A few years ago, my husband and I went on holiday with my cousin and her husband. Looking at the photos of Jen and me grinning into the camera, it is clear which of us is American. And it’s not me.
We look a little bit alike but, standing side by side, it is evident that she is that bit taller, a lot more tanned and boasts rows of perfect white teeth, while I have the pallor of a lump of cheddar and still have a couple of my baby teeth at the front, creating a slight Dracula-esque effect.
Jen is American because my aunt emigrated there 40 years ago and married an American man. She diluted the slightly wonky British genes with some that are slightly more… glossy.
Their glossy appearance makes Americans easy to spot – especially “on vacation” in Scotland – where they have recently landed in droves.
When they are not tearing round the country on a mission to fit in “Edin-BERG”, St Andrews and the Isle of Skye all in one day before heading out on a pre-dinner whisky tour, they can be seen wandering confusedly around the Old Town with their backpacks on both shoulders and sporting a spanking new pair of white trainers.
Around 319,000 American visitors are expected to descend on Scotland in 2014, according to VisitScotland figures.
But it is not just their appearance which makes them stand out from the locals. It is their innate Americanism.
A good friend from Reno, Nevada, came to stay a few weeks ago. Before her arrival, she contacted me to enquire about her flight booking – an “internal” European flight between Paris and Edinburgh with EasyJet. “It says I can have one ‘case’,” she said, puzzled. “What’s a case? Is that the same as luggage?”
During her trip, she triumphantly Facebooked that we were off on a day trip to the “Tossachs”. That made me giggle.
While I love her dearly, her lack of ability to understand English tickled me on a daily basis – and perplexed me.
If I told you I was going to push a stroller down the sidewalk and then put it away in the trunk of my car, you’d know exactly what I meant, wouldn’t you? But if I translated the same sentence into English and recited it to the average American, they wouldn’t have a scooby what I was on about.
We have been so well-trained through a lifelong obsession with American films and books that we are quite at home with US culture. We know what a Twinkie is, though we’ve probably never eaten one. We could all easily switch into fluent American – the lingo that is, not necessarily the accent – if the need arose. We know that it’s normal, despite the fact that no-one here has any of these things, for a teenager to wake up in the morning, take cans of soda from a huge shiny fridge complete with ice dispenser and head off to the basement to hang with his buddies.
To them, however, we’re just as alien as the French or the Hungarians. And they can understand what we’re saying as well.
To be fair, the US is a lot bigger than Europe. They could travel much further without needing a passport than we could on one of those “internal” European flights, flying above dozens of countries and passing over a range of diverse cultures.
What we often forget, is that American culture is diverse – if not quite so diverse as European. The slow-moving deep south is a world away from the snappy east coast. Sunny retirement state Florida is the antithesis of snowy Alaska, where fishing and oil abound.
What links them all is a single language – and an abundance of the same brands. But globalisation has meant that that minor issue is not as much of a deal-breaker, travelling-wise, as it once would have been. Go to Bucharest and you see the same adverts as in Glasgow. Go to Milan and you can sup the same coffee as in Birmingham.
Why should Americans be au fait with Scottish geography when we’d be hard pushed to identify even a tiny percentage of their states on a map?
Another American friend recently took a business trip to London and was perplexed by the “strange European plumbing” in his hotel bathroom.
Then he corrected himself. “Of course, I should say ‘British plumbing’,” he said. “You guys don’t like to think of yourself as European, do you?”