Two Nations Divided by Light Switches

I've been travelling to the US quite regularly for a few years now, but it was only after my last visit it struck me that there are lots of things that seem a little, well, odd...

How come the cities seem so familiar, when you'd expect them to be something of an exciting new experience? Maybe because we see so many US movies and TV shows here in Britain that we all know what US cities look like - even for those of us that live in the more remote parts of the country. I guess if I lived in London, cities like Seattle and Los Angeles would seem even more "normal". Yet, when I visit almost any city in Europe, it feels like a foreign country.

I can't put it down to globalisation. When I've been in places like Florence, Ibiza Town or Amsterdam, it still seems really odd to come across a MacDonalds. In fact, when we suddenly noticed a Tesco in Minorca (for the non-Brits out there, Tesco is one of our largest supermarket chains) we actually had to stop and investigate. Can it be the same as "our" Tesco? It was. We even bought a packet of the same "own-brand" biscuits as we get back home to make sure (though I don't know why - we don't actually like them).

Of course, back on the familiarity front, the fact that everyone I meet in the US speaks English helps. And the movies and TV shows have probably got all us Brits used to hearing American accents regularly - more particularly in the kinds of places I go to such as Seattle, California and Washington DC. Maybe if I went to some other areas it would seem very different (in fact, I'd love to see the Deep South).

Of course, there are always those few phrases that catch me out. I guess that in the US the pronunciation of "root" (the things that hold trees up) is the same as here in Britain - with an "oo" sound - and "rout" (like when you win a battle or make slots in a piece of timber) has an "ow" sound in the middle. But why can't we agree on how to pronounce "route"? And, of course, in our industry I keep coming up against "Beta". I seem to have ended up pronouncing it "beeayta" now - somewhere in between.

Mind you, I love the road signs in the US. I was there for a week the first time before I found out what "No Ped Xing" meant. Still, we've no room to talk. In England a "ped xing" is called a "pelican crossing". Don't ask - I've got no idea. It's not like we even get pelicans in England.

And you have to wonder why the US drives on the right and here in Britain we drive on the left. Were the first Boston pilgrims really bad drivers, or did the Spanish get there first? OK, so I know we're in the minority here in Britain, as most of the world drives on the right. In fact, I seem to remember being told that the reason Volvos and Saabs have their headlights on all the time is because they changed the side of the road they drive on some years ago, and it was the law.

It seems they found out that it reduced accidents, and so they never repealed the law and manufacturers built it in (and, hey, lots of cars in the States now do the same!). Funnily enough, I was sitting next to a lady from Gothenburg in Sweden (where they make Volvos) on the plane coming back from Seattle, but I never thought to ask her if it was true. It might have been because she was so excited at finding an Ikea in Seattle. There you go, globalisation again.

Mind you, on this subject, I've also heard a rumour that we're going to change the side of the road we drive on in Britain to match up with our European neighbours. But, in line with our cautious approach to everything in life, we're going to do it in stages. All the drivers with cars that have an odd number at the end of their license plate/registration number will switch from driving on the left to driving on the right on April 1st, while the rest will switch over a month later.

So, if the US does seem strangely familiar to us Brits, what is it that seems odd? Well, when we have two electric wall outlet sockets, we put them side-by-side. However, everywhere I've been in the US they are aligned vertically, one above the other. But all the plug-in power supplies I've seen (like the one for my modem, computer speakers, and cell-phone) are taller than they are wide - with the wire coming out of the bottom.

And, of course, what is it with those light switches? At last we get to the really vital point of this rambling diatribe. When they're up they're on - completely opposite to everywhere else I go. Did the first electricians put them upside down for a joke, and then just carry on doing the same so nobody would complain? Since I noticed this, I've been doing some intensive research on the matter.

It seems that if you are flying an airliner you have to push lots of switches up (and keep shouting "check"). But if you're controlling a nuclear power plant, or exploding a bomb by remote control in a movie, you have to push the switch down (OK, so maybe more research is needed). And what about rocker switches? I can't remember seeing any in the hotels I've visited. Which way do they go?

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