Growing up in Norway means consuming a lot of American culture in various forms, but in particular TV shows and movies. I guess that's why coming to America in many ways feels like coming home – everything is instantly recognizable and feels comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans.
That said, there are bone-jarring moments of culture shock and the occasional sneaking suspicion of having been secretly whisked off to an alien planet.
Let me just say this right away: I love America and I adore Americans. I know this isn't always fashionable and I understand perfectly well why that is, but there it is, I said it. Americans are open, friendly, polite, and very easy to get along with. They are also very generous, sometimes beyond belief.
It's not like I haven't been to the U.S. before; I used to live in Florida when I was a kid and I traveled extensively all over the U.S. in the 80s. So let's start with what's different, what's changed since then.
First, there's the issue of patriotism and flag waving. Americans have always been proud of their country, but there's a marked difference from 25 years ago. It's all a little more defiant and in-your-face today, and there's an edge to it.
Not that Norwegians aren't patriotic, only there it's more with a tinge of nationalism, and not always the good kind. Norwegians don't wave their flags around quite so much, but when they do it's with an arrogant undercurrent of implicit superiority that can quickly become a bit much, even for some natives.
The other big difference is the roads. Back in the 70s and 80s American roads were different, they were filled with huge cars completely unlike anything back home. Today American roads look almost like Norwegian ones, except of course there are many more of them and they're much wider and straighter. But the cars are depressingly like cars everywhere else. Only the trucks, the "big rigs", remind you of where you are.
While we're on the topic of roads and traffic, there are some things that immediately strike the Norwegian visitor as odd, including several car makes. Saturn, Infiniti, and Acura are not generally well known outside of the US. Even stranger are the "No right turn on red" road signs and the dawning realization that in some states, in most intersections, you are allowed to turn right (after coming to a complete stop), if the road is clear, even when the light is red.
Still, the real fun is reserved for when you enter a freeway for the first time. The right lane is for slow traffic and the left lane is for passing, right? Not necessarily. You need to move over to the right lane well in advance of your exit, right? People seem to have different opinions on this, some very different indeed. You need to use the turn signal and check your mirrors before changing lanes, right? You’d think this was a good idea, but apparently not everyone does. All in all, driving on American freeways and interstates requires eyes in the back of your head and nerves of steel.
But wait, there's more. Dear Norwegian or other European reader: The first time you go into an American restaurant, please be careful and do prepare yourself mentally. First of all, the service is great, like nothing you've ever experienced before. Tipping is expected (around 15-20%), but you're not going to mind, you're going to want to over-tip.
Second, the portions are gigantic. If at all possible, order "small" of everything and even then be prepared for the next culinary culture shock: The doggie bag. You get to take your leftovers with you, something we’re not at all used to. It’s enough to make you wonder what restaurants in Europe actually do with their leftovers.
But that's not all, and this will really knock your socks off: At most restaurants they will refill your glass of soda or other soft drink for free. Not that big of a deal? To a Norwegian, it is. We're used to paying more than $5 for a small glass of soda, no refills.
Lastly, when the waiter brings you the check before you ask for it, sometimes even before you're done eating, there's no rudeness intended or implied. Many restaurants do it that way, to the initial surprise and discomfort of some foreign guests.