Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Saturday, 18 December 2010

Kevin Connolly's guide to American culture

Kevin Connolly in Washington
After three years of eating steaks the size of elephants' ears, Kevin bids farewell

The BBC's America correspondent Kevin Connolly is packing his bags for a new post in the Middle East. During his three years in the US he has visited 46 out of 50 states and covered the country's election of its first black president.

Sometime around the spring of 1835, a young Frenchman called Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to the United States on a mission guaranteed to make Americans bristle with irritation. He was going to understand them, and explain them.

De Tocqueville was smart, Gallic and aristocratic - a 19th Century version of the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" that 21st Century Americans find so vexing.

He left behind one or two books that are still worth reading, but his most important legacy was his simplest.

After De Tocqueville, just about every European sent to the United States has treated the posting as an invitation to help diagnose the country's faults and suggest ways in which they might be fixed.

Immigrants on Ellis Island, 1905
Some 16m people immigrated to the US from 1892 to 1924

Americans find this a little puzzling.

After all, they reason, theirs is a country founded and created by migrants who had left the old world behind them.

And it is generally the most energetic and resourceful people who flee old lives to build new worlds, leaving their less enterprising fellow-countrymen behind them.

So the arc of American development is going to make the place less and less like the old world, not more and more.

But there is, nevertheless, a deep-seated European instinct that says the United States might be all right if it would only tweak its attitude towards healthcare, or gun control or the death penalty.

But, of course, it would not exactly be all right - it would just be Britain with bigger portions and better weather.

Great American Songbook

My own introduction to the realities of the American century came at a rather less strategic level.

As a very young child, I had a stammer, and when I was growing up there was a theory that the rhythms and repetitions of popular songs could be useful tools for fixing this.

When you come to live in America, you are shocked by the familiarity of the unfamiliar

So the Great American Songbook was drummed into me with such merciless kindness in my mother's kitchen that I can still remember nearly all the lyrics, postcards to the dreary Europe of the early 1960s from what we dimly perceived to be a brighter place.

When age has finally shriven me of everything else I recollect across the ravaged wastes of memory, I know for certain that I will still recollect every word of the Eileen Barton classic If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd Have Baked a Cake, a genuine contender to be considered the worst song ever written.

Among our favourites was a song called Delaware, which consists of a never-ending string of puns based on American place names.

"What did Della wear, boys? Why, she wore a brand new jersey of course... "

I am still struck today by the charmless ingenuity of its witless wordplay.

It does not tackle any of the really awkward ones like Vermont, or Utah but it does manage a verse about "Why did Callie phone ya?" (Cali-for-nia)

In case you had not guessed incidentally, Callie was calling to ask "How are ya?" (Ha-wa-ii).

The result of that early exposure to American culture, of course, is simple.

When you come to live in America you are shocked by the familiarity of the unfamiliar.

You will know a pretzel from a bagel and a Dodger from a Met.

You know what the uniformed concierges at apartment buildings do, and you know what you must tip them at Christmas.

The answers respectively being not much, and too much.

And there is something beguiling in that easy familiarity, but something misleading about it, too. It tends to blind Europeans, and the British in particular, to any sense of just how foreign a place America can be.

'Bureaucratic boondoggle'

This is, after all, a country born out of a tax-revolt during a rebellion against centralising authority, and then expanded by settlers who exchanged the comforts of the Eastern seaboard for the dangers and opportunities of the wild interior.

Tea Party protester in St Louis
The Tea Party movement taps into a suspicion of federal government

It is not surprising that a feisty scepticism towards government lingers in the politics here.

The Tea Party movement is successful because it taps into the deep American suspicion that all federal government apart from defence spending, is a kind of bureaucratic boondoggle, dreamed up by larcenous conspiracists in Washington to allow them to line their pockets by picking ours.

And America is, of course, an intensely religious place - something that is not difficult to trace to its foundation by a band of hardy religious zealots.

If anything, over time, it is getting more religious rather than less. The motto In God We Trust was not added to American banknotes until the 1950s, for example.

Americans tied themselves in knots two years ago agonising over whether a black man, or a white woman could yet be elected president.

But here is a safe prediction. It will be a very long time before an atheist or agnostic gets anywhere near the White House.

A stark contrast with Europe where the opposite is increasingly the case.

And our differences extend into this earthly realm too.

To Europeans, for example, a gun is a weapon, pure and simple.

To many, but not all Americans, it is a badge of independence, and self-reliance - the tool of the engaged citizen who does not think that either the criminal, or the forces of the state, should have a monopoly on deadly force.

Show us a gun, and we picture a muscular ne'er-do-well in a balaclava menacing an elderly sub-postmistress.

An American is more likely to visualise a plucky homesteader crouching between an overturned sofa in a burning ranch house, preparing to defend his family to the death.

American manners

These things too are familiar enough, but a country so large, so restless and so energetic is necessarily full of surprises and contradictory impulses too.

This is after all, the land that gave us prohibition and then invented organised crime to get around it.

I have been handed a ticket to a multi-storey car park with an exhortation to have an 'outstanding parking experience'

American writing, for example, beguiles and exasperates in equal measure.

Its newspapers - with one or two exceptions - are awful.

Endless sub-clauses roam across prairies of newsprint in search of the point, like homesteader wagons on the Oregon trail circling around a knackered old buffalo.

And yet the daily American way with language is touched with brilliance, taut and crackling with life.

My favourite example is the simplest, the old railroad crossing sign that simply says: Stop. Look. Listen.

Impossible to shorten or clarify, it was written by an engineer for a country of new immigrants with limited English. It is not long, but it is still in use today, a rare example of perfect writing.

American manners, too, are not quite what you might expect.

The invocation to "have a nice day" is still common, and when it feels sincere it has a real charm. But like a fast-food franchise it has expanded and mutated.

In the Bible-belt, you will be wished a "blessed day" for example.

Gymnasium receptionists will enjoin you to "have an excellent workout" and, most improbably of all, I have been handed a ticket to a multi-storey car park with an exhortation to have an "outstanding parking experience".

But the rejoinder "you're welcome", which once greeted almost any expression of thanks in America, is in retreat.

In its place is a sort of wordless acknowledgement, halfway between a grunt and a hum, "mm-hmmm". It is a sound that acknowledges your thanks but implies that no great joy has been found in helping you either.

US marines in Helmand, Afghanistan
America has enormous debts but it still spends as much money on defence as all the rest of the world put together

America was first into the world of over-effusive politeness and it is on the way to being first out, too.

In some ways, in my three years in America, I found the country at one of the least typical times in its history.

A society defined by boundless optimism in its own future has been suffering a spasm of self-doubt.

For the first time in history, the current generation of Americans cannot be certain that the generation that comes next will be more prosperous.

An aversion to paying taxes and an addiction to public and private debt do not add up, and American voters may well be left to conclude that they have awarded themselves a lifestyle that they can not really afford.

One possible casualty might be the curious form of credit-card imperialism that has helped to shape the world in recent years.

America has enormous debts but it still spends as much money on defence as all the rest of the world put together.

And if that makes you uncomfortable, it is worth remembering that wherever you are, there is a good chance that if your country is ever invaded, your leader's first phone call will be to the White House in Washington.

And so this remains a place of immense patriotic pride.

Because it is a country at war, young men and women in uniform are a common sight on internal flights around the country.

It is curiously moving to see them sitting looking a little embarrassed as a pilot or flight attendant calls on their fellow passengers to give their service and sacrifice a standing ovation.

Friendliness and hospitality

But there are, of course, irritations to living anywhere, and it is the job of the irritable to find them.

Americans could make their public spaces a little quieter, for example, if they all took one step closer to the person they are talking to.

And they could speed up their journeys to work by not insisting on holding every elevator for everyone who wants to catch it as though it was one of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975. There will be another lift along in a minute.

And after three years of eating steaks the size of elephant's ears off plates bigger than satellite dishes, all of our crockery back in Europe now looks like it was borrowed from a doll's house. They may take some getting used to.

But America in one sense was exactly as I expected it to be: a place of gripping public theatre at election times, and a place of great private virtue nearly all the time.

I found that private virtue on the night I arrived three years ago on a much-delayed New Year's Eve flight, which slipped and stumbled through the icy skies over the choppy darkness of the cold prairies.

I chatted sporadically to the grandmotherly woman beside me about home, and family, although I cannot in truth remember much of what was said.

But I do remember what happened once we landed.

There were no taxis and my fellow passenger insisted, without checking with him, that her husband would happily drive me to my hotel.

It was a round trip for him in the Arctic midnight of a public holiday of perhaps two or three hours.

I expected to detect at least a flicker of surprise on his face when this was first put to him, but there was none.

"This is America son," he told me, "We help each other out."

Nothing that happened in the three years that followed was to undermine that first impression of friendliness and hospitality.

De Tocqueville toiled on higher slopes of creativity than me and did a pretty good job of understanding and explaining Americans, even though they get riled at the idea that foreigners can ever understand or explain them.

Still, for all his tireless labours and exalted musings, I bet nothing ever happened to him that explained as clearly as that five-minute conversation in an airport car park three years ago, exactly what it is like to live among those extraordinary people in that extraordinary place.

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