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Coming to America - A Brit's First Visit

Updated on June 28, 2010

I have lived in the United Kingdom for the whole of my 55 years and have only once set foot in the United States, although I have of course read a great deal about American life and politics and, like the rest of the British population, been inundated by America's cultural exports for most of my life!

What follows are a few impressions gained from that single visit, in June 2006. I flew to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend a conference at which I was supposed to help promote a book that I had co-edited. The book signing (etc) never happened, for reasons that are best forgotten, but I was able to see a little of Baltimore during a very short stay (less than a week).

Beggars in the street

Sorry, America, but this is going to be one of my lasting impressions. Yes, of course we have homeless people in our big cities in the UK, However, they tend to sit in doorways mumbling "spare change?" as you walk past. We also have buskers who play a musical instrument and invite people to throw coins into a hat, but they are just as likely to be music students as down-and-outs. However, in America they're organised! (and none of them can play a note!)

On my first morning in Baltimore I was accosted by a guy who demanded ten dollars to help pay for dental treatment, and three days later I heard him trying the same line with someone else. I actually got caught by one chap who claimed to be a delegate at my conference who had left his wallet in his hotel and needed a quick loan. Could I oblige in exchange for my business card so that he could repay me later in the week? What a patter! I doubt if I was the only conference attendee who fell for that one!

On one occasion I needed to cross at an intersection, only to discover that there was a beggar positioned on each of the four corners--in order to get to the far side I had no choice but to pass three of them!

I lost count of the number I passed each day in downtown Baltimore, but the common factors of all of them seemed to be that they knew exactly how much they wanted from you, and they had a reason why you should give it to them. Somebody told me that the beggars are professionals who make an excellent living out of mugs like me.

Nobody walks much

I am one of the greenest people I know. I had a real fit of conscience about getting on a plane to cross the Atlantic twice in a week, and I'm glad to say that I haven't flown anywhere since then. At home, my car is often unused for weeks at a time. And if I can walk somewhere, I do.

I had heard that America is built around its roads and the car is king, but I hadn't really appreciated the truth of this until my trip to Baltimore. In a UK city you will find that many inner-city streets have been pedestrianised and vehicle access is prohibited. American cities seem to have plenty of streets to spare, but, at least in Baltimore, I did not see any attempt to reclaim a few for the person on foot.

One reason why this is unlikely to happen in Baltimore is that there would seem to be little reason for anyone to want to walk along streets that are lined with hotels, offices, an assortment of bars and restaurants, but hardly any shops. I had wanted to do some souvenir shopping, but this was impossible, as there was just nowhere to do it. I did find a small shopping mall, but none of the shops were open, even at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Presumably all the shops are out of town and everybody drives to them.

My last day was free for sightseeing, so I decided to visit the railway musuem at the terminus of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This was no more than about half a mile from my hotel, so I had a pleasant walk there and back. However, on arrival it was clear that people were not expected to do this, as the only entrance to the building was from the car park, and there was no route into the car park except on the road via a lifting barrier. The man on the gate kindly lifted the barrier to save me having to dodge underneath it!

I had several evening walks on my own around the old part of Baltimore and made some interesting discoveries. I have since learned that these streets are amongst the most dangerous in America and I would probably have been safer in Beirut or Baghdad, but I have to say that I was not aware of anything to worry me!

On the transport front, I enquired at the conference centre about how to get to Annapolis, which I had heard was worth a visit. It came as quite a surprise to learn that there is no way that you can take a train from Maryland's largest city to its state capital! I wonder if there are other states of which this is true?

Anyone know anything about birds?

After coming back from the Railroad museum, I wanted to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and I have to say that I'm glad I did. I had a wonderful afternoon wandering through its galleries and gardens and would recommend it to anyone with a love of Art. The sculpture garden is excellent, with beautiful and challenging exhibits set in cool and leafy surroundings.

Hence the birds.

America has species of birds that are completely unknown in Great Britain, and in fact I don't think I saw any birds, apart from seagulls and sparrows, that were even vaguely familiar. In particular, the sculpture garden was well supplied with several varieties, the most striking being a small bird with a yellow beak and bright red plumage. I asked several people in the museum and the restaurant what this bird was, and nobody had a clue!

I would have thought that in a place patronised by people of taste and distinction, somebody would have known what this remarkable bird was called, but no! I later learned that it was a cardinal, by the way!

It was worth the visit!

The above may sound a bit negative, but I had a great time on my first visit outside Europe. I thought, though, that Americans might like to know how a foreign visitor is struck by what he finds, both the good and the not-so-good.

My final impression, looking down from 35,000 feet at thousands of miles of sea, is just what a huge physical gap there is between you and us. It's no surprise that we sometimes find it hard to understand each other!

Downtown Baltimore with the light transit railway and Selzer tower behind
Downtown Baltimore with the light transit railway and Selzer tower behind
Baltimore's moving Holocaust Memorial
Baltimore's moving Holocaust Memorial
A monster at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum
A monster at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum
Peace and quiet in the sculpture garden at Baltimore Museum of Art
Peace and quiet in the sculpture garden at Baltimore Museum of Art


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      Rich 7 years ago

      You found nowhere to shop? Um, you were right next to the Gallery, a big shopping mall, as well as Harbourplace, with way too many souvenir shops.

      And downtown Baltimore now has a free bus that takes you all around downtown, called the Charm City Circulator.

      Also, if you walked up Charles Street, on your way to the BMA, you would have found lots of stores and boutiques.

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 8 years ago from UK

      51HHMD, Thanks for your comment. I have always been interested in railways, and now live quite close to Britain's 3rd oldest railway line (still running for freight purposes) that is about the same age as the B&O.

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      51HHMD 8 years ago

      Also, I live in Wheeling, we used to be one of B&O's hub cities, the old train station still exists, it's used as a college now. It still has "Baltimore and Ohio Railroad" written on it! You should visit Wheeling if you decide to come back.

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      51HHMD 8 years ago

      In New York City, the sidewalks are so crowded, you hardly have room to stand!

    • E. A. Wright profile image

      E. A. Wright 8 years ago from New York City

      Fascinating to read your about your first impressions. I don't know Baltimore well, but if you were struck by American car dependency in the Northeast (which actually has something of a public transportation network), I wonder what you'd make of the rest of the country.

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      Sarah 8 years ago

      Just wanted to say I happened upon your page while searching for some ideas on what my long time boyfriend (a Portuguese citizen) will be expecting on his first visit here on Monday. It will surely be an adventure.

      Saying America is almost like the worlds biggest island is spot on! Americans tend to only concern themselves with their immediate surroundings - rarely do we have international news at night. Many Americans I know have no interesting in changing this attitude. Certainly their opinion but it saddens me at times. The US will always be my home, despite plans to move to Europe's mainland. I will be glad to get away from the constant need of having a car!

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      Rob Hummel Jr 8 years ago

      The photo with the Light Rail. The tower in the back is the Bromo Seltzer Tower. The shot tower is a round fortress like building on the other side of the harbor. I know as my great-grandfather was the painter for the Shot Tower.

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 9 years ago from UK

      Amerination, Thanks for the comment. It's now nearly three years since my trip to Baltimore, and I haven't been back to the States in the meantime. The memories are still very fresh in the mind, though!

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      Amerination 9 years ago

      I stumbled over your comments. I'm not at all surprised by the fact that people didn't know what a cardinal is. Americans have the attention span of most 2 year olds, and if it doesn't line their pockets or hit a ball, it's not important. I love this country, but sometimes the ignorance and indifference of the people make me so ashamed. Glad you found a small oasis in the desert, though!

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      John Welford 10 years ago from UK

      Theophanes, Thanks for your comment. I certainly wouldn't regard Europe and Europeans as being superior to America and Americans, and I hope my hub didn't give that impression. We're different in many ways, and there is always the temptation to regard difference of nature as being difference in quality or status, which is usually a mistake. I have come to the conclusion that America is the world's biggest island, because of the isolationist attitude of many of its inhabitants, but I'm happy to be proved wrong on that one too!

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      Theophanes 10 years ago from New England

      There's nothing so shameful as a well dressed beggar. I can't believe no one could tell you what a cardinal was! They're everywhere and it's not like there's anything else fitting that description (though the females aren't red I am now doubting many people know this?) *sigh* I've lived in the States all my life, since elementary school I always looked at Europe as somehow superior or better even though I've never been there. The ignorance here is profound on a daily basis but I digress... Good anecdote, I love hearing people's first impressions of the States!