Our only grandchildren live in Houston, an immediate challenge to any ‘green’ credentials we might have had. Our way of reconciling with this is to keep down the frequency of flights to Houston, but to live there a while when we do go. As a result, we observe interesting differences in the way people behave, which are mostly characteristic of Brits versus Americans, but do bear in mind that Houston is probably America’s most cosmopolitan city.
First of all, Americans seem to love the English accent and all seem to have been to or want to go to England. It’s a great conversation opener. They mostly understand English, with the following major exceptions:
- For tomato, you must say ‘toe-may-toe’
- For water you must say ‘waar-durr’
- For toilets you must say ‘rest room’ or ‘bath room’.
Understanding what Americans are saying is a different matter, and you frequently need to ask them to repeat.
Most things in Houston are twice as big as their European equivalents – dual carriageways for residential roads, the freeways and their junctions, the typical local journey, the size of the houses and gardens, the fridges. I was expecting the cars to be as well, but that was up to the 1970s and the first oil shock – now there’s just a much higher percentages of large SUVs and trucks than in Europe.
Residents of Houston drive everywhere. The neighbours are bemused by our habit of going out for a walk, and possibly coming back with shopping bags. It’s just not done. We’ve even seen someone get into her car and drive about 30 yards to visit her daughter’s house – we know she can walk because we once saw her do it.
Sidewalks in the residential areas are sometimes non-existent or poorly maintained. Our son suggests this is because the person responsible for maintenance is the property owner, and not the local authority. Then again, they’re not always brilliantly maintained in the UK
Going anywhere in Houston other than the immediate locality usually involves going on the freeway. This often looks like the M6 on a bad day, but with sometimes 5-6 lanes or more. The nice thing is you can stay in any lane; the scary thing is being under- and over-taken at the same time; even more scary, you actually often need to move out a lane or two to stay on the road you’re on – otherwise you finish up going off somewhere you don’t want. And there are the tolls, but son now has the relevant automatic gadget that means we don’t have to worry.
Satnav is essential for us here, but it’s called a GPS. Our first trip ever, to Galveston, was a disaster. Daughter-in-law had the sound level low on her early GPS because she only used the pictures. We set off on the freeway, could see the GPS was working – there was a map on its tiny screen. But we couldn’t hear what it was saying. This was fine till we reached a complicated freeway junction – where to go? It was too distracting from driving to look in detail at the tiny screen, and I couldn’t hear what the darn thing was saying! We came off, stopped in a car park and worked out how to turn up the sound. We then had to make our way back to the right freeway, which involved a U-turn at the next junction. (U-turns are a common feature of Houston driving.) Keeping up with the traffic, I noticed the lights going red as we went on to the junction. Several weeks later our son received a ticket for jumping the red light! After only 20 minutes driving in the US. Houston abandoned the red light clampdown soon afterwards – it was seen as an invasion of personal freedoms.
Driving in residential areas is a revelation. If a driver sees you crossing a road, or even thinking about crossing the road, he or she stops to let you cross. You can almost feel obliged to cross. This creates dangers when coming back to the UK – try stepping out on an estate road when there is a car within 100 yards, they do not slow down and expect you to get out of the way fast. Basically, drivers in the US are more considerate of pedestrians.
1-0 to US.
There is also a danger for European drivers on these roads. Many minor junctions have 4-way Stop signs. Stopping is mandatory and cars in all directions must take turns to go. It can get very confusing at busy times. The same rule applies at traffic lights with flashing red lights – even on quite major roads. We were once driving home on Texas State Highway 6 and came to a great all-way queue of traffic at one of these. It looked like chaos. We were severally hooted at when we efficiently slipstreamed through the junction behind another car.
Eating and drinking out is a major American pastime. The staggering thing about this is the almost-invariably superb service. Politeness, friendliness and checking that all is OK are the norm. This is possibly because staff are poorly paid and rely on tips, which are typically much higher than in Europe, but I get the impression that that’s the culture. Compare that to the offhand, surly or nonexistent service you often get in the UK.
2-0 to US.
When you get ill, it’s vital that you remembered to sort out the medical insurance. The first thing they want is your insurer or your credit card, and you’ll be lucky to get away with a bill of less than a few hundred dollars just for being examined and prescribed an antibiotic. Compare that to the NHS.
The US does not have a good reputation where guns are concerned, and we were a bit worried when we learned this last trip that the local Kroger supermarket now had an ‘open carry’ policy, whereby guns could be carried openly in the store. In actuality, Kroger was no different than on previous visits, but there’s always that lurking concern that some nutter somewhere will do something stupid with a gun – you read so much about it there.
So there are pros and cons, and both countries could learn from each other and improve as a result.
But there are two big things which easily settles any argument on comparison as a place to live. In the US, history began about 1800 – apart from when you get to the Indian lands. And the climate in Houston is unlivable without air conditioning from around April to October – indeed the city only really began to expand when air conditioning was invented.
I make that 2-4, with two goals in extra time – just like the 1966 World Cup Final.
Freeway picture courtesy of wikimapia