The Small Things: a comparative study

Regular readers (hello!*) will be aware that my heritage is out of the USA.  When I visit I spend the whole time sponging off relatives and staying in suburban houses.

After complaining for as long as I can recall about what a fuck-up the USA is my parents, for reasons I think I now understand, bought a place in Florida.  We took the Sprout there to visit them, and two sets of aunts and uncles who also have places nearby.  I had to spend quite a lot of time listening to my father moan about subjects ranging from poor quality food to the evils of Comcast.  He was really harshing my mellow, and I took to yelling DOOM DOOM DOOM at him whenever I caught him mid-bitch.  Because while like any country it has its serious problems, the USA does plenty of things better than the UK.

I’m not talking about the big important things like equality, democracy, human rights, healthcare paid through general taxation, and non-shrieky news outlets.  I’m talking about the small stuff which has a minute impact on one’s daily pleasance.  After two weeks in the USA, I felt markedly less like I wanted to scream at random folk in the street about how bloody difficult life is.  So I started a ground-up compare and contrast study and I now present the results of seven whole minutes of brain-busting concentration.  What does the USA do better than the UK?

1.    Free and plentiful drinking water. 

In the UK if you want a free drink of water, you have to carry it with you or guzzle from a nearby river with a rusting supermarket trolley situated upstream.  This is even the case in nightclubs and airports.  There’s a thinly-carved exception for restaurants: there you must wait decades for a waiter to approach then request water, at which point they will offer you a choice of still or sparkling at a price that would make Bill Gates reconsider, and you have to ask for ‘tap’ to avoid being charged.

In the USA, drinking fountains abound.  In the airport they are every 250 feet or so.  At the beach, if it’s a decent one there will be a fountain.  In restaurants, a person with a jug of ice water appears ten seconds after you have sat down and pours you a refreshing free beverage before returning at intervals to top up your glass.  Incidentally, my father finds a way to hate even this: he says it’s unnecessary and intrusive (!).

2.  The availability of (free) toilets.

Let’s start with the notion that public toilets, in my view, should be readily available, free, and clean.  It is a public health issue not to mention a comfort one. Instead, in the middle of supposedly civilised London during a large street festival involving consumption of a fair amount of liquid on a hot day, I have had to pee in a bush in a council estate because all the local pubs and eateries had closed their facilities and I was in agony.  I had to walk past a makeshift men’s loo consisting of vertical slabs of corrugated iron to screen the action and jump over the streams of urine issuing forth from underneath and polluting the road-surface.  It was vile.  Was there a women’s toilet available?  Was there hell.

I have paid 30 pence to use a toilet at a railway station.  K-man has been trapped for three hours on a broken down train without a functioning toilet available and emerged in serious pain.   When one is lucky enough to come across a toilet that is free (whether that’s a public or pub/restaurant one) it is often woefully filthy and lacks the key element: toilet paper.  They are often so tiny that it’s near-impossible for me (and my 5 ft 3 inch medium-build frame) to enter, turn around, and close the door without advanced yoga postures.

In the USA, many of the toilets lack sensible joinery and afford little privacy, but they are very available and are always (as far as I know) free.  They are also generally clean.  I have climbed a mountain and found, to my astonishment, a well-kept toilet at the top.

3.  Refrigerators

Refrigerators in the USA are sensibly proportioned, and because of the vertical split approach easy to access.  They also come with an ice-maker about which I am generally ecstatic (see 1, above).  They are better in just about every way I can think of.  Refrigerators in the UK involve a stupidly small freezer compartment at the top of the fridge, or a hard-to-manage drawer arrangement at the bottom which requires double-jointed elbows and wrists to properly access.  You can get an American-style fridge, but only if you’re one of the ten richest people in the country.

4.  Sandwiches

I hadn’t noticed this one until my most recent trip to the USA.  It was painful to acknowledge because generally, I find food in the UK infinitely more palatable.  But the sandwich is the awful racist uncle of the UK food world: you wish it would buck up its ideas or just fuck off.  It is typically 80% limp bread and a thin smear of flavourless filling.  If there’s meat, you might get one extra-thin slice and it will be disguised among a forest of wet lettuce that has caused unacceptable bread-sog.  If it’s Sunday and you’re in a pub it might be accompanied by some stale crisps.  It is not a meal, it is a rip-off.

In the USA, the bread is a side-show to the main event: a creatively compiled gut-busting array of filling plus condiments.  It will probably appear alongside an acre’s-worth of fries.  You will not require further food for a week.

5.  Road layout

Even driving in cities is easier in the USA.  Roads don’t change names half way down them.  They do not bend back on themselves seventeen times to purposely disorient travellers: they are set out in a grid pattern.  They don’t lose a lane without warning.  Two-way roads aren’t so narrow that while it may have been possible for two horses to pass each other without brushing whiskers, it definitely isn’t possible for two modern cars to do so without someone losing a wing mirror.  There are no roundabouts.  This video neatly illustrates how many things you have to think about simultaneously to cheat death on a roundabout.  What it does not explain is that many drivers view roundabouts as a racetrack and will drive like dickheads.

There is one exception in the category of road layout: highway entrances/exits.  Why, USA, why?

UK 1

There is no reason to force cars trying to exit to cross paths with cars trying to enter, all in the space of less than ten seconds’ driving time.  It is entirely logical and possible to avoid this problem by having the entrance come after the exit.  In fact, it’s been tried and tested elsewhere.  Everywhere else:


Observe Car ‘A’ calmly exit the motorway.  Car B didn’t exit and continues on his merry way.  Road etiquette dictates that if it is possible for car B to move into the middle lane to create extra room for Car C, that should be done.  Car C can enter without fear of someone trying to cross his path to make the exit.  At no point do cars A and C cross each other’s path.  They don’t even know each other exist.

OK, that’s all I’ve got today folks.  If you know of any small stuff that’s done markedly better in a country other than your own, have at it in the comments section!  I’m always interested, even if I can’t find the time to reply between nappy changes.

* Thank you for continuing to read my sporadic writing and for saying lovely things to me.  I really do appreciate it.


2 Responses to “The Small Things: a comparative study”

  1. 1 unmitigated me June 18, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Florida’s freeways are pretty reasonable. In LA, those entrance ramps dump right into moving traffic. No 150 yards to merge.

  2. 2 jennatjugglinglife June 28, 2015 at 3:01 am

    Interesting take on our differences. And it looks like we are doing one big thing right as of 6/26!

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