Monday, 23 April 2012

Hitting the road or rather, the highway... Acclaimed travel writer Rowen Bridler blogs on her journey through the good old US of A...

I'm sitting in a little motel room at a Travelodge in Kingman, Arizona just off the old Route 66, which is now a smaller road than the somewhat parallel Interstate 40, and the vibe here is 'Trucker-meets-old-hippie'.  We've been 'on the road' now for just over a week since leaving Illinois via the I-88 and onto the I-80 going west.   (For those who don't know, the "I" in "I-80" stands for interstate.)  We're headed for San Francisco but we're taking in lots of sights along the way.  

We got our car for the trip by searching on, which seems to have had the best deals on car hire here as well as on hotels.  You'll know you're using the Priceline site when you've typed in all your details and it searches for your deal while a crazy-looking picture of William Shatner comes up (nice entertainment factor).

Personally,  I can't believe my luck at being able to go on this road trip.  This is not normally my life but I'm enjoying every unpredictable minute of it.  It was in August last year that I found a beautiful picture of the Golden Gate bridge in a magazine and put it on my wall.  I had been to Illinois and New York before, but I'd never been to the West Coast.  And it turns out, my boyfriend had a long-held desire to drive around the States, so that and the fact that my parents live in Illinois brought us to plot our escape and travel from East to West to see what we could see...

Ever since touching down at Chicago O'Hare I've been adjusting to the language differences here in the States compared to the UK.  The language use here is more direct, simpler but with a few specific terms you need to know that are not at all the same as British English.  Who was it who once said that the UK and the US are "two countries divided by a common language"?  Whoever it was, was spot-on.  

Top five American terms you need to know:

1) Car rental = Car hire.  Do not talk about 'hiring a car' because no-one will understand you!  You hire people, but rent things (cars, bikes etc.).
2) Cream for your coffee = milk for your coffee.  If you buy coffee and are asked, "Do you want cream with that?" say yes, even if you want skimmed milk.  Once you've said yes, then ask for the kind of milk you want.
3) "To pass" = "to overtake"  For example, signs on the highways read, "Keep right, except to pass".
4) Trunk = boot of the car.  This one's a useful one to know when asking a taxi driver to put something in the boot, otherwise you could find yourself getting the strangest look ever.
5) Gas = petrol.  Don't forget you are looking for a gas station, not a petrol station, when you're running low on fuel.

Other useful things to bear in mind here are firstly, the fact that credit cards, not debit cards, are used to pay for everything.  If you try to hire a car with a debit card, they'll want to do a credit check, which of course they can't do if you're not from the US.  So if you want to use a debit card instead, as long as it hasn't got the words 'debit card' on it, you should still be ok.  We got around this problem by simply not mentioning that it was a debit card visa we were using.  However, you might be better off making sure you get a credit card before you leave because it's easiest that way.

Also, the "Triple A" (AAA) is the AA or RAC equivalent here in the US.  It's a useful way to get discounts in motels, as they give a lower rate to AAA members, but some places (like the Travelodge in Kingman) will give you the rate anyway if you can say you know someone who is a member. (They didn't need to check the membership number here.)  And to give you a useful "head's up" [="just to let you know"] about the toilets, sorry, restrooms, here in the US, all the toilet cubicles in public places have a significant gap between the door and the wall of the cubicle, which is quite disconcerting to a Brit, so hang your coat over it if it bothers you.

On the whole, Americans are not as exposed to English accents as Brits are to American accents, so always go for clarity and taking longer over saying something, than brevity, or you'll only have to repeat yourself.  We've found it most helpful to indulge in a little cheerful repartee, such as joining in with the "hi, how are you today?" conversation by asking the same back, which most shops and hotels don't expect but find sort of quirky and friendly.  

And when your waitress at the fantastic breakfast diner, iHop says, "Hi, my name's Asia and I'm going to be serving you today.  Can I get you started with some drinks?" just try not to laugh.  She doesn't have the same in-built sense of ridiculousness that we Brits have been brought up with and thinks this is all totally normal.  Seriously, I kid you not.  That was her name.

Rowen Bridler is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actress currently based in Prague, Czech Republic.  Having lived over ten years in London, she fled the UK for a taste of a new life and a new language.   Inspired by the writing style of Adam Gopnik, and Elizabeth Bard (minus the recipes) Rowen is writing a travel memoir of her experiences in the architecturally mesmerising city of Prague.  She is also currently writing a daily blog about her road trip from Chicago to San Francisco.


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