Thursday, 11 August 2011

A letter from America - or how I came to love the States

I love this country. Always have, always will. And in light of the extraordinary events this week expressing a love for Great Britain is probably something not many people will be doing today.

However (and in light of the last few days this has never seemed more apt to say) we all know that Britain is not perfect.

No country is, of course, but most have something to offer and that is why travelling abroad is such a wonderful thing. It gives you a great insight into other cultures and helps you to reflect on your own nation and maybe question some of the things we take for granted.

I have just returned from a memorable holiday in the USA and it has had a profound effect on me and my attitude to both our nations.

I was staying with my partner's lovely family in Michigan - not exactly a tourist magnet state - and it gave me a chance to see America as it really is. And I have to say, I came away very impressed.

I suppose like many British and European people I have had a love/hate relationship with the United States. Perhaps more accurately in my case, I used to think that I hated it but now I love it. And the reason for my Saul on the Road to Texas conversion was that I actually went there and shattered some of the myths I had always held dear.

My early anti-Americanism came from being a pseudo-rebellious teenager who was happy to ignore the fact that many of my cultural icons were based stateside (Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, the Ramones and Marlon Brando for instances) to harbour the belief that the Americans were basically not a force for good. Indeed, in my old band days (long live The Classified Ads) I even penned the lyrics of an anti-US song with a somewhat ironic title of Brilliant America and I was happy in my safe European home to feel rather superior to our former colonial cousins.

However, having now visited the States three times, I do wonder about what really caused my anti-Americanism because there is so much that is surprising and illuminating about the way they live that I think we could learn from.

For a start, I now really do believe we live in what I can only call 'rip-off Britain'.

Having spent a couple of weeks in American supermarkets and small independent stores, I found countless, depressing examples of how we pay so much more for the same goods as the Americans for reasons that are hard to fathom.

It is not only petrol - which is way cheaper but for which there may be green arguments to say this is not a good thing - but practically everything else on the shelves including brands we know and love which are less expensive and often better quality over there.

All I can ask is - why?

And if you think costs on the high street are cheaper, you should look at the houses on the high street as well. American house prices were always much cheaper than British ones but that gap has widened incredibly because the recent economic crash has virtually halved the value of most US homes. As such the sheer size and quality of a house you could buy for a reasonable sum where we stayed was bewildering. I would estimate you could buy a house in our piece of Michigan for a third of the price of what you would pay in most parts of the UK for a property of similar size.

Another pleasant surprise in the parts of America I was lucky enough to visit was how remarkably clean everything seemed compared to some British cities.

Bath is far cleaner than most places - and I hope the Chronicle's anti-litter campaign last year helped the cause - but in the US towns and cities I visited everything seemed spotless compared to the UK. Public toilets, for example, were by and large incredibly clean and it was a jolt to the system to return to England and use the airport loo to see how different they were from the ones I'd encountered across the pond.

Another intriguing thing was how well-mannered people seemed to be. The Brits have a reputation for being very polite and courteous but in the American stores and particularly the restaurants, the level of attention was as good as anywhere you'd find in the world. People genuinely seemed keen to talk to you, help you and serve you and no matter how complicated your food order, they seemed to take it all in their stride. That was truly refreshing.

As well as being impressed by some of these things, I was also shocked at a few aspects of American life. On one especially memorable evening, my partner's niece, Shae, drove us home from an event on a two hour journey. That is hardly shocking until you realise that she is only 15 years old! Yes, you can drive at that tender age in this part of Michigan but this comes with some interesting restrictions - there must be adults in the car, you can't have more than a couple of teenagers with you and there is a curfew as to when you can drive. It is an intriguing concept and all a far cry from the UK where a 15-year-old driver is a joy rider . . .

Of course as I said in my introduction, no country is perfect and there is certain aspects of American life which didn't appeal. I wasn't keen on the gun culture and seeing the rows of magazines about which weapon you can by for your home 'protection'. And I also found a lot of Americans talked rather too much about people's race and racial background for my liking. In addition many people seemed self-obsessed with the US and had only stereotypical views of other nations. But I shouldn't complain about that last thing. After all I did the same about the Americans - before I went here.

But that apart, my overall impression is that we can learn a lot from our American friends and we are far closer to them than we sometimes care to admit.

The only real sadness I feel this week is that having spent my time praising the UK to our hosts, they will have seen the images of Britain this week and may well wonder if I had been telling the whole truth.

I think I saw the real America while I was away. I just hope they realise they're NOT seeing the real Great Britain this week.

Brilliant America? Not quite. But not far off.

Howdy partners.

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