Having just lived through my 15th Thanksgiving while living in the UK it is a good time to reflect back on some of the differences between my birthplace and my adopted home. I left the US for British soil in 2000, and like many thought that coming here would be a bit of laugh and that I’d back in few years. Now 15 years and 15 Turkey-less Thanksgivings have passed and I’m settled down with a local pub and English children. I should say they are my children, there isn’t a family in Ipswich wondering where their kids are.
In general, I think I’ve adjusted to the subtle differences between here and what I still call ‘home’. It’s the little things that can trip you up though. The details that take time to learn, especially because folks here aren’t particularly good at explaining things.
I remember some of my first UK banking experiences, where in order to open a bank account you are required to produce a letter with your address on it as a form of ID. However, they look at you blankly when you note that it’s difficult to get a place to live without a bank account. I remember one woman in the queue (yes, that’s the word I use now) next to me practically in tears because the only letter that she had was a letter from that bank. Proof which they said was insufficient. Although she was Canadian, so somehow it was kinda funny.
I did figure out a good way to avoid this problem: I changed my legal name to ‘The Occupier ’ that did the trick!
Another time I went to the bank to withdraw some cash and when the clerk asked me which notes I’d like I said,“Hundreds, please”and she looked at me like I had just farted at tea time.
Oddly, now when I go back to America I struggle with the overwhelming sense of friendliness. Partly that’s because I’ve lived in London all these years. I struggle to want to talk to anyone. I wonder whether people in the US really want to be that nice, especially in shops. I have definitely changed in that regard. Back in the US when I go into Starbucks, the barista chats away like we’re old friends: Asks me my plans for the day, where I’m headed, what I’m doing tomorrow, what’s my social security number. It feels like an interrogation, not a transaction.
While I moan about the intensity of the friendliness back home, there are some levels of basic courtesy that don’t exist on this side of the Atlantic. Have you ever noticed that no one introduces themselves here?
You’ll be at a work event, join a conversation and a circle of people where you only know one or two people. There might be an extra few people there who clearly don’t know you. Will they say hello? Will they acknowledge your presence? No. I think it’s because they can tell you’re from abroad and they figure by the time they learn your name you’ll have decided to go back home again. So what’s the point of even trying.
One hazard of living here so long is the dreaded visit from a relative who doesn’t travel very often. My mother spent most of her first visit to the UK starting every sentence with,“Well, in the United State we....” She cornered some poor shop worker in Sainsbury’s lecturing him for about 30 minutes on why they should sell Easter Egg coloring boxes. I felt bad for him. He has to work at Sainsburys, that’s bad enough, he doesn’t deserve my mother. She also told me that I had clearly changed, and was less-American because we don’t have a clothes dryer.
One of my favourite moments was when my twelve year old brother and I talked around the 4th of July and he asked if it was a big deal here. I asked him to think about that for a minute and he just said,“Oh yeah”- although some pubs do try and capture the spirit of the day. Years ago a local pub was advertising a 4th of July night. Some other expats and I headed down on the 4th only to be told that we’d missed the party. They had a 4th of July party, but done it on the 3rd so they didn’t have to move a pub quiz. I was baffled at the time, but now have learned that going to one’s local pub quiz is often many times more important than going to church on Sunday.
Politically it can be hazardous as an American here as well. Since I am often the physical manifestation of whatever the US is being credited with, or more likely blamed for, at any given moment. In the 2000’s I was often asked “Why did you invade Iraq?” and to be honest it was a difficult personal decision. Things have been better since Obama became President. But now the tables have turned and I find myself having to“defend”the popularity of Trump. I get asked how could such a buffoon with wild hair be so popular. I’ve learned to carry around a picture of London’s Mayor as a ready defence.
Overall though, I have become accustomed to and really enjoy being an American in London. Of course there’s things I miss (like a decent burger - don’t get me started) but overall it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by a night at my local pub. At my regular quiz - which I wouldn’t miss for 3rd or even the 4th of July.
This blog originally appeared in The American Hour Magazine.