How a first-time visitor to Austin, to Texas, and to the US felt on his trip

I went on a trip to Austin, Texas, from May 8 to May 13, in order to attend a scientific conference there. That was my very first time in the US, and I was inundated with a veritable torrent of impressions. It all felt almost a little bit surreal: I read US news outlets on a daily basis, I follow US politics fairly closely, I watch a fair amount of US movies and TV shows (hello, Netflix!), I listen to musicians from the US, and so forth. When I actually came to the US, it felt both weirdly familiar and weirdly alien. It’s a funny feeling.

Of course, a one-time visit to Austin is not enough to produce anything more than anecdotal impressions, but let me share those impressions with you nonetheless.

Traveling to the US

Getting into the United States is not a trivial affair. As a citizen of both Switzerland and Croatia, the latter being a member of the European Union, I am mostly used to the luxury of completely hassle-free travel. You want to pop into an airplane and visit Berlin? Or London? Or Warsaw? No problem; just carry an ID card with you, and you are good to go. You want to visit the US? There’s some things you need to do first:

  • Get a biometric passport (that’s a good idea, even if you don’t plan on traveling to the US).
  • Fill out the “Electronic System for Travel Application” (usually referred to as ESTA). I am lucky enough, as a Swiss citizen, not to have to apply for a visa when visiting the US; filling out the ESTA suffices. And it’s going to cost you around $14.
  • Upon entering the US, behave properly at border control, follow instructions (among others, leave fingerprints as instructed), and have your travel documents ready at all times.

So, yes, there’s a few bureaucratic hurdles you need to need to take if you want to visit the US — but that’s, at worst, only slightly inconvenient. For me, the whole process worked fine, and at no time did I feel like the travelers were being harassed.

There was only a very minor aspect of the process that I found a bit funny. Upon entering the US, the gentleman taking my fingerprints was, I suppose, trying to play “bad cop” (I think he was with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection). His voice was little more than a whisper, and he was mostly asking me questions without looking me in the eye. I don’t think that man was being rude, but rather, he was probably playing a routine in order to make people nervous; maybe those who have something to hide become very nervous and visibly anxious. Be that as it may, I had to suppress a big smile: I was immediately thinking of Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies, where Batman whispers in a funny way so as to appear more intimidating. Well, whispering like Batman is better than slurring like Bane, at least.

Getting around in Austin: Uber, where art thou?

I hadn’t prepared extensively for my trip to Austin. On the one hand, I just like letting things happen. Planning sight-seeing tours and similar endeavors feels slightly, for lack of a better word, artificial to me. If my goal was to get from point A to point B, in order to see thing X and thing Y, I’m better off reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles and clicking my way through Google Streetview. On the other hand, nowadays, for most situations, there’s a digital fall-back option: Having a smartphone with access to the Internet basically means you can figure most things out if you get stuck in any way. And even if your phone or notebook runs out of juice, chances are, there’s some coffee shop or such nearby where you’ll be able to charge for a couple of minutes, while you enjoy a nice cup of coffee (obviously, this is true in cities, not necessarily in rural areas).

I didn’t plan ahead much for Austin, not least with regards to transportation. I sort of expected Austin to be big (Texas size, actually), and I sort of expected that public transportation probably isn’t the primary means of getting around in Austin. But, I thought, there’s going to be taxis, I suppose, and, above all else, Uber, the pseudo-taxis service that is very, very convenient.

Arrival area at the Austin airport at the last day that Uber operated in Austin. Most of the cars that were circling the airport were, presumably, drivers for Uber and Lyft, waiting for people to request a ride.

And indeed, as I arrived at the Austin airport, I hailed (Are you supposed to say “hail” in the Uber context?) myself an Uber ride (first time I did that, actually). It worked like a charm: A very friendly driver picked me up, we had a very nice conversation during the ride, and the fare was very reasonable. That was a good start: Getting around with Uber would be, it seemed, very simple and not at all expensive.

But, as it turned out, that feeling of mobility was premature: The very next day, Uber as well as its main competitor, Lyft, shut down their operation in Austin! Now, rather than being pissed off, I was impressed by what was going on. Turns out that on Sunday, May 8, Austin had a referendum vote on whether ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft should implement more detailed background checks, such as the collection of fingerprints. The referendum proposed to abolish these newly implemented rules, but the people of Austin rejected it and thus voted for tighter background checks [1].

This vote is very fascinating to me, for two reasons. First, as a European, I’m very much used to stereotypes about the US. One of them: The US is hyper-capitalist, and all anyone cares about is their own egocentric preferences. But in the case of Uber and Lyft, the people have clearly spoken out against their financial interests and in favor of the greater good for their community. Austinites were willing to give up the comfort and ease of Uber and Lyft, because they believed that these ridesharing services should be subject to tighter regulation. This means that a number of people knew they would have to rely on public transportation (spotty) or taxi services (more expensive, usually). Voting for tighter regulation, than, meant that the people of Austin have voted against their own immediate egocentric preferences.

The second reason why the Uber situation in Austin is interesting to me is that what is happening in Austin is a preview of the general challenges of the “sharing economy”, or “gig economy”. Uber and Lyft are at the forefront of an economic revolution; they have de facto created a new form of job that is neither classical employment nor classical contracting [2]. The regulation of these new forms of economic activity are only now beginning to catch up, and the grand challenge we face is to create appropriate regulation that serves the gig workers and customers, but does not stifle the inventive creativity that drives companies such as Uber and Lyft.

The best way forward, of course, is unclear at this point. There are arguments in favor of very light and of self-regulation [3,4]. Trying to regulate sharing economy businesses the same way as their traditional counterparts, so the basic argument goes, might represent little more than a status quo bias: Just doing what we are used to doing is not necessarily a good solution, both in terms of customer satisfaction and worker welfare. On the other hand, most, say, Uber drivers operate in a legal gray zone: They mostly have regular insurance for their cars, and that insurance does not cover the many things that can happen in a professional transportation service setting.

Anyway, the sharing economy is having a profound impact on how people use services, as well as how they offer them. It was exciting to experience how one aspect of that sharing economy is being hashed out in Austin. As it happens, the very day I am writing this text, Taxi drivers in Zurich are protesting Uber and asking for it to be shut down [5]. Let’s just hope their protest is more civilized than similar ones in Paris earlier this year [6].

As American as apple pie: Staying at a motel

Austin is a big city with many a hotel, and at least as many accommodations on Airbnb. For my stay, however, I chose neither and instead opted for a motel.

Look at this beautiful view! It is just oozing with atmosphere!

When asked why I went to a motel, I mostly argued that it was a good deal on an online booking site (it was), and that hotels and Airbnb rooms downtown were a bit pricey (they are). But there’s another reason why I wanted to stay at a motel: To experience this quintessentially American non-place. What do I mean by “non-place”? Let me explain.

Motels are hotels that are, usually, smaller than full-blown hotels, and they usually cater to motorists who are passing through. The idea of staying at a place not because you actually want to stay there, but rather because you want to get somewhere else, is utterly fascinating to me. In particular, I am very fond of highway rest stops (I’m not sure whether this is the correct expression, but you get what I mean): These places only exist because they are neither your starting point nor your destination; they exist, in a way, because you do not want to be there. That’s what I call “non-place”. One of my bucket list projects is to tour European rest stops and document my journey in pictures and writing. But that’s another story.

Motels are not only a non-place, but maybe they are the archetypal non-place. They are, strangely, inviting you to spend some time there, at least one night, and at the same time, they are a constant reminder that you don’t belong, that your journey is not over and that you need to keep going. The only purpose of arriving at a non-place is to leave it again. Thus, in a way, I almost felt like a phony: I was usurping this non-place for my selfish purposes; I was a pretender among true travelers.

Motels are not just archetypal non-places. They are also a prominent trope in popular US culture — and not just because of the Bates motel in “Psycho”. Motels have the air of the wicked. “Normal” people don’t go to motels, but people who have something to hide and something nefarious in mind. Bank robbers on the run, for example. Or married people having an affair. Or drug dealers. Or salesmen.

How, then, was my stay at the motel? Good. Very good, actually. Even great, maybe. My room was almost a little bit too neat, too tidy, so I didn’t quite experience what I believed was the “motel feel”. Even the Wifi worked perfectly at all times! Perhaps my trope-infused expectations got the better of me, and I hoped for a room with electricity and running water in it, but not much else. The room was so nice that, at moments, one could almost forget that it was a non-place.

A big flatscreen TV does away with with any pretense of a seedy motel. A microwave oven, a fridge and a coffee maker don’t help, either.

Thankfully, while the air conditioner in the room did its job perfectly, it was loud, so that gave the room a little bit of a rustic air (Get it? Air? Like in air conditioner? No? OK).

I ended up with two large beds. That’s too cozy!

Furthermore, the people working at the motel were very friendly and supportive at all times. That also felt a tiny bit out of place in what I believed a motel should look and feel like.

Ultimately, however, my motel experience was very valuable. It was not nearly as shabby as I had expected (in fact, it wasn’t shabby at all), but the overall feel of a non-place was still dominant. In a sense, I understand non-places a little bit better than before: A non-place is not defined by its level of service or by its amenities, but by its purpose. So even if a non-place looks and feels nice, it can still be a full-fledged non-place.

Tipping. Oh, dear God, tipping!

Here’s the deal: Over here in Europe, I tip. I almost always tip at restaurants, cafés, bars. In Switzerland as well as in other European countries, there is no expectation to tip, because service personnel has to receive a living wage. Still, I tip; in most cases, somewhere between 10% and 20%, rarely above 30% (when I’m having a very good day, celebrating, or something like that). When I am truly unhappy with the service (Zurich is notorious for bad service), I don’t withhold my tip, but I actually approach another waiter or waitress and ask them to take over. Then I tip them.

So I am quite used to tipping, and I don’t mind it at all. It comes naturally, because there is no implicitly codified rationale for tipping, there is no pressure to tip, there is no social stigmatization for tipping incorrectly or not at all. In summary, I tip, and we in Europe tip, but we do so en passant. It just isn’t a big deal. So it shouldn’t be any different in the US, right?

Boy oh boy, was I wrong.

I learned that you should tip 15% if everything was OK, and 20% if it was a bit more than OK. Not tipping at all, however, is a big faux pas. The people you didn’t tip will feel offended, and not tipping is generally considered to be very impolite. This made me very nervous: Suddenly, tipping is not an action en passant, but the very core of your consumer behavior. This creates a non-trivial amount of pressure, or at least it did so for me. At one nice lunch place, I had a little friendly chat with a waitress about tipping. She told me, only half-jokingly, that she “hates” people who tip less than 15%. Now, I fully understand that in the US, tips make up the largest part of waiters’ and waitresses’ salaries and that they are in a tough spot, but expressing such negative feelings towards customers who do not abide by a fuzzy code of consumer ethics is troubling to me.

How did my tipping experience go? Let me recount some examples:

  • I had a delicious lunch at a nice, slightly upscale Italian restaurant. For a $32 dollar bill, I left a $13 tip. The waitress was very thankful — and in the end, I was a bit afraid that I had tipped too much and appeared braggadocious (However, it was a very hot day, and I had multiple refills of their delicious house ice tea; I thought $45 was very appropriate.).
  • I rode a taxi multiple times. For the trip from my motel to the conference venue, the fare was around $9. Including the tip, I gave the cab driver 12$. The day I went home, I took a cab to the airport. The fare was $32, and I gave the driver $40.
  • One evening, after a long-ish day of walking around, I took a rickshaw of sorts to drive me a couple of blocks. The driver asked me for $10, and I gave him 20.

I suppose my tipping pattern was OK. But was it rational? No, not at all — it is very well known that tipping is a very discriminatory practice [7, 8, 9]. Even though people usually explain their tipping behavior as an objective reaction to the quality of service, it is almost anything but. The above examples? To a non-trivial degree irrational:

  • The waitress at the Italian restaurant was an attractive young woman with an agreeable personality. That’s pretty much the halo effect in action.
  • All of my taxi drivers where immigrants to the US, and I felt a sort of obligation to tip reasonably well. It was almost a sense of noblesse oblige, if you’d like — had my drivers been white and spoken accent-free English, I would probably have tipped less.
  • My rickshaw driver was a young man in his 20-ies who is originally from Ghana. We had a nice chat and I learned a bit about him. At some point, I was overcome with what is best described as “white guilt”: Here is the wealthy white guy from Switzerland (not really wealthy, but there you go), and he is sitting in a cart drawn by a young and struggling black man. I did not like that image at all.

Overall, I wouldn’t say my tipping experience was terrible, but I was thinking much more about tipping than I would have liked. But maybe that’s just a question of getting used to the US ways of doing things.

(Also, there was one episode where I embarrassed myself in terms of tipping. One evening, I tagged along with a couple of cool people whom I did not know before the conference all of us attended. We ended up having dinner at a lovely small burger place / bar; good food, good conversation, good atmosphere. In the end, we split the bill and agreed we’d each pay around $15, which would cover our food and drinks as well as a reasonable tip. At that point, I already had had a few beers, it was dark, the burger place / bar was filling up, there was confusion about the bill, and I myself was pretty confused. In the end, I ended up paying only $10, while everyone else paid $15 — and I only realized my mistake back in Switzerland. I was shocked at my horrible dick move, and I felt like I deserved a Game of Thrones-style “shame” walk. Now, even though I’d like to credit this embarrassing anecdote to the US tipping culture, that was 100% me. So there’s that.)

Politics and history are in the air

Austin, the state capitol of Texas, is not really representative of Texas as a whole — it’s much more liberal than most of Texas.

Austin is markedly more liberal than other Texan cities. Source: Tausanovich and Warshaw, 2014 [11]. The method the authors use in that study, Bayesian ideal point estimation [12], is fairly neat if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

I was suspecting that Austin is more liberal than the rest of Texas, and that Austinites might not mourn the failed presidential campaign of their conservative Senator Ted Cruz, but I didn’t really have an idea whether politics plays a great role in Austin, overall. From the little I knew about Austin beforehand, I understood Austin to be a a place with neat music festivals, such as SXSW, good food, and lots of sun. Politics? Not so much.

I think I was wrong. While I wouldn’t say that Austin, in my brief time there, seemed hyper-political to me, politics did have a strong tangible presence in the city. For example, one day when I was exploring downtown, I talked to an activist of the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU. The ACLU was looking for support in their fight against voter restriction laws. Voter restriction laws are actually so called “voter ID laws”: Laws that make it harder for US citizens to register for voting, ostensibly to combat voter fraud [13]. As a matter of fact, voter restriction laws are blatant attempts to make it harder for blacks and Latinos to vote — groups who are more likely to vote Democrat than Republic. I was impressed by the ACLU’s efforts, and even though I’m not a US citizen, I spontaneously donated $20 to the cause.

Another place where I encountered politics was the campus of the University of Texas Austin. For example, I found this table / board very interesting and inspiring:

Partisan politics on the University of Texas Austin campus.

Obviously, the table was painted by hand, and there is something quaint about it. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but the opposite: The fact that university students are interested enough in politics to actually engage in political activities as volunteers and as interested citizens is, quite simply, a very precious resource — and one that is, mostly, absent in Switzerland. I’m sure only a minority of UT Austin students actively engage in campus politics, but even that amount of civic virtue is so much more than what I usually observe in Switzerland, or, more generally, in Europe (Yes, I realize I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but I do believe that Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of political life in the US [14] still holds true, at least to a degree.).

Then, of course, there is the impressive Texas State Capitol, which is also located in Austin, and which seems to yell from afar “this is where politics is taking place!”.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin, at night.

The State Capitol is a beautiful building that, by some accounts and depending who you are talking to, sits at the city’s very heart. If you are in Austin, it’s difficult to imagine you could not notice the Capitol at some point, and once you visit it, you get a sense of politics, but also a sense of history. What I liked a lot about the Capitol is the fact that it is not closed off, but mostly open for everyone. Tours of the Capitol are organized, but the premises are open for everyone, with a lovely park and all.

The Texas State Capitol, by day.

Speaking of history: There’s a lot of it in Austin. I’m not even talking about numerous museums and such, but the many bronze statues that are scattered across Austin.

Angelina Eberly, a celebrated hero of the “Texas Archive Wars”.

Statues are, obviously, very passive objects. They just stand around, and in terms of, say, their color, they don’t immediately stand out from their surroundings. But even though the many statues are, more or less, discrete, they exude a sense of history, a sense of “you are here now, but many have been here before”.

A monument to the veterans of the Korean War at the Texas State Capitol.
Martin Luther King statue on the University of Texas Austin campus.
“Pioneer Woman” at the Texas State Capitol. The statue commemorates women pioneers.
A monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American war.

The many statues in Austin exude a sort of historical scent, and that left an impression on me. Not that there is a lack of such things in Europe, but maybe it’s precisely because this was somewhat unexpected to me in a city as modern as Austin. Fascinating though the lingering sense of history in Austin is, that is not to say that everything about that is simply lovely and beautiful. Many, if not most of the statues and memorials I encountered are martial in nature. Is there really so little in Texas history besides wars won and wars lost that is worthy of commemoration? I can’t believe hat.

Look and feel of the city

I am not a man who has traveled the world, but I have seen a few different places; small villages and towns, small cities, big cities, and so forth. So far, everywhere I’ve been was more impressive in person than, say, in pictures or in Google Streetview. I’ve liked all places I’ve been to, and many places have impressed me, but for most places, my rough expectations were a somewhat reliable guide for the actual place itself. For example, when I visited Stockholm for the first time, I was truly impressed by the many old, big buildings in the city center; an indicator, perhaps, of Stockholm’s royal past (and, technically, of its present: Sweden is still a monarchy with a king). When I visited Buenos Aires, I was just as impressed; by the beauty of the historical part of the city as well as by the contrasts between the city center and the poorer outskirts. But, again, I wasn’t expecting something totally different.

Austin, however, totally surprised me — I still have trouble really parsing my impressions of Austin. The very first thing that impressed me: Everything is so vast.

A look down long, long Congress Avenue.

Austin doesn’t just have a number of tall buildings. It’s more the whole scale of the city that is impressive and weird at the same time. The streets are mostly spacious, nothing feels cramped, but rather laid out with plenty of room to spare. Of course, there are some streets that are plenty busy, such as the famous 6th Street:

A snapshot of 6th Street.
Another snapshot of 6th Street.

However, possibly most of downtown Austin is very spacious and, as a consequence, just feels fairly, well, not empty, but vast.

So much space between the buildings — you could almost fit another one in there!

Another thing that struck me about (downtown) Austin: The architecture. Now, I’m a complete layman when it comes to architecture, so I probably shouldn’t even use that word. But two things about many buildings in Austin struck me:

  • There’s a lot of concrete.
  • A lot of the concrete has a reddish-ocher-brownish color.

I don’t think the ocher and concrete combination is only a feature of older buildings. For example, this building here seems fairly new (though it’s possible that the building is simply painted that way and not made with concrete):

A newish building. That’s all I know about it.

This massiveness of many concrete buildings paired with their reddish-ocher coloring reminded me of sandstone rock formations that you would typically find in desert areas. Something like this:

Alcove in the Navajo Sandstone. Source:

The buildings in (downtown) Austin are very unique (at least in terms of my limited experience), and I like them a lot. Of course, not all buildings in Austin have a uniform look. For example, this apartment building sports a lot of glass, steel, still a considerable amount concrete, but no ocher-reddish in its color composition:

You can’t tell much from this picture — but it’s super artsy!

Big and vast though many places in (downtown) Austin are, there are also many cozy spots, many of them occupied by bars such as this one:

It’s a bit hipstery, yes, but all in good fun.

The third big thing that surprised me about Austin: It’s not a desert, there’s lots of green!

There is lush vegetation along the bank of the Colorado river.

Along with the flora comes, to me also surprisingly, a seemingly very vital fauna. If you are into bird watching, there’s probably plenty to watch.

A bird, standing on the roof of an expensive car besides a fresh pile of poo, observing menacingly. As if the bird was saying: “All these riches you cling to so desperately, to me, they mean nothing — I sh*t on them”.

There’s plenty of animals in and around Austin, such as its famous bats that reside under the Congress Avenue bridge. One animal with a seemingly large population are squirrels; because there are relatively many, I managed to take a couple of close-up photos of them.

A squirrel, his front paw raised, as if to greet you with a friendly “Hello!”. But do not be fooled by your anthropomorphizing brain: The squirrel does not care for you.
A squirrel, taking a break on his way up the tree. Perhaps he is wondering, “What is the purpose of incessantly running up all those trees, when the result of my efforts is a foregone conclusion — I will descend just as quickly, every time? And, where did I leave those damn nuts?”.

To summarize, there were three main things that surprised me about the look and feel of Austin:

  • Austin’s vastness.
  • Austin’s architecture.
  • Austin’s lush flora and fauna.

The best for last: The people are friendly

As has become, I hope, clear from the preceding lines of text, I enjoyed visiting Austin very much. However, that joy is not of the regular tourist “nice sights A, B and C” variety, I think. Actually, I don’t even know whether I’d recommend Austin as a normal holiday destination; it doesn’t seem to be that kind of place. However, if you go to Austin with some goal or purpose, however ephemeral that goal or purpose might be (such as, say, to attend a scientific conference), Austin is mighty fascinating.

The icing on the Austin cake, to me, were the people in Austin. I’m not the greatest people person, and I don’t have some compulsive need to make friends and to have company at all times. It was all the more impressive and surprising to see how, I believe, genuinely outgoing and happy to chat people in Austin were. And I’m not just talking about people who had a rational interest in being nice (such as waiters and waitresses, say), but just regular folks you stumble into in the streets. This was refreshing in a way I almost couldn’t comprehend: At first, I thought everyone was super sarcastic. Seriously. But then I came to realize that, no, this is how the people in Austin actually are. What a stark contrast to what I’m used to in Europe (or, perhaps: a stark contrast to how I behave myself).


[1] Sottek, T. C. 2016. “Uber and Lyft to Suspend Austin Operations after Vote on Background Checks.” The Verge. May 8.

[2] The Economist. 2016. “Category Error”, April 30.

[3] Koopman, Christopher, Matthew Mitchell, and Adam Thierer. 2014. “Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection Regulation: The Case for Policy Change, The.” Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship and the Law 8: 529.

[4] Cohen, Molly, and Arun Sundararajan. 2015. “Self-Regulation and Innovation in the Peer-to-Peer Sharing Economy.” University of Chicago Law Review Dialogue 82: 116.

[5] Bolzli, Michael. 2016. “Grossdemo Gegen Uber: Täxeler Fordern Verbot Des «Dumping-Fahrdienstes».” Accessed May 17.

[6] Chrisafis, Angelique. 2016. “France Hit by Day of Protest as Security Forces Fire Teargas at Taxi Strike.” The Guardian. January 26.

[7] Lynn, Michael, and Jeffrey Graves. 1996. “Tipping: An Incentive/Reward for Service?” Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research 20 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1177/109634809602000102.

[8] Lynn, Michael, Michael Sturman, Christie Ganley, Elizabeth Adams, Mathew Douglas, and Jessica McNeil. 2008. “Consumer Racial Discrimination in Tipping: A Replication and Extension.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 38 (4): 1045–60. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00338.x.

[9] Brewster, Zachary W. 2013. “The Effects of Restaurant Servers’ Perceptions of Customers’ Tipping Behaviors on Service Discrimination.” International Journal of Hospitality Management 32 (March): 228–36. doi:10.1016/j.ijhm.2012.04.010.

[10] Nisbett, Richard E., and Timothy D. Wilson. 1977. “The Halo Effect: Evidence for Unconscious Alteration of Judgments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (4): 250–56. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.35.4.250.

[11] Tausanovitch, Chris, and Christopher Warshaw. 2014. “Representation in Municipal Government.” American Political Science Review 108 (3): 605–641. doi:10.1017/S0003055414000318.

[12] Clinton, Joshua, Simon Jackman, and Douglas Rivers. 2004. “The Statistical Analysis of Roll Call Data.” American Political Science Review null (2): 355–370. doi:10.1017/S0003055404001194.

[13] The Economist. 2016. “A Texas Law Could Disenfranchise 600,000 Voters,” May 5.

[14] Goldstein, Doris S. 1964. “Alexis de Tocqueville’s Concept of Citizenship.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 108 (1): 39–53.