America: land of the free and home of the affirmed

I’ve returned to the UK for a new academic year with a new resolution: I’m going to make like an American and make conversation.

We Brits regularly mock what we perceive to be America’s overtly extrovertedness, especially those of us who are particularly introverted. We think it’s weird, unnecessary and – at times – downright embarrassing. It’s with pleasure we roll our eyes at enthusiastic tourists on the tube, oblivious of the ‘stay quiet and don’t make eye contact’ etiquette. But I now have to admit that it’s beginning to grow on me.

We’re always taught to be cautious going through US Immigration, but my attitude now is that being relaxed and ready to chat to whoever’s telling me to place my fingers on a scanner is the best way forward. Plus, my recent decision to answer “I’m in seminary” to the question “what do you do?” has resulted in great chats both in Atlanta and San Francisco. In Britain, we seem to assume that no one would possibly be interested in what we do, how nice a day we’ve been having or whether we’ve found every item we’d hoped for on a shopping trip – in America, they actually are interested. (Or, are at least paid to act like they are.) Thus, when stateside, I work very hard to eliminate my usual British cynicism and embrace the friendliness.

Johnny's Doughnuts The fabulous Johnny’s Doughnuts in San Rafael. I was eased into making conversation here, thanks to the company of an effervescent American. 

The first hurdle is accepting compliments. I worked in retail for two years and I think the number of compliments I paid to customers could be counted on my fingers – not because I’m mean, but because we just don’t do that sort of thing here. For the duration of my trip, I wore the same (rather nice, sparkly and dangly) earrings every day. [I had others, I just never got round to finding them.] In the space of 36 hours, they had received compliments from sales assistants and baristas – in fact, in one cafe, baristas fought over who could pay me more compliments, focusing on my earrings and dress. Yes, they probably wanted my tip, but still…

[Spot the person with self-confidence issues.]

Then there’s the random conversations begun simply because it’s deemed acceptable. I mentioned the other day the responses I got to my accent – was I Australian? (Fitting room attendant in Cupertino’s Target.) What did I think about Peter Capaldi being the new Doctor? (Lovely girl on the till at Millbrae’s Trader Joe’s.) It wasn’t long before I got in on the act myself – see, I can be an extrovert when I choose to be!

Chocolate Chip PancakesA taste of childhood – chocolate chip pancakes in a family-run diner in Cupertino where the staff could not stop bringing you coffee…

An essential element of any trip to the States is a session at a nail bar – partly because it’s an intensely cultural experience and partly because it’s so cheap compared to manis and pedis here. (My manicure cost $12, seriously, bargain.) It’s where the community – or at least the female members of it – gather and real conversations take place. We headed to one while in Pacifica and, thanks to our group being split up across the bar, I was left to my own devices. In such circumstances, I become a socially awkward Brit. Am I meant to talk to the manicurist? Am I doing the right thing (this was only my 3rd ever manicure)? On this occasion, I did what comes naturally – I sat and watched my surroundings, taking it all in.

The biggest impact upon the surroundings was a group of older women who were abuzz with excitement. Two of the group were leaving that afternoon for London, then on to Scotland, and they were telling everyone about it. During the course of my manicure, women came and went, giving them greetings and sharing in the anticipation – it was genuinely lovely. As they chatted, concernedly, about the difference between Scottish and English currency, I couldn’t help but butt in. The moment they heard my voice and realised I was a genuine Londoner (well, as genuine as they were likely to get in their town) there were screeches of joy. Immediately, I was called upon to explain everything – the money, the transport, the royal family (they were excited to see the new Diana movie in London – poor them, I hear it’s dreadful), and, bizarrely, how far away Paris was. I was in my element and nearly offered them a Liz walking tour special! It was a lovely moment, and wouldn’t have happened, had I kept my mouth shut.

Gorgeous GelatoIncredible gelato in Berkeley. (Manicure 3 days later…) 

Then there’s the customer service that goes beyond the call of duty – Charlotte, fitting room supervisor at Market Street GAP, I’m looking at you! I appreciate that GAP generally does have an emphasis on customer service, but this was the first time I’d been asked my name in a fitting room and felt genuinely un-judged when returning items that didn’t work. I left feeling warm and fuzzy, purchasing a pair of ‘sexy boyfriend’ jeans. [As I quipped on Twitter & Facebook last week, the ‘sexy boyfriend’ has yet to materialise…] Four hours later, I returned with my friends in tow. They spent quite a while in the fitting rooms and invited me in to give judgement on items – at which point Charlotte spotted me and greeted me with an enthusiastic “hello Liz!” Impressive. She proceeded to give excellent outfit advice to all of us and was particularly good at locating sizes missing from the shelves. It’s got to be said, we were sad to leave – I felt like I’d made a friend for life.

This long, rambling, telling of stories is simply my way of saying “Come on Brits! We can do this too!” Not in a fake way, but in a genuine, interactions can improve someone’s day kind of way. It’s not hard!

Oh, and just for a sense of balance, we did have one example of bad customer service too. Peet’s (in Berkeley) – a chain that’s almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks in California – provided us with service so shocking that we didn’t go to another branch all trip.

[The food photos may seem unconnected to the post, but I felt they needed to be shared somewhere! The full set of Californian photos is now on Flickr.]

Thank goodness for the NHS

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more contact with the NHS than I’ve had cause to have for a couple of years. Two visits to the dentist (for one filling & a tooth filing – fun); one trip to my new GP; one prescription; a series of blood tests; and an x-ray.

I spent less than half an hour – in total – waiting for all these appointments and tests. In fact, my dentist is so good, I was out of the chair 1 minute after my first appointment was due to start, because he called me in early. Even the dreaded walk-in blood test clinic involved no more than 5 minutes waiting. (Usually, such trips are like visits to the most boring and painful deli counters in existence.) The longest wait was for the x-ray, but that seemed to be because I’d never been a patient at the hospital before and needed to fill in even more forms.

The total financial cost of all of this? £56.10 – and all bar £7.60 of that was spent on my teeth.

It’s at times like this that I am inordinately grateful for the NHS. I walked into my GP’s surgery with a list of ailments I wanted checking out. I didn’t need to worry that the cost of any treatment I might need would be prohibitive to receiving it. (Unless I happened to need a vast quantity of prescription meds.) I even got to be a guinea pig for a med student, so I was doing my own bit for the education of future generations of doctors.

If only more doctors looked like this…
On Saturday, I read an article about a student in the US who’d just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. [Not going to lie, the reason my eye was drawn to the article was less about the topic and more about the fact that the image that accompanied it was of George Clooney in ER, c.1997.] It explored the cost of her disease and stupid, innocent, British me, thought that the article would explore how it’s affected her physically. But no, it was about the financial costs and it was horrific reading. The medical bills for the hospital stays and tests that resulted in her diagnosis amounted to $13,246.53. I barely understand the workings out of how this was covered, but clearly she was lucky to have good insurance. 
The thrust of the article was that she now faced the dilemma of how to remain insured, as a soon-to-graduate postgrad and as someone no longer eligible to be covered by their parent’s insurance. It’s terrifying that dilemmas such as whether or not to be uncovered for 6 months, just to qualify for a particular type of insurance, have to be faced. Isn’t someone’s health more important that an insurance company making money? But thus speaks the voice of someone raised by the NHS…
What terrified me even more was the fact that none of the comments on the article complained about the state of US healthcare – they simply accepted it and provided helpful hints for generic medications or insurance loopholes. 
Why oh why do Americans accept this state of affairs? I know that’s a massive generalisation and that many are fighting it, but why aren’t more people? Why are people against Obama’s healthcare legislation that enabled those who couldn’t afford healthcare to have it without financial worries? But, perhaps most importantly for those on this side of the Atlantic, why oh why is our current government so determined to destroy one of our country’s greatest social assets? 

Friday Fun with animals and politicians

Ahhh, the first Friday of the school year. All around the country, teachers will be breathing a sigh of relief that it’s the weekend, while parents are bemoaning the return of their children after only just giving them back to the education system again. On both counts, it’s a day in need of fun…

It’s been a while since the last Friday Fun and as a result, the notes in my phone of things to highlight have become a little mysterious. I’m particularly disappointed that, despite Googling, I can’t work out what gem ‘hamsters eating popcorn’ referred to – but fortunately, I have another hamster gem that fills the void. I believe the title – 2 hamsters, 1 wheel – says it all.

Animals are traditional Friday Fun fodder, as are amusing musical videos. Occasionally, Star Wars themed things are fun too, so this re-interpretation of Call Me Maybe using all six Star Wars movies is doubly fun. (Warning: features Jar Jar Binks.) 
Moving on to some slightly more niche fun, many of you will be aware that election season is hotting up over the pond. Most of the time, us Brits watch proceedings with disbelief at who is considered a potential leader of the free world, but every so often we get inspired too – like after Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton’s speeches to the Democratic convention this week. I’ll always have a soft spot for Bill Clinton, partly because he made my A-level in US politics so much more interesting than it might have been thanks to the Starr Report and the impeachment process, and partly because he’s the only US President I’ve ever got close to physically. [No, not in *that* way, obviously, well, maybe not that obviously given it’s Clinton we’re talking about…] He gave a lecture at my university in my 3rd year and I got to see him walk into a building – that was pretty exciting as far as I was concerned. Anyway, the niche fun is a trove of campaign videos from the winner of ever Presidential election since 1952 and it makes for fascinating watching.
Being the geek I am, I watched them chronologically from 1952 onwards. I’d recommend starting in that year, if only because Eisenhower’s film was short, animated and had a catchy song. After that, skip through the others until you get to Nixon whose films – in hindsight – are quite frankly creepy. Courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate is a brilliant resource. As well as the films, the details of each candidate and the results of the election are covered too, so it’s both fun and educational. 
If you need a little antidote to that rather high-brow fun, I’ll close with another clip I’ve realised I’ve had opened in a browser tab for about the last month (possibly longer) presumably so I’d remember to include it for Friday Fun. It combines two of my favourite things: The Muppets and When Harry Met Sally. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest…

A caffeinated discovery

Strictly speaking, I was done with my Texan retrospective well over a week ago, but there’s something I didn’t think to share on the blog that in real-life has proved to be quite a revelation to those I’ve mentioned it to – the wonders of Starbucks’ coffee for twelve people.

No, not twelve separate cups of coffee with complicated milk/shots/flavour combinations, a receptacle containing enough coffee for ten people. Voila:
As if buying morning coffee from a drive-thru Starbucks wasn’t enough excitement, I then got to travel with this (hot) beauty on my (bare) legs! It’s basically like a wine box, with a tap on the front and a handy holder for your cups, stirrers, napkins and milk on the side. Simply genius! 
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve told several people of this product’s existence and without fail, none have comprehended what I’ve been talking about until I’ve shown them the above photo, so read and believe! 
In the words of the Starbucks’ website: ‘This is our way of lending an extra hand to all those kind souls who purchase coffee on behalf of family, friends and workmates.’ In our case, it was literally a lifesaver – I don’t know if you’ve met any of the friends I choose to travel with, but without morning coffee (in large, fast-flowing quantities) they are not pleasant. 
Now Starbucks, if you could just get your head around selling tea in the US in the way you do in the UK, I would be much happier about spending longer in that country. [A coffee receptacle of any sort is no good to me – my morning injection of caffeine can only be done via tea. In Texas, I had to make do with the iced variety.] 

Divisions of language and culture

Spending time with a large group of people is usually fairly comedy, albeit often in a niche, you had to be there kind of way. [I always feel sorry for friends of mine who end up in the midst of my singing friends (particularly the girls of Girls’ Weekend Away fame) and a whole host of stories about events they weren’t at and people they’ve never met.] These situations often become even more amusing when you add to the mix people from different cultures who have very different ideas to you…

…like bringing together a load of leftie-liberal Londoners, mostly from the trendy East End, with a group of right-wing conservative Texans. Now that’s just asking for trouble!

Leaving aside the obvious political differences (the wildly divergent reactions to someone getting Al Gore in a game of Guess Who? were amusing to say the least and involved much biting of British tongues), there were many examples of language issues, often with hilarious effects. Oh ok, I’ll share one political example. We were in France, there was always going to be the chance that WW2 would be mentioned, or some other conflict in which the Americans ‘saved us’. And thus, the following exchange took place:
Brit: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Texan: “War is God’s way of teaching the French to say no.”

Somehow it became my role during the week to document amusing quotes as they appeared and then recite them after dinner, the bulk of which related to Anglo-American confusion or clashes. For example, an education was conducted by a British furniture designer with a Texan roofer over the subtleties of British phrases – particularly the difference between describing something as “bollocks” and “the dog’s bollocks”. [Classy.] It took a while for the Texan to get the hang of it…
T: “That’s the dog’s balls!” 

B: “No, you’ve not got that at all right.”
It took a few days until the Texan achieved the right phrase in the correct context and when he managed it, it was rather touching…

Texan to his wife after eating a plate of food she’d cooked: “It’s the dog’s bollocks.” 

Texan wife in reply: “Thank you darling.”

A happy Texan couple and the Texan versus the Brit.

When with Americans, there’s always the temptation to deliberately use British terms that mean something else in the US, just to create something of a sensation – or stealthily getting Americans to use terms that cause British hilarity. Like the classic bum-bag versus fanny-pack scenario. To quote a Texan: “What’s wrong with calling it a ‘fanny pack’?” – that was a fun question to answer. Or a load of immature Brits collapsing with giggles when someone described how, following a broken ankle, “In this leg, I’ve got 2 screws & a knob…”. Still, in exchange I have also learnt that describing a smelly article of clothing as “fruity” stateside lends it quite a different meaning, especially if it’s a man using the adjective.
Perhaps my most favourite moment involved much immaturity. (In fact, as I read through the quotes with a London friend who left France early, I realised that there were many that involved me and two companions who seemed to consistently form the naughty end of the table.) We had use of a Swiss minibus for the duration of the trip, which required some force to be applied from outside in order for the passenger door to be shut properly. Usually this was only remembered once the passengers were inside and whoever occupied the front passenger seat would have to jump out and exert some pressure, via their posterior, to the door. 
Ultimately this resulted in a cry of “Shannon, you need to bum the door!” from one of the American occupants, which was met with shrieks from all the British passengers. We didn’t fully explain the multiple meanings that can be drawn from ‘bum’ as a verb, and when I retold the story to my two compatriots at dinner, I for some reason thought to talk about how I could have explained the joke to the Americans with the phrase “can I bum a fag?”. Of course I could…but I’d only intended to explain ‘bum’ in the context of borrowing something, not the other translation! We didn’t dare explain the source of our hoots of laughter to the innocent Texans. 
Inside the fun bus & some resulting hilarity. 
(The hilarity would have nothing to do with the substance in that glass…)

What can I say? It seems that my sense of humour lies very firmly in the gutter. On the plus side, I have come home with a host of new phrases which I’ll be looking to slot into conversation wherever possible. These would be two of my favourites:
“That tasted so good I’m gonna slap ya mama twice.”
“I’m as full as a tic on a hound dog.”