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Back in the USA: Thoughts and Observations

March 31, 2011

It took 32 hours of straight travel to get to Chicago (including an 8 hours layover in Sydney), where I was forced to spend the night, but happy to have a hotel to finally shower and lay in a bed in an attempt to soothe my aching muscles. So many hours flying in very small and uncomfortable airplane seats, plus pushing around more than 70 pounds of luggage — the one rolling suitcase with a broken wheel — around four airports had really taken it’s toll. At this point I’d been through four airports, two in the US and two in Australia. I’d gone through security four times (as well as, of course, a long wait in immigration in LAX and a thankfully quick stroll through customs) and collected my luggage four times as well. (While I’m great at packing for regular traveling, I always overpack for living abroad. But I am NEVER taking this much stuff anywhere ever again!)

After a 19 hour layover, I finally made the last flight (my shortest at just three hours) to Fort Myers, FL where an hour drive to my parent’s house finally brought the end to my long, long journey of 54 (or 56 if you include transport to and from the airport) journey. That’s 2.25 days of almost straight travel, the first 32 of which blended together as one insanely long day from my 11pm red eye flight from Perth to my arrival in Chicago at 6pm the next day (or 6am two days later in Perth!). My trip stretched from Thursday in Perth to Saturday in Florida (which would be Sunday morning in Perth). Where most people gain a day, arriving in the US before they’d even left Australia (thank you International Date Line), I still managed to arrive home two days after I left Oz. It was a long trip.

All that being said, I’d like to make a list of some of my observations and thoughts upon arriving back in the US, from LA to Chicago to Florida.

– I at first had a lot of trouble getting used to everyone’s accents. My brain was constantly going “He/she/they sound American!” It’s just not normal — why does everyone sound American? And of course, even when people sound American, I still found myself thinking, “Yeah, well they’re probably Canadian but they sound so American.” Also, in LA and Chicago I found myself actually really annoyed by the American accent. And I’m not sure if being gone so long I’d just formed this weird warped perspective of the accent or what, but everyone (females in particular) seemed to have that really obnoxious American accent that just sounds ditzy and annoying. Like bad reality TV. Do people actually talk like this? Have I just forgotten? I still shudder a bit every time I hear it, which is all too often.

TAX! Arriving at my hotel in Chicago I was starving, so I picked up a sandwich from the cafe. The sandwich was $7.50, which didn’t have me feeling “Oh, wow this is so cheap!” but then again I was in the Hilton in an airport, and it was still cheaper than a similar sandwich would be in Oz. But then when I went to pay she told me it was $8.73. Huh? I started to correct her and say, “But the sandwich was labeled $7.50!” then I remembered: TAX. Why do we do this to ourselves? Honestly. Why can’t we be like every other country in the world and include tax in the labeled price? Is that so hard? I REALLY miss knowing exactly how much I was going to pay, and always paying nice and even amounts. The prices we see aren’t real, we are always going to spend more. How lame.

TIPPING! Then when I got the receipt there was a place for a tip. I had another “Oh crap” moment where I didn’t know what to do. I mean, she didn’t really do anything, except put the sandwich in the grill. Do I still have to tip her for that? Instinctively, I just added 27 cents to make a nice even $9. Then I realized, that’s what I used to do when I worked in Sydney at the cafe next door because I knew I didn’t really have to leave a tip. I probably just totally offended this girl. After a year not tipping, I really didn’t miss it. It feels so stressful, and I can now understand why visiting foreigners can get frustrated by it. It was so nice never having to worry about if you needed to tip anyone. Everyone gets paid to do their job, and people generally do a good job just because it is their job and they’re getting paid. No tipping incentives needed.

– When my parents were driving me home from the airport, at first I didn’t notice anything. But as soon as we got off the freeway and started driving on normal streets, I started to feel very bothered by driving on the “right” side of the road, which now felt very wrong. After spending so much times in the passenger seat of vans, driving on the left side of the road, I kept feeling this scared feeling that we were way too close to the right side of the road and driving on the wrong side. Even though I knew that it was correct, my brain kept sending me warning signals.

OK, enough complaining. Now on to some good things.

– In LAX I wandered into one of those typical airport convenience shops. I was instinctively drawn to the wall of magazines, and I started darting through looking at the prices. They were pretty much all $4-5. These exact same magazines in Australia cost $9-12. No joke. Now, I’m not much of a magazine person as it is, and even before in the US I always felt it was a waste of money for something I’d flip through once and just toss out. But there were definitely occasions in Australia where Oscar or I would feel in the mood to pick up a magazine for some fun reading, and we could never justify the price. Going to Walmart in Florida was practically a religious experience; I could not get over how cheap everything was. A $12 pint of Ben & Jerry’s cost only $4 here! Candy bars were 50 cents! Bath towels for $4! Cases of wine glasses for $3! I was in heaven.

– Stumbling into my hotel room in Chicago and passing out on the bed, I excitedly turned on the TV to get my dose of current American television. Before I even had to flip the channel I was met with quite the sight for sore eyes: Wheel of Fortune! It honestly hadn’t even crossed my mind that it would be on, but I think I might have let out a little scream of joy when I saw it. It was already almost over, but it didn’t matter. One of the staples from my television diet over my entire life was right there before me and it felt so good to watch. Too bad I’d missed Jeopardy! Even just watching commercials on TV I was reminded of how good and powerful American television can be. And how terrible. (I ran across Jersey Shore and watched it for about two minutes for the first time ever… Need I say more?) In general, they know how to get a cry out of you (and/or exploit people better?) on American TV than Australian. Oh, and I spent an entire Sunday lounging in front of the TV watching Oprah Behind the Scenes on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Ridiculous TV marathons, how I missed you. It felt good.

Alligator bites in Florida - I can always find something new to try!

– Food: BAGELS! I really, really missed bagels in Australia. They don’t do bagels. You might find one brand and one kind at the supermarket, hidden in the bottom corner of the bread aisle. Maybe. But they aren’t very good. It isn’t impossible to find them in a cafe every once in a while, but for some reason Australians seem to think they’re supposed to be like donuts and they put this sugary/icing crap on top. Nasty. The two times I ate a bagel in front of an Australian they asked me what it was and had never seen or tasted one before. So in O’Hare when I saw “The Great American Bagel” shop I almost died. The line was long — because we eat bagels here! Woo! I had a really, really hard time deciding which bagel to have. In Australia there only seemed to be Blueberry. Here there was Blueberry, Poppy, Whole Wheat, Onion, every kind of cheese you can imagine, Sesame, Everything and on and on and on. And the cream cheese was real cream cheese! The first bite I had of that amazing bagel I definitely let out a little “Ohmygod” and might have earned some strange looks, but no lie it was THAT GOOD. Oh, and the bagel and a Diet Pepsi cost me only $5. In an airport! Heavenly. Seeing anything on a menu that was listed as $2-something made my eyes pop. Holy cow!

– Drinks: As I mentioned, I grabbed a Pepsi at the bagel place. The bottle felt really weird. The sizes are a little different (it’s 591ml here and I think it’s 600ml in Oz), but the shape is different as well. It at least seems to me that the US bottles are shorter and fatter. And of course the packaging is really different (for both Pepsi and Coke — I note this a weirdo who collects Pepsi labels from every country I visit). As little and strange as it sounds, just seeing the old labels of things like Pepsi and Coke, which you pretty much see every day wherever you are, was a weird feeling. It was like remembering something you forgot, something you obviously don’t think about otherwise but just nudges at you that this is different.

The US has beaches too!

The thing about coming back to the US is just that: it’s not that different. Australia and the US have a lot in common: same language (well, technically), similar way of life, living conditions, even store and food chains. They operate in similar ways, and day to day life and generally getting around and functioning in each is not so different. Because of this, all the little things stand out just that much more, reminding me where I am. Just sitting in an airport it’s easy to forget which country I’m in: the signs are the same, and there’s people of all languages and accents wandering around. Until I see the old school American EXIT sign or hear the slightly more understandable announcement over the intercom and am reminded that I am “home.” Mostly, it feels nice to be back, but I think after my year in Australia, really getting into the daily life there and becoming so immersed in the country, it feels a little bit like “home” too.

What I wish I had in Perth: a pool

Arriving in Southwest Florida (which is not my usual home), I realized it is a lot like Perth. Thankfully, it’s a little bit cooler (in fact, at 80 degrees I was feeling a bit chilly!) and we have A/C. And a pool. Very nice improvement. I will definitely write some kind of post on Florida because it truly is a destination in itself. Within a short drive from the house I can see manatees, alligators (not that I have seen either yet), turtles and tortoises, and all kinds of huge birds — herons and storks and so much more, all just chillin’ on the side of the road!

As I write this update I am actually waiting in the tiny Punta Gorda airport for my flight to Knoxville. With bad storms in Florida, I was originally told my flight would be at least two hours delayed. However, lucky me, after only a semi-long wait in a very, very crowded little airport (all planes flying in were grounded), I was just told that my plane is thirty minutes away, meaning it will only be an hour and a half or so late (fingers crossed!) Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself by typing that! Anyways, I will be in Tennessee for the next week and a half, so my life will consist of finally seeing some of my best friends for the first time in a long time and doing a little bit of work on the side, meaning I may not have the chance to update here for a while. We’ll see!


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