A European in the US of A
I'm from Eastern Europe, but I grew up on American culture. Cartoons, games, music, you name it. But it wasn't until my 30s that I got to visit the US for the first time. This summer, I spent a few weeks in beautiful Columbus, Ohio.
Imagine a scale from "home" to "foreign". To me, most of Europe feels somewhere in the first half. The rest of the world feels somewhere in the second half. The US was like both ends at once - foreign, yet so familiar. A totally different world that felt almost like home. A cognitive dissonance I never experienced anywhere else.
Feel free to treat this as one big generalization. I know I've only been to a tiny part of a massive and diverse country.
The dreaded CBP
As a foreigner flying into the US, you go through immigration first. Typically, this involves presenting yourself to a Customs and Border Protection officer and answering a few friendly questions, such as "Why did you come here?" and "When will you leave?". If they don't like your answers, off to the secondary inspection you go.
The immigration area at the Dulles Airport is a fun place. An incredibly bland interior, a long-ass queue of people moving too slowly, dead serious armed CBP officers surrounded by shiny Department of Homeland Security eagles. Tying it all together is the "Welcome to the United States!" CBP video playing on the wall-mounted TVs. "They've been safeguarding our nation's borders for more than 200 years, and continue to be the first line of defense." Really made me feel welcomed to City 17. This has to be on purpose, right?
I had a valid reason to be in the US, but I'd read enough CBP horror stories to feel a little uneasy. Then I overheard a guy in line behind me telling a story about getting pulled into the secondary inspection, being held for hours, and having his electronics searched. Had to scrap his laptop since unauthorized access was a violation of his employer’s policies. "And I'm an American citizen!"
Guess what happened next? Yep, my turn finally came, and I stuttered and bumbled and apparently sounded pretty unconvincing. The officer kindly put my passport into a transparent plastic box with a red label on it and told me to do the walk of shame all the way to the secondary inspection area.
"Sir, you are not allowed to use your phone here!" Thoughts were running through my head as I sat there, one of the handful of unlucky travelers. Criminals? Will they take my phone away? Inspect my laptop? Will I finally get my first cavity search? Why me? Is this how it ends? I might be exaggerating just a little.
The ending was anticlimactic. Some 20 minutes of overthinking later I got called, was asked a few additional questions about my visit, and was let go. Boring, I know. Sorry. I'll try better next time.
"Welcome to the United States of America!"
Not exactly welcoming. Am I too used to the comfort of traveling around Europe visa-free? And that’s me being a white European. But that’s law enforcement in general. Not the most welcoming bunch, even the non-US ones.
The friendly Americans
What about regular Americans?
The ones I met were fantastic!
(Except for that one bus driver in Columbus who had no patience for a clueless European trying to buy a bus ticket by credit card. Just told me to back off and get out of his personal space when I tried asking him about it. Turns out I needed exact change. Had to get off the bus and get a Lyft instead.)
But everyone else was genuinely friendly! I just love it when people are friendly by default. The smiles, the howareyous, the hellos from strangers walking their dogs. The casual chitchat. People were happy to help me out when I was confused by something silly. Like that one time I couldn’t figure out how to buy a bag of loose rice at Whole Foods. No label printer? Do you just casually carry a pen with you to write the item number on the twist tie?
Pro tip for Europeans: "Sorry, I'm from Europe, my first time in the US!” is a great conversation starter. Immediately lightens people up. "Oh, cool! Where from exactly? How do you like it here so far?"
Also, can we talk about American English real quick? To me, it’s “The English”, the one I grew up hearing. It just “sounds right”. I love the UK, and I love Ireland, and I think British, Scottish, and Irish English(es?) are incredibly cool, but talking to Americans just made me go “wow, this sounds exactly as it should!” in my head before I got used to it.
Walking feels wrong
Everyone knows the US is car-centric, but it still caught me off-guard. The huge paved parking lots. The massive concrete highways and overpasses. Lots of cars. Big ones, too. I had fun getting a ride in a friend's F250 one day!
I didn’t have fun walking, though. The suburbs are perfectly green, perfectly uniform, empty, endless. One day I made the mistake of walking to the nearest Aldi instead of taking a Lyft. Took me an hour in sweltering heat and I swear I didn’t meet a single person walking. Just cars, green lawns, and holy cow so many American flags!
Sometimes there was no sidewalk. Where do you walk when there’s no sidewalk? On the road, or on the lawn? Probably the road. Being the only person walking made me feel completely out of place. An eerie feeling of houses (or people inside the houses) watching me judgmentally. As if I was doing something weird or outright illegal just walking there. “Who are you? Why are you here? You don't look like you're from around here.“ Just my imagination?
Often there were no crosswalks. Makes sense if no one walks? And the markings are weird. Two parallel lines? What is this, a double stop line? Am I allowed to cross here or will I get run over and ticketed? Sometimes there’s a sign, sometimes there isn’t. Too few zebra markings, too many pedestrian buttons. Press it and die of old age waiting for the light to change.
(To be fair, Europe also has too many pedestrian buttons. I’ve heard rumors some of them aren’t even wired and it’s just pure psychology. Is this true? Preposterous.)
The verdict: the suburbs look neat, but are completely unwalkable.
Driving… also kinda weird?
It took me a week of walking and Lyfting before I got around to renting a car.
A quick sidenote: that's when I learned you don’t ride shotgun when ridesharing. The first few times I did it the drivers would scramble to clean up the mess in the front seat. Weird but ok? Then one day the driver asked me where I'm from since I'm clearly not a local. Awkward!
Apparently riding in the back seat is common knowledge and I'm a big dummy? As far back as I can remember I always used to take the front seat. It just made sense. In the front seat, you can watch the road and chat with the driver. In the back seat, you just sit there. Megaboring. Maybe it's an Eastern European thing? And I prefer driving to riding anyway.
So a week later, I got Lyfted into Enterprise and drove out of it in a slick black Cadillac CTS. It was supposed to be the cheapest Toyota, but the dude said they only had the CTS left, so I got a free upgrade. Pretty neat, although I find driving executive cars just as boring as riding in the back seat. They're soulless! I'll take a cheap brightly-colored Toyota Celica over a CTS any day.
End sidenote. Here's how I felt as a European driving in Columbus, Ohio:
Traffic lights. Turn on red. No turn on red. No turn on red except curb lane. Turning on red felt wrong. Not turning on red? Now also wrong. The green arrow means a protected turn, but you can still turn when it’s off as long as you yield. In Europe, you never turn on red unless there’s a rare extra arrow. Heck, you don’t even turn on green if the arrow is off. And you always yield.
Why are some traffic lights in the middle or on the other side of the intersection? I didn’t realize why it confused me until I got back home - in Europe, they're placed before and after the intersection. I recently saw a US video of a car driving through the intersection on red and stopping in front of the traffic light on the other side. It could’ve easily been me!
Also, what's with dog house traffic lights? Never seen them anywhere else. Confusing.
Then there are traffic signs. Too many of them, but also missing from places where I'd expect them to be. And they're so diverse! All kinds of shapes, sizes, placements. Why are speed limits plain white rectangles? So easy to miss. Why are highway exit signs so confusing?
And what’s with all the words? So. Many. Words! LEFT TURN SIGNAL. U TURN PERMITTED. RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT. LEFT TURN YIELD ON GREEN. Please don’t shout at me, signs. It's kinda redundant? Like, yielding when turning left is a rule. No extra words needed. Why waste time write lot word when sign do trick? In Europe, our signs don’t talk.
Finally, center lanes are a crazy concept. A lane you can go into from both directions? That’s, like… dangerous!
So, don’t tell me driving in Europe is difficult. Unless you’re in the UK. I needed a car during my recent visit to Wales and rented a… right-hand drive manual Fiat 500. My first time driving a right-hand drive manual car. Terrifying. I’ll take center lanes over that any day.
A couple more observations
Aviation. I know planes are worse than trains climate-wise, but US regional aviation is amazing. Love those tiny Embraer ERJ 145s. They’re like air taxis. You take off from DC and less than an hour later you’re in Columbus. Love it! And transatlantic flights? Also cool! Widebody Boeing 777s are MASSIVE. Crazy to think these things fly, and fast! Let’s just say I'm a fan of planes.
The crumbling infrastructure. I didn’t notice the US crumble, but it felt a bit shabby compared to Western Europe. Some roads and bridges could use a facelift. The Hilton I stayed at in DC felt like it hadn’t been remodeled since the 80s. The Dulles Airport also had this dated feel to it. None of it was terrible, just… not exactly up to date? (Marriott in Columbus was great, though!)
While we’re at it, do restrooms count as infrastructure? The water level in US toilet bowls is too damn high! The first time I saw a urinal I thought it was clogged. Nope, turns out they’re all like that. That’s just weird. And kinda uncomfortable? The toilet stall gaps are too damn high, too.
Grocery shopping. I lived across from Whole Foods and shopped there often. Expensive, but worth it! Great selection of produce, even fresh habaneros. Super hot. As a (red hot) chili pepper fan, I approve. Aldi was meh, little selection. They had a freezer full of massive turkeys and a shelf of incredibly American “Let Freedom Ring” memorabilia, but no shaving cream. Target was great. A ridiculous selection of everything, including my beloved energy drinks. And their mascot is a bull terrier. Bull terriers are the best!
The selection of beers in regular stores pleasantly surprised me. I'm a fan of cheap lagers and craft IPAs alike, so I absolutely enjoyed the iconic Bud Light and PBR. And isn't it crazy that beer in the US mostly comes in 6-12-24 packs? Had a hard time finding individual bottles.
The tipping culture is out of control. Why would I tip for counter service? Why would I tip for food delivery before I get my food? The one time I ordered DoorDash and tipped upfront I got an incomplete order. C'mon, America, it’s time to stop!
Drive-through ATMs! Never seen one in Europe.
Finally, there was the Smell. The air seemed to smell different in America. Kinda sweet-ish. Is it something regional? Is it due to the (relatively - in European terms) southern climate? Is it just Febreze? Or was it… the famous Sweet Smell of Freedom? Beats me, but I enjoyed it!
And yes, I enjoyed Columbus
I’ve heard Americans love to hate on Ohio. Is that true? In any case, I had a great time in Columbus.
The Columbus Zoo is amazing. If you’re around, go spend a day there. As a massive fan of hyenas, I was ecstatic to see live spotted hyenas for the first time. So up close and personal! Just strolling around, sniffing the air, splish-splashing in a pond. Adorable killing machines. The curious cheetahs a few feet away from me. The lion sleeping on the wing of a Beechcraft Model 18 airplane. The giraffes. And so many other animals. Two hours was critically not enough.
I also enjoyed the Ohio History Center. The main exposition takes you through Ohio's history from the times of the dinosaurs to today, and the Ohio Village offers you a glimpse into the 1890s. I wandered into the church when it had no visitors, and had a great time listening to the museum lady telling me stories about the ghosts and ghouls of Ohio.
The Franklin Park Conservatory was pretty neat. Check out the Paul Busse Garden Railway while you’re there. Did I ever have a model train as a kid? Can't remember, but now I want one.
Another thing I absolutely had to do while in the US? Go to a gun range! Range USA was the best. I wish I had more time, but I found the two-hour personal handgun training by an ex-celebrity bodyguard educational and exciting Would I like to purchase a gun? Eh, doubt they’ll let me take it on board. Thanks, perhaps next time!
And if you're into spicy food like me, I recommend giving Cazuela's Super Macho Spicy Burrito Challenge a try. You get 20 minutes to eat a massive superhot burrito, and it's free if you survive. I made it in 12 minutes and got a cool t-shirt, but I cried. A lot.
Thanks for being kind to me, Columbus, Ohio, and the United States of America!
How's that for a generalization?
If you're an American or someone who's traveled to the US, I'd love to hear from you. Am I on point, somewhat off-base, or just plain WRONG? Let me know!