All this in response to… a parking meter.
Sunday at 3:10 sharp my friend Emily and I stood in the agitated crowd of Megabus riders watching the orange-and-blue coaches roll in, holding a bubble-lettered sign on the back of my own ticket. We were waiting for a friend who speaks at least four languages passably, but had never been to the United States before that Friday. Apparently three days in the U.S. can be so overwhelming that it makes you jump straight back to the tv shows you watched growing up in Spain.
If you’ve never welcomed a friend to your home, even to your city, I highly recommend it. This friend is one of the best kind of travelers: with a genuine desire to dig into local life and enough exuberance to make a -21 degree (-5 F) post-ski walk home feel like a trip on the Polar Express. Things that seem 100 percent commonplace to me, such as street mailboxes, newspaper bins, and gigantic ketchup dispensers, were a cause for exclamation. I somehow felt flattered that he was so amazed by the Philadelphia nighttime skyline or an elevator to the 24th floor, and watching him take pictures of brown squirrels suddenly made my life seem more… exotic.
It was also a lesson in how to explain the United States, and our way of life, in a way that genuinely inspires interest and nips stereotypes in the bud. For example, how should I answer the question “You know what else I think is weird? How come there are no kids in any of these bars?” I know that in Spain bars and cafés are much more social, and you can often get a coffee as well as a glass of wine, but the idea of seeing a woman in a Baby Bjorn on a barstool in the States melted me into giggles. But I don’t think the reason is Americans are “conservative” and “uptight,” as I’ve read in French guides.
The best answer is simple: it’s different everywhere. But if you give it a shot and ask why there are no kids in the bar, or why everything is bigger in America, you might find out that you appreciate the differences a lot. And end up giggling, too.