Peter Pringle's America: It's great to be back. Make mine well done

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PERHAPS it was the young woman I saw on the evening television news wearing a gas mask and picking through vegetables in a California grocery store who made me feel so alien, so nervous about my re-entry into the West.

I was stunned just looking at the mountains of fruits and vegetables. In Moscow, where I had come from, such visions are rare. But the gas mask added a new layer of culture shock.

A fellow American shopper passed the woman, who was struggling to see over her breathing apparatus, and asked: 'Do you know something that I don't?' The woman whipped off her mask. 'It's the perfume,' she blurted. 'I'm allergic. People should stop wearing it; it makes me sneeze.' She sneezed, and then replaced her mask. Apparently, she is part of a drive by Californians, who recently banned smoking in public places, to create perfume-free zones in restaurants and on aircraft.

A month ago I lived amid the smokers of Moscow and the dimly lit buildings and permanent winter; now I squint into the neon lights, flinch at the electronic sounds, wake up to bright, sunlit days and wonder constantly at the sheer speed of life in New York.

Where I had come from the aircraft had no fuel and no food and the hotels had no phones. Fuel, food and phones are plentiful here, but American phones can be just as difficult in their way, and American food just as


Several people became ill and one died after eating hamburgers from the Jack in the Box restaurant chain recently. Americans suddenly became obsessed with their national dish. A hamburger should be well done - to an internal temperature of 160 degrees - the instant hamburger experts from the US Department of Agriculture's meat and poultry hotline warned. But a health-giving hamburger should not be frazzled.

Now, fearing for their lives if their hamburgers are not cooked thoroughly, Americans no longer ask for 'rare', 'medium rare' or even 'medium'. It's 'well done' or 'hockey puck'.

As for telephones, in the former Soviet Union, they never worked. I arrived here with a simple wish: to call my friends and be put straight through without buzzing and clicking sounds in the background. But newfangled man-made interference here can be just as irritating as the old-fashioned technical glitches in Moscow.

I called a friend in Washington and a bright, electronic voice answered, requesting me not to hang up. 'Your call is important to us,' it assured me, a complete stranger. Then the voice issued rapid instructions about how to leave a message. I was told to wait for a beep and then punch in the letters of my friend's last name. Before I finished, the voice interrupted: no such person worked there. But I knew he was there. I had just talked to his wife and she had just talked to him and he was waiting for my call. After three tries I hung up and called his wife.

Electronic voices are not the only barriers between a caller and his destination. More and more Americans are hiring public relations people to answer their calls; the number of PR employees has grown by 50 per cent in the past 10 years. Their interventions are far more intrusive than clicks on the line in Moscow.

Bob Dick, whom I have known since the Seventies, was on my list of contacts. He is America's chief tea-taster. I wondered if American tea-drinking habits had changed since I left. 'Not allowed to talk to you,' Bob said. 'Orders from Washington. It's because they are trying to disband the Tea Board to help the federal budget deficit, and they don't want me to talk about it. You have to call a man named Bachorik at the Food and Drug Administration.'

Poor Bob. He is 78 years old and has been tasting tea for a living since 1953. He loves to chat about his job. With all his knowledge about the Tea Board, he might let slip that the board meets only once a year for two days and costs the government next to nothing (dollars 8,000 a year) because the tea industry subsidises its work. I suppose the non- smoking Clintons are showing little interest because they drink decaffeinated coffee.

I eventually reached Mr Bachorik, who was full of apologies and said Bob's 'clearance' to talk should have 'filtered down' from the White House. But when I tried to get back to Bob, he had left for the weekend.

When I called the director of the New York Zoological Society to ask him about his petulant refusal to use the word 'zoo' - he wants to call them 'wildlife preservation parks' - I was told I had to speak to his public relations firm. I called and a nice man came on the line offering to help. 'Can you send a list of questions you would like to ask the director?' 'No,' I answered flatly, 'I can't. I simply don't have the time, please put me through directly.' 'Oh, OK,' he replied, and did.

I'll get over it, of course, but after a week of American hi-tech and telephones I yearn for something simpler: like the protection provided by the elementary technology of a Russian phone line. At least if somebody called with an embarrassing question, you could yell into the receiver: 'I can't hear you,' and most of the time it would be true.