(First published in The Dominion Post, November 27.)
My wife and I just returned from a month in the United States. These are some of my observations:■ New York has a reputation as a pushy, every-man-for-himself sort of place. In fact it’s anything but. We lost count of the number of New Yorkers – young and old, male and female, black and white – who noticed us peering at maps and offered assistance. If anything distinguishes Americans from New Zealanders, it’s their readiness to engage with strangers. New Zealanders might have the same impulse to help, but our British reserve holds us back.
■ There can be few more magnificent sights than the Manhattan skyline, viewed from Brooklyn Heights on a still, clear autumn evening. But Brooklyn “Heights”? Come on. It’s just high enough to see over the East River, no more.■ I can understand, at a stretch, why American switches are upside-down. The rationale is that it’s harder to turn things on by accident. But can there be any plausible explanation as to why American plumbing is so primitive and downright contrary?
■ Americans have an extraordinary tolerance of noise. They talk loudly, they shout a lot (in a friendly way) and they have an ongoing love affair with noisy V8s and those potato-potato-potato Harley-Davidsons. In the Californian town where our son lives, each new day is announced by a symphony of rumbling V8s as people head to work. Manhattan must be one of the noisiest places on earth; those sirens you hear constantly in TV drama series are not some scriptwriter’s invention – they really are part of the city’s soundtrack.■ You can tell which part of the US you’re in by the vehicles on the roads. In the south and west, the pickup truck is ubiquitous; the Ford F150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the US for 32 years. But you’d be hard-pressed to see any F150s in the cities of northeast, where bikes are more popular these days than Detroit iron.
■ In Washington we stayed in the charming, historic neighbourhood of Georgetown. Henry Kissinger lives here, as did Jackie Kennedy after she was widowed. It’s said that Kissinger once went out to buy some household items and couldn’t find his way home again. When a cop asked him how he could not know where he lived, Kissinger explained that normally his driver took him home. Even if not true, it’s a nice story.■ Walking through the grounds of Harvard University, I heard a man mention the word “quantum” in conversation as he passed. That’s one stereotype obligingly confirmed.
■ Sometimes the serendipitous discoveries are the most enjoyable. So it was with New York’s Old Town Bar, which we stumbled on in East 18th Street. It gives the impression of being little changed since it opened in 1892, and I wondered whether some of our fellow drinkers were original fixtures too.■ American food is a problem. It’s not that it’s uniformly awful – far from it. There’s just far too much of it. We all hear about American obesity, but considering the size of the meals served, the marvel is that they’re not even fatter. The other issue is variety, or lack of it. Americans seem to exist on a diet of burgers, chicken, pizza and fries. Oh, and copious quantities of cheese with everything. We have a far wider choice of cuisine here.
■ Best meal? No contest. At Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York (think Petone’s La Bella Italia, then multiply by10) I had a simple lunch of ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served with a lemon sauce and pistachios. Superb, and not expensive.■ On the other hand, you can fall in love with the idea of something and find the reality doesn’t quite match. That was the case with the famous Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, through whose closed doors we had gazed longingly on a previous visit to New York. Our long-anticipated lunch there was just so-so.
■ Tipping can be a tricky issue when you’re not accustomed to it. Do you tip regardless of how good the service is? If so, how much? I generally tipped about 15 per cent, but I noticed that not all Americans automatically tip, and I was reassured to hear a Boston radio host complaining that he was never entirely sure whether to tip either.■ Viewed from a passing train, some of the once-great cities of the northeast – Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington – look wretched and moribund. Only the gleaming high-rises of the CBDs give any hint of prosperity. Elsewhere, though, America gives the impression of being one giant construction site. And you can’t repress that natural American optimism, even where buildings are boarded up. It seems to be in their DNA.