When visitors to the United States underestimate the size of the country


A friend of mine who is from Lebanon (but now lives in Seattle) invited his grandmother to come visit for the summer. When she arrived, he asked her, "Grandma, is there anywhere in particular you would like to visit?"

His grandmother replied, "I'd like go to to Washington, DC."

"Okay, Grandma. Let me buy some plane tickets."

"No, let's drive."

"You want to drive all the way to Washington, DC? Here, let me show you on a map how far away it is."

Grandma replied, "Let's do it."

My friend said, "Okay, Grandma, we're going on a road trip!" He got the rest of the family on board with the plan, packed up the car, and set out early one morning for their cross-country trip.

By the end of the day, they had made it as far as Idaho, where they stopped for the night. I assume that they made plenty of stops along the way because (1) part of the point of a road trip is to enjoy the things along the way, and (2) Grandma.

Grandma asked, "Is this Washington, DC?"

"No, Grandma. Washington, DC is still very far away. Here, let me show you on the map where we are."

Grandma was unconvinced. "If you'd only stop and ask for directions, we would have been there by now." Grandma was certain that the only reason they were driving all day was that her grandson was lost and stupidly driving in circles, and if he only had driven in the right direction, they'd be there by now.

Grandma's reference for distance was Lebanon, which is a relatively small country. You can drive from the northern tip of the country to the southern tip in a day. The United States is a bit bigger than that.

A related story was when my parents in New Jersey hosted some friends from Japan. The first excursion they took was to New York City, a convenient train ride away. For their second trip, they said, "How about today we drive to Chicago?"

Third story.

Please share any funny stories about geographic blindness in your home country.

(This was supposed to be posted on Geography Awareness Week but I messed up.)

Comments (84)
  1. Great Sadness says:

    A different take on geographic blindness in my country – you'd think 600 km between the capital city and another major city is not that much, wouldn't you?

    Here are the available train routes: translate.google.com/translate

    [You think that's bad. See how long it takes to ride the train from the capital (Washington, DC) to a state capital (Columbus, OH) 650km away. Answer: Infinity! Columbus does not have any train service at all. -Raymond]
  2. Ben says:

    My favourite bit of ignorance is when Europeans go on about how ignorant Americans supposedly are.

    The average European doesn't know where Arkansas is, so why the heck should an American know where Hungary is?

    My other favourite is the way people seem to think foreigners are way more cultured than their own nation. Yes, the ones you have met are. Because they are the kind of people who travel.

    There are plenty of Europeans who aren't cultured but you are unlikely to meet them because a) they aren't going to come to your country and b) if you go to theirs you will probably not be moving in the same circles.

  3. Brian_EE says:

    According to the link you posted, Geography Awareness Week was November 17th through the 23rd in 2013.

    Maybe that was when you wrote the article for the blog queue.

    [Oops. What happened is that I put it in the queue for that week, but then I rearranged some articles, unaware that this one had a hard shelf date. -Raymond]
  4. Gabe says:

    Some Japanese somewhat underestimated the size of the US when they attempted to bomb the US in WWII via balloons. Apparently they thought that dropping hundreds or thousands of incendiary bombs would be enough to blanket large parts of the country with forest fires.

    Either they didn't know that the US has over a million square miles of forest or they didn't understand how vast that much land really is!

    Ultimately they started a few fires, and caused a few deaths (the only ones in the States during the war) when some people stumbled upon an unexploded bomb, but not much else.

    See en.wikipedia.org/…/Fire_balloon for more info.

  5. Anon says:

    @Ben

    You've destroyed your own argument…

    Other countries are judging Americans by American tourists. If you're saying that "the kind of people who travel" are higher-class or more-cultured, what does it say when American tourists are almost universally seen as boorish and uninformed?

  6. AC says:

    I'll admit I had to look up where Arkansas is, and also that I can't keep all the eastern european countries apart.

    But, while Arkansas is not included in the following statement, if you for example mix up Colorado with Wyoming, even an American friend of mine said (only partly in jest) "no one really cares for the middle states". I know where the more "interesting" states, like Michigan or those on the east and west coast, lie.

    Considering the history of Hungary, I'd consider that "interesting" in too.

  7. Ben says:

    Actually @anon, most of the disparaging comment is triggered by surveys reported in newspapers.

    I'm a Brit. I think I could point to Hungary, but only because I have recently been reading about the first world war. Louisiana has an interesting history, but I couldn't point to it on a map. I think I could get about 25 states.

    The moral is: People just like to criticise.

  8. Darren says:

    In University, we had an exchange professor from Hungary. At the end of the year, he was going to take all summer driving around the country before flying home, and he was asking for suggestions. I of course told him he had to see the Grand Canyon.  He said "Yes, we have a whole day for that. we're going to drive around the entire outside."

    I told him he can't do that because it's too big and there are no bridges. He asked "How big is it?"  "It's like 300 miles long or something."

    There was a five second pause, and I knew exactly the next question. "What's that in kilometers?"

    I said "Something like 450 kilometers."

    His answer was "You have national parks bigger than my country??"

    Remember, in the USA 100 years is a long time, and in the EU 100 miles is a long distance.

  9. Miles Archer says:

    Works inside the country too. A bunch of us were going to a wedding near Phoenix AZ. On the map, it was three or four blocks from the hotel to the wedding. My friend from Boston thought we should walk. He apparently didn't realize that the blocks were between major streets and not city blocks. More like a mile apart.

  10. prunoki says:

    @Ben:

    You compare a state to a country, hardly fair. And I do know that Arkansas is in the USA.

    And of course I am Hungarian :-)

    [Well, Hungary is a state too. (The word "state" has a funny meaning in the U.S.) -Raymond]
  11. Mark S says:

    This sounds too absurd to be real but it's true.

    I was on a plane from Moscow to Istanbul (I'm American; I was on a trip).  I was talking with a South African, who wanted to visit the US sometime.  All "33" states.

    I recounted this story to a Croatian fellow later on in my trip.  He thought there were 52.

    Further legs, when I continued to tell this story, included guesses of 47, 49, 51.

    My last leg, when American geopolitical ignorance came again in Bulgaria, my interlocutor insisted there were 54, even calling her dad to verify (he thought this too).  Neither were persuaded by an actual American's knowledge of his country.

    I literally told the original story of 33 states six successive times (each time including the subsequent wrong guesses), yet each and every time there was a new wrong guess.  Not one person correctly said "50".

  12. @Ben says:

    Arkansas is a state not a country. To be a fair comparison it would be Arkansas versus, say, Lower Saxony or Tirol or Uri.

  13. TIG says:

    @prunoki

    Many states in the USA are as big as countries in the EU:

    goeurope.about.com/…/bl-country-size-comparison-map.htm

  14. Cesar says:

    @Ben: Arkansas is just a state within the USA. Hungary is a whole country. It is more important to know where other countries are than to know where the states within a country other than yours are.

  15. Owen Rudge says:

    People often seem to underestimate how big Scotland is. Now, compared with many countries, it is pretty small, but many of the roads aren't great, so it can still take a good few hours to get from one place to another. But you'll get people who want to visit Edinburgh, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye in a single day. Now, you can technically do that, but you're going to spend your whole day driving as opposed to actually seeing things!

  16. Mike C says:

    It works the other way around, as well.  As a Canadian who's used to thinking that 100km is an hour's drive away along our straight and fairly empty highways, I was over in southern England talking to a colleague about driving to northern Wales for the afternoon.  It turns out that's not such a feasible plan.

    I also recall going to see George Clinton in Calgary on his first Canadian tour, and he and his band were playing in Vancouver the night before.  His road manager figured they could drive to Calgary in between.  Needless to say, the concert started several hours late (but was worth the wait).

  17. Rob says:

    @Cesar. The idea that a Country > State is nonsense, they're both just arbitrary distinctions based on geopolitical and historical boundaries. It would be just as rational to draw borders between areas of distinct cultural norms, levels of rainfall, or median number of offspring. All arbitrary. It would be nice if everyone would show an open and genuine curiosity about the world, including other countries and states, their histories, as well as their own state, or country, or continent, its history and cultural heritage.

  18. Joe says:

    I had the reverse happen when I had an extended business trip in Israel. I'd sight see on weekends, often by car. My brain never quite adjusted to the scale of the map and I was constantly overestimating how long it would take to get anywhere.

  19. ian.m.goldby@eon.com says:

    Most Europeans would not equate US states with EU nations. US states are (as I understand it) administrative regions, not separate sovereign nations, even if they do have a certain amount of power to create local laws. So we might think of them as more like our counties in the UK (or departments in France), except on a much larger scale.

    Despite what you read in the right-wing press, you can't equate the European Parliament with the US Federal Government.

    In reality, US states are probably just as different from UK counties as they are from EU countries, so neither comparison really holds water.

  20. freefly says:

    @Ben : that is because Hungary is a country and Arkansas, or whatever your holy city, is not a country. !!! Apart from that mistake you proved that you are as bad as those uncultured people you were talking about :)

    Cheers

  21. Sam says:

    Very much on the opposite end of the scale, here in the UK, the London Underground map provides plenty of opportunity for confusions of scale. Two stations such as Bayswater and Queensway look like they're a two-train journey underground, but they're only a hundred yards or so apart at street level.

  22. Evan says:

    @ian.m.goldby: "Most Europeans would not equate US states with EU nations."

    I don't think most Americans would either. But at the same time, there are parallels: the EU serves as somewhat of a governing body, there are EU-level courts, much of Europe even shares a common currency, and the Schengen Agreement makes travel between much of Europe a lot closer to travel between US states than a traditional border crossing.

    Obviously the parallels aren't complete. But when you combine that with the fact that many US states are larger (in area, in population, or in economy) than many European countries, I really do think it starts to get very unfair to say that Americans should know about European countries but Europeans just should know where the US is.

    Really the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's not fair to compare US states to EU countries, but it's also not fair to compare the US as a whole to each EU country.

    @Sam: re. underground map

    It's pretty common most places to depict train-style transit maps in that manner. The problem is that it's difficult to convey scale at the same time as you have a good map for using for transit.

  23. Homer says:

    @prunoki, @Cesar: Arkansas (137,733 km^2) is larger geographically than Hungary (93,030 km^2), almost 1.5 times larger. And Arkansas is only the 29th (out of 50) largest state in the U.S. There is no comparison politically between the two. Arkansas is a state and Hungary is a country. Hungary also has more than three times the population of Arkansas. However, in geographical size and land variety, Arkansas compares fairly well with Hungary even if Arkansas is a bit larger.

    And, of course, I am originally an Arkansan, even if I live in Colorado now :-)

  24. Cesar says:

    @Rob: it's not arbitrary. A state is merely an administrative subdivision within a country. A country has its own separate government, laws, and borders.

    My country is almost as large as the USA, but I do not expect USA citizens to know where each of its 26 states is. In the same way, why should they expect me to know where each of their 50 states is?

  25. SimonRev says:

    I think that there are a lot of parallels between the individual states in the US prior to the US Civil War, and countries today in the EU.  If trends continue, it wouldn't surprise me if in 150 years, the EU acts more as a single federal unit, and the countries in the EU function analogous to states in the US today.

  26. @Cesar: I don't quite think you understand how the Federal/State division works.  States can enact their own laws, have their own borders, and have their own governments.  The federal government is capable of enacting laws that apply to all states, but the states are responsible for enforcing them and determining how they are to be implemented (so long as they conform to the federal laws).  In a lot of ways, the United States is a lot like the EU model: states are not quite as autonomous, but they are for all intents and purposes capable of enacting their own laws as long as they don't conflict with a federal law.

    Another thing many people (including Americans) don't realize is that the culture between states can be very different.  Even neighboring states can use very different words for referring to the same thing (I'm thinking here of how in Wisconsin a water fountain is called a bubbler but in Minnesota it's… well, a water fountain).  Take someone from Minnesota, someone from California, someone from Massachusetts, and someone from Texas, and the four of them would probably discover a lot of differences between them.

    [One difference is that if you ask those people to self-identify, three of them would say "I'm an American" and one would say "I'm a Texan." -Raymond]
  27. Brian G. says:

    @Cesar I think the point is that there should be consistent expectations going both ways. You demonstrated that symmetry. That's a good thing in my opinion.

  28. @Raymond: I don't know about that.  It depends on the context.  In the U.S., if you ask "Where are you from?" we would normally answer by city and state, since it's kind of assumed what country we're from.  Outside the U.S., it would probably be more like "I'm from <state> in America", and then the other person would nod politely while having no idea what that state is, what that means, or why people in the U.S. continue to insist on calling their country "America".  If you ask "What nationality are you?" then it'd probably go down like that, but that makes sense.  States are mostly autonomous, but not entirely so.  Our cultures are different, but there's still a national identity.  There's just also a state identity, which comes up a lot during football season.

  29. David B says:

    A story: I grew up in California.  California is to dinky little states like Delaware, Massachusetts, etc. as the USA is to Lebanon.   Which I understood in college (in California, with students from across the country).

    A joke:  A Texan is bragging to an Israeli:  On my ranch, I can get in my pickup truck at sunup and drive until sundown and still be on my land!  The Israeli responds:  I had a truck like that once, so I sold it.

  30. Ken in NH says:

    Back in the early aughts, we hosted the British Royal Navy for the Dallas Cup soccer tournament. We housed two young sailors for the duration of the tournament. Almost every night they went out to clubs. One evening they asked us for directions to Austin. We asked them if they were going to be back in time for the games the next day and they said they would. They would just go to Austin for the evening because they heard that the bar scene was much more lively there (true, Austin being the home of the University of Texas). We had a good laugh when we pointed out that it would take them 4 hours each way. They had it in their head that they could get there in a little over an hour, go clubbing for a few hours, and make it back to sleep at least 6 hours.

  31. stickboy says:

    @Rob: That a country > state isn't nonsense.  Nobody goes to war with states.

    [Egypt declared war on the State of Israel in 1948. -Raymond]
  32. Nico says:

    @Owen Rudge:  While reading about the continuing push for Scottish independence I came across the kerfuffle over the BBC's weather map using a projection that obscures the scale of Scotland relative to the rest of the UK: bellacaledonia.org.uk/…/honey-i-shrunk-the-country  All 2D map projects have flaws, but I found that example an interesting example of how easily people infer the importance of a country based on how large it appears on a map (another example being Africa: http://www.economist.com/…/cartography). Obligatory xkcd: http://xkcd.com/977

  33. ChiefInspectorClouseau says:

    This post from a message board can be helpful when explaining things:

    "I live in South Carolina, one of the smaller states on the east coast. I can drive four hours east and still not reach the coast. Four hours north and I'm still in North Carolina. Four hours south and I'm in Georgia; west, and I'm in Tennessee. Either way, I'm still in what people call the American Deep South. Contrast that with, say, Paris. Figuring four hours ~250 miles or 400 km, north puts you in London, east puts you in Luxembourg; NE — Brussels (assuming I'm reading this tiny little map correctly). "

  34. pmb says:

    Even some people in the United States can be clueless.

    My friend does author events for writers.  One notoriously famous (for being stupid) politician recently put out a book, and was on a book tour.  This person's book tour manager contacted my friend about doing an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  My friend said sure, and started making arrangements.  At some point later, the manager called again, and asked to verify that it would only take about an hour to drive from St. Louis Missouri to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Apparently the manager had booked a morning event in St Louis, and expected to drive to Milwaukee for the afternoon event.

    My friend just laughed.  And then went around canceling the plans they'd just made.  Needless to say there was no Milwaukee event.  It seems that the notorious idiot also employed idiots :-)

    For those that don't know, Milwaukee is about two hours north of Chicago…. or about six hours north of St. Louis.  

    As for the State vs. Country… Texas was its own country before becoming a state, and many Americans think of their States as "where they're from", over their country.  While it's not the case that "States in the United States" are equivalent to "Countries in the EU"… it's also not wrong.  States are far more important than provinces or counties.  States HAVE provinces our counties, and their own governments, and laws can be VERY different from state to state.  It's why the country is called "The United States".  It's not "America" (America is two continents, North America and South America.  North America consists of Canada, The United States, Mexico, and a host of "central American" countries).  Just because some people from the United States of America shorten it (out of laziness, arrogance, or both) to "America" or consider themselves "American" as if that were synonymous to being "From the United States of America" doesn't really change that.

    Another size note:  If you start in East Texas and drive west, you'll drive for nearly 24 hours before you actually leave Texas and enter New Mexico (the state that borders Texas on the West).  Bonus trivia… at the point you exit Texas, you're half way to San Diego, on the southern Pacific Coast of California.

    And another joke:  People from Alaska tend to get annoyed by the obnoxious bragging Texans engage in about the size of their state.  Texans used the phrase "Texas-sized" to describe anything that is HUGE or extremely large, or even irrationally big.  One day an Alaskan got fed up with his Texas hosts, and said "If you don't cut that out, we'll divide Alaska in two, and then Texas will be the THIRD largest state!".

    Footnote, a friend from Alaska once said that they knew a restaurant where the "Texas-sized" portion was the medium portion :-)

  35. lister says:

    Some Europeans have a difficult time with the size of the USA and some of their states, take a look at Canada and it's provinces (minus the Maritimes.) Aw Texas, you're so cute! Plop you down in the middle of Saskatchewan and you'll be driving for hours on end in any direction with nothing but flat everywhere. Of course you're probably asking yourself "Why would I want to do that?" and my answer is "You wouldn't."

  36. J. Peterson says:

    For many years, my uncle owned a gas station just off the freeway in Salt Lake City.  Travelers would pull in asking directions to the main Mormon temple in downtown.  He loved to prank them by just shaking is head and saying "Huh…never heard of it."

  37. ChiefInspectorClouseau says:

    "It's not "America" (America is two continents, North America and South America.  North America consists of Canada, The United States, Mexico, and a host of "central American" countries).  Just because some people from the United States of America shorten it (out of laziness, arrogance, or both) to "America" or consider themselves "American" as if that were synonymous to being "From the United States of America" doesn't really change that."

    There's a lot more to it than "laziness, arrogance, or both."  There is much history behind referring to the USA as "America," going to back before there was such a thing as the USA.  The fact that "America" is the name of two continents (or one, depending on who is doing the dividing) is irrelevant.  

    The last time I participated in a discussion with a guy who excoriated Americans for the usage, it was pointed out to the guy who started it that he lazily referred to himself as being from Venezuela and not from "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela."  (Also, I haven't noticed anyone outside of the States jumping to include himself when folks are chanting "Death to America!")

  38. morlamweb says:

    Geography has always been one of my strong suits, so sorry, I don't have any funny stories to share.  I did enjoy the stories posted here, thanks a lot.  How about some geography trivia: what's the one point in the continental US (that I know about) that has no direct land connection to the US mainland?  Hint: it is a peninsula, but you have to cross a national border to go from the tip to the US mainland.

  39. BJ says:

    Most people don't know how big Australia is (it's bigger than Texas – ielanguages.com/…/ausvsus.jpg) – including Americans who seem to be tricked by a different reference problem – distances to the next state's major cities in the US are generally pretty short distances.  With only 7 states or territories over much the same land mass, the short distances in Australia are equivalent to the longest in the US between major cities.   We've had visitors from the US who have assumed a trip from Melbourne to Ayer's Rock is a nice day trip; it would be if you don't mind a 12 hour round trip on commercial flights, with 25 minutes on the ground at the airport (while the plane you flew in on is turned around).

    Hosting visitors from Japan in Melbourne for business over an extended period, one weekend I decided to drive to Sydney to visit a friend.  At the time, the roads were not great, so the 600 mile journey would take around 12 hours (now it's closer to 10).  I offered one of my Japanese visitors who had mentioned he wanted to see Sydney a lift.  We set off after work on Friday night, about 7pm.  He was starting to get really worried around midnight as we got off the main freeways and onto the older highways – and we still had 7 hours to go.  By the time we got into Sydney he'd understood the size of the continent, and was planning to fly back to Melbourne on Sunday night rather than catch a bus.

  40. lister says:

    Other funny borders between Canada and the USA:

    http://goo.gl/maps/UFfah

    http://goo.gl/maps/zs8GP

    All three maps I've posted were shown in CGP Grey's video: http://www.youtube.com/watch

  41. bzakharin says:

    I live in southern New Jersey and have lived here for 23 years now and still have trouble with some "local" distances. I can't get myself to believe that Baltimore is not that much further away than New York (But it's 2 states away!) or that Pittsburgh is 5 hours away (it's over in Pennsylvania!). I even had to get used to my 1 hour drive to work (You can go east-west in New Jersey for that long  without reaching the shore?). Oh and I am from Russia where Saint Petersburg is 9 hours away from Moscow, in the same part of the country, so I should know.

  42. pmb says:

    You definitely get used to distances in your local area.

    I grew up in Ohio, which has several large-ish cities within a 2.5 hour drive… growing up, a two-and-a-half hour drive was "FOREVER!"  A really long distance.

    I moved to Texas, and my sense of size had to change.  Now a 2.5 hour drive is a "quick trip".  People think nothing of driving well over an hour just to go out to eat… while in Ohio, that would be considered utter insanity.

    I have friends that moved to Seattle, Washington.  It takes a 4 hour plane ride to get to them.  It's only 9 hours to London, England, across the Atlantic.

  43. Brian_EE says:

    @PMB: "Another size note: If you start in East Texas and drive west, you'll drive for nearly 24 hours before you actually leave Texas and enter New Mexico (the state that borders Texas on the West)."

    BS. More like 1/2 that unless you're riding with your great-grandmother behind the wheel.

    http://goo.gl/maps/fCeVM

  44. Evan says:

    @PMB: "Just because some people from the United States of America shorten it (out of laziness, arrogance, or both)"

    FWIW, I am careful to use the "US" for the country, but I almost always use "American" as the adjective for us, the people. I would say it's out of neither laziness nor arrogance, but because I don't think there's a good alternative… "US citizen" is too stuffy, and "USian" sounds dumb to my ears.

  45. Raphael says:

    Me and my brother (German), my brother's girlfriend (Belgian) and my wife (American) recently had a very refreshing discussion about how far away we'd drive at most for a day trip.

    * American: 5-6 hours

    * Germany: 2-3 hours

    * Belgian: half an hour

    (per direction)

  46. Jack B Nimble says:

    The first time I went to Germany we stayed in a hostel overlooking the Rhine. There was a group of teenagers there from Great Britain that we tried to teach Ultimate Frisbee to. We asked them how large they thought England was (which we had driven across earlier on the trip) compared to the United States. They figured it was around 1/3 the size of the continental United States.

    For the people confused about the term 'state.' Before the United States of America became mainstream, a state was a country or government. The 13 original colonies were called states (or commonwealths) because they were fairly independent of each other. Later as the United States grew, the term state changed to mean a portion of the larger country The United States (but only internally). On the international scene, a state is still considered to be a country. Hence the term Heads of State (like presidents and prime ministers) are the leaders of their respective countries.

  47. pmb says:

    Ugh, you're right… 12 hours not 24 (my memory was off by a factor of two… I'm guessing I got confused by the "east texas to San Diego" stat I had looked at earlier.  Sorry for the goof.

  48. Evan says:

    @Anon, Ben:

    I think there's a lot to be said for both arguments.

    On Ben's side, comparing for example passport ownership rates between US and Europe is an apples-to-oranges comparison [1] and absolutely ludicrous. International travel besides Canada/Mexico is beyond the means of probably a significant majority of people in the US — heck, I didn't even take any trips by *plane* to anywhere until I was in college, and my family was definitely not poor by any meaningful definition of that word. And Canada, until relatively recently, didn't require a passport to travel to. (It still technically doesn't IIRC, but now you still need special travel documents so it might as well.) Combine that with the size and variation that you have in the US and it's very natural that we do very little international travel, and I think it's very unfair to blame us for it. I also think it's reasonably fair to compare US knowledge of European countries to European knowledge of US states; and as Ben suggests, I suspect Europeans would fair roughly the same as we would on European countries. (Or maybe that's just my wishful thinking.)

    Arguing against Anon, there are also things like the "Canada effect" — stereotyping hugely for a second, I suspect that the people who most embody the "uninformed American" perception the most are also the most likely to proudly proclaim their Americanness, whereas people who want to *distance* themselves from said perception (because they don't match it) will not overtly claim that or even go so far as to wear Canadian flags and such.

    [1] http://www.improbable.com/…/air-1-3-apples.html

  49. Martin Bonner says:

    My partner and I went on a three week holiday in India.  We decided to catch a train from Delhi to Cochin (as was).  "It's going to take *how long* ?"  (1300 miles).  We knew that India was bigger than England, but it hadn't really sunk in until then.

    P.S.  300 miles is closer to 500 km than 450.

  50. Stuart Langridge says:

    I once heard someone say that the difference between England (where I am) and the United States is that we think that a hundred miles is a long way and you think that a hundred years is a long time. I am occasionally astounded by how far people are prepared to drive for things in the US, but that's because I've been conditioned by being here, where something 200 miles away is a place you'd go on holiday for a week, rather than a day trip. Surprisingly different worldview.

  51. Sven says:

    I live roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. One morning a couple asked me how much further it was to LA. I said, "oh, four or five hours, depending". They said "That's not possible! We've already been driving for four hours!" They had flown in from New York and decided to go to SFO instead of LAX figuring they'd do a quick drive between airports to see a little of the state. Guess they didn't may too much attention to the distance between ;-)

  52. morlamweb says:

    @lister: yes, Point Roberts is correct.  Now to bring it back around to the original post: would a Seattleite consider it a day trip to drive up there?  Eyeballing it in on the map, it looks like about 125 miles to Point Roberts from Seattle.  What's the general feeling on road trip distances up there?

  53. Mark S says:

    Not quite geographic blindness, but related.  I was in Russia at the end of a study-abroad program.  We were in St. Petersburg, and many of us had connecting flights in Moscow.  I was talking with someone who lived in Kamchatka, in the eastern part of Russia, who also had a connecting flight in Moscow.  Despite having extensively traveled around it, I got a better sense of how freaking big Russia is (even without annexing territories from its neighbors), when I learned I would get home before she would: her flight from Moscow to Kamchatka – "merely" cross-country – was longer than mine from Moscow to New York (9 hours vs. 8 hours).

  54. Clockwork-Muse says:

    Heh.  Years ago, my family used to drive from Bellevue (next door to Redmond) to L.A. for Christmas, every year.  This took about 20 hours, and you had to plan for what environmental effects you wanted to experience.  One year we had a kid from Spain staying with us, and he came along; we estimated that, from his house, a trip of the same distance/duration would get him to Russia – or pretty much the other end of Europe.

    @morlamweb – We often day-trip to visit my grandfather up on Whidbey Island, about an 80 mile trip.  Point Roberts sounds like a "long day" trip to me…

  55. Azarien says:

    It happened to me that having crossed a bridge, I was driving literally in circles for two hours, before realizing that I'm on an island and that was the *only* bridge.

  56. Entegy says:

    Heh, this has happened to me too. A friend from Germany was mentioning that I would probably been bored visiting Vancouver, not realizing I had never been there, living on the East Coast of Canada. I've never been further West than the province of Ontario. Oddly enough, I HAVE been to both coasts of the continental US, just not my own country. :(

  57. Dave says:

    It's all a matter of perspective. I once got odd looks from friends in the US when I referred to a flight from New York to Los Angeles as "a short trip". Well it was, it's only five hours. I'm from New Zealand, you have to fly for about twelve hours before you can actually start going where you want to go.

    Australians probably have the same feeling. On a flight up to Singapore (which crosses Australia) I looked out the window after seven hours' flying. We were still over Australia.

    Useless fact: People tend to think Australia and NZ are close neighbours, but London is closer to Moscow than Canberra is to Wellington.

  58. S says:

    Even on a smaller scale, this happens. A European friend visited me in NZ some years back, with the idea that walking would be a good way to get around the country. But while NZ isn't a huge country compared to the USA, it's a *lot* bigger than what he was imagining…

  59. foo says:

    Shortly after moving to Australia one of my friends mentioned he was going to spend a month in Alice Springs flying airplanes. I asked him if he was going to take his surf board… wound up having to buy beer for that.

    Another friend visited a few years ago and wanted to ride the Ghan train from Adelaide to Darwin. He booked the cheapest tickets, and knowing that he likes to travel in comfort I strongly suggested he spend some dollars and upgrade his ticket class. He ignored me. At Alice Springs he left the train and booked an airplane to Darwin. The train staff were nice enough to ensure he had a taxi waiting at the station before ditching him in the middle of Australia.

    And then there's the occasional story of tourists who unexpectedly tour Canada. http://www.cbc.ca/…/italian-tourists-end-up-in-wrong-sydney-1.975605

  60. cheong00 says:

    Your post reminds me about someone who tried to travel to Hokkaido from Tokyo by taxi, and then be stopped by the taxi driver. :P

  61. Hdw Junkie says:

    Spent a few years commuting to London 2-3x/qtr. Worked 1/4 time in London, 2 weeks at a time. My favorite quote from that time: The difference between Brits and Americans? The Brits think 100 miles is a long way, the Americans think 100 years is a long time. My boss at the time lived in a row house built in the 1700s. And he was surprised that the drive to Mt. Rainier was so long. My boss has retired and moved, to a farmhouse built in the 1600s.

  62. av11 says:

    My aunt is a travel agent, so we have a plenty of such a stories. Asking for 'LA to Miami bus tickets' and 'hotel in the center of Paris with a sea view' are not that uncommon.

  63. Sam says:

    @foo: Funnily enough, travel agents (at least in the US) purchase insurance to cover themselves against professional oopses like the wrong Sydney. Found this out when a travel agent wrote PM instead of AM on an itinerary, causing a group of us to miss a flight from Asia to the US. The travel agency paid for the $400 in change fees the airline charged, but you can imagine the damage if the airline demanded we buy 4 international full-fare last-minute tickets.

  64. Andrei Vajna says:

    I live in Romania, and I have two stories for you:

    1. I went to Bucharest, the capital and met with some people from England. They ask me from where in Romania I come from. I tell them I'm from the far west, from Timisoara, which is 600km away. They then ask me how much the train ride to Bucharest took, so I say: "How much do you think?" The response was: "Well, 600km that's about 400 miles, so… 4 hours?" The train actually makes 9 hours, because the infrastructure is that awful. Driving normally takes 7-8 hours.

    2. Bucharest is by far the largest city, with close to 2 million people. Getting anywhere across town takes around an hour or more, even using transport. The next biggest cities are much smaller, at about 3-400 000 people. I live in such a city, and am very glad that I'm close to the center, taking me 15 minutes walking to get, there, 10 minutes to get to school, and now to work. Basically everything I care about daily is within walking distance. Longer journeys between different parts of the city would take at most an hour, hour and a half, using public transport. Average travel using public transport is half an hour.

    But once I went to Satu Mare for a music festival, which although smaller, with 100 000 people, it is still an important city, a county capital nevertheless. The festival was at an open-air theatre somewhere in the middle of the city. The taxi ride from the train station took about 2 minutes. I had to go to my accomodation, which was in a large camping area on the outskirts of the city. I asked someone at the theatre entrance for directions: "You have to take this road, then take a right and follow the road towards the city exit and you'll see the place." and then he adds: "But it's quite far!" "How much would it take to walk there?" I ask. "Oh… 15 minutes!"

  65. GWO says:

    @StuartLangridge Hey! I came here to say that!  It's true though – when visiting friends in the US we'd think nothing of driving 75 miles to visit a tourist attraction, but the idea of someone driving from Birmingham to Manchester and back for a day out is just crazy.  (I guess the counter-example are travelling football fans – who really might follow Sunderland FC to Southampton for a day – but they really are an exception).

    @AndreiVajna I appreciate the lesson of your story, but I think you must have misremembered the estimate. I can't imagine any Brit thinking a 400 mile trip would take 4 hours.  Neither our motorways, or our trains are anything like that quick. 5.5 to 6 hours at best for 400 miles.

  66. GWO says:

    [Egypt declared war on the State of Israel in 1948. -Raymond]

    Is that supposed to be a joke, or … well, I sincerely hope that was supposed to be a joke.

    [I was responding to the claim that nobody declares war on states with a counter-example. The problem is that the word "state" has mutated its meaning in the US from its normal definition of "sovereign independent government". -Raymond]
  67. Alexander says:

    This is a lovely anecdote but to be honest I have somewhat a hard time to believe the story fully went that way.

    Now, his grandmother was apparently for the first time in the US and not very familiar with its geography in the first place. So there isnt much surprise about the "request" itself. You mentioned he showed her a map but I have the feeling this, nonetheless, did not properly make her realise the distance we are speaking about here.

    We are talking about roughly 2800 miles. If he had told her this is the same distance as from Lisbon to Moscow (or for that matter from Beirut to Barcelona) she might have understood that this is going to be a long trip …..

  68. Chris says:

    One thing that gets Americans who come to Australia is how vastly different the population density is, so major cities are much furthur apart. The USA has about 10% more area than Australia, but 10x the population.

  69. RP7 says:

    @Rob, I don't think it is so very strange: countries can have their own foreign policies and can declare war; internal subdivisions of countries cannot (except, as you say, in the case of civil war, but that is acknowledged as a different kind of war than normal).

  70. No One says:

    Re: State vs. country with respect to war — this was actually a huge sticking point in the creation of the United States because states didn't want to be dragged into the wars of the other states.

  71. voo says:

    Yeah I really loved doing roadtrips after coming to the US. Driving Las Cruces, NM – New Orleans in one go in a 15-people van (20 hours with stops btw) on the way back after an extended weekend, is certainly not something I'd have ever considered doing in Europe (that'd be something like Vienna- Stockholm..). Heck I used to think that 1 1/2 hours were a long way for a day trip (my gosh 3 hours driving?) – now if I'm in Europe I confuse people.

    You get used to doing these kind of roadtrips quite quickly though, even as European.

  72. Ben says:

    @cesar, @everyone

    "It is more important to know where other countries are than to know where the states within a country other than yours are."

    Why? If you don't intend to travel there what does it matter if you know where it is?

    The USA is so big that it is rare to travel outside. Many European countries are so small that it is rare not to. For a Czech to travel to Poland is roughly equivalent to a New Yorker going to Massachusetts. For a Dutchman to travel to Belgium is like a New Yorker going to the supermarket. They are quite likely to do it for that reason.

    That's why they know where those places are.

  73. Rob says:

    @stickboy "Nobody goes to war with states."

    That's a very strange way to assert that a Country > State. Also it's wrong (from Wikipedia): The American Civil War, also known as the *War Between the States*. Also Spanish Civil War, English Civil War, literally any Civil War is exactly that.

  74. voo says:

    @Ben: Because countries generally have much higher geopolitic importance, a shared culture and history – much more distinct than say Arkansas and Oklahoma. Also I really hope people learn about world history, geopolitics and geography in general for reasons other than "Hey I'd like to visit country X and would love to find it" – it's in my opinion part of a good education. That doesn't mean you have to know every minor country (clearly you're more likely to know all the little states close to where you live), but if you don't know where Hungary is (at least approximately) despite it being part of some of the major world shaping events of the last century – yes that's sad.

    But then I've met many, many Americans who had no problems getting such things right and I've seen enough Europeans who couldn't tell me anything about South America, so it's really not that clear cut..

  75. GregM says:

    Perceived distance is very much relative to what you're used to.

    I spent my first 20 years living in a part of the state where an average drive to go anywhere was about 15-20 minutes.  The farthest we usually drove was 35 to 40 minutes, and that got us to the capital of the next state.

    I then moved 60 minutes east, and now have had a 30-40 minute commute for most of the last 20 years.  An hour commute is not unusual for residents in my area.  A 60-90 minute drive for a day trip is no big deal for us now.

    My mother lived in that same part of the state for almost 60 years, her longest commute to work was about 15 minutes, and driving out to my house used to feel like it took forever.  She now lives out by me, and after living here 5 years, she says that the 60 minute drive back home to her family out west doesn't seem nearly so long any more.

  76. Willem jan says:

    OK. So the woman from Lebanon didn't realize that the US were BIG! However, it works the other way around too. People from the US are oftentimes quite misguided about the size of Europe. In 1984 the bridge olympiad was held in Valkenburg, a small town in the south of Netherlands. Some of the American participants were under the impression that while they were there, they might as well take a day trip to the Red Square in Moscow. They were a bit surprised when they learned that Valkenburg and Moscow are some 2490 km apart.

  77. Jerome says:

    @Mark S

    I'm a South African too, and although I would never say "all 33 states", I've neither known nor cared how many states there are, until your comment that says 50. I've always seen it as somewhere in the range 10 < states < 100. And who cares anyway?

  78. Entegy says:

    Raymond, if I'm understanding you correctly, then the USA isn't the only country that calls its top-level administrative sub-divisions "states". Australia, Germany, Mexico and Malaysia are some other countries that are made up of "states".

    Or when you say 'The problem is that the word "state" has mutated its meaning in the US from its normal definition of "sovereign independent government"', you mean something unique to the USA that these other countries don't have?

    [Yes, other countries use "state" to describe sub-entities. My point is that in the US, almost nobody realizes that the normal meaning of "state" is "sovereign independent government". I make no claims as to whether that mutation has also occurred in Australia, etc. -Raymond]
  79. voo says:

    Hmm I'm confused, in German – and according to the English wikipedia and the oxford dictionary, a "state" is the correct term for a political area which is part of a federation.

    So it seems that English has the same distinction between "Federations" and "unitary states", which makes sense they are not the same concept after all. Or maybe I'm misunderstanding Raymond's point and he's just saying that the second meaning of "state" is less well known in the US?

    [Exactly. "State" meaning "independent government" is largely unknown in the US due to the heavy use of the "political subdivision" definition. -Raymond]
  80. Jonathan says:

    Israel, despite its small size, has its share of geographic blindness. For example, many people who live in "the center" – Tel-Aviv and nearby cities – think that "the north" is a single point, and are surprised to hear that I need to drive over an hour from Haifa to the Sea of Galilee (and another hour to Hermon mountain).

  81. RP7 says:

    @voo, As I understand it, "state" is not the generic term in English for a subunit of a federation.  For example, it would not be correct to call Canada's provinces "states".  Rather, "state" is the term used by certain countries to refer to their subdivisions.  As far as Germany is concerned, the official translation of "Land" is "Land" (as a a loanword, the same in English as in German), although "state" is also a common translation.

  82. DWalker says:

    "one point in the continental US (that I know about) that has no direct land connection to the US mainland?"  There are lots of islands with and without bridges; the Florida Keys; Padre Island off the coast of Texas (these have bridges, generally); Fire Island, which I think you get to only by ferry.  There are lots more  I'm glad you said "that I know of" in your trivia question, since there are lots of points in the continental US with no direct land connection to the US mainland.

    The one you mention, if it's a peninsula, is more unusual.  

    Also, if you go due south from Detroit, you'll be in Canada.  Many people in the US don't realize that.

  83. voo says:

    @RP7: The oxford dictionary has "An organized political community or area forming part of a federal republic" as one definition of "state", so I'd say that's correct.

    There's not really one correct translation for state in German as it really depends on the country: Germany itself has "Bundesstaaten" (although shortening that to "Staat" wouldn't be that uncommon), Austria has Bundesländer and Switzerland has Kantone.

    German also uses "Bundesstaat" when referring to states in the US, so I'd say the most correct translation would be "Bundesstaat".

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