By Sarah Pridgeon
When you see a school bus, what’s the first thing that crosses your mind? If you are driving a vehicle, do you consider the need to slow down? Do you use its presence to estimate the time of day? Are you wondering if your child or grandchild is inside and thinking about what to cook for their dinner, or waiting patiently to embark?
Not me – I have a very different reaction. A school bus is among the many icons of America that may be everyday objects to you, but are wondrous to behold for me. When I see a school bus, I take on the wide-eyed awe of the smallest of children.
And can you blame me? I was ferried to school and home again in the back of my parents’ car. My class was ushered onto hired coaches when it came time for an event or a trip. A school bus is not normality for me; it’s a vehicle that belongs in a film script.
The novelty has not worn off, despite that I have now seen plenty of school buses on my wanderings. While the true icons of this country are probably its flag and constitution, in practical terms it is items such as the common garden Twinkie and the traditional American diner that spark a foreigner’s imagination.
The obvious comparison would be to exchange our places. If you were suddenly to find yourself in London, you might feel the same excitement when faced with Big Ben, a Beefeater, a red telephone box or one of the Royal guardsmen in his fluffy hat. Or perhaps even a nice cup of tea.
In France, meanwhile, you might find yourself staring at garlic braids and pastry delicatessens, while in Italy it would surely be the pasta. These things, when you are from elsewhere on the planet, always err towards the exotic.
But for me, Europe is a familiar place and there is little mystery left in the German-engineered car and the Russian vodka bottle. Growing up on a diet of American entertainment, I looked across the ocean with the same curiosity as my forefathers – and then I followed their passage.
Seeing a real New York taxi cab or a lawkeeper in his uniform, or steam emerging from the drains on a city street, is akin to watching the pictures from a storybook walk out of the page. They are creatures of mythology made real: the basics of a nation laid bare. These are the things we see from across the pond and wonder about, because they are outside our own experience.
When I first stepped into a real diner, for example, it felt was though I was taking one small step for a woman, but a giant step for the good of English-kind. On the road from Los Angeles to Nevada, I stuck a tentative nose round the door of a roadside diner and scented the apple pie within.
A waitress clutching a coffee pot moseyed on over to our table, exactly as she was supposed to. She asked us how we were doing that day and brought us sodas and burgers, just as my mental script dictated she should. And then she brought us slices of pie, and I could do little more than stare at her with adoration.
We have “greasy spoon” cafes in my homeland, where a full fried breakfast is the artery-clogging norm. Some have deliberately tried to emulate the American diner to give their food an interesting spin, but the problem with trying to recreate a classic from another culture is that it tends to be a shell without a heart. We have the same problem with Oreos; they did finally make their way over to us but we haven’t got the hang of them – we can buy them and we can munch them, but nobody told us about the milk.
The problem is that while you can make it look like the real thing, it’s never going to feel like the real thing. Anyone can respect and enjoy a slice of someone else’s life but it’s impossible to know it absolutely – only when they are as familiar as apple pie do we truly understand why these things are good things.
My second dining experience on that first trip Stateside hammered this home for me. Pleased to show that the respect for iconography was mutual, my hosts took me to an Irish pub in Las Vegas. It looked like a pub, it smelled like a pub, it seemed suspiciously like a real pub.
But one menu item seemed to prove my point: Traditional Irish Nachos. We laughed so hard we could barely stay standing, swapping suggestions for other entrees they might be persuaded to try. Traditional Dutch chow mein, perhaps? Authentic Australian enchiladas?
When we ordered the nachos, just to see what monstrosity would arrive, it turned out that the joke was on us. The proprietor of the establishment was, in fact, an Irishman and he was both perfectly aware that the nacho is not a dish of Irish origins and something of a mischief.
What arrived in front of us, with many a flourish and much solemn ceremony, was a true spark of cultural genius. Traditional Irish nachos turn out to be a bag of potato chips, emptied onto a plate and sprinkled with cheese.
These days, I watch the television and understand what I am seeing so, in the process of writing this column, I conspired with my companions across the pond to identify the items that I once found so intriguing. With their help, I realized that I know what a corn dog tastes like, I am familiar with Kool Aid and salt-water taffy and I have driven a pick-up truck all by myself.
I have seen Chinese cuisine served in a fancy cardboard box, as opposed to unremarkable tin foil, and I have employed the aid of a drive-through ATM. I have eaten New York pizza in New York, Chicago pizza in Chicago, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and a proper t-bone steak. I know what the nog is on the end of an egg and have ceased to believe a bear claw would be best off at the end of a bear.
I have made recipes that include corn syrup, which made not the slightest bit of sense before I moved here, been introduced to the particulars of emergency vehicles (thankfully from the outside) and, with the help of a local gentleman, tried on several cowboy hats. I have even become accustomed to having my grocery bags packed and carried for me and no longer expect to be glared at malevolently for taking too long to do it myself.
And yet, even now, that sense of wonder has not left me. Perhaps when I check the final item on my list of American Things I will feel it begin to fade, but that might not be so easily achieved. To do so, I will need to wear an orange jumpsuit on the back of a mustang to pick up my dry cleaning from a drive-through in the Grand Canyon, before heading to a Miami beach with my sorority sisters for a pleasant afternoon’s surf.