Desperate English Housewife in Washington, chapter 506

Dates USA style

Oh, I can’t do this month/day/year thing that Americans do. I can’t. It just feels muddled in my British head.

Harry has been taught at school to write the date this way, and when I told him that in the UK next year when he returns he’ll have to write it as day/month/year he rolled his eyes. ‘Why is it different?’ he asked, exasperated.

Um, I don’t know.

But, to make sure I don’t get it wrong, I write the date like this: 27 October 2014.


Reflections on visiting the UK

One of my American blog readers Rebecca Cataldi, took a recent trip to Britain and I asked her to document her visit, as I wanted to find out her view of the UK through her American eyes.

This is the first installment of Rebecca’s visit:

Musings of an American on Visiting the UK

Since I first visited Britain at age 15 (18 years ago), I’ve felt a special affection for the country.  It’s not anything specific really; it’s more like, as an American, I feel like Britain is our family in a way because of our history.  I don’t have any British blood (in fact, some of my ancestors were Native Americans who did not fare particularly well under British colonization), but British colonialism, and eventual American rebellion against it, played a critical role in our formation as a nation.  So I feel like Britain is our parent in a way, or at least a cool older brother who lives far away but lets you visit occasionally.

That old war thing....

That old war thing….

As I prepare to go to Britain for my first real visit in nine years, I wonder what the Brits think of America.  Do they feel any kind of familial connection as well?  Because I enjoy reading British blogs and web posts, I’ve seen a gamut of opinions expressed by Brits about Americans, ranging from affection to…well, some not-as-nice things.  They do seem to love making fun of us, but in Britain this can be a form of affection (and I’m not always astute enough to be able to tell the difference).  At any rate, I am really really excited to have a chance to go back to Britain for a whole week (yes, this is a long vacation for an American) and hopefully get to understand this place I love a little better.

Before I go, a British friend who now lives near me in the Washington DC area gives me a tutorial on how to properly pronounce British place names that commonly lead Americans to embarrass ourselves when we try to say them.  This is more for his own entertainment than to help me, but I accept the offer because I don’t want to sound like a clueless tourist.  “Glosster”, not “Glowchester”, I repeat obediently, as he sounds out “Gloucester” for me.  Leicester is pronounced “Lesster”, not “Laysesster”—understood.  It’s the River “Tems”, not “Thaymes” (Thames)—fine.  And Southwark has a silent “w”.  Okay—wait, huh?

Gloucester - hard to pronounce!

Gloucester – hard to pronounce!

Having traveled widely abroad, including places like Pakistan and Yemen, I understand the importance of culturally-appropriate dress.  Just to be sure, I ask him, “Is it okay to dress in Britain the way we would here?”  “Sloppy?” he asks, without missing a beat.  Hmmph.

I’ll be staying with a friend in London for the first half (though mainly going around by myself since she has to work), and then later meeting up with my British friend from DC who will be coming to visit family in the UK.  Upon arriving I feel a kind of euphoric joy to be back in Britain, and so the 50 or so Union Jack flags adorning the ceiling of Victoria Station make me smile.  I like the sight of this flag because it symbolizes a country that I love, almost as much as I love my own country’s flag.  I like patriotism.  Not to be confused with nationalism, where you think your country is superior and that its interests are more important than the needs of others.  The world could do without this thinking.  But patriotism is based on love—love for something beyond oneself, love for your country and the values it aspires to, which includes celebrating all that’s beautiful about it and working to improve what’s not.  When I protested the Iraq War in college, it was motivated not only by concern for the impact on the Iraqi people but by patriotism—by the desire for the America I love to act morally and to be a good global citizen and neighbor.  So British expressions of patriotism—though said to be rarer here—make me happy, and the fact that the first thing I see on arriving in London is the Union Jack fills me with delight.

Union Flag

Union Flag

Before attempting to find my friend’s apartment (which I will call a flat for the rest of the week as I want to try, however feebly, to use the proper British words for things while I’m here), there is a more important matter to be taken care of.  I locate the bathroom (sorry, toilet) in the station and am amused to discover that you really do have to pay money for a public toilet.  In America this would likely lead to outrage.  I thought Britain had higher taxes and a larger welfare state than we do.  Why does this not extend to providing free access to public toilet facilities (especially given the potential alternative)?  Oh well, I need to start figuring out what each of the different British coins are worth anyway.

Upon entering, I also discover that, as Brits who come to the US often point out, unlike American toilets the stalls do not have gaping spaces between their walls and the walls extend almost to the ground.  From the standpoint of providing greater privacy, this is admirable and appreciated.  However, if, like me, you are prone to irretrievably locking yourself in toilet stalls when you travel abroad, the lack of room for a ‘crawlspace’ at the bottom can be problematic.  I have done this on several occasions, most recently in Egypt, where I could neither get the stall door unlocked when it was time to exit nor crawl out underneath the too-low wall.  I eventually escaped by climbing on top of the toilet bowl, hoisting myself on top of the stall wall, and flinging myself over the side into the next stall (narrowly missing landing in the squat toilet there).  Happily though, this door opens when it’s time to unlock it.  Bless you, Britain, with your escapable toilets.

Gappy doors USA-style

Gappy doors USA-style

When I finally get to her flat, my friend and I have a happy reunion, and stay up talking til the wee hours of the night.  She married a Brit and has lived in London for the past six years.  I ask if there is any ‘etiquette’ I should be aware of here; anything Americans might normally do that’s considered impolite here, for example.  “Don’t talk to strangers,” she says immediately.  “They will find it rude or annoying.  People don’t like to be approached by someone they don’t know.”  Actually I’ve seen numerous Brits write about this as well, saying that they find Americans sometimes “too friendly” with our tendency to smile at strangers in the street and strike up random conversations with people we don’t know.  Brits, they write, almost take pride in being surlier.  I imagine this may be hard to get used to, as I often enjoy having random conversations with strangers, but I don’t want to irritate my British cousins so I will try to be on my best behavior.

The next installment will be in the next blog! 😉

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2 Responses to Desperate English Housewife in Washington, chapter 506

  1. Maryjenmary says:

    Maybe in London don’t talk to strangers. But in the countryside, my husband and I have talked to, and become friends with, many strangers. Maybe it’s a retiree thing. I think retirees are more than willing to talk, especially when they’re not in a rush in London. I will continue to make friends in Britain and love Britain for the friendliness that I perceive.

  2. Pingback: Desperate English Housewife in Washington, chapter 508 | ukdesperatehousewifeusa

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