Most of 2013 for me has been spent, not in the United Kingdom, but in the United States of America. In all I was there about five months, living the interchanging existences of an extra on a college campus movie set, and giddy English backpacker, overwhelmed by the quaintness of, well, everything from Park Avenue to the way the southerners say “y’all”.
Maybe it was Hollywood or perhaps Obama, but American culture has a way of sucking you straight in whether you put up a fight or not. One month down and I had forgotten what it felt like to strut into any drinking establishment and order a “dietvodkalemonade”. Two months in and I had readily adopted for all occasions what American’s call “casualwear” and we call pyjamas. After three months I had overcome my grief of discovering that the nearest Topshop and Zara were 495 miles away. By the time four months and the end of my semester study abroad approached fraternities and sororities felt normal, that everyone turned to look at me when I spoke, a given, and dropping the ‘u’ from ‘colour’ made so much sense.
Then again the ease with which I have slipped back into an English normality makes me genuinely question whether I have just been in a coma all this time. Nonetheless, America’s cultural quirks come racing back to me nostalgically every so often, like Jackie O’s sunglasses every few seasons.
It is not the obvious things that I remember, like which side to drive on, the dollars or the friendly drawl. More the less publicised aspects that anyone who has been to America will instantly recognise. Although I thought I knew the proper U.S of A via the BBC, in American Vogue or, let’s be honest, predominantly from Gossip Girl / 90210/ Friends, this country, the geographical size of Europe, is as layered as a Victoria sponge.
Below I have compiled a list of the least talked about ten best and worst things about the land they call “Murica”…
1. Vintage For Cheap
Thank you America for appreciating that used clothing is, well used, and should be priced reflecting this, no matter how trendy and commercial vintage has become. How refreshing it is to go into “thrift stores” and find authentic Levi denim jackets for $20, $10 slouchy cable knits and $5 sunglasses that were so wonderfully bonkers they could have been whipped off the spring/ summer 2013 Prada, Versace and Nina Ricci catwalks. They seem a world away from the overpriced outlets on Shoreditch High Street or in Covent Garden which churn out bank-balance-denting real fur coats, ladylike satchels and silk scarves every couple of breaths to fashion-conscious fillies. Maybe it is the fact that the vintage craze outside of American cities is so much less apparent, although in no respect non-existent, but the whole point of thrift shop dressing in America is as an economical, laissez-faire, arty choice in defiance of the commercial, identik “Macy moms”. It was slightly ironic that the first time I heard Macklemore’s Thrift Shop in full was in a car on the way to complete a blog assignment about such a place for the student newspaper I worked for. At this local thrift store they were running a $2 ‘bag day’ where you filled a brown bag with as many items as you possibly could (see what I took home here).
This is not to say that vintage stores in the United States are sub-standard, charity shop stuff. In fact they are arguably better, in spaces less crowded and pretentious, with stock of better quality and authenticity. American vintage stores, unlike British ones, do not seek to create a particular “vintage” look for you – all the fun is in the rummaging and discovering your own look. I loved the way American thrift shops were often locally minded. The Clothing Warehouse on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill where I studied was a vintage chain expanding on a franchise scheme outwards from its flagship in Atlanta, Georgia. Its latest advertising campaign features clothing modeled by local college students, including my North Carolinian friend Breanna. The stunning photography was by a fellow British exchange student, Emma Allwood. Another vintage thrift shop on the same street was Time After Time which sold an eclectic mix of old suits, worn-in leather jackets, organza prom dresses and everything else you could ever desire for fancy dress. Despite its very understated shop fit and blink-and-you-miss-it shop front, it was recently crowned as one of the top twenty-five vintage stores in the United States by GQ Magazine. Indeed, unlike their British counterparts, these vintage outlets do not take themselves too seriously. Having found New York to be the same as London in the pricey department, one of my favourite vintage experiences in America was on San Francisco’s Haight Street. In this Camden-like setting with a number of psychedelic goth stores for good measure, there were several vintage treasure troves selling beautiful old jewelry, handbags and shirts. The uncontested winner of these was Wasteland who managed to make their largely second hand stock look ridiculously covetable in an airy, wooden floored building with stylish staff. This particular chains functions partly on the basis of locals bringing in the odd item to sell with the shop taking a cut if the product is sold. My boyfriend bought a lovely fleece-lined Levi denim jacket, while I looked on wishfully at a Chanel-esque pill-box shoulder bag among other things, wondering why I had not saved all my travel money for this precise moment…
2. Proper Coffee and Proper Lemonade
Yes I did not think this would be the case either. In the land where they die eggs white to make them look more ‘natural’, and the place which preserves its milk to such an additived extent that it takes a month to go off, in an almost French manner I expected everything else to be equally as artificial and unappetizing. Actually, I was wrong. America do coffee and lemonade Michelin-style, even if they cannot master G&T or English Breakfast. Why these two beverages specifically? I do not know either.
Coffee or cawfee is only ever the good stuff. If you are American you either feel lazy and pop to Starbucks or Caribou for a skimmed soy latte, or you brew it yourself right down to the grinding of the coffee beans as I found out to my horror that a girl in my French class had been doing just before our 9am. To my shock this was the norm, and there was none of this instant coffee malarkey. Walmart sells about thirty different types of coffee beans, but only two options for the instant stuff, while within the first week my roommate could not understand why on earth I wanted a kettle or “water heater” to make the stuff. Americans like their coffee proper, and boy does it taste so much better. Additionally, outside of Italy I have not had such an effective means of coping with early mornings. In New York we visited the famous Ninth Street Espresso in Chelsea Market which allegedly serves the best coffee in the United States – for $5 a cup I think I should agree.
Lemonade was another unlikely American hit. The first time I asked in a bar (shhh) for a “dietvodkalemonade” I was handed an almost cocktail-like formation. In the United Kingdom this drink would be served with Sprite or some other cheap replacement so that you can always taste the vodka through it. In America the vodka taste was sublimely masked by bitterly sweet freshly pressed lemonade. And this was little more classy than a dive bar. I would like to say that I drank freshly pressed lemonade on its own too, while lounging on a California beach or relaxing on a Cape Cod pier maybe, but that might be lying.
3. NBA and the NAFL and the BLAH
Wow. Never did I expect to be a willing spectator to so much sport. In the past I have also willingly gone to Lords and Wimbledon, however these moments are few and far between. In America they are quite simply obsessed by the idea of throwing or batting a ball about and winning some form of official brownie points. Sport means so much to the United States that it will literally bring a shopping mall to a standstill, make people burn furniture in celebration (a Franklin Street tradition apparently), and draw many to depression at a loss. America, while I think there are bigger world issues, your solidarity and team spirit at sporting events is rather beautiful. I was lucky to study abroad at one of the most successful participants of college sports, the University of North Carolina. Ranked in the topmost echelons for basketball, american football and baseball it meant that games on campus were broadcast on national television, and that athletes were treated like celebrities on campus – with a gaggle of freshman fans in tow. This is unsurprising since many of the players will be drafted into the national leagues before their degrees are complete, earning billions of dollars annually. With their heads exploding with admiration these athletes believed they were god’s gift to women – I remember a frat party in a castle-shaped frat house in which two american football players attempted to chat myself and my British friend Claire up with lines as imaginative as “I just looooove yo accents”.
University of North Carolina – American Football
University of North Carolina versus Duke University – Basketball
Nonetheless, the medieval pageantry that accompanies college games at universities where several millions of dollars are invested in sport, was probably the best part. Cheerleaders and half-time dancers were every bit as Mean-Girls-plastic. Other perks were the marching college band at American football games which proved to be a bit like Trooping the Colour, and the deafening/ blinding time-out entertainment on the big screens for fans while the basketball players had breaks every thirty seconds. College sports games are as much artfully spun shows as those on Broadway. Sport is even crazier on a major league level with endless news reports and statistics thrown at whoever will listen. I went to see the Yankees play at their baseball stadium in the Bronx, New York. The evening may have cleared up for me why wannabe Jay Zs wear that weird pitch fork symbol on the front of their baseball caps all the way back in blighty. Regardless, to luck out and become a star college athlete who then accedes to the NBA, NAFL et al is the ultimate American rags to riches story, however the route is unforgiving, requiring students to gamble and leave their degrees prematurely, only to be injured as a professional and ultimately finishing their career at a ripe twenty three.
University of North Carolina – Baseball
4. Star Spangled Banner
Times Square (JT)
It perhaps was not the worlds biggest secret, but American people love America. To British people this level of unreserved patriotism is quite worrying at first, but then it becomes wonderfully endearing. I love England, but not as passionately as your average “murican” who, with hand proudly on his heart, knows every single word to the national anthem and is more excited for July 4th than his own birthday. It is easy to stereotype Americans with the patriotic card, mocking rednecks and Mormon communes at the same time, but this level of communal spirit is one we only hope to see every time there is a royal wedding. America is simply more open about its feelings. Their flag drapes more of the United States than Topshop buries British girls’ bedrooms. The Star Spangled Banner is flown from some sort of height almost every urban block and finds its way onto all sorts of clothing, billboards and souvenirs – and why not I suppose, it does look rather nice on my pair of Forever 21 denim shorts. Unlike in Britain, the freedom to love a country and the lack of social stigma surrounding that results in a loyal following for homegrown brands, cuisine and ultimately outlook. I think no nation other than France deems it such a trial to travel abroad.
5. Doing Everyone Else’s Food Better
Georgetown Cupcakes, Washington D. C. (Me, top and Georgetown bakery, bottom)
The only thing about America that I was at all familiar with before I traveled was its famously bad cuisine. If not to be repeated trips to Waffle House and McDonald’s breakfasts are anything to go by, it is even worse than you thought. However, if you avoid questionably-manufactured American delicacies like the plague then you discover how the health conscious citizens are able to cope. Wholefoods and Trader Joe’s can barely be distinguished from Waitrose, tastily healthy food outlets swarm the downtowns, as do (thank god!) a select few city Pret A Mangers. However, while in urban parts being able to buy a sandwich that is actually a sandwich, not a burger, and a salad that isn’t sprinkled with crisps, is refreshing, it is other country’s food that America masters with unanimous fifty state aplomb. Thanks to the authentic immigrant presence that lingers centuries after the first arrivals, Mexican burritos, Italian pizza and German hot dogs among other dishes are all available in fast, gourmet, skinny and takeout versions. Nonetheless, something that is very much America’s own is the now hallowed cupcake. Not really a fan before, Sugarland on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill’s red velvet kind converted me, while the fifty minute queue in the freezing cold to enter the famous Georgetown Cupcakes in Georgetown, Washington D. C. was strangely worth it. Unfortunately for me, my American food obsession, Starbuck’s apple fritters, are now sold in Britain…
Ben’s Chilli Bowl, Washington D. C. New York
Grimaldi’s, New York
1. Car Ville
New York Subway (bottom, James) (Top, JT)
If an Englishman’s best friend is his dog, then an American’s is most certainly his car. In fact, the United States is at the mercy of this four-wheeled beast, and appears to believe that the more your gas guzzler dwarfs you the greater your social status. It is probably just as well that petrol runs through American’s veins- you cannot go anywhere without one. The distances across the country are so great, and the public transport so poor, that without consigning yourself to human isolation you have just got to join in and help pollute the planet.
That is not to say that the American ‘highway culture’ is such a bad thing. There is something quite therapeutic about driving in a straight line for miles across the flat, untouched Alabama countryside. The distances involved to travel anywhere are humongous. It was a thirteen hour drive to travel from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Panama City, Florida for spring break, and a twenty-four hour one back after our rental car was crashed into. Having previously complained about three hour car journeys in England to visit extended family, a one hour train journey from home to London now feels like five minutes. Nonetheless, I did not have to do any driving…
Santa Monica, Los Angeles
San Francisco (JT)
The glamorous road trip was born on the American highway, and it does seem very appealing. The geography of the United States is so diverse that to drive the famous Route 66 or original ‘Mother Highway’ from Chicago to Los Angeles encapsulates desert-like Oklahoma and leafy California, and mimics the historic frontier expansion west. Road trips allow you to go wherever you want, play whatever music you wish, stop for whatever food you like, and there is something very lovely about being in the peaceful middle of nowhere for long periods of time. Our road trip may have included more driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road induced stress and Wendy’s fuel stops than most, but it was one of the most all-American experiences we could have had.
However, the dominance of the automobile means that unlike Europe’s cheap Megabuses, interrail networks and budget airlines, public transport in the United States is in a shocking state. Or at least most people would never dream of using it. My college suitemate could not understand why I could possibly want to get the budget Greyhound bus to New York, and I wondered why as I stood sticking out like a pale white sore thumb in a bus terminal in Richmond, Virginia at 3am. Used to the incredibly user-friendly London underground, the New York subway – poorly lit and often deserted – felt like something out of a horror movie. Then there was the time when the snooty woman at the LAX customer help desk openly sniggered when we asked how to get the metro to downtown. Let’s just say backpacking in America involves blood, sweat and tears…
2. 237 Years Old
Washington D. C. San Francisco
As I sit writing this within a ten mile radius of five stately homes, fifty medieval churches and the site of a Civil War battle, I perhaps, maybe arrogantly, find it rather bizarre how much emphasis America places on its mere 237 year old history. Then again it is a rather spectacular history, if condensed, in which you only have to say “JFK”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Watergate” to unravel a lot of internationally relevant stuff. However, I must admit I find it unfathomable why the Declaration of Independence is revered like an ancient manuscript despite the fact it was largely ignored for most of its existence, that southern oil money treats its former plantations like English stately homes and for college fraternities and sororities named after ancient Greek symbols to believe they are modern day knights of the round table.
Sutter Creek, California
Nonetheless, the fact that American history is all so comparatively recent does mean it is very well-preserved, feeling a bit like a Horrible Histories Disneyland attraction at times. Charleston’s colonial architecture was like a movie set – and actually was one for my favourite film, The Notebook. Two American friends drove us to Sutter Creek, a California Gold Rush wild west style town near Sacramento, complete with swinging saloon doors. When we visited Hyannis in Cape Cod, home of the Kennedys, it was little altered from the moment when John F. Kennedy accepted the presidency from inside an ugly bunker style building in the town. New York, Boston and Washington D.C. were perhaps the most actually historic. Parts of the former felt like that scene in Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby film where they spend a night of debauchery in the city – 1920’s style.
New York from the Empire State Building
Hyannis, Cape Cod, Massachussets
3. “Oh, Say Can You See”…Not again
Coney Island, New York (JT)
American patriotism is like Britney – you think it’s wholesome and adorable, and then it just all goes wrong. There were two final straws that made me conclude that America is too in love with America. These were the sighting of a red neck type filling up his car at the gas station in none other than a Declaration-of-Independence-scripture-come-American-flag shirt, and happening to live in freshmen dorms next to the baseball field where they played the national anthem at full blast for every game that season – that is a lot of singing people.
4. East London Where Art Thou?
Brooklyn, New York
Midtown, New York
New York and Los Angeles are considered to be global style centres, while America itself is a billion dollar consumer of beauty and fashion, and the alleged home of the cool and arty. Maybe I went to the wrong places, but the majority of America to me appeared conservatively dressed and foundation free. The general female look aligned more with the pretty and less with the edgy as is popular in Britain. The United States prefer to dress down in comfort, while Europe dresses up in (presumably) discomfort, however the lack of no pain no gain mentality across the pond was something I was not expecting. Are Los Angeles women not, after all, the famous pioneers of size zero, and New York fillies the first adopters of the bare legs in winter look. Perhaps in Britain we prefer to simply show off, whereas Americans would rather lean towards incognito.
Granted, people do dress well in America and the shopping there was not that dissimilar to what I was used to, however there is just something about British and European fashion that feels more accessible and louder. In New York we stayed both in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, both areas of which have been compared in the past to East London. While in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district there was some evidence of on trend printed trousers and platforms, Shoreditch/ Dalston/ Hackney et al are streets (style) ahead.
Nonetheless, New York is a fashion capital. Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf does indeed exist in real life on Park Avenue, while Midtown was full of well-dressed people with Alexander Wang Rocco bags. Being within 100m potentially of Anna Wintour outside the Times Square Conde Nast Building, and visiting the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were definite style highlights.
Central Park, New York
Conde Nast Building, New York
The obvious complaint after five months of wonderful American exploration. Traveling to Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Washington D.C., Panama City, Charleston, New York, Boston, Cape Cod, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas was obviously no cheap feat. America, why can visiting you not be for $0?
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles (JT)
Panama City, Florida
Malibu, Los Angeles Beverly Hills, Los Angeles
A number of incredible photos in this post were taken by James Thorpe.