some obvious observations about size

Over the past few months I’ve become increasingly aware of the manifestations of one fact: the UK is small; the US is big.

Yes, I know that this is obvious.  Geographically, the UK is just smaller than Oregon.  In terms of population, the UK’s is just over the combined populations of California and Texas.  (So another fun fact, clearly, is how dense the UK is in comparison to the US — something true for Europe in general, of course.)

But what’s been fun to note is what this means, socially.  The first time I noticed this was during my first few weeks here, as I walked around Oxford and overheard American accents over, and over, and over again.  To wit: there are not nearly so many British accents per capita at Stanford.  But it’s clear that it’s nearly impossible to go into a restaurant, cafe, or store in Oxford without hearing another American.  There are a noticeably large number of Canadians, too, of course, but Canada’s population doesn’t hold a candle to the America’s, either.  In short, there are just a lot of Americans in the world.  So we’re kind of everywhere.

I was reminded of this difference in size again the other day while listening to BBC Radio 4 reporting on Obama’s speech about Afghanistan.  While the US is promising 30,000 more troops, Britain is doing its part to send 500 more.  The number sounds a bit funny to an American, but is nothing to sniff at for a population the size of the UK’s.

So my first term at Oxford is over, and last week I flew back to California (on a long flight across my huuuuuge country) to spend one last month in my old apartment before my husband joins me next month in Oxford.  I haven’t been gone from California all that long, but it’s been long enough to let me have just a few moments of that fascinating experience of seeing one’s own home through new eyes — to me, nothing is quite as delightful as finding something surprising and interesting in something familiar and mundane.

The most consistent impression of the US that I always have when returning to it is the sheer size of things, especially out West.  There are the usual things, like the cars and roads being much bigger and much, much wider.  But this time I was struck by the width of my apartment’s bathtub!  I’d never noticed how roomy it is!  And my refrigerator (which is the normal standard size that came with our apartment) is HUGE in comparison to my little icebox in Oxford.  And the food inside it seems that way, too — a half gallon of milk strikes me as an unnecessarily large amount, for example.

Back in Oxford, I often felt like a klutz.  I felt like my elbows were always sticking out and getting in the way of something or someone.  I wonder if that eased a little over time.  Now that I’m back in California, everything seems almost unnecessarily spacious.  And I have to say that I do look forward to returning next month to the island of small, endearing things, like this adorable brand of vacuum (which belongs to my friend Lizzie):

Henry, the vacuum cleaner


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5 Responses to some obvious observations about size

  1. I’ve always known the US was big, but I only really ‘got’ it when I flew to Colorado over more empty land than I’d over seen.

  2. Trochee says:

    there’s the old joke (I forget the attribution): “To a Brit, 100 miles is a long way. To an American, a hundred years is a long time.”

  3. erica says:

    i’ve only recently started to really understand how uniquely american my love of “wide open spaces” is, and how i probably wouldn’t have developed that affinity if i were of a different nationality (except perhaps canadian and *maybe* australian, though i think my understanding of the myths surrounding space would be a bit different). interesting post!

  4. Anna says:

    I used to have this argument with a Swiss roommate who tried to apply Swiss methods of governance-by-committee to the US and said they would solve every problem. I told him that that might be a good way to govern one county in a western state, as most of them are roughly about the size of Switzerland…

  5. vocalised says:

    Trochee, I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s great!

    Erica, very excellent observation and relation to your own world view, one I completely share (to the extent that I could ever possibly match your kind of love for wide open spaces). Thanks for posting.

    Anna, I totally agree, that’s an element that doesn’t get mentioned enough when people discuss political policy differences between countries.

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