LOVING LONDON: The Ever-present & Underrated High Street

It is often said London is a series of villages that merge together to form a city. Travelling around the city for work and play, as a tourist and a local, I find each little neighbourhood has its own unique identity. But all these little enclaves are centered around a High Street (or Main Street to US readers) that is the lifeblood of that area.

Many people do not stray further afield than their own ‘hood on the weekends, even though geographically (and compared to the longer distances in the US) they are sometimes only 2 or 3 miles from the next village/town. Most people in Barnes are not going to venture to Chiswick, people in Blackheath aren’t going to go to Clapham. There’s so much to do right at your doorstep, there’s no need to.

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(Chiswick High Road)

You run into people you know on the High Street, you have your local butcher or green grocer (organic foods). The fishmonger is there. And the High Street shops like Jigsaw, SweatyBetty, Monsoon all have presences around the city.  State schools are all local and therefore most of your social groups. Plus there are a lot of local, wonderful eateries and pubs as well as the bigger chains like Byron Burgers, Carluccio’s and Cote offer good options for meeting up with friends.  A friend from the States sent me an article on best London pubs in the winter, wishing she could come over, but my list would be quite different — too many to choose from just in my own area that are cozy, comfy, fun, and most important, close by (topic for a blog post!) to tuck into on a dark, winter evening.

That’s not to say that people won’t venture into other areas but it tends to be for a reason. I’ll go to Covent Garden several times a year to see the ballet at the Royal Opera House and meet up with friends for an early dinner. Or visit museums and see exhibits, catch a play, do a Fun Run, take visitors to tourist sites. Any of these things will bring us into the city. But generally speaking, it’s unlikely we’ll venture from the Chiswick, Kew, Richmond area.

I don’t know if this is similar/dissimilar to the US (?). Do people in Brooklyn go to the Upper West Side on weekends? Do people in the Village head up to the Upper East Side? If you are in Union Square, would you go to Williamsburg? I think Americans are more used to travelling further distances as is the nature of a big country. But let me know!

If you hopped in a car and headed east, it’s less than 4 miles from Chiswick High Street to Kensington High Street, but on the weekends, that could take up 45 minutes, and then you have the nightmare of looking for parking. US expansion and growth included massive parking lots to their cityscapes, but London was already formed and established and there is literally no room.  By Tube, it’s probably 1/2 hour. From Fulham to Shoreditch in East London, it’s only 8 miles, but I don’t know anyone who’d drive it.   London is just too congested to even contemplate that.

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(Camden High Street)

Perhaps that’s why the public transport is so good (compared to anywhere I’ve been in the States, it’s VERY good). The bus lanes are actually that. I made the mistake of driving in one when I first got the car — twice in two days — and I got two tickets for £160 each, thanks to a CCTV camera (they’re all over London). Never again. Plus the Tube and trains run often and regularly. Even still, it takes us longer to get from West London to a concert at the 02 Arena near Greenwich than it would to go from our house to Christchurch Meadow in Oxford.

So the Hood is very appealing — especially if you’ve been running around this 10mill strong, gritty, cavernous, cold city all week.  You can see the Greens (communal village grassy squares at the centre of commerce and churches) dotted around as you fly over the city in approach of Heathrow and they fill a vital purpose to the landscape and zeitgeist of the “Big Smoke”, adding charm and reminding us of the history.

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(Clapham High Street)

London is an expansion of little villages that started to run into each other as the city exploded over time.  In the 17th and 18th century, Kensington and Chelsea were rural farm areas, known for their markets and gardens. Notting Hill Barns in 1828 was 150 acres of dairy farm and and Portobello Farm was cornfields and meadows. Shepherd Market was a little village known for its 15 days of a May Fair (where the area Mayfair got its name) and farmers brought in cattle and sheep to trade from the fields out West (including Shepherd’s Bush). Spitalfields was named after the hospital and priory founded there in 1100’s called St. Mary’s Spittel. And was considered rural until the Great Fire of London in 1666. Anyone under 30 hangs out in the ultra-cool, hip Shoreditch in East London but it got its name from the watery marshland it used to be back in Ye Olden Days (soersditch meant Sewer’s Ditch).

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(Notting Hill then)

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(Notting Hill now)

Like New York City, all these little enclaves grew over time, but unlike New York, they were edging outwards from around 1000 AD. It’s really fascinating to go to any part of town and see old Roman Walls or great architecture and palaces from long before America was even discovered.  It’s awe-inspiring. You don’t have to walk far to run into a beautiful, well-preserved building that dates back to the 15th or 16th century.  History is palpable here.

Nowadays, each High Street defines the character and livelihood of London.  Kensington High Street is all swank and money with its glittery high-end shops, Barnes is wealth and bucolic with the lovely duck pond, Shoreditch is vibrant, cool and hip, Nottinghill is eclectic, wealthy and boho, Camden is gritty and cool and hip city, Chiswick, Clapham and Putney are wonderful combinations of city and suburb near the River, Kew is insanely cute and almost rural with Kew Gardens on the doorstep, Kentish Town, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Bermondsey, and on and on.

Tourists don’t see enough of these areas, but spend a little time here and you discover what each neighbourhood stands for and brings to the table that is the feast of London.

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(Kensington High Street then)

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(Kensington High Street now)

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(Bucolic Barnes)

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(Colourful Notting Hill)

 

LITTLE LONDON SURPRISES

London can be a very cold, harsh, unfriendly and unforgiving city.  As much as I love it here, there are days when it really does try the toughest of spirits. But as we close out 2017, I can’t help but think of the small acts of kindness, the little gems that occur on a daily basis, the serendipitous events that unfold around this cavernous, brilliant, bustling metropolis. You just have to look.

To start with, there is the “driver’s etiquette”.  This is true country-wide but it’s really a sight to behold in the throngs of London traffic. Perhaps it’s the English tendency to queue politely for everything and anything, but even at the height of rush-hour and impatience, you will see the “zipper system” working efficiently. When two-lanes merge into one, everyone waits for each other and it’s the exception to the rule when someone jumps ahead. Likewise, at 4-way stops, it’s a polite “after you” indication that occurs (to the point that sometimes I wonder if anyone will go!).

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But my favourite is “the wave” and the blinkers “thank you” afterwards. Anywhere in London (and the UK), when someone is switching lanes ahead of you or you need to let the car in, or if a vehicle is turning into your lane from a left or right intersection (junction), you slow down with hands on the wheel and give them the one-handed wave — an indication that it’s ok to go.  Once the car moves in ahead of you,  he or she then “thanks” you by putting their blinkers/hazards on briefly. If two cars are at a face-off on a narrow street where only one can pass through, one will blink the headlights which is an indication that you should go ahead. Once you pass, you give “the wave” as thanks. It’s an absolutely brilliant system that works seamlessly in most cases.  Cars, busses, trucks, lorries, everyone does it.  When I go home now to the States, I find the driving unbelievably aggressive and self-righteous. Everyone just assumes that they are King of the Road and deserves to squeeze in ahead of everyone else. Very unbecoming.

Another present delivered itself to me in a complete stranger’s act of kindness. My girlfriends and I were doing a long 12 mile walk in preparation for a charity event one summer.  We started out in Chiswick, went along the Tow Path to Putney Bridge, turned up the south side of the river past Hammersmith and Barnes and up to Kew Bridge. As we were nearing the end of the walk, I realised I had somewhere along the way dropped my iPhone (don’t ask me how – it’s a bad habit). One of my girlfriends rang it and a lovely man answered. “Oh, excellent, you called! I was hoping you would. I have it here on my desk at work. I went out for a run at lunchtime and saw it on the Tow Path near Hammersmith Bridge and thought if that was my iPhone I would want someone to pick it up for me. So I did!” I know. Very lucky. But floored that in a city 10 million strong and geographically massive, some good samaritan went through the trouble to retrieve it and take care of it until I had called.

There are many others – a plumber who came to fix a problem with the sink who wouldn’t charge me because, as he said in his very East Laahhndon accent “This was too easy to fix. Took only 10 minutes and no parts. No worries”. Or a barista at Starbucks who ran after me when I left some cash on the counter.  Or a Sainsbury employee who picked up my parking card when I dropped it. Just yesterday, I dropped my reading glasses somewhere in one of the aisles, only to find them already at the Lost and Found when I got to the till and realised I didn’t have them. (Yes, I drop things a lot!)

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However, my last little miracle has a slightly different twist. When we first arrived here, we didn’t have a car and took busses everywhere. Our 6 yr old had gymnastics near Chiswick Bridge. We hopped on the 190 bus heading into London, got off at the bus stop, went into the club where she changed into her gymnastics outfit and I sat in the coffee area with the other parents.

She had an absolutely favourite grey cardigan sweater (jumper) that she adored, and given we had only been in the country for 5 weeks and we didn’t even have our furniture yet, I understood her attachment to things…as permanency was something she was unaccustomed to. She wore it everywhere.  She definitely had the sweater whilst on the bus on the way there, however, after she finished and changed again, we couldn’t find it.

I was torn — I know how topsy-turvy her life had been in the past 2 months, but I felt it was time to instill the lesson of holding onto things that are important to you. I was stern when we realised she had left it on the bus. “This is what happens when you don’t take care of things.” She was wailing. “This is an important lesson to learn, sweetheart. That sweater is gone. You will never – ever – see it again. I’m really sorry but you should have taken better care of it.” As we walked back to the bus stop the sobbing continued. “Mummy, can’t we ask the bus driver to find it? Can’t we call the bus company?” “It’s gone, sweetie. If you leave it somewhere, you will lose it. That bus has gone into the city now.” I really felt bad for her – she was only just six. But I thought to myself “she’ll never lose anything ever again.” Lesson learned. I was a bit cross and stood fast.

A 190 bus pulled up heading westbound towards home and we hopped on. I’ll be damned if that little sweater wasn’t sitting right there on the seat where she left it!!  I couldn’t believe it. The gymnastics lesson was an hour and a half. Plus changing time and the walk, we probably got off that bus about 2 hours earlier. What are the chances the exact same bus would be coming back on his route as we got on!? And even slimmer odds that the sweater would still be sitting forlornly there waiting for her. Of course, my lesson was utterly and completely lost at this point. “Look, Mommy! Here it is!! It came back to me!”

It was a long time before she realised that anything she loses doesn’t miraculously return to her. But I still laugh at this story — only in London.

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MEGHAN MARKLE TOP 10 LIST: DO’S & DON’T’S

Dearest Meghan, Congrats! I know you have a lot on your plate today.  You don’t want to make a dog’s breakfast of this royal photo shoot this afternoon, hence I’m sure you are quite quite busy! However, if and when you’ve got a few minutes, here are some helpful tips for adjusting to life in the UK. Transplanted from the US myself for 7 years, and being married to a Brit for nearly 17 years, I thought I could be of some help. So if you need any, just get on the dog (cockney rhyming slang that Harry may or may not use (?). Translation: dog and bone = phone) and we can talk.

  1. Learn the difference between the geopolitical terms U.K, Great Britain and England. Most Americans don’t know what separates one from the other. Do the Brits? It’s so confusing!  And where do Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland fall? Learn all these! Be very careful what you call the Scottish (they’d be offended if you said they were British, even though the Welsh and the Scots come under the “British” heading technically). There is no better video to untangle all this than this excellent explainer that I used to show my American university students studying here in the U.K.
  2. When wearing a skirt at a garden party and it’s rather chilly, do not say to The Queen “I should have worn pants today”. This will be taken to mean you have decided to forego all undergarments and are going commando. Pants = Underwear. Trousers = Pants. Likewise, if anyone asks you at the wedding “How’s yer father?”, they are NOT inquiring as to the health or status of your Dad, in any way, shape or form.  And do not ask anyone else about their father. In this strange context, it is euphemistically referring to sexual intercourse and your sex life.
  3. BARKSHIRE (or as the Brits say BAHKSHER) and BERKSHIRE are NOT two different counties outside of London. They are, in fact, the same county! Similarly, with DARBYSHIRE and DERBYSHIRE, BARCLAY Square is Berkeley Square, etc. The vowels are what really mess us up here. And the R’s or lack of them. And just when we think we’ll be the same (i.e. Pall Mall, we Americans say it with long A’s. Surely they will too?), they go and do a reverse switch on us (and use short A’s: Pal Mal)! And then there’s just the weird pronunciations like Leicester is Lester, and Cockburn is Coburn and Chiswick is Chissick.
  4. Forget the word VERY and replace it with QUITE. “Very good polo-playing, Harry!” becomes “Quite good polo-playing”. In fact, remove ALL hyperbole from your lexicon and replace it with very subdued tones. “That was a super awesome ballet we saw!” Becomes “It was really rather good.” Or “You did such a great job on that speech! You nailed it!” becomes “Not bad. Well done.” I’ve already posted, but there’s an excellent explainer of what the British mean and say here. It’s a mine-field!
  5. You can fancy a pizza or fancy going to a movie, but do NOT fancy anyone other than Harry. Fancy can be used for many things but for people, it’s your Significant Other.
  6. Rent the Railway Children. It’s actually not a very good movie, and totally dated, but these crazy Brits absolutely LOVE it. They can quote from it, remember every actor in it (Jenny Agutter gets particular mention from men), and you offend their national pride if you say you don’t like it.
  7. The Importance of Tea: I’ve written about this before, but it’s a cultural staple that runs the generations. It’s in every office, home, school and very likely, the palace. If there is EVER a break in any conversation, some Brit will likely use tea as a way of dealing with awkward silences. If you are sitting with Charles and Camilla and running out of things to say, throw in “Fancy a cuppa?” and then signal for the butler to bring you all some tea. It’s also their go-to at trying moments. There’s a wonderful comedy skit where a family is gathered round the radio listening to Neville Chamberlin make the sobering announcement that Britain has entered into war with Germany (World War II) after which there is a silence and then the Grandad says “Cuppa tea, anyone?”. It’s brill.
  8. Land of Backwards Doors: It takes some getting used to. After the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston in 1942, major changes were made to building codes all across the US to make sure that all doors in public spaces opened outwards. This means office buildings, coffee shops, sports centers, grocery stores, houses, gas stations, etc. Here, there are no such codes and therefore you often go SLAMMING into doors because your mind is telling you they will go one way and they go the other. Don’t know the palace set up, but just be aware!
  9. Vernacular/Lingo: So much to learn!! Brill for brilliant. Dog’s breakfast, cock up, toad in the hole, spend a penny, blimey, crikey, etc. Likewise, they have no idea what “khakis” are – never heard of the word. And Fall means when someone actually takes a tumble. It does not mean a season of the year. Autumn is what we are in right now.  And, Will and Kate might giggle when you say “Guys, up ahead past the median, near that private school and past the grocery store, can we pull over so I can hop out on the sidewalk and then you can pop the trunk please? Gotta get my umbrella.” Translation: “Mates, once past the central reservation, near that public school and past the supermarket, could we please pull up so I can step out onto the pavement and open the boot? I would like to get my brelly.” Two nations definitely separated by a common language, as George Bernard Shaw said. By the way, they say BERNerd, not Bern-ARD.
  10. Pantomime: A lot like the Railway Children. It’s a cultural thing that is sorta lost on Americans but a huge part of Christmas, so you may be seeing one soon with the family. I’ve tried to explain it to Americans for years and it never comes out right: OK, it’s this play where they take a children’s fairy tale and sorta tart it up and mix it up. The lead female characters are always played by men, and vise-versa. “So it’s for kids?” Well, yes and no. Also for adults as there is some nuanced humour that goes over the heads of the kids. “So it’s a comedy?” Yes, but not like you think. It’s usually really bad jokes and slapstick. And lots of talking back and forth to the audience in a very silly way. Actor: Oh, yes I did!! Audience: Oh, no you didn’t! and that goes on for a while. It really doesn’t translate well, and Americans go in with all the wrong expectations, but it’s actually crackin’ good fun!

So, there you have it! Just a beginning cheat sheet for you.  And yay for another royal wedding! I think we Americans love the royals way more than Brits do. So we are all rooting for you to settle in nicely. It’s a lovely lovely place, this little island, and I’m absolutely chuffed you are coming over. Gobsmacked, in fact. Fabulous news. I truly hope the Brits will welcome you as I do. And congratulations again! Many secretly say they think Harry is the best royal, so well done, you!

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EXPLAINING THANKSGIVING TO FOREIGNERS

It’s not just about the Pilgrims and the Native American Indians.  Not just about the turkey or the pumpkin pie or the cranberries.  Unless you grew up with the Thanksgiving ritual, or unless you lived here in the US for a while,  it’s really hard to explain the full meaning or experience of it. It’s stressful. It’s peaceful. It’s giving thanks. It’s being with loved ones. It’s full-blown family arguments. It’s high expectations. It’s low expectations. It’s no expectations.  It’s a lot of things but as a society, in the end, we share a love of the Thanksgiving holiday that is second only to Christmas consistently in polls. Here’s my take on why.

For a quick history of the origin of Thanksgiving, here’s a little video from National Geographic that lays it out in 35 seconds.

But to me, it’s the mass migration — a pilgrimage — that we take no matter how gruelling.  And it’s a holiday with no religion attached. It’s family – in whatever shape or form that comes in. It’s a time to have fun but also to reflect and appreciate your life and those around you.  It’s the simple basics: Love, family, friends, community and thankfulness. And traffic. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

THE TRAVEL: Nearly 51 million people hit the roads the day before Thanksgiving (yesterday), travelling 50 miles or more, with more than 45 million of those in their cars – making it the busiest travel day of the year in the US.  Another estimated 28.5 million people will fly between the weekend before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

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I will try to put this into context: That’s 80 million people travelling around the country. Imagine the WHOLE of the United Kingdom getting up, walking out their doors and driving up and down the M-1, the M-2, the M-3 and the M-25 for a day. Granted the US is far bigger geographically, but most of the population lives on the two coasts. The middle of the country has enormous states that are scarcely populated. For example, Wyoming is about the same size as the U.K. geographically, but has only 585,501 people (2016). And although the population moving around is less than a third of the total population of the US, that movement is concentrated the coasts and the city hubs. Plus, public transport is nearly non-existent. Brits are always confounded by the lack of public transport, but with a country this big, it’s difficult. And then there’s the obsessive American car culture. Try to break Americans of that bad habit.

Air and road travel during Thanksgiving is a nightmare. One Thanksgiving, with the whole family (including 2 dogs, a cat and a goldfish) crammed in the wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon, we were going back home to Connecticut from Washington D.C. Normally a 6-hour drive, we were at a stand-still on the George Washington Bridge in NYC with the other millions trying to get home. The 11-year-old me told my Dad how much I loved that moment: “We’re all part of something bigger, Dad! All these people are doing the same thing as we. How cool! We are in this together! It’s so cosmic!” It was my first realisation of being part of a mass movement.  I was electrified, sitting there staring at the toll booths up ahead that never got closer.  My Dad gripped the steering wheel tighter, knuckles white, while he maintained patience and calm, but after 10 hours on the road, I’m sure he poured himself a hefty Scotch when we finally arrived home.

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NO RELIGION: At ABC News/Nightline, we often bartered our holidays. While you are sitting at home, sipping your lovely cuppa tea, someone is making sure you don’t have a blank screen when you turn on the telly.  The news never stops — newsrooms are staffed day and night — so working with a diverse group helped. “I’ll take your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if you can take my Christmas?” or “I’ve got you covered for Ramadan and Eid if you wouldn’t mind taking Easter?”

But the one holiday no one wanted to trade was Thanksgiving. This is an all-inclusive, religion-free celebration.  Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, you name it.  Religion being such a contentious issue today in America, this is a very welcome relief.  And ironic, too, given the roots of America’s beginnings by European settlers, eh? But by removing the religious aspect, you take away unnecessary distractions and pressure, allowing all to share in celebrating. [I am setting aside for now the issue of the rightfully bitter Native Americans, who use Thanksgiving as a day of mourning]. At ABC, I ended up taking Thanksgiving because my travel time was a breezy 20 minutes heading up a very empty Wisconsin Avenue on Thanksgiving morning.

NO COMMERCIALISM: Apart from food presented on a typical heaving Thanksgiving dinner table – the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the cornbread, and the pumpkin pie – there is very little to no commercialism attached to the DAY ITSELF.  There are some school plays and pageants, and of course, there is the spectacular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with all the floats and balloons, but there are no presents to be expected. So there’s no pressure for buying and gifting. It’s just about being at home, hanging out with your peeps.  There are college football games on TV and the advertisements. And of course there’s Black Friday which is the day AFTER Thanksgiving and that’s the most heinous, revolting display of consumerism I’ve ever seen, but besides all that, there’s no…OK, I might have to rephrase that.

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FAMILY: There are so many meanings to ‘family’ these days. This could be your work mates, your core group of friends from university, your community, or your actual family — both as a unit or extended. But Thanksgiving means sharing a meal – a day – with family, in whatever form that takes.

Most people try to go to their family homes for Thanksgiving — where they grew up.  This is what leads to the mass travel. You live in DC but your home is San Francisco.  You go to school in Texas, but home is Boston.  As you can see, the idea of getting “home” ain’t so easy for us.  Even on a really bad day of traffic, you can get from London to Leeds in about 5 hours.  To go from Atlanta to Cleveland would be a 10-hour drive on a good day.

Thanksgiving is always the 4th Thursday in November and the Wednesday before is considered a half-day in many offices and schools.  By also taking off the Friday after Thanksgiving (it’s actually not a holiday in many companies), the holiday becomes a 5-day break, leaving on Wednesday to travel and returning on Sunday.

Over time, it’s morphed.  Americans don’t get very much vacation time (the average is 10 paid vacation days for the American worker), so finding ways to stretch this holiday is key. As the Wednesday-Sunday travel got too popular, another ritual is to take off Monday and Tuesday and make a week out of it, thereby having 9 full days vacation, when only having to take 2.5 days off from work. Even as a university student in Boston, I would arrange my class schedule so that I could leave either Monday night or latest Tuesday to capitalise on as many home-cooked meals as I could.

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My point in all of this is that we will do whatever it takes to be home — with family and friends — in time for Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday (today).  It’s a ritual that we’ve grown up with, embedded in our collective memories. As our families change and grow or as we move apart (or overseas), the day never loses its importance and meaning.

GIVING THANKS: It’s a time to be grateful for what you have. It’s a time to slow down long enough to appreciate the little things. To be together as a family and be able to look around the dining room table and know that yes, this is where I’m supposed to be. There might be absent places. Or there might be mental stress or financial troubles. There could be sadness and loneliness or illness. There could be loves lost, or anger simmering between couples.  There could be political differences or moral stand-offs.

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But today, at this table, those are all put into perspective.  Today, we celebrate what is good. We look at the glass half full and we see what we have, not what we don’t have.  Of course, we must manage expectations and keep reality front and centre. There is no perfect family. And there is no perfect Thanksgiving. But we remind ourselves of our fortunes — whether it’s as small as being able to pay off a parking ticket or as large as paying off a student loan.  Being thankful for your pet hamster or your beloved family dog. Being grateful that you had the opportunity to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Remembering loved ones who are no longer with us and sharing their memories with those that never met them.  Hearing a story, telling a story, playing card games, eating too much, going for a run, participating in a touch football game, watching a movie, reading a book, playing charades, volunteering in a local shelter, helping a neighbour, inviting in a friend who has nowhere to go, walking with pride in a Thanksgiving Day parade.  At the end of all that, gathering at Thanksgiving tables all across the US today, people are doing exactly that – giving thanks for all that they have.

And then it’s back to the traffic.

 

 

 

 

UNDERSTANDING THE BRITS

IN THE BEGINNING…

The cultural chasm was pretty obvious from the very start. Towards the end of 1998, my husband and I met in DC while I was a producer at ABC News/Nightline and he was an economist at the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The accent for me – the American – was a definite turn on (since that time, my husband has admitted to ‘turning it up’ a notch as he found saying literally anything with a British accent at a party would immediately leave him surrounded by admiring and flirty women within earshot. Think scene from the movie Love Actually).

Back then, I had the best job in the world with the best team as a producer for Ted Koppel and Nightline, interviewing world leaders, celebrities and the average Joe Citizen, bringing issues that made a difference to the public eye.  We were usually on a plane to go cover a story or in the editing room cutting pieces to make air, so I had very little social life.  And given Nightline went on the air after the local news, many nights I didn’t leave the office until midnight.  When I did have the opportunity, most D.C. men I encountered were too self-involved and politically ambitious to see beyond their puffed up ego. The rest either wanted trophy wives while others had no backbone whatsoever.

Lesson: You can fancy pizza or a movie, but do not fancy anyone other than your boyfriend!

Yes, it was rare to walk into a Christmas party and find this handsome, tall, British rower & economist who was refreshingly honest when I peppered him with my standard questions that would suss out what kind of guy he is. “Most embarrassing moment?” was one, to which he proceeded to tell me a story so horrible, so embarrassing, that I had no doubt it was true. It was surprisingly transparent and genuine.

By the time we got into the cab to go to another party, I had moved on to “What is the first 45 you bought?” [Younger readers: a 45 is a small record with a main single on one side – the A side – and lesser known song on the B side]. We both discovered we had a ridiculously insane obsession with music for two somewhat nerdy people.  We definitely “clicked”. He was smart and funny, grounded and adventurous.  A quiet confidence, but sure enough in his own skin to reach into a conversation with people he didn’t know and make one small, witty comment that surpassed the mindless chatter around us. And that lovely accent.  The spark was there and so it began.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TEA

There were hiccups here and there, but the first hint that there were some deeper, more ingrained, more innate cultural differences to me (and most Americans) was after we started dating.  He was staying over at mine and knowing that tea was essential to his morning routine, I got up early and skipped out to the 7-11 at the end of my street in Adam’s Morgan where I bought some Lipton tea bags. Upon returning home, I thoughtfully poured some water in my era appropriate coffee-maker, placed the bag in a mug, and waited for hot water to come out the coffee maker.

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As I handed it to him, I saw the look of what I can only described as disgust mixed with horror mixed with the look of someone who just smelled a very bad fart.  “Wha..? What is wrong? You don’t like Lipton’s?”  I couldn’t fathom what had caused this reaction. This rare show of emotion…over tea.

It wasn’t the Lipton’s – that he could have settled for – it was the fact that the water was not boiling! Not scalding, McDonald’s-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen hot! And huge, huge mistake: I poured the milk in immediately afterwards…yes, I know you Brits are cringing at what I’m going to say next…WHILE the tea bag was still in the mug! Or as y’all would say WHILST the tea bag was still in the mug!

TWO NATIONS DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE

After that initial mistake, through the dating and subsequent visits to his native land, we realized the George Bernard Shaw quote rang all too true. We really are two nations divided by a common language.

However, we couldn’t even quote that without getting into an argument regarding the pronunciation of his name!  Americans say George Ber-NARD Shaw, while (whilst) Brits say George BER-nerd Shaw. Yet being in that “honeymoon” period of dating, we found ourselves laughing smugly in that “Oh, we are so different and yet so in love and completely smitten” way that was probably extremely irritating for all around us. We marvelled at how often and unexpectedly a new confusion or question arose:

Me (to he and his friends on our first visit to the UK): C’Mon!  Let’s go out exploring and get some lunch! So much to do and see (we had rented a big group house in the country for the weekend and they had plopped their asses in front of the telly for a cricket match). How long before this match is over?

They, in unison: Tuesday. (It was Saturday)

Me: Hah-hah, very funny!

They: Silence (Continuing the concentrated stares at the TV)

Me: Hang on, seriously, when will it be finished?

I truly thought they were pulling the wool over my eyes. Apparently not.

Or another BIG misunderstanding: Once his friends were visiting us in the States and I had picked up on the fact that everyone British said things like “I’d fancy a pizza right now” or “Fancy going to a movie?” so I thought I was being so hip and with it when I said “You know your friend Peter? I really fancy him.” He was grumpy and snippy with me for an hour. I thought I was trying to let him know I approved of his friends – he’d chosen well which shows what a good judge of character he is. Lesson: you can fancy pizza or a movie, but do NOT fancy any person other than your current boyfriend!

Likewise, he and his friends would bowl over with laughter when I told them I had gone horseback riding. “So, why didn’t you go horsehead riding?” they’d giggle. “Or perhaps tomorrow you’ll go horsetail riding!” Apparently, here, they just say “horseriding” and find anything else redundant (which it is) and hilarious. The list of faux pas and misunderstandings during our first few years were endless.

AMERICAN & BRITISH UNITY (and a lot of bickering)

In the end, however, we found we had more in common than we realised; all the things that were important to us like a decent moral compass, outlook on life, sense of humour, ambitions and dreams.  Between the similarities, the differences became a fun distraction, a sidebar, to what we soon embarked on as a lifetime together: marriage, child, travel, dual careers, expats in my land, his land and both.

I discovered what “chuffed” meant. He found out what having your “druthers” means.  I learned about cricket and rugby and Fifa. He became such a fan of baseball that – after we married – he enthusiastically suggested we spend every anniversary visiting a different baseball park in the US until we had seen them all (we stopped at 1).  I bought “aubergine”, “courgette” and “rocket” in the UK, he bought eggplant, zucchini and arugula in the US.

He told me years later that first date was like the Spanish Inquisition and he just marked it up to me being a journalist, but perhaps it was the beginning of what is culturally, fundamentally different. Americans are more direct and upfront. And they tend to exude confidence in a way that is unsettling to Brits.  They say what they mean and mean what they say, generally.  On the other hand, the comedic mockumentaries W1A and Twenty-Twelve have made the British “indirectness” into a hilarious sketch theme.  Trying to read the Brits can be (should be? is?) a university level class. In my humble opinion, Passport Control should hand out this handy chart (via the website Today I learned Something New), it would have saved me about 3 years of confusion and frustration.

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On the other hand, Americans complete and total overuse of and infatuation with hyperbole is irritatingly grating on literally the entire world (see what I did there?). We love hyperbole: “It was AMAZING!” “That is so TOTALLY AWESOME!” “That wine is the BEST I’VE EVER HAD!”. By doing this ALL the time, the meaning is lost and the exact opposite occurs. If everything is the best, how can something be better? Or, worse? Newsreaders in the US are frequently calling any given story or event “the WORST EVER”. Until the next one…5 minutes later. Brits are more measured, more reserved. They will save that “best I’ve ever had” comment for very rare occasions.

Americans love hyperbole. If everything is THE BEST, what happens when something better comes along?

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Case in point, we had a group of friends over for a wine tasting where we each brought a bottle of cheap wine and one rather expensive. We blinded the wines and had people rate them. The Brits were so frustrating. They never gave the highest rating (5 out of 5).  We had 5 Americans and 5 Brits and at the end of the night I asked all the Brits how many 5’s they gave. Not one single Brit gave a top mark (and there were some exceptional wines!). Asking the Americans, we all had given at least one 5.  My husband and his friends explained their rational as such: if you hand out a 5 at the beginning or middle, what happens when you come across a wine that surpasses you last 5?  They showed restraint because handing out too many superlatives means they are no longer superlatives but, in fact, just like everything else. As an aside, like most wine tastings, the wines got progressively better as the night went on, and the wine that won was the cheapest – a £5 Anjou from Sainsbury’s.

Anyway, it made us realise our starting points were remarkably different.  We spent a total of 8 years in the US together and now more than 7 years here in London (with 3 years in neutral territory, as we call it, or South Africa). We’ve come to realize that both countries with their customs and stereotypes and general culture have influenced us. I am no longer completely American, he is no longer completely British. But we love both places equally.  Neither is perfect – far from it. But both are home. And because I can observe and be enchanted with English culture as a foreigner, he sees it through a new perspective.  Likewise, he points out things about America that I had forgotten were good or, more important, that I took for granted.  We embrace the cultural rivalries with a mutual understanding and growth and bickering. Lots of bickering.

So this blog, and subsequent ones, will celebrate all that is different between the US and the UK. From our observations, perspectives and constant nattering for the past 20 years!

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Explaining the Gun Culture Overseas

There are countless times in the past 10-12 years of living overseas that I have been forced to explain my country – or the actions of my countrymen – to virtually everyone I come across in my daily life. The check-out guy at Waitrose asks me to explain Trump. The coffee person at Starbucks questions me about the racial violence. In discussing sports at dinner parties, there’s always one person who asks “Why is it called the World Series? No one else plays in it but you Americans!!”.

After living in South Africa for 3 years and now London for more than 7, nearly everyone I know has asked me about the gun culture in the U.S. and how the heck do people put up with it. “What is going on in America?” people say.  “Why do you love guns so much?” “Explain this to us.” I can’t.  [Although, similarly, when I ask anyone here in the U.K. who is my age or younger to explain the Northern Ireland issue or Brexit, I’m met with uncomfortable shifting and clearing of throats.]  The U.S. gun issue is a phenomenon, and I’m as dumbfounded as they are. But for me, it’s personal. It hurts my heart. My eyes ache, my lips tighten into a thin line and I feel my brow knit into a frown. The grimace is obvious.

America is ahead by miles in gun ownership & mass shootings. The only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen.

In countless interactions I stammer to explain this. “The Democrats…” I start.  “The Republicans have….” I try.  “The polls show…”  “International statistics point to…”  “The Second Amendment…” I’m grasping at flimsy straws. “The NRA…” “After Sandy Hook…”  But the fact is no argument can explain the reality on the ground in the U.S. The horror that has become almost daily. The numbness to which everyone somehow – staggeringly — accepts this as their new reality.

And then there’s the all too familiar arguments that fall on deaf ears. The definitive statistics we’ve seen pointing out gun control in Great Britain or Australia and making those Before and After comparisons from when the laws went into place. The thread that follows how – after one shoe-bomber – laws were put into place to take off our shoes as precautionary measures or how, when seven people were killed by poisoned Tylenol bottles, new packaging made it nearly impossible to tamper with pills (I don’t remember anyone saying “Don’t worry about making safer pill bottles, it’s just the mental health of one deranged person”).

The charts, statistics, polls and studies are endless.  This one from the BBC is a good start.  And in the New York Times earlier this week with excellent charts and statistics, Max Fisher and Josh Keller methodically put forth and debunk every argument out there on why America has so many mass shootings. Mental health issues? No. Society more violent? No. Racial divisions? No. Violent video games? No. Bottom line is we have more guns – by a lot.

I found it particularly disheartening that we are ahead by miles in gun ownership and mass shootings, and that the only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen. That’s not a country you thought the U.S. would be in the same category as. Yemen? Imagine my next encounter with chatty Waitrose guy: “Hey, America and Yemen: more guns than any other country in the world! And a higher rate of mass shootings than everyone else. What’s up with that?”.  I will try to grab my groceries quickly and leave.

My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”

More worryingly, however, is how do I explain this to our daughter. She is of the age where these larger, more complicated issues are being discussed. She is in what Americans would call “Middle School” at a co-ed secondary institution brimming with multinationals:  Brits, French, Aussies, Indians, Russians, Italians, Spanish, South Africans, Greeks, Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians, Senegalese and more. They all wear their nationalities on their sleeves and are starting to challenge each other in an intellectual but healthy way.  As a half-American, she is beginning to get the typical push-back and teasing that often comes from less powerful nations (an Australian boy needling her about Trump has become a fun joke between them).

So how do I explain to her that the country I love and grew up in has had 1745 deaths from mass shootings since January of 2013 (according to The Guardian)? How do I explain that our government stands by, idly, and does nothing? And that we, the people, elect those officials who do not vote as we would.  So far, no protest loud enough has changed this. But it must stop.

Would I raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder?

 

America is getting a terrible reputation abroad for many different reasons, but the gun issue is front and centre as perhaps the worst.  Asked if I would ever move back to the U.S., I definitely pause and wonder whether I would want to raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder while he does his shopping.  Closer to home, I understand the Concealed Carry Laws means that a citizen in Virginia can stand outside a polling booth with a gun. How do I explain that to our daughter? Of course, no place is perfect and certainly every place has its difficulties, its negatives, its issues that we all must put up with and deal with. In the US, I have to explain terrorism and Brexit to everyone. And both of those are somewhat unexplainable too. So there’s no nirvana. But I cannot comprehend doing some back-to-school shopping, squabbling over the last notebook on the shelf with another customer, followed by escalated pushing and shoving, and then the customer pulls out a LOADED gun on me. What?!? Here’s the full article.  Granted, no one comes out squeaky clean, but a Mom with her 20-yr-old daughter, shopping in Walmart with a loaded gun?? Just in case?? I worked and lived overseas in some dangerous places and I know that having a gun pointed at you can leave you with PTSD.  Or I would probably be somewhat traumatized if I took my daughter to a polling booth where a man is carrying a gun outside the door as voters go in and out to vote.  As one of the voters said “I had my 9-year old son with me. I felt intimidated…had to explain why a man with a 357 magnum is standing outside the polling station”.

No, this is not the country I know. The country I grew up in. Of course I have friends with hunting rifles and/or hand-guns, but all agree on stricter controls and bans of assault weapons.  I sincerely hope the tide is turning with all the election wins by Democrats countrywide earlier this week. History was made with many “firsts” from New Hampshire to North Carolina to Montana as candidates who are women, transgender, people of colour and part of the LGBT community won their respective races. My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday would be “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”.  Let’s hope momentum is shifting and we can take that forward to insist on new measures and bans that will change the future history of the US that has yet to be written.