America can be a strange experience for a foreigner. My wife and I arrived in the United States in January after seven years overseas -- four in France, three in Poland. From the jumble of first impressions, we compiled an A-to-Z explanation of why America can be such a foreign country to those who arrive here from Europe.
I should explain at the outset that I am from Britain, but my Florida-born wife Lisa is as American as apple pie. In this alphabet, however, A does not stand for apple pie. It stands for:
Ambition. In the Old World, people are taught to hide it. An exception was Macbeth who (Shakespeare tells us) nurtured "an ambition that o'erleaps itself and falls on the other side" -- and look what happened to him. Here, it seems quite proper to announce that you are after the boss' job or want to make a million dollars by the age of 30.
Breakfast. The American habit of conducting business at breakfast has reached Europe, but I doubt that it will ever really catch on. In France and Britain, breakfast is too much a family affair. Here, it has become part of the power game.
Credit Cards. You really can't leave home without them. It is interesting, and somewhat infuriating, to discover that bad credit is better than no credit at all: I was refused a Visa card on the grounds that I did not have a credit profile. Speaking of credit cards, we are bemused by the relatively new fad of destroying the carbons. Back in Europe, people prefer to keep their fingers clean.
Dreams. The American Dream, dented though it's been recently, is still very much alive. Dreaming great dreams is what keeps American society going -- from the waitress who wants to become a car dealer to the street kid who wants to become a basketball star. Europeans dream dreams too, but don't seem to believe in them so much. See Ambition.
Exercise. A couple of years ago, I came to Washington in the slipstream of French President Franc ois Mitterrand. A cheer went up from the French press corps as our bus passed a fitness center -- and we saw body-conscious Americans bending, stretching and leaping from side to side. America's fetish for fitness amuses -- and puzzles -- Europeans.
First names. In Europe, there is a natural and orderly progression from the use of last names to the use of first names. Here, it's first names at first sight. This can create confusion. I have one acquaintance who calls me Bill -- and I am not quite sure how to correct him.
Gadgets. These can be addictive. It is difficult to imagine now how we survived for so long without the cruise control, the automatic ice dispenser, the microwave and the cordless telephone.
Hechinger. If I were in charge of arranging the programs of visiting delegations from communist countries, I would include a compulsory visit to Hechinger. We know Polish farmers who have to wait months to buy fencing for their livestock. Their eyes would pop out of their heads in this temple of American capitalism.
Insurance. Americans have a policy to cover every risk, both conceivable and inconceivable. So far, we have refused rental reimbursement insurance for our car, death insurance for our mortgage and supplementary title insurance for our house. It gives us a feeling of living dangerously.
Junk food. Anyone who wants to understand why Americans suffer from higher rates of cancer and arteriosclerosis only has to look at what they eat.
Catsup. I had to come to America to discover that it can be eaten with anything -- from french fries to French cheese.
Lines. American lines -- beginning with the yellow line at immigration control -- are the most orderly and organized in the world. The British queue, once internationally renowned, has begun to fray at the edges in recent years. La queue Francaise was never very impressive, and la linea Italiana is simply a mob.
Money. In Europe, money is something that everybody likes to have -- but is careful not to flaunt. Unless it has been in the family for several generations, there is often an assumption that it has been acquired dishonestly. In America, the green justifies the means.
No smoking. No longer just a polite injunction in America, almost an evangelical campaign. Nobody would dare ask a Frenchman to put out his Galoise in a restaurant.
Ollie North. What other major western democracy would allow a lieutenant colonel to make foreign policy? A hero for some, a traitor for others, Ollie (see first names) is a wonderful example of the American go-for-it attitude that both awes and alarms foreigners.
Patriotism. Exists everywhere, of course, but the American version is brasher, louder, and more self-conscious than the European. In Britain, it is taken for granted that a citizen or politician loves his country. Here, he is expected to prove it.
Quiet. American cities are quieter than European cities -- thanks to noise controls on automobiles and the recent spate of environmental legislation. This was a major surprise for someone brought up to assume that America was a noisy place.
Religion. It's difficult, somehow, to imagine an English version of Jim and Tammy Bakker. When my parents came to visit recently, their eyes almost popped out of their heads at the sight of a fire-breathing Jimmy Swaggart denouncing the Bakkers on live TV. That's not the kind of way they behave in our dear old Church of England.
Sales. Ever since arriving in Washington, we have been hurrying to take advantage of this week's unrepeatable offer -- only to discover that it is usually repeated next week. We are just catching on that there is always an excuse for a sale.
Television. How grown-ups can watch game shows and sitcoms at 11 a.m. mystifies me -- but the national habit, day or night, is contagious. I recently found myself nodding in full agreement with a professorial type who was saying that American kids watch too much television. It was only later that I realized that I was watching him say this on television.
Ulcers. See Work.
Visas. Americans don't need visas to visit Britain (or most European countries, for that matter). To get my entry permit for the United States, I had to sign a document promising that I would not overthrow the government by force, had never been a member of the Communist Party, and was not wanted for war crimes. I had to provide details of my affiliation to labor unions as well as affidavits from four countries stating that I had no criminal record. All this for cruise control and a cordless telephone.
Work. A leading Polish sociologist, Jan Szczepanski, once told me that many Poles imagine that they will become rich simply by emigrating to America. He tries to persuade whoever will listen that America became a rich society through work, work and more work. It is still true.
X-rated movies. We have them in Europe too, but not on motel room TVs and not in most small towns.
Yuppies. The European counterpart remains a pale shadow of the all-American original. The animal seems more driven, more ubiquitous on this side of the Atlantic.
Zillion. What other nation would have invented a number that is infinitely more than a billion? America may not always be the best, but it is certainly the biggest