An American Girl

I know I mentioned earlier that this wasn’t going to be an expat blog, but seeing as I randomly chose a blog host (Weebly) that seems to cater more to America (because I read a few articles about choosing the best blog hosts and the whole Google being allowed to delete Blogger at its own fancy terrified me- how often this actually happens I have no idea), I feel I should continue to nod to both sides of the pond where possible. After my last post, which was admittedly dashed off without much forethought, I felt a pang of guilt for allowing a smidge of “Anti-British/America is better rah!” to slip into my piece. But truthfully the duality of this battle is one that rages on for most expats I imagine, however long you have lived in a foreign country.

I think that it’s perhaps only natural that the longer you are away from your homeland, the rosier the tint of your homesickness glasses may appear. Of course I also have many realizations when I go “home” to America of the things about Britain I particularly love and am more used to now. I miss the dry wit of the U.K., the subtlety of the news compared to American in your face/often blatantly scaremongering style broadcasts on the hot topics of the week. Although I will say I prefer American weathermen/women. The zany humour and melodramatic forecasts amuse me, whereas British weather people are just bland eye candy. I also find American supermarkets daunting now, the selection dwarfs that of even a large British grocer, though I do wish we had Wholefoods in Britain. Dining out in America vs. Britain is a whole post of its own. If you ever come to Britain and ask for a doggie bag, prepare for funny looks. It’s really not the “done” thing here, and restaurants that do oblige tend to look at you like some sort of scrounger for wanting to bring home the food that you just paid for.

Anyway, I don’t want this to be too rambling (cough), so I will try to break a few things down in as organized a fashion as possible for anyone interested in the British vs. U.K. way of life.

1. Tea vs. Coffee: Do they have coffee here? Don’t they only drink tea with fine china like in Downton Abbey/Buckingham Palace? Aye and nay. Coffee is weirdly more prevalent here as a takeaway/cafĂ© choice – many old fashioned tearooms have now closed shop. I think sadly they maybe just didn’t modernise enough to compete with the fast food Starbucks type hot drink experience. Along with the ever present Starbucks (four and counting in my moderately sized city), there are several other popular coffee chains in the U.K., along with the odd local coffee house. A few tea and cake rooms have opened that have a more modern/kitsch feel in my city, but largely the dominant force on the high street is coffee.

And yet, in homes across Britain, the conversion to coffee is less complete. Most people still don’t have fresh coffee but drink instant (bleurch!). Tea is definitely still the traditional hot caffeinated beverage of choice. Usually made from a plug in kettle, not a fancy teapot, and served in a mug, not tiny teacups (of course I'm sure there are people who only drink tea from bone china, I haven't met any though!), tea is something that Americans (or I did anyway) might think of as more of an event than it is. High tea is quite fancy (it's like a late lunch where you eat sandwiches and's kind of a dying meal/art form, but many posh hotels still offer it to American tourists/people going for a special treat). Most people make due with tea and a "biscuit" (that's British for cookie), as a pick me up. I have come to appreciate tea and definitely prefer it in the afternoon or evening to coffee now. I can see what we're missing in America - you have to make an effort to get good tea, like Twinings, otherwise you drink Lipton (as I did for years, which now tastes like bathwater to me, sorry!) and don't get what all the fuss is about.

I was visiting a friend recently and as we guzzled our second cafetiere of coffee , we commiserated on having to suffer the lack of fresh coffee provided at respective elder’s houses. My in laws now allow me to use their ancient but functional coffee maker, after years of me bringing my own coffee they now provide, but I am treated as some sort of freakish caffeine starved alien creature they must accommodate (which I admit am!). The need for coffee is still seen as a modern one in certain swathes of the population, and while I do love a nice “cuppa*” (tea), I need a java jolt in the morning, which can be a problem when travelling to people’s houses who do not participate in the modern church of caffeine.

2. Customer Service: Well this is admittedly on my mind as I had my usual hair pulling day of fun with Tesco Home delivery (groceries) yesterday. Much of the order was forgotten, which resulted in us waiting in most of the day for it to be delivered, having to phone headquarters several times as the local branch is useless and as usual several hours later the items were delivered barely apologetically. It really is no wonder Tesco is in the sh*t. I understand these things happen, but this happens with them all the time, and no amount of £5 vouchers is going to be worth the headache of calling customer services several times and being stuck in waiting limbo.

In general, customer service is ok here, but when it comes to retail, you often have to fight your corner. If you return something (with the tags and a receipt), you still often have to give a good reason why you don’t want it, whereas in the States they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Never mind returning something without tags or a receipt, I can’t even imagine how that would go down. If something goes on sale the week after I buy it in America, my Mom raised me to go and (politely) ask for the difference, or simply return it and buy it at the cheaper price – in the U.K. this really would be sniffed at given their attitude to returning things when you are completely in the right. The few times I have returned things that have been faulty or a gift that I didn’t have a receipt for have frankly been a headache.

The customer is not always right here, and as an “American citizen**” it’s something you have to get used to. Oh sure, you can pitch a fit and ask for a manager, but it’s so exhausting. One thing I will say in Britain’s defense is that the sales people are less pushy – often to the point of complete ambivalence -which can be a problem, but does have its merits if you are like me and hate being pestered every few minutes. The GAP sadly has still not caught on that Brits hate this tactic, and I think this is probably why it is often deserted whenever I venture in. Whenever I go into many American retailers now I do find it a bit of an accosting experience, even more so than I did when I lived there because I’m just not used to it anymore.

3. Gifts: Which bears mentioning, also…if someone gives you a present here it is considered a tiny (A LOT) bit rude to admit you don’t want it and ask for a receipt (cough, apparently). The British way is to grin politely when anyone gives you a gift – if you have two toasters well that’s ok, you can always use a spare! Even when something simply doesn’t fit/is unsuitable, you feel like you are being a real prat (jerk) mentioning it. I have had giftees insist on keeping things that are obviously unsuitable, much to my frustration. People are just much more polite/not wanting to cause offense here, even when no offense could possibly be meant. As an American, it's still a weird one for me. Why keep things you have no use for? It's makes no sense!

4. Don’t talk to strangers: One of the biggest things I notice when visiting America now, from the moment my feet hit U.S. airport tarmac, is how CHATTY we are in America with each other. In general, unless you know each other or it is Christmas or you are very drunk, British people largely ignore each other. There are exceptions to this – sometimes when my American-ness comes to the attention of a person who likes Americans (a rare occurrence here admittedly), they will engage me in conversation. British people aren’t anti-social – once you get to know them they are lovely and engaging and often they shyest seeming ones are the most friendly. There is a sincerity in the culture that is so refreshing. Brits might be shy and retiring, but what you see is generally what you get (again, no disrespect to America, I love America, but coming here from New York definitely made me appreciate certain character traits a bit more). But I do appreciate the rare exchanges I have with strangers here, usually it is with elderly people or non-Brit Europeans because they maybe don’t care so much about social niceties and just want a chat. A few small exchanges really can cheer up my day in the weirdest way, much as the bolshie type conversations with strangers in America do.

I don’t know, I am not hugely outgoing but I do feel a difference, I think it is possible I have become a bit more Scottish/British in this respect, or maybe I always was, but whenever I meet new people in America I am often taken aback by the unguarded, probing nature of the exchange from first meeting someone. It makes me feel terribly reserved and much like Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis film, I start to stutter and try to reveal as little as possible about myself. It’s none of their business where I live/what I do/how many kids I have, we only just met!....but by the end of the trip I am re-Americanized and chatting unreservedly to complete strangers as if it is a perfectly normal thing to do….sigh, being an expat is weirdly confusing at times! I will say that the American way can create an instant comradeship in a frustrating situation like airplane/airport delays, whereas Brits mostly keep to themselves and suffer in silence!

Ok so that is probably more than enough for one day. Thanks for reading a little of my expat juggling act! These sorts of thoughts pop into my head randomly, it's hard to keep them straight and there is so much more Brit/American stuff I could write about - if anyone has any particular questions about anything that would be a great starting point for me anyway, thanks!

Doris Day, the epitome of American girl stereotypes in her day: please note I am applying semi-random pics to some old posts to make my Bloglovin' page  look prettier - but ya know any excuse for Doris!

*”cuppa” – refers to tea only, not coffee. I don’t think they have slang here for coffee. Also slang for tea : “brew”, “builder’s brew”, “char”. Also “tea” is what Scottish people of my circle call dinner, supper, etc. They sometimes call lunch “dinner” and an after dinner snack “supper”….aye (yes), this stuff merits a post all its own I think!

** “I’m an American Citizen” is a joke phrase the other half throws at me when I am being particularly irate or mortifying to him about a lack of service, etc. It should be noted that when he himself wants to complain about something, he doesn’t hesitate to ask me to do so on his behalf, “You’re so good at it!”, etc. (it pays to have an ugly American on side to fight the power sometimes ;-0).

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