Thursday, 16 July 2009

How's America different?

I suppose my loyal readers (both of them!) want to know what I found different about America compared to home. Actually, not very much... not much at all. People are people, helpfulness is helpfulness, and airports seem to be identical the world over. There's a lot of little differences with signage and such (for instance, their pedestrian lights have a countdown in seconds showing how long they'll be red-flashing before they go solid red), but there's that much difference between different councils in Melbourne. Also, of course, I can only compare with Los Angeles, CA, but if anything is contradicted by later experiences I can always comment it.

There were two things that were disconcerting, though. Driving on the wrong side of the road, and - believe it or not - the lack of "tick-tick-tick" alerts on pedestrian lights. Back home, our pedestrian lights give aural feedback - while the light is red, a sharp clear "tick" once every second; when the light turns green, the ticks come rapid-fire. The primary purpose of this is to help vision-impaired people, but it's a great help to the sighted too. You can allow your attention to wander, and then let your ears alert you. The lack of this means that we spent more time at traffic lights, which is a problem when we're trying to catch a bus that's a diagonal cross away from us and the cycle is too short.

Driving on the wrong (yes yes, I know you call it the "right") side of the road is mostly not a problem. I see cars moving, I accept it. There's a couple of times when it becomes more of a problem. The first is when I'm crossing a road that doesn't have any cars on it right this second; I'm used to flicking my head from left to right to see if there's any cars coming, and completely ignoring the side from which cars won't come - I look to the intersection one half, and the road the other half. Now, I'm looking the wrong direction, which is terribly disconcerting. (Incidentally, the trains seem to go the other way. Of the two tracks here, we're going on the left and trains pass us on the right - except once when I think we were shoved into a loop. Hmm. Maybe there's the pass line and the freight line, because the time we were looped it was a pass service. Must ask M if he knows anything about that.) The other time was when I was on the bus, and the driver started doing right turns straight into oncoming traffic (of course, it didn't help that he drove like a maniac and used the horn freely). We're swinging right, I assume that this means passing the oncoming vehicles and going to the patch of road beyond them; but it doesn't, and we slot neatly into the available space _before_ the cars (which looked to me like a left-turning lane or something).

Apart from the direction of driving, the level of unfamiliarity is really no greater than I could find by going elsewhere in Australia. There's a lot of familiar business names, a lot of basic structure of a well laid-out city in the Western world, a lot of universal humanness, that means we can get around quite easily. There seem to be a lot of level crossings here (they ought to grade sep them!), but they look pretty much like ours - except for one odd difference: no bells! Are Americans all so deaf that it's not worth giving that aural feedback? They're missing out on the benefits of additional modes of communication. Well, there's plenty of things we could learn from here, so I guess this balances it out a bit with stuff they could learn from us. So be it.

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