Sunday, January 29, 2012


One of the big differences between the U.S and Australia is the practice of tipping. Now in Australia, the practice is becoming more prevalent than it used to be but it still not common, so I was quite interested to see how the custom influenced the service I received. These are my thoughts.

Firstly, I managed to get into conversations with some of the waiting staff and they informed me that their official wage, which was paid by the employer, was somewhere in the vicinity of 2-3 dollars an hour. Now look, I know that these people can earn quite a bit in tips, but there is something fundamentally wrong with paying a person that rate in a first world country. For a forty hour week, that equates to an official salary of 80-120 dollars a week. Now I understand that people who work in high end restaurants can earn quite a bit, but its those people in the roadside diners that worry me; in many of those places there didn't seem to be much through traffic.

As far as I was concerned "tipping" was not really an option since if I was unhappy with the service (an inconvenience) the person would have a significant portion of their wages docked. There seemed to be an asymmetry in cost to the waiter in favour of the customer. This would be alright if all customers are reasonable but some are not.

The net result was that a lot of the waiting staff were working quite hard to get that tip and laying on the charm quite thickly; so thickly that it appeared at times contrived, especially when the waiters appeared tired. Staff were quite attentive but once the bill was paid and the money was "extracted", staff sort of disappeared. Something that doesn't seem to happen at home.

Once again, I found the whole experience a bit off-putting in the end. Eating out felt like a simple commercial transaction.(Except in the South) You could never be sure if the waiting staff were being nice to you because they were genuinely nice or that they were being fake in order to earn some cash. I felt that the whole system of tipping compelled the waiting staff them to what we in Australia call, "kiss arse" in order to earn a living. It was a sort of trade-off in dignity for the dollar.

It's one thing to tip a man when he doesn't need it and its another thing to tip him when he does. In the first instance there is no compulsion to give, in the second there isn't as well; and yet there is. In the first instance your giving a man a bonus, which in no material way harms him when he does not get it. In the second, your providing him with his living wage which to a degree is obligatory.

The other issue at play is the independence of the waiter. The customer is not always right, he is not always nice and sometimes can be a pain in arse. The waiter should be able to refuse his business if a certain minimal standard of behaviour is not shown towards him. The whole tipping system subordinates the waiter to the customer. The whole system seems to enforce a subtle attitude of "the man with dollar must be kowtowed to". Subtle, but pernicious.

I understand that many people think that tipping provides an incentive towards superior service but compared to Australia, where the waiters are paid at least a minimum wage ($15.50 an hour), I did not notice any real improvement in the table service.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Fat of the Land.

Prior to traveling to the U.S. we had been told by many that the U.S populated by huge numbers of “fatties”. The truth be told, my own  impression was that the U.S was just as fat as Australia, and on that measure I did not feel too far from home. Still there were some subtle differences. The average young U.S. man seemed less lean than the average Australian, whilst the average U.S. woman seemed slightly leaner than the average Australian. Subtly, Your fatties looked less healthier than ours  Compared to Europe, both countries have serious problems with obesity.

Obesity, is of course, a complex problem being a product of genetics, diet and energy expenditure. What I want to concentrate on here is the food. Now, I’m not particularly into organic foods and don’t mind some pesticide or applied fertilizer; I don’t approach food like a biochemistry assay and I’m not a gourmet. What matters to me is taste and quality, and I like to know that the animals were treated well before they were slaughtered. However after eating in the U.S. I did get the impression that “junk’ food was the staple and fresh produce was a premium product

Quite a few U.S. bloggers have lamented the state of U.S nutrition and I’m the emerging “Paleo” trend. I initially thought that their commentary was a bit over-the-top  but after my travels I want to fully endorse them. Never have I eaten so badly as I have in the U.S.

Firstly, the supermarkets. I actually like visiting supermarkets whilst  traveling in foreign countries, as it gives a good index to the cost of living compared to Australia and it also gives a good idea of what locals like to consume. Comparing Australian to U.S supermarkets, I would say that:

1) In the U.S., processed food (meals in a can, frozen dinners, breakfast cereals, chocolates etc) were much, much cheaper than in Australia.
2) With regard to cost, fresh fruit and vegetables were on par.
3)However on average, the quality of the fresh fruit, meat and vegetables seemed lower than at home. Whole Foods was very good but not superlative.
4)Big supermarkets tended to have a good selection of foods.
5)Smaller supermarkets tended to resemble the supermarkets in Eastern Europe, with a very large selection of processed food and a small selection of fresh produce.
6)Alcohol was much cheaper in the U.S.

With regard to restaurants, food, in mid level, “sit down” , non-chain type of restaurants was generally quite good. Expensive restaurants all over the world generally provide good food. Where the the food was quite bad was in the roadside type chain restaurant and chain-diner.  While the portion sizes in most roadside diners and chain restaurants were generous, the quality of it was extremely poor. It was fatty, but in a bad way, and it all seemed to possess an underlying bland factory processed taste. In Las Vegas I discovered that scrambled eggs and pancakes came out of a bottle. Much like the man who fed himself on McDonalds for a month, I was beginning to fell unwell by the end of my trip. My children were actually craving vegetables by the end of the trip. ( BTW, what is it with orange cheese?)

What I found very hard to find was food that was cheap, reasonably healthy and tasty. In Australia, for example, its really easy to find stores which sell fresh tasty rolls and sandwiches, using fresh ingredients and crusty breads, even in small regional centers.  In New York, I ended up grabbing a sandwich at the Deli section of Whole Foods or Pret-a-Manger, not because I wanted to, simply because everything else that was “grab and go” was utter crap. Aside from the huge portion sizes, obligatory melted cheese  and complementary fries, nearly all of the food had that same factory processed taste.  I never thought that I would eat better in London than in New York.

With regard to regional variation. I quite liked the food in the South and can’t rave enough about Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston. The food there was calorie laden, and probably ‘bad” for me, but unlike most food I had tried, it was incredibly tasty. I know that the South is  “different”, but then again, I got the impression that most American “specialty”  restaurants were quite good, it was the mainstream day-to-day stuff that was bad. That’s the problem. It’s a problem because people make food decisions not only on taste, but on time and economic factors. A tired mother working two jobs trying to keep afloat in the U.S. economy has to buck the economic and time pressures she is under if she wants her family to eat well.  A certain amount of time and economic affluence is required to eat well.

It not only that, what we put into our bodies is just as important as how it tastes and can’t but help feel that part of reason for feeling unhealthy by the end of our trip was because of stuff I ate. Like my kids, I developed a craving for “healthy food”. As mentioned earlier in our post, I notice that the American obese looked more unhealthy than the Australian. Just as grain fed beef tastes different to ranch cattle, was the Australian obese “healthier” than the American because of  dietary composition?

Overall, I got the impression that whilst good food is available in the U.S., it is a relatively difficult to find premium product. The other impression that America left me with, was that the quality of food was being driven down to the bare minimum by the sole metric of the capitalist imperative: the minimal acceptable quality which generates a profit. Compared to the Italians and the French, the Americans on average have much much lower acceptable standards when it comes to the quality of food.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Arbeit Macht Sie Frei.

My first impression of America, upon landing in LA, was just how tired everyone looked. From first day of our visit to our last, this overall perception of worn out people was everywhere in the US. It was obvious that everyone was working quite hard, but it was also obvious that they had been working quite hard for a very, very long time.

The other thing that surprised me is just how many people were working two jobs. Now it’s quite common in Australia to see young people working two jobs to get ahead, but what surprised me is just how many older people (40’s and above) were working two jobs. It appeared that a lot of the older people were working to stay afloat, and not to fall between society’s cracks; there seemed to be  this invisible whip continually lashing them. Americans, in my opinion, were very hard workers.

What also surprised me is just how many older people were working in the “hamburger flipping” type of industries ( A phenomenon that is beginning to appear in Australia as well).   In Australia, and in my experience of Europe, these jobs are considered workforce “entry level jobs” and are still the province of younger people, whilst in the U.S., the majority of the service staff that I met were above the age of thirty. They were all working what I would consider anti-social hours and all of them looked worn out ..... and trapped.

The overall impression it gave me, was of a worn out society that was barely holding itself together. I must confess it shocked and saddened me. Everyone seemed overworked. Everyone also seemed grimly resolute to the task. It appeared to me, that to most Americans, this was the only way things could be.

One of the most interesting conversations I had was in the bowels of the Hoover dam. Whilst being taken through an access tunnel, our tour guide asked us we were all from. Two groups were from Australia and another from France. We got into a discussion about vacations and explained to him, that on average, Australians get four weeks paid leave a year. I think the French said that they got five. He clearly looked pained at our responses. He told us that he only got one week and that his employers were trying to take it away from him. He was clearly an intelligent man and wanted to travel but was unable to do so due to his work commitments. It dawned upon me at that time that perhaps one of the causes of American insularity is the simple fact that many Americans simply do not have time time to leave their country, trapped by the obligations to their employers.

Now in Australia, I see a lot of small businessmen who work just as hard and I have seen that look of work-weariness before. I know the toll that it places on human beings. My experience has taught me is that everyone seems to have a work threshold, that once crossed, becomes socially and personally destructive. A man is not only a means of production, but he is also meant to be a husband, father and a member of the community.  A healthy man balances all these duties, and healthy society gives him room to balance them. Men devoting all their times to work have no time to devote to the other obligations in their life.  Men working long hours become harsh and irritable, they make mistakes, they opt for quick snacks instead of proper meals, working hard for their families, they don’t ever spend time with their them, eventually finding themselves alienated from the ones they have devoted themselves to.

It appeared to me that whilst America had fully internalised the Protestant work ethic it had neglected any concept of the right to leisure. Labour laws,  in the end, are a reflection of society’s values. In America, it appeared that leisure was perceived as either an opportunity cost amongst the go getters, or an frivolous luxury amongst the miserly. And amongst those who would like to take some time off for a rest, it appeared that American culture offered them no legitimacy. It was a society that seem geared toward the primacy of work and production and you were either with the program or you were not.

What I Saw in America.

My family and I have recently completed a nearly four week holiday in the United States. Over the next few posts I hope to write about the impressions that the country left on me; not all of them positive. I found it difficult to articulate these impressions for a while and upon return to Australia, picked up G.K Chesterton’s book on his experience of the U.S. He visited it in the 1920‘s and 30‘s,  and surprisingly, I felt that many of his observations still hold true to today.  Whilst he was very polite in his writings about the U.S., I could not help but form the opinion that the country disquieted him, seeing in it something that was toxic to the ideas of Christendom.

Americans, I have found, find it very difficult to take criticism of their country objectively and tend to impute malice towards the critic. And it is true that there are a lot of malevolent critics of America. I am not. Sometimes its very difficult to see the problems from “inside” and that what’s needed is an outside view, and that’s what I’m trying to provide. I am convinced that one of the big problems of the U.S is it’s cultural insularity. Roosh V is on the money when he urges people to travel and I think it is its very important that young American men of the Right ( who will be its future advocaes) get out and see the world. Not so much as to remake the U.S in the image of another country, more to be able to compare how other people live; in many instances better than in the U.S.

Nearly all of the Americans that we met appeared to be fundamentally good and decent persons, and in many ways, better than a lot of the Europeans and Australians. If I had to generalise however, I would say that the higher up the food chain an American was, the less I tended to like him. Prole America in its failures seemed more human that corporate America in its success. What distressed me the most however, was the erosive destruction of the American people by an economic system that seems to be literally grinding them into the dust.  After visiting the U.S. the “we are the 99%” movement is very easy to understand.

As a result of this trip I feel that I understand Roissy a lot a better, especially with regard to American women; they really are different compared to other women of the world. My appreciation of Ferdinand Bardamu has also grown, as I feel he is quite accurate in his critiques of American society.