So I’ve realised it’s almost impossible to spend a period of time in a new country without comparing it to what you know back home. Part of the parcel of moving somewhere new is of course embracing their nuances and the different way of doing things. BUT having said that, I can’t help but feel there’s certain things I’ve experienced living here that I find a little baffling… California might be home to every major tech player in the world; Google, Facebook, Apple, AirBnB, UBER to name a few and yet there’s a few basic things which I can’t help but say feel a little backward when comparing it to the UK. An Irish friend of mine, Chris, who’s now lived in SF for a year & half, summed it up with the ‘3 T’s’: ‘taxes, toilets & tipping’. Hilarious but I’ll explain why…
Taxes – filling out your tax return isn’t a term I’m unfamiliar with in the UK. I get that it’s something that real grown-ups do under certain conditions (usually if you’re self-employed or are a landlord). But here, every single employed person working in the US has to annually do their own tax return because unlike home, it isn’t automatically calculated as to what tax code you need to be on and how much you should be paying. If you turn on the TV in mid March, you can expect to see a heap of ads trying to sell you a tax lawyer; dull.
The other thing about tax is that it always feels like that little added unwanted surprise when you’re at the checkout. Unlike home, you can find yourself caught out. Let’s say you want to grab a cheeky McD’s after a night out, you’ll know whether you have enough in cash to make your purchase! In the US, every state tax is different meaning that it’s always added on top of any purchase when you go to pay. If you’re American you’re obviously used to this but at first this threw me as a purchase will rarely be a straight $20; it’ll always be something like $22.41.
Toilets – Without going into too much detail, I understand what he means here! Huge gaps either side of public cubicle doors means you may not have the privacy you thought you had. Anyway, swiftly moving on!
Tipping – It’s relentless. I’ve always understood that it’s your choice to tip and of course the majority of time in the UK you’ll do so but it’s not demanded of you. Here the general saying goes that you double the tax and then that’s what you add on as the tip because 10% is generally considered too low. But you’re expected to pretty much tip for everything – buying a drink at the bar, tipping your UBER driver to even buying a takeaway salad. It feels like it needs to be every single person in the service industry that you come into contact with and whilst you just accept that’s the way it is, I sometimes find it awkward not understanding the rules which is perhaps a British thing! But basically have those dollar bills at the ready!
And then there’s a few others observations;
- Chip n Pin is not a thing. You’ll slowly start to see the machines come to shops but most aren’t geared up for this high tech piece of tech yet.
- Cheque books are very much still alive – in fact, most people pay their rent by cheque every month.
- Washing machines are a luxury. Rents are crazy high in SF but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have a washing machine in your rented apartment. That’s right, it isn’t common for every apartment to have their own and this is why you’ll see several launderettes in most neighbourhoods. We have a shared machine in the building basement which we share with 7 other flats, so it isn’t too bad. But you have to pay $2.75 per wash + $2.25 per dryer (x2 washes a week equals $520 spent washing clothes a year) and you must have the correct change all in quarters. I mean, who has change these days?
- Weed is everywhere. Yep, that’s right it’s legal to smoke weed anywhere in California meaning that it’s rare to walk on a street in San Francisco and not get a waft from somewhere.
- Food choices are insane but in a good way. SF is described as a pretty self-indulgent city – people love to eat out here meaning that there’s every kind of restaurant you could possibly imagine and for a city that is only 7×7 miles; there’s literally hundreds of great places to eat.
- Supermarkets are expensive. The price of ‘grocery’ shopping soon makes you realise why people eat out all the time because it’s often cheaper. Fruit and veg are expensive, it’s cheaper to buy a trolley full of sugar – Oreo’s and ice cream are cheaper than most fresh produce – that’s silly.
- Uber & Lyft pooling is a way of life. Public transport isn’t America’s strongest point meaning that pooling is the norm and it’s pretty cheap. You can pretty much get anywhere in SF for $3.99 via carpool. It also means you’ll find yourself having random chats with other passengers at 2am! And yep on one occasion the swapping of email addresses actually happened..
Whilst the beginning of this post is all a bit tongue in cheek; I should also point out that there are approximately 319 million people living in the US, compared to a mere 65 million in the UK so they are bound to be different particularly when you look at the differences in leadership. Let’s not go there.. But the one very big difference is noticeably the healthcare system. If anything, my short experience here has made me even more unbelievably grateful for the NHS. Sadly, we know it’s not in the greatest shape financially and who knows how long the current Government will continue to protect it but hearing about the complexities of the US health insurance only enforces how lucky we are to have such a valuable, free life-saving service available to us. When I think about that, suddenly having to share a washing machine and write the occasional cheque doesn’t seem all that bad.