A Wellingtonian in Iowa

The people of Iowa City are a welcoming bunch. People of all ages wear T-shirts with "IOWA" printed in the front to help weary travellers who might, after four flights and a baffling 17-hour time difference, become confused about where they are. And this Wellingtonian can't help but read the town's -and-gold colour scheme as another gesture of conviviality.

Iowans aren't shy about asking where you're from and why you're in their fair state. I get some strange looks when I say I'm here to take part in the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa. Apparently they hear "International Riding Programme".

"What do you ride?" they ask, images of bucking broncos or dirt bikes flashing through their heads.

"Fuction," I say and they look mildly offended. "Novels," I add and the penny drops. But the fact that I could pass for a rodeo rider has me considering buying some chaps and a 10-gallon hat and running with the "International Riding Programme" next time someone asks. Who knows, I may set my own trend.

As my jet lag (and travelling-with-a-baby-lag) fades, I'm noticing less comforting, more perturbing fashions here in the United States.

The first is the return of tie-dye. When I got to Los Angeles, I was surprised by the number of what I thought were youthful Grateful Dead fans walking along the Venice Beach promenade. When I saw more hippies than hipsters in the Dallas-Forth Worth airport, I became concerned. Even here in Iowa the mall windows are decked out in tie-dye (although the tops still say "IOWA" or "Go the Hawkeyes!").

Putting aesthetics to one side for a moment (as fashion so often does), I'm most disturbed by the fact half the tie-dyed shirts, skirts and pants aren't even tie-dyed the proper primary-school-art-project way, but are instead screen-printed facsimiles. If there's one thing worse than tie-dye, it's ersatz tie-dye.

Another trend I'm not so keen on: bring your own uniforms. Customer service in the States is universally excellent ... once you get to talk to someone. I've been to Walmart a lot this week, and the employees are so busy being great with every customer that those waiting for service have a lot of time to inspect uniforms and notice that they're not all wearing the same type of polo shirt, or even the same shade of navy.

Perhaps it's a money-saving measure "from corporate" (no doubt branded as a chance for employees to show more of their own personality). Perhaps it's just easier this way, given the range of sizes folks come in over here. Or perhaps it's to seed doubt in the minds of customers about who actually works at Walmart. I certainly began to wonder, as the minutes mounted without approached in the entertainment section, if not being served was my own fault for not identifying the camouflaged store employees among the aisles.

Now, if they all wore cowboy boots and spurs, that'd be a uniform. Maybe in Texas? I'll let you know when I wash up in Houston in December.

Craig Cliff is a wide-eyed writer exploring his talent in America. He writes a fortnightly column.

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