t explain. Americans are much more direct and overtly cheerful. I have to amp my smile wattage up in the USA. We tend to avoid random conversations in England so we might seem unfriendly, but we’re nice if you get past the initial reserve, I promise!
It’s also funny to hang out with American friends and find we have very different frames of reference, for example, people I have never heard of who are famous in the USA, or TV shows, or scandals, or news items. The pandemic narrowed our vision so much and our own situation looms so large, we forget the perspective that we are just tiny specks living insignificant lives on the face of the earth for a blink of an eye.
I love that shift of perspective. It’s one of the reasons I travel. I want to feel insignificant. It helps me live more fully knowing that ‘memento mori,’ remember you will die, so get on with living!
In conclusion, it was good to be back out into what was more of a normal business travel experience, with a great extra few days of exploring aspects of the desert areas. I’ll be back in the USA soon, Las Vegas in November, and Colorado Springs in February, and by the end of those trips, the USA will no doubt feel normal again!
I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think are some of the differences between the cultures? Please leave a comment or tweet me @thecreativepenn, or contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.
Happy travels until next time!