Five Observations From a Lapsed American

I’ve been back in America for four days. Here are a few things I’ve observed since arriving.

DC street

A street in Washington D.C.

Please don’t be offended by my generalizations and stereotypes.

1) American service people are friendly.*

One of the things I like about South Africa is that people tend to be really friendly. However, this friendliness is usually absent in the retail and service industries. Bad service isn’t the norm in South Africa but it is a regular occurrence. The saying, “The customer is always right” doesn’t apply in South Africa.

In America, good service is taken to the extreme.

I landed at Dulles Airport at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, staggered through immigration and customs, and walked straight to the Starbucks counter. (In true American tradition, Starbucks is the first thing you see when you walk through the doors of the international arrivals area.)

Starbucks was crowded. I waited for my turn.

“GOOD MORNING! Whatcanigetforyoutoday?!” boomed the man behind the counter. I flinched and ordered an americano. I was startled by the friendliness.

“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?!” boomed the smiling man. “Heather,” I said.

“Tall americano for HEZER!”


An inaugural American coffee for Hezer. Somehow the misspelled name improved my experience even more.

Seriously though, service here is great. I’ve been taken aback by it again and again this week.

*This generalization does not apply to people working in Amiercan airports. Service in airport domestic terminals is worse than I remember. Plus I had forgotten that it now costs money to check bags, which enrages me.


Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.: Beautiful architecture, horrible service.

2) Everything in America is automated.

I stand at a retail check-out counter, holding out my credit card for the cashier to swipe. The cashier looks at me blankly. I then remember that credit card transactions are self-service in America now. There is a machine in front of me and I must swipe the card through myself, then sign the keypad with a plastic stylus.

I went to a cellular phone store to buy prepaid airtime for my phone. When it came time to pay, the guy took my credit card and did something with it (I didn’t  notice exactly what — maybe he waved it in the air like a magic wand?) and then presented me with an iPad.

“What do I do?” I asked the sales rep, whose name was Ron. (Sales reps always introduce themselves in the America.) “Sign the screen,” he said. There was no pen, no stylus, nothing. I signed the iPad with my FINGER. The resulting scrawl looked like the signature of a three-year-old.


I forgot to take a picture of the iPad signature. Here is a photo of Bob and Tim’s cute cat instead. 

Speaking of automation, Americans rent movies from vending machines now. I saw it with my own eyes at Walgreens.

3) Some American accents are cool.

I’m surprised when South Africans tell me they like my accent. I’ve always found American accents unattractive. Every now and then, I get ambushed by a gang of American tourists in South Africa and their voices repel me. I cringe to think that I sound like that.

Now that I’m back, I feel differently. Certain American accents still repel me, but I find others quite melodious. Ron, the cell phone sales rep, had an awesome African-American Washington D.C. accent. How have I never noticed how cool that accent is? I wish I’d had an excuse to talk to Ron longer, but this is America and service professionals are too efficient to engage in a long conversation with any one customer.  (See observation #1.)

4) There are fire hydrants in America.


Fire hydrants used to be red, right?

When I arrived in D.C. on Monday, I immediately noticed all the fire hydrants. I think they jumped out at me because I can’t remember ever seeing a fire hydrant in Joburg. Do fire hydrants exist in South Africa? I have no idea.

5 America is not so bad.

I was worried about coming back. I was afraid that I would hate everything about America after being gone for so long. And while there are aspects of life here that have shocked and annoyed me (and I’m sure I will discover more in the next two-and-a-half weeks), I’m generally finding America to be a pretty nice place.

Also, America is more similar to South Africa than many people think.


American hipster coffee shop. There are plenty of these in South Africa, too.

I’m sure I’ll have more observations as this trip progresses.

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  • Reply Ellen September 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Hi Heather, Welcome back to the good old US of A. Have a great time. Wish I could see you.

    • Reply 2summers September 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      Thanks Ellen! Wish I could see you too.

  • Reply Sine September 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    yep, you captured the first 5 impressions really well. As you can only do in the first few days, and then you forget. I had the same blank look, and the same reaction to using my FINGER to sign. And now it’s commonplace. And yes, America is a friendly place. And still I wish people could laugh more often. Oh, and fire hydrants? You are right, I don’t think SA has them. I also don’t think Joburg streets have any canalization and places on the side where the rain goes into. That’s why there is all that flooding when it does rain.

    • Reply Judith Stride September 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      Jo’burg doesn’t have fire hydrants but we do indeed have “storm water drains”! The reason why there is often flooding on the roads is because the drains aren’t cleaned before the rainy season comes in late Sept so they are often still filled with all the fallen leaves……service delivery problem not infrastructure one!

      • Reply Sine September 14, 2013 at 6:16 pm

        I don’t think NOrthern Joburg has any storm water drains. Never seen any along William Nicol Drive and God knows I spent a lot of time on that road! But yes, service delivery is a huge problem there. Our power (here in the US) went out the other day after lightning hit a substation and I was pretty much settling in for a whole evening/night without power, but the whole thing was repaired within half an hour. I don’t think anything in Joburg ever gets repaired within half an hour. Maybe because no one even bothers calling it in anymore, so no one knows about it:-)

  • Reply debbie ann September 13, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I am in San Francisco temporarily and had the same strange ipad experience and trying to sign w my finger, so strange! and the self swipe credit card thing, yup, was surprised by that too. I’m also having an overwhelmed feeling when in the fancy grocery stores of SF. Before SF I was in Singapore where it seemed strange to see people walking down the street, talking on their fancy phones and being oblivious to the world.

    • Reply 2summers September 13, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Yes! I went to my first grocery store last night and was also overwhelmed.

  • Reply Erin Archer September 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Now this I love!!

    Sent from Erin’s iPhone

  • Reply charlotteotter September 13, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve just spent four weeks in America – noticed all of the above, but also: TVs everywhere! You can’t get away from a television, even in posh restaurants. I found that pretty grim. (Otherwise my experience was lovely.)

  • Reply Judith Stride September 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Great reading. I am South Africa but spent 7 years living in Chicago (then 7 years in the Caribbean which resulted in a lot of time spent in Miami)…..and I have now been back in SA for 4 years. So can really appreciate both sides of your experiences… about post boxes at the end of the driveway, yellow school buses, no walls topped with electric fences?? But agree South Africa is much more like America than most people would think! Look forward to your next update.

    • Reply 2summers September 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      Thanks Judith, I’m glad you’re enjoying my updates from America!

    • Reply Sine September 14, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      very true Judith, there is also a lot of good stuff about living here. I agree with the post boxes, and the postal service in general. It’s pretty darn good, even if Americans belly-ache about it a lot. They should see the SA equivalent!

  • Reply Tim van Rooyen September 13, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Fire Hydrants are yellow. Aren’t they? Much love, hugs and bananas.


    • Reply 2summers September 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      Hmm, no I think they are traditionally red.


  • Reply Tony and Nancy Barkume September 13, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Welcome back, Heather. Our younger daughter, who lives and works in Joburg, introduced us to your wonderful observations on South Africa. Reading your blog has helped to put our daughter’s experience in better perspective.

    • Reply 2summers September 13, 2013 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks so much, Tony and Nancy! Of course, I know Lauren and she’s great. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

  • Reply Neuren September 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Nice post. SA fire hose connections are under plates (if they have not been recycled) in the pavement.

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 12:03 am

      Thank you! Glad you like the post.

    • Reply Sine September 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm

      Ha! Love the word “recycled”. A lot of things get “recycled” in SA. I recall a lot of 4-way stops going out into the country where three of the four stop signs must have been “recycled.”

  • Reply Debra Kolkka September 13, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    I have always enjoyed my visits to America. Apart from airport staff I find people friendly and helpful. I haven’t been to South Africa, so I can’t compare, but there are many similarities between Americans and Australians.

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 12:02 am

      Haha, I’m glad you agree with me on the airport staff Debra!

  • Reply Tereza September 13, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Hey Heather, it’s as if you are a tourist in your own country, you are seeing “America” from a different angle, so cool and yes, we do have fire hydrants, they just look different, are red and are mostly place inside buildings or near buildings and not randomly on streets. Have a fab break, looking forward to reading more ….from “America”. By the way, the Joburg storms are on their way 🙂

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 12:02 am

      Thanks Tereza. I’ll look more carefully for the fire hydrants when I’m back. See you soon 🙂

      • Reply catji October 21, 2016 at 8:07 pm

        Fire hydrants in Durban are yellow – or were. CBD and old central suburbs only, but now that I think of it, I don’t know when I last saw one…maybe I wouldn’t notice. But I’ll look, and take a photo.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough September 14, 2013 at 1:02 am

    Yes, it’s amazing how quickly one can get behind on the technology front–especially when it a retail setting! I have been in your situation–once specifically when I went to pump my own gas again for the first time in a year. Great post, Heather.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      Pumping gas (or petrol). There’s something I haven’t done in a very long time 🙂

      • Reply catji October 21, 2016 at 8:10 pm

        It was quite scary for me in London. How to operate the thing, and the cashier watching on CCTV.

  • Reply completelydisappear September 14, 2013 at 2:22 am


    I’m with you about friendly American. When I was there for travelling with my friend who is living there. I was firstly surprised about greeting manner there, for example we entered super market and went to pay for my stuff at cashier, they would say ‘Hi, How are you?’ – which at first I was stunned and not prepare for answer. Or when we entered shops, the shop staff would greet us ‘Hello, How are you?’. My friend told me to automatically react by saying ‘Hi, I’m fine/good/great’ and I could add ‘How are you?’ too if I’d like.

    During my time there, I was getting familiar with this. And then when I was back to US again for my business trip. I was welcomed with the friendliness like when I walked in my office building and met others whom I didn’t directly contact or know them but they would smile and say Hello to me.

    I was a bit addicted to that interaction so when I went to Singapore for travel and I used the same manner as I was in US, however I didn’t get the same response so I eventually came to understand that greeting manner is American’s friendliness. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      Haha, that’s a funny story!

  • Reply frenchfry36 September 14, 2013 at 2:51 am

    Celebrate the similarities and embrace the differences – which of course is one of the best parts about travelling. And having the opportunity to actually live in another country is when you really get to appreciate both aspects. And technology… well that’s changing at an ever-increasing rate and I would expect America would be at the forefront whereas South Africa has always lagged behind: South Africa had not yet introduced television when my family emigrated to Australia in 1961.

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      Yep. SA is always a bit behind in that regard it seems. Which is actually refreshing in some ways!

    • Reply Sine September 14, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      The one thing where America is not at the forefront is the matter of writing checks. I had to relearn how to fill out a check after three years in SA and online banking…

      • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 6:24 pm

        I agree. I haven’t thought about my checkbook in years and didn’t think about bringing it with me on this trip. Meanwhile I’ve already been asked twice to write a check.

  • Reply elisaruland September 14, 2013 at 3:39 am

    You are a fabulous writer….welcome home!

  • Reply amelie88 September 14, 2013 at 4:50 am

    The automated check out counters popped up in the supermarket I shopped at while I was in Spain. However I hadn’t realized just how prevalent they had become in the US during my absence. I avoid the one at the supermarket like the plague because I am a slow swiper/bag my groceries person and I don’t need the people after me in line grumbling about how slow I am! I’m still not used to them, they freak me out. And signing a stylus with your finger?? I haven’t had to do that yet…

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      I’m sure it will happen to you soon enough 🙂

  • Reply Yashik September 14, 2013 at 6:21 am

    I loved reading point one, and had to agree.

    Service in South Africa sucks. I went home (Jozies) last year and felt so annoyed that the lady in the Sandton store acted as if she was paying me to shop there.

    I now live in Ireland and I must say that Irish airport officials are the best. On my first trip here, my lift from the airport was late and I went to an airport official to ask where the pay phones were as my friend hasn’t arrived. The airport official surprisingly pulled out her own mobile phone and made the call for me!

    Enjoy your holiday!

    • Reply 2summers September 14, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      Haha. The truth is that there are friendly and unfriendly people everywhere. But it’s fun to make generalizations sometimes.

  • Reply skycastles September 15, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Having spent a good part of the past two years traveling with a majority of time spent in New Zealand and Australia, I’m always aware of the different accents I encounter. When I went home to Hawaii for a bit, the shock of American accents was immediate. I was even amazed at the commercials on TV as they are so different from the Kiwi and Aussie ads. I also cringed upon hearing many American accents while abroad and feared that I sounded like that. But, like you, I’ve been told I have a nice accent that is not as grating as a normal Americans (whatever that means lol).

    • Reply catji October 21, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      😀 ha! That’s a good one! The only accent – *overall* – that bothers me more than American is Australian. It does vary, though, of course. There are several types of SA accent and probably even more American accents. What bothers me is the typical American tv presenters’ accents.
      And…there was the time I had a call from a lady in Virginia. It was difficult. Not grating or nasal, just very hard to understand. She had to repeat things a few times. 🙂

  • Reply tenneymason September 15, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Fire hydrants are sometimes red, white and blue with little smiley faces — depends on the neighborhood.

  • Reply tenneymason September 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    More on fire hydrants — Exhaustive polling at the Mason household has determined that most fire hydrants are orange

    • Reply 2summers September 15, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Haha. Now that you mention it, you’re right.

  • Reply Brando September 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Of course there are fire hydrants, they’re everywhere. They don’t look like your typical American fire hydrant though. Ours are red or yellow and are basically just pipes sticking out of the ground with a single place to attach a fire hose. Any joburger who thinks we don’t have em is not very perceptive or just plain ignorant

    • Reply 2summers September 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Well, thanks. I guess this means I’m ignorant though.

  • Reply Owls September 16, 2013 at 1:55 am

    Fire hydrants are silver here in Richmond.

  • Reply jabediDi Brown September 16, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Interesting observations, and ones we can learn from, especially with regards to friendly service. Service in the small towns is generally much better and friendlier than in the cities. It is something S.A needs to work on. I have a theory that excellent service and tourism knowledge should be part of training for any job that deals with the public. We have such a great country, pity to tarnish it with unfriendly service.

    • Reply 2summers September 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm

      Thanks Di. Of course, service in the U.S. is not always perfect here either. I’ve had a few more instances of bad service since writing this post. But I do agree that overall, the service industry in South Africa could use a little improvement.

  • Reply Yasmin October 20, 2013 at 10:52 am

    I JUST wrote a post about how obnoxious American accents are yesterday (it’s somewhere in my queue as I tend to do the bulk of my writing on the weekend).

    And yes, Americans do indeed rent movies from vending machines now (called Red Boxes). I remember that before I moved to SA in 2012. I never rented from one, however, because one of my friends had major issues with her debit card being charged for a “lost” movie that she actually returned.

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