From the Horse's Mouth
Driving in America
Limited access, multilane dual-carriageway roads are characteristically American. The Germans might have invented the concept with their treasured Autobahn. However, the USA took the highway to another level with the federal interstate highway system. Think southern California, ten lanes wide, a stripe of asphalt laid down over the land to drive people to freedom.
America wasn’t always this way. The first dual-carriageway limited access highways were built by the States of New York and Connecticut as Parkways – basically similar to the federal interstate highways of the succeeding generation, but pokier in size and bordered by grassy leafy parkland on either side. Commercial vehicles are not allowed on Parkways, and they have names instead of numbers. The Hutchinson River Parkway (known as the Hutch) and the Merritt Parkway are two well-know Parkways built to connect suburbs to New York City. Because they were built in the 1920s and 1930s when cars were smaller and slower, grades and corners are often more extreme than found on a federal interstate highway, and speed limits are often lower – 50 mph instead of 65 mph. (The earlier period of construction, before suburbanization, also made acquisition of land for the bordering park a lot easier.)
Driving on the highway in America is not the same as driving on the motorway in England or the Autobahn in Germany. Americans drive as if they are sitting on their sofa in front of the television while cruising up the road at 70 miles per hour. Passing on the right, although technically not allowed, is common. Sitting in the middle lane, cruise control on, is the most typical way of driving long distances on the highway. And some distances are enormous – many Americans, especially in sparser settled areas of the west, are known to drive four hours – 300 miles – just to go to a shopping mall. This is why cars in America are big – cornering and road handling are subordinate to size and comfort -also to accommodate the averagely obese American ass. Even Japanese automakers, whose fuel efficient, reliable compact cars decimated the US automakers during the oil crises of the 1970s, design bulky smooth driving models for the average American consumer.
Who drives what
In Germany, there are luxury cars – Mercedes, BMW and Audi in that order – and everything else – Volkswagen and Opel basically, plus the odd European marque like Skoda or Renault. Among the luxury car brands, all represent the pinnacle of Teutonic engineering and metallurgy in their own way. However, Mercedes connotes establishment – a large Mercedes sedan is called a Herrenmobile – His Lordship’s Vehicle – whereas BMW is still apparently the scrappy upstart that edged its way upward in size and quality since the 1960s, favored by Bavarians and cool young people, and then there’s Audi, favored by the neurich, supposedly. In America, the distinction is not so much between brands as type of car you drive: (1) pickup truck, (2) full SUV, (3) “crossover”, (4) minivan or (5) sedan.
Pickup trucks are clearly definable. It is built on a chassis and has real axles. It has a bed for carrying stuff. It typically is big and these days will have a rear passenger cab. A crossover is basically a giant sneaker. The Toyota RAV-4 was the first one, and the BMW X-3 was the first luxury one; now every marque has its offering of crossover. (They’re called crossover because they have a unibody construction like a car, but all-wheel-drive and higher suspension like an SUV.) And what is an SUV – short for Sport Utility Vehicle? An SUV is basically a pickup truck that has been turned into a full-length passenger vehicle and (theoretically) designed to drive off-road. The “utility” is the pickup part; the “sport” is the offroad-fun part. Before this concept became common, the sole SUV on the market (which somehow is more of its own thing) was the Jeep wrangler, not much changed since its world-war 2 predecessor. But the classic SUV was the Ford Bronco.
 “Dual-carriageway” is a British term. Americans do not know this word. I use it because it is the most descriptive term I can find. “Highway” is much too broad, although in the USA, “highway” in colloquial speech almost always means a limited access dual-carriageway road.
Americans love to write on their clothing. Shirts and hats are emblazoned with messages: I HEART NY, Female Body Inspector, I’m with Stupid, any political message, humorous message or, especially, an affinity logo: the logo of one’s employer, or one’s alma mater or, of course, the logo of a sports team.
The t-shirt. A basic cotton undergarment, collarless and simple. It should not have become outerwear at all.
Until the 1950s, public wearing of t-shirts was limited to soldiers in basic training and school athletics classes. Then, in the 1960s youth counterculture movement, young adults began adorning t-shirts with decoration, “tie-die”, emblems and messages. This blossomed into a commercial process for ironing logos and prints onto shirts. A new form of clothing was born: a wearable billboard.
T-shirts have been adopted as a statement of fashion, leading to the bizarrely named “designer t-shirt”.
Unwanted t-shirts end up recycled in the international market for used clothing, making their way from the West to the developing world. Somewhere in Guatemala, a grandmother is wearing a “Mulroney Family Reunion” t-shirt while she takes her family to market; somewhere in Ghana, a refuse collector is wearing a shirt that says “My parents went to Florida and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.
What is it with Americans and writing on their clothes??
The baseball cap is another ubiquitous form of American clothing. Because it is so ubiquitous, I cover it under clothing and fashion, rather than under sports. It adorns the heads of children, beanie-like and innocent, twirling propeller merely implied; it is worn by all manner of adults, from urban street folk to hedge fund managers.
Until the early 1960s, it was socially mandatory for men to wear hats while out of doors in public, and most men wore either a felt hat with a brim, a working man’s cap or perhaps a straw hat if he was a farmer or it was the height of summer. Some people theorize that JFK killed the social requirement of men wearing hats, but it more likely was the change wrought by the interstate highway system and car-friendly suburbs. Starting in the early 1960s, suburban office parks sprang up next to interstate highways complete with parking lots. Men barely were in public between car and office. So why wear a hat at all? That is one theory? Another theory is that John F Kennedy killed off the mandatory men’s hat by not wearing a hat at his inauguration in 1960.
Ivy League refers to the eight oldest universities in the United States…sort of.
The College of William & Mary in Virginia is the second oldest institution of higher learning in America, and it’s not in the Ivy League. Why not? Either: (1) because it’s south of the Mason-Dixon line, in the former slave state of Virginia and so would have been shunned by the eastern Establishment when the concept of Ivy league was formulated; or (2) because it’s a public university supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Being a publicly funded university also seems to exclude Rutgers University, the main state university of New Jersey. Rutgers probably would have been a strong contender in that it was founded in Colonial times as a university of a protestant denomination, as were the other Ivy League colleges. Rutgers was Dutch Reformed.
The denominational affiliation of the Ivy League colleges is as follows: Harvard was Congregationalist; Yale was stricter Congregationalists who broke away from Harvard in a theological spat in 1701 and headed to their “New Haven”; Dartmouth was Congregationalists who wanted to teach Christianized Indians in the wilds of northern New England (if they could only find one who hadn’t died of smallpox or fled to Quebec); Brown was Baptist, a denomination who had fled persecution is Massachusetts to their new home of Providence (meaning God will provide); Princeton was Presbyterian, University of Pennsylvania (please call it Penn and not U.Penn!) was at least vaguely Quaker; and Columbia (aka King’s College before the American Revolution) was good old Anglican. All were founded in colonial times as institutions of higher education focused on classical education (Yale required entering students to know Latin or Greek until 1970) or training ministers (Brown required its president to be a Baptist minister until the 1950s)…wait what about Cornell?
Oh yeah, then there is Cornell in upstate New York. It is cut from a different cloth, an example of a great university (as opposed to a college that grew into a university) begat all at once by the grant of funds by an industrialist in the years immediately following the American civil war. The other private universities of similar ilk include Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Case Western in Cleveland, etc.
These days, the Ivy League colleges have many peers. That's another thing: for the most part, it's the undergraduate college that counts socially. Getting a masters in education, say, from Harvard isn't the same as graduating from Harvard College. The peers include Stanford University, Duke University, Northwestern University, Georgetown University (the best Catholic university speaking of religious affiliations), University of Chicago and perhaps a half dozen other institutions.
There is a funny thing about Americans: their LAWNS
In the United Kingdom, a "garden" is any area of cultivated green space adjacent to a dwelling – a lawn, a paved area with more greenery than not in pots and planters, a formal set of flower beds, whatever. In America, this kind of space is called a yard. Most typical suburban homes have a front yard and a backyard. For some reason, the back one gets compacted into a single word. "Backyard" but not "frontyard." Go figure. When people here say garden instead of yard, they usually mean a vegetable garden, or a public flower garden.
The ideal American home has a lawn as the front yard. What is a front lawn for? NOTHING! Typically, it is never used for anything except separating the street from the house. God forbid anyone should walk on it! It is a moat of green grass, similar to the moat of a medieval castle! It is a perfectly manicured living carpet of green, with the consistency and appearance of a putting green, or the grassy courts of Wimbledon, a buffer between home and street.
Children are not to play on the lawn, pets are not to walk on the lawn. There might even be a “keep off the grass” sign. In most cases, the lawn is regularly treated with chemicals to ensure that no other plant – defined as weeds – grows there.
It is, in other words, a gigantic testament to the home owner’s ability to control his environment. He is the master of his own domain, the same way an English lord of yore was master of his castle. In fact, the lawn is likely a vestige of the British isles, the only place in the world where lawns apparently grow naturally. In America, large sums of money are spent watering lawns, especially in dry southwestern climates where the lawn makes no environmental sense.
Furthermore, do not think that you can simply decide *not* to tend to your lawn. What is that meme? One does not simply decide not to maintain his front lawn! If you live in a neighborhood where lawns are common, failure to tend to one’s lawn is tantamount to being an immoral person. If you fail to treat your lawn and it becomes an unsightly shade of brown, or you fail to mow it and it grows higher than the prescribed one inch, your neighbors will speak ill of you behind your back, and make judgmental comments about the possible state of the interior of your home. If you live in a wealthier neighborhood subject to homeowner association (HOA) rules, your neighbors will report you to the aesthetic authorities, the Homeowners’ Association, an institution comprised of busybodies and malcontents eager to snuff out individuality and nonconformity, lest it lower property values.
And if you decide to plant a high shrub along the street, thus turning your front lawn into a semi-private enclosure for your family’s enjoyment, you will be deemed to be unneighborly.
In many parts of the world, post-secondary education is called University, or “Uni” for short. In the USA, there are many universities, some of them world famous. However, in this country there is also a unique concept separate from university, called “college”.
What the heck is college?? College does not mean, generally speaking, a residential subset of a university the way it does say, at Oxford or Cambridge. It also does not mean a secondary-level institution, as it can mean in the United Kingdom. It can technically mean the undergraduate division of a university, for example Harvard University has Harvard College for teaching undergraduates and granting undergraduate degrees, or an institution of higher education that teaches only undergraduates, for example Amherst College.
However, “college” in the USA is a broader concept than even that. College is a special, theoretically four-year, period of higher education, in which the students live in a cloistered, special environment, the “campus”.
The campus is neither the parents’ home nor the “real world”. Instead, it is its own thing. I would say this is the default concept implied when people talk about “going to college.”
So why is this relevant? Americans often mention their “college experience”. College is about discovering oneself, growing as a person, from adolescence toward adult-hood. This personal growth happens largely through social activities with other students as well as through extra-curricular activities. College is so much more than about coursework.
The dominant mode of socialization of students at a particular college depends on the culture of the college. At some colleges, the majority of students are members of fraternal residential organizations and social life revolves around these. In other words, the college is a party school. At other colleges, there are no frats, and socialization occurs through other channels. In general, college students have parties on the weekends, in which they coalesce, navigate romantic and sexual relationships, and get acculturated to drinking (and often over-imbibing on) alcohol. There are many other particular features of a particular college’s social scene, but these factors above seem to be the lowest common denominators across much of “the college experience.”
Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, most well-known colleges were male only. After that time, they became “co-educational”, a term devised to describe admission of both male and female undergraduate students. Hence you still occasionally hear the term “co-ed” to describe a female college student. A few prominent women’s only college remained “single sex”, a term that oddly describes only all-female colleges because there really aren’t any all-male colleges except catholic religious seminaries and institutions like that, which really aren’t college at all.
Another important part of college is having structured “extra-curricular” activities. These hobbies or pre-professional activities are an important part of personal formation. Examples include writer for or editor of the student newspaper, volunteering for charities, giving campus tours to applicants, participating in a debate team. Debate is a uniquely Anglo-Saxon pastime in which participants are given one side of a political argument and told to make their best case with only a short amount of preparation. Other extracurricular activities include leadership positions in student government or “Greek life." Greek refers to fraternities, most of which have Greek letters as their name as a vestige of a time when higher education was classics based and much of the study was in Greek or Latin).
Another important kind of extracurricular activity is the internship. This is a quasi-job, often “off campus” (i.e. outside the gates of the college campus – they always have gates), in which a student obtains course credit or nominal remuneration in exchange for providing his labor a few times a week. An internship might be at a bank, or at a governmental agency, or a retail establish or at pretty much any kind of employer. Internships are important stepping stones to post-college employment, since the actual curriculum of a typical college student contains little that is specifically-related to career.
College courses are usually required in a wide range of subjects, from foreign languages, to mathematics, to science, to English and literature, to history and politics. These are sometimes called distribution requirements and most colleges require their undergraduates to take a collection of courses that make him or her well-rounded and generally knowledgeable about a lot of different topics without being an expert in any. There is of course the “college major”, a concentration of courses in a particular subject. Sometimes a major is vocation-focused, e.g. accounting or marketing, but more likely, especially at more prestigious colleges, a major is intellectually focused.
The residential campus ideal
When someone talks about college, the default arrangement involves a residential community. It implies a situation in which the vast majority of undergraduate students live in dormitories on a “campus”. A campus is an often-idyllic park-like space with defined borders, or even actual gates and walls around it, that also contains the dormitories where students live, course buildings, some structures for socializing such a student center or fraternity houses, and sports facilities. This is all very different from higher education physical plant in most of continental Europe and Latin America, and probably much of the world. There, the university (there is no separate concept of college) is typically in large buildings in a town or urban center, without any concept of campus at all. And furthermore, students typically live with their parents or incidentally live in apartments nearby scattered across this town or district of a city.
Affinity-building and future identity (alumni networks)
A very important function of the college experience is to provide graduates of the college with a ready-made affinity group. As a result of the personal-growth element of college and the extreme socializing that often occurs there, students typically leave college with an oversize sense of nostalgia about and identification with their college and, by extension, with anyone else who is a graduate of that college despite their age. (Another typical feature of college is the existence of immutable traditions that are retained from generation to generation that bind together different age-groups into a sense of shared experience).
So that's college in a nutshell. Pretty different from Uni!
CAVEAT CAVEAT CAVEAT - As you may have guessed, I'm basically a posh guy. So my posts will have a certain perspective. What I describe above as the college experience, is definitely NOT the higher education experience for all Americans. Many Americans go to commuter colleges, small local colleges that often offer 2-year associates degrees aimed toward job placement, or to community colleges, which are state-funded commuter colleges that also have adult education courses and the like. Many colleges in the largest cities of the Northeast do not really have a campus, and students live "off-campus" in regular apartments scattered around the city. There are hundreds of colleges in America, of all levels of academic prestige, culture, character and overall utility. There has also been a secular change of late, in that families are questioning the value of college as the sticker price for one year of undergraduate education now exceeds $50,000. Why this happened is the topic for another day.
Americans love to follow sports. In some parts of the country, college football is as important as religion or guns. In the northeast, professional sports dominate the social landscape. During certain sports seasons, talk of performances dominate discussion at the office. What to make of this? How to begin to understand?? Here is a quick summary of major American professional sports, in a nutshell:
The American Northeast is the urban aggregation extending from the northern reaches of metropolitan Boston down to the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. It is urban and suburban from end-to-end, and is one of the great megalopolises of the world. Its population density is very close to 1,000 people per square mile, which is far in excess of 10,000 people a square mile in the most urbanized sections of the large cities of the Northeast. Compare this to an average population density of 99 people per square mile for the United States overall.
Sometimes this area is called the Northeast Corridor after the name of the rail lines extending between these big cities. Even more oddly it is sometimes called the Eastern Seaboard. I am not sure what a “seaboard” is, but it apparently does not include the coastal plain of the southern US states, meaning it really should be the Northeastern Seaboard. Also, the concept of “the Northeast” does not include the entirety of the states of the northeast, in my humble opinion. Any city on the Great Lakes is really part of the Midwest, sharing that region’s former glory and current challenges as the (former) source of natural resources such as coal, ore and oil; and as the (former) center of heavy industry. Thus, western Pennsylvania including the former steel capital Pittsburgh and nearby cities and towns, and western and upstate New York including chemicals capital Rochester, manufacturing capital Buffalo and nearby cities and towns, are not really part of the Northeast. They have more in common with places like Cleveland (the birthplace of the oil industry and the Rockefeller oil monopoly), Detroit (the birthplace of the American automotive industry), Milwaukee (birthplace of modern farm machinery) and the many smaller (post-) industrial cities that line the Great Lakes. And other sections of this collection of states running from Maine to Virginia along the Atlantic coast are better characterized as Appalachia, especially upstate New Hampshire, the rugged Adirondacks and much of central New York State and Pennsylvania, as well as the Maryland panhandle and western Virginia.
Welcome to my blog! What the heck? What is this blog about? The blog is about YOU! YOU, the expatriate who has moved to the United States, somewhere in the Northeastern USA. New York, maybe Boston, maybe Washington DC (or a suburb?). You thought you knew about the good old US of A. You've seen her on movies, you've seen her on TV. Heck, you have even met an American or two...loud, friendly, inviting you inappropriately to their home five minutes after you have met them...
But now. Now you have SO MANY QUESTIONS. Mundane questions, WHY questions, what the heck questions.
Let me be your guide. I can tell you a thing or two. Why? (1) I lived abroad, as an adult - nothing like living outside your own country to get a new perspective on it, what makes it unique, weird, special, MADDENING. (2) I'm married to a posh foreign chick - the expat's information SQUARES, becomes exponential, when you add your significant other.
So without further ado, welcome to my blog.
The Frank Yank
"Frank" (adjective): open, honest, and direct in speech or writing, especially when dealing with unpalatable matters.
"Yank" (noun): 1. a slang word for an American. 2. (US, informal) short for Yankee (of the original English settlers of New England)
Just an American guy living in New York who knows what it is like to be an expat