Saturday, 30 October 2010

American Things I Still Do After 11 Years In Britain

WEDNESDAY: Because it's very cold outside, and the Winter Garden has suddenly become overpopulated with children's school groups -- not to mention the usual lunchtime congregations of office workers and OAPs -- I've been eating my lunch this week on the only inside benches available: the ones in the Millennium Galleries lobby. Yesterday I ate my haloumi sandwich inches away from the greeting cards in the museum gift shop, and today I'm under the skylight shade of sculptor Johnny White's cutlery dog tree, officially called "Barking Up The Right Tree". Not far away is a newspaper board for the Restless Times, today's headline reading WOMEN TO BE RECRUITED AS BUS CONDUCTORS. As this is part of the "Restless Times" art exhibit, featuring British art from 1914 to 1945, there's no need to worry about a social regression.

The only thing I have to worry about is my benchmate who has started to sniff loudly and toxically, as if any minute he'll cough and sneeze his autumn cold or flu germs in my direction. I'll have to start humming loudly to drown it out -- oh, thank god, another chattering herd of sprogs is approaching.

My lunch is a gentle-on-the-stomach tuna sandwich made with yogurt, capers and caper vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, cumin, and thyme. Fruit is all orange -- satsuma, black plum, and peach -- suggesting plenty of protective vitamins. And the school group currently passing by is teenaged and chattering away in Spanish. May sunshine fruit and Spanish keep the viral wolves at bay. ¡Vete! ¡Vete!

I realised the other day that after 11 years of living in the UK, whenever somebody sneezes I still respond with "Gezundheit!" As I never hear Brits use the term so popular in America, I do consciously try to say either nothing or the very British "Bless you", also used in America. But having grown up in the land of Freedom To Not Worship I do resent having to use an expression with such religious connotations. So I usually say nothing. But the occasional "Gezundheit!" still escapes fairly regularly, even though nobody ever thanks me for the sentiment.

Another adjustment I still haven't made in all these years is saying "Ta" for "Thank You". Saying the extremely British "Sorry" for "Excuse Me" (or "Ouch! Watch where you're going, you clutz!") and "Cheers" for "Thanks" both come second-nature to me, and of course "Thank You" is always easy to say. But although I occasionally text "Ta", simply because it's one-third the length of "Thanks" to type, I can't utter it vocally. If somebody in a shop gives me change I must say "Thanks" or "Cheers" because I'd feel like a total fool saying "Ta" in my American accent. I may as well say "Doodoo" or "Titty" for the way it makes me feel.

So to my British friends, all I can say is "Sorry" -- and get off my foot, thank you very much!

FRIDAY: I'm in the University Atrium today, sitting at a quiet table on Level 4 with a peek-a-boo view of the Park Hill Flats. I'm eating another tuna sandwich as slowly as I can in an attempt to stay as relaxed as I can. Stress is having its way with my stomach, and although life is getting more stressful every day with no relief in sight, I must be kind to my stomach. There, there...

If I were writing this in America I'd be inclined to go into the details of my stomach's woes. But as this is Britain I shall stick to the local standards. In other words, I won't replying honestly to the question "How Are You?" -- or the more common "You all right?" This is another British phrase with which I've never felt very comfortable. When somebody says hello followed by a cheerful "You all right?" the custom is to smile back and say a cheerfully automatic "Yeah!" Regardless of how you are feeling, never reply with the truth, even if you're lying in a pool of blood with a dagger projecting from your abdomen. "You all right?" is the same as the American "How are you", only in America one might be inclined to reply with either a sarcastic "I've been better, thanks" or perhaps a more traumatic "AAAGGGGHHHEEEEIIIIHHH!" But here in England, although it would probably be acceptable to ask the passerby if they might be so helpful as to give 999 a ring, it would be considered tediously invasive to go into any detail as to why you might need the emergency services -- and, of course, why you aren't disposed at the moment to phone them yourself.

I freely admit I've failed to adopt this British art of understatement. I suppose it's because that having been brought up American, I obviously identify to some extent with Woody Allen. After all, most urban Americans, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or Jedi, will admit to having grown up with a Jewish mother. And complaining about what ails you is just part of the national identity.

Still, I'm going to try my hardest to avoid telling you all about my bad stomach...

NEXT MONDAY: I'm sitting in the University library cafe nibbling very slowly on a sandwich with leftover sautéed basa and prawns and salad. It's a very simple sandwich; but as I promised not to talk about my bad stomach I'll leave it at that.

THURSDAY: What a lovely sandwich for a ridiculous day crowded to bursting with people and tasks. It's a mixture of blue cheese brie and smoked Bavarian on a ciabatta roll -- my sandwich, that is, not the day. It's plain and simple, like a view of the Blue Alps. It's surprisingly good, like having a leisurely French picnic next to a roaring bonfire. Très bon!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Power Fairies, Pigeons, and Nicknames

TUESDAY: Lunch today is eaten with cold hands because autumn has arrived. Yes, fall has fallen with a huge bang. It's October and I'm wearing three layers and boots. Somehow my blue brie sandwich seems inappropriate. I can't explain why; perhaps it's the realisation that those rich orange October sunsets will be cheering me up very soon.

Any cheering up is most welcome, as life is bitter at the moment. Even though I did win that new job, it's still only part-time and not enough money to survive on. Our local Royal Mail sorting office is screws up royally (pardon the pun), with not only important documents and credit cards remaining undelivered but also some art supplies I ordered in the hopes of generating a little extra income with some jewellery making. Meanwhile I dive further into my overdraft with every pint of milk I buy, every daily newspaper I pay for, every loaf of bread. My social life is on hold, any entertainment which requires money is postponed, and life just isn't very fun to write about at the moment.

So what a surprise to suddenly receive in today's post a cheque for £160 from a previous utility supplier, with no explanation at all. Do good fairies work for the power companies?

THURSDAY: I recognise this pigeon parading around at my feet. I've only just sat down, on the only spare half-bench in the Winter Garden on this chilly day, and he's already waiting for me to "accidentally" drop a bite of my sandwich. It's goat cheese today, with pine nuts, spring onion, red pepper, and sun-dried tomatoes. I assume he's mostly interested in the bread. Oops, there goes a clumsy I am. And how sad it is that I have to put on this act in this don't-feed-the-pigeons climate. I'm sorry, but if pigeons are clever enough to find their way inside this glass building popular with human lunch eaters, then I feel they deserve a small reward here and there. (That bit'll be nice, with a pine nut clinging to it. "Oops!")

I can't help wondering why British nicknames are more appealing than American nicknames. Take the name Charles, for example. Although "Chuck" is sometimes used, especially when casually referring to the Prince of Wales, it's mostly an American appellation. And whereas "Charlie" is used in both places, "Chaz" is uniquely British. I think I'd much prefer to be called Chaz than Chuck. On the same line, if my name happened to be Deborah, I'd much prefer the British "Debs" to the American "Debbie". And having known an American Gary for many years, I never realised until I moved to the UK that I could have called him "Gazz". Whether he would have liked that remains to be seen. But there are no American nicknames for Gary, except for perhaps the extremely casual "Gare".

Why do I not know any British Bills? They all seem to be called Will or William, sometimes Billy, but never Bill. And I've never met a British Hank or Hal or Beth.

On the other hand, why are there so many Daves and Pauls in England? And why are there so many Steves in both the UK and America? Back when I was in a band I wrote a song called "Too Many Steves". We never performed it, which is probably a good thing in case it offended any of the Steves in the audience, potentially clearing out the venue.

But I digress, as always...

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Job Interview Hoops, The Price of Food and Clothes, Wide Streets, and Palm Trees

FRIDAY: Lunch is being wolfed down in the staff room today because I'm ravenous. I've spent the past two hours going through yet another job interview. It's not that the job is that complicated: it's pretty much what I do now as Library Scum, only with slightly better pay. But the labours one has to endure are just getting absurd.

If I'd been interviewed for this same job four years ago, I could have just sat there and sold myself as the right person for the job. Nowadays one must first jump through a row of flaming hoops, then tapdance across a highwire while juggling chainsaws, then bungee jump into an active volcano, and finally create a PowerPoint presentation about what one has gained from this obstacle course that one can apply to the position of Pot Washer or, in this case, Library Scum II.

So the sandwich that just vanished down my gullet was an odd one: extra mature cheddar with sun-dried tomatoes and basil pesto on a very chewy sunflower rustic roll. I think it was the torrential rain outside that inspired my sandwich making this morning.

If I can break out of this brain-addled postmodern "It's-All-About-Interviewing-For-A-Job" state of mind, I can move on to the second chapter of my post-holiday report, What Is Different About Those Crazy American States These Days. A big thing I noticed during my recent visit was the disparity of the cost of things as compared to the cost of the same things in the UK.

Even though the British pound is currently worth around $1.50, a £5.00 lunch will cost you around $10.00. Obviously the average American sandwich is big enough to feed two people like myself, but I resent having to pay $10.00 for twice the food I want. And although I'm pleased that one can now get a decent pint of ale nearly anywhere in America, I was a bit shocked that the typical price of a pint was $6.00. And that was for a 16-ounce American pint; the Imperial pints I bought were more like $8.00. I did run into a couple of places where one could get an American pint for $4.00, but these seemed few and far between. So eating and drinking out are a bit expensive.

Clothes, however, are relatively cheap in the US. For instance, a pair of Levis 501 jeans would cost you around £45.00 in the UK but only £18.00 in the US. And a particular puffer coat at Gap USA currently costs $89.60, while the same exact coat at Gap UK costs £89.50. And a simple pair of slippers I got at an American Sears for $10.00 would have been £10.00 if I'd bought the same pair at Debenhams in the UK. So if you're off to America, buy some clothes while you're there.

Another thing I noticed about America is not a change but rather my own newly developed understanding of how Brits view American streets. They are quite wide. Even my mother's quiet little suburban residential street is so wide I imagine on a smoggy day it's difficult to make out the houses on the opposite side. Driving down her street I felt as if there was enough room for 3 more cars beside me. And when crossing a nearby major boulevard on foot, I felt I should have packed a sandwich for the journey, not to mention a bottle of water, as it can get very hot in Southern California.

THE NEXT TUESDAY: I'm sitting in the Winter Garden nibbling my tasteful basil pesto sandwich and thinking about the similarities between cinematography and earring design. This is a constructive project of my own, and a much better subject to dwell on than wondering if I got the job or not.

This brings me to my next American impression. When one grows up somewhere one tends to take the local flora, fauna, and architecture for granted. For instance, my Sheffield-native friends often seem completely oblivious to the wonderful Yorkshire stone buildings and vibrantly green hills surrounding them; whereas growing up in a single-story 1950s stucco house on a flat barren (and very wide) street, I am constantly impressed by my Yorkshire surroundings.

So I've reached a point in my expatriated life where I can now see what impresses foreigners visiting Southern California. And palm trees have got to be way up there on the list. If you live in Florida or the tropics or on a Pacific island, they might pass by unnoticed. But to a Brit they stand out in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area landscape like bizarre curved wind turbines with clusters of arched green blades. And they're everywhere you look, as plentiful as espresso bars in Seattle and Big Issue vendors in Sheffield City Centre. Everywhere you look, palm trees line the avenues and dot the terrains, and you almost expect to see camels and pyramids as well. Even my mother has two tall palm trees framing her front door.

The only place I've ever seen palm trees in the UK are in Victorian greenhouses and winter gardens. Oh, and in the gardens of Stromness in Orkney. But trees aren't native to the Orkney Islands, so that's their excuse.

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