Category Archives: pub culture

No Joke

My work dinners and related events often end up sounding like the start of a joke. I give you, for example, last night:

Two Irishmen, a Brit and an American walked into the Bar at Jamie’s Italian and ordered mojitos. The Brit said…

(Aside 1: Mojitos because it was unusually hot here. I hesitate to say “unseasonably” because it is the dead of summer, but it is sort of un-Britishly. Aside 2: my lovely Irish companions happen to have been female, is there no gender neutral term for Irish persons?)

Tonight it was even hotter, and we had a group pub outing planned. My group is always a sort of mini-UN in terms of countries represented, but we had the addition tonight of two people visiting from Glasgow, both of whom happened to also be American. This seemed to cause a bit of a reaction in the two Brits present (for completeness, the others attending were from the East Asian contingent, one from Thailand and one from Malaysia). One of the Brits in particular started riffing on the stereotypes that one country has about the people from another. I believe this was originally all directed at perceptions of the French, but don’t quote me on that.

Now I have to note at this point that the two Americans visiting from Glasgow were very different in their experiences: one was a long-termer like me, and the other a recent arrival. It was the recent arrival who ended up actually supplying the punchline to the story, at some point after one of the two Brits had left. The conversation was much longer than I can record here, and there was much more self-defending and other-bashing than I could possibly get across. The Aussies were particularly hard-hit by the slagging off. But, as usual for a former colony of a once great empire, the biggest rivalries were the US-UK ones. And it went something like this.

Recent Arrival Glasgow-based American: But what are some examples of British food?

Me: Spotted dick.

RAGA: (chokes and sputters)

Brit: It’s a sponge with raisins in it. Not at all nice.

Other Glasgow-based American: But pudding doesn’t mean the same thing here at all.

Me: Yes, it’s just dessert.

Brit: Really it’s in the vegetable section where the UK-US word differences get interesting.

(Discussion continues regarding courgettes, aubergines, swedes, etc. Food topic continues and somehow we end up discussing dinner time in Spain.)

Someone (I don’t recall): Yeah they eat dinner at 8 pm or something, don’t they?

Me (having just been there in January): No, more like 10.

Brit: Why do Americans eat so early? By 9:00 the restaurants are empty.

Me: Well, where I come from (the midwest) we’re on East Coast time for business purposes, so everything ends up being earlier in clock times. My parents are often at work at 7 am.

RAGA: Oh you’re from Minnesota? I’m from Texas.

Me: Same time zone.

OGA: At least you’re from same states where they change for daylight savings with the rest of the country, I’m from Arizona where they refuse to change and it confuses everyone.

Brit: What? They just don’t change right there?

Me: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Indiana is that way too, I went to university in Michigan and it was always confusing as to whether Indiana was on our time (Eastern time zone) or on Chicago time (Central) depending on the season.

Brit: That’s nuts.

OGA: Well, it’s a big country. The entire UK is, what, the size of Pennsylvania?

RAGA: Yeah, well, at least we HAVE different time zones!

Yeah, I’m still–several hours later–needing to not have a beverage in my mouth at the moment that I think of that delivery lest I start squirting said beverage out of my nostrils. Maybe you had to be there, but there was something about a looooong conversation of you-vs-us and cultural stereotypes culminating in a defense of American greatness over Britain because of the fact that we were big enough to need time zones that just completely cracked me up.

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Knowledge is Power. Or at least less fear.

I was home sick today. I’ve had a stomach bug since Saturday. I am trying very hard not to link this to the salad I had, with raw cucumbers on it, when I was having a nice pub lunch outside in the gorgeous sunshine on Friday, with my very good friend and her darling little six month old baby. And yes, it was a Friday, and I was playing a bit of hooky. My job is flexible like that. When you work late into the night many days and all day on the weekend, sometimes you can then have a nice pub lunch on a sunny Friday afternoon when your friend with the baby just happens to have the car. But I digress. So I was not feeling very well this morning, and I knew that this was probably not just the stomach bug, but a combination of the bug and that of the stress I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks over the fact that my visa expires in the second week of October and I have to apply for permanent residency.

The story actually goes back even a little further. A week ago Friday I had dinner with one of my fellow Americans, and she had just received her passport back in the mail with her permanent residence visa. She made a point of ceremoniously handing over her Life in the UK study manual for me to use for my own application process. She also made a point of heckling me for being ridiculous about how big and scary this thing had become in my own head. Sometimes good friends do things like that. They heckle you when you need it.

So I took advantage of being sick in bed this morning with my laptop and my orange juice and I bit the bullet on that thing I’ve been needing to deal with. And I downloaded the forms and the information for this application for residency. And I read them through. And I started making lists (mostly mental at the moment, but I’ll make a check-list soon) of the things I need to gather in support of my application. It’s all fairly benign, as several people have told me (but I refused to listen), and of course I now have information and know what I need to do. It’s slightly logistically complicated, because my US passport also needs to be renewed, and I have to squeeze all sorts of things in this summer where I’ll need my passport. Like taking the Life in the UK test. So it’s not over yet, but at least I know more about what I have to do. I might wake up tomorrow and, for the first time in a while, not feel sick.

My new local

One thing that changed when I moved from the centre of town to the periphery is that I no longer had a local pub within a few blocks of home. Today I had the chance to visit the pub that is my new local.

My friend Chris was in town today. Chris is the ultimate example of what I have found to be true of my British friends: every single one of my British friends have either lived abroad, are married to a foreigner, or both. Chris has lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, and thus in places where the language is foreign in addition to the culture. Chris has lived in my town (although that is not the case at the moment) and so has local knowledge that has been very useful to me. So in many ways I have felt as though Chris has taken me as a charity case to try and introduce me to local culture while understanding deeply how difficult it is to be a stranger in a strange land.

So Chris and I went for dinner today to what is, by geographical definitions, my new local–the pub closest to my current flat and thus a place that I should be frequenting according to British culture. I had not, in the seven months living here, managed to get there even though I knew I should. Aside from it being my local, it’s relatively well-known and well-regarded in these parts for having very good food. Interestingly enough, the food is all Thai and thus not what is normally associated with a British pub, although a quick search on Google indicates that this is not all that unusual in these parts. The place was, on entering, a classic British pub–you ordered at the bar and there was a wide range of cask ales and the like available. The (Thai) food was amazing and the place was hopping, a sure sign of a thriving pub. I’ll be back again.

I’m left to reflect on so many aspects of expat life after the experience. We traded off buying rounds of pints and so I had to belly up to the bar and do my part. I’ve taken my work team to pub nights close to work quite regularly, but have tended to front the money and expect someone else to handle the barkeep. I need to step up on this one and start behaving like the residents of this country in which I have been living for (gasp!) four and a half years. I’ve read plenty on the rituals of British pub etiquette, especially in the wonderful book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, a text that has become like a textbook in my time here. I’ve been here long enough to no longer have an excuse of not understanding the local traditions.

I also need to spend more time in my local. The food is excellent, and I’ve been depriving myself of it by not having had the guts to venture into it over the last half a year. This is particularly galling now that I know that the pub does Thai take-out as well as table service, since I so often complain of the lack of good fresh, vegetable-filled and interesting quick food in my local town. (My usual cry is for the addition of (a) a bagel place, like Bruegger’s or Einstein’s and (b) a quick-fresh food place like Noodles in the US.) This pub is on my way home from work and thus should become a regular stop-off on busy nights when I am too tired to cook healthy food after a long day in the office. Lessons learned. And most important of all, I should spend more time with the locals and in my local.

The moving day report

My big move today went remarkably well–from one flat to another, from a place that was offered to me to a place that I chose. The movers were professional and efficient. They showed up perfectly on time and wearing uniforms of their company. They were prepared, not just for the move, but had brought their own implements for making tea for their mid-morning break. (! Oh this is when I love you, England.) The whole thing took about 2.5 hours less than had been scheduled. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to see (unless there is an utter disaster when I go to unpack) how this could have gone any better. Which seems remarkable for a moving day. A day when Murphy’s law seems to take over. My (American) (temporary, for a year due to someone else’s maternity leave) secretary whispered to me–when I appeared in the office this afternoon before the close of business when no one expected to hear from me today–“were they British?” We had a laugh in the way expats do. We love it here, we are not slagging off the locals. They were British. But the expectation was probably not that they would be quite as efficient, and, well, as “American-like” as they were. I’ve heard horror stories from around my town. But for the record, I used a local, family run company and one that I chose solely on the basis of the fact that they responded to my request for a quote faster than anyone else, and I kind of didn’t shop around on price, as much as on response time. For me, today, this strategy paid off. They were amazing and if anyone who knows me in my area wants a recommendation for movers, I’m all there. And maybe you do get what you pay for and that is okay.

I have never had full-on professional movers before today. The closest I’d come was when I relocated to the UK, and a moving company handled the overseas shipment and delivery of my goods. But then I had packed the boxes all myself, and in fact things had been in boxes in storage because I didn’t know I was moving to England until I actually did move to England. (I thought I was taking a junior position on the East Coast of the US after travelling in Europe for two months. But I interviewed for my current position early on during that Europe trip and I ended up taking the job in the UK and shipping all my clearly marked “self-packed” boxes through customs.) But the crazy last few weeks with the whole (1) finding the flat and committing to taking it sight-unseen from the US, (2) dealing with my work commitments including trips to Newcastle (UK), Munich and Singapore and (3) preparing for my trip to the US literally tomorrow meant that I needed some professional help.

All other previous moves in my life had involved a rented truck of the U-Haul sort. (I have no idea what the British equivalent even is. I didn’t consider it.) Sometimes I even got to drive the truck, which I think more women should do 🙂 And these previous moves always featured me doing all of the packing. I can see now how this never could have worked in the current scenario; I did not have the days needed to do the packing that was accomplished by four professionals in four hours. And my wonderful sister was not here to help me! I most certainly did not have the local knowledge needed to figure out how to park a truck (lorry) in the city centre on a one-way street during daylight hours on a busy weekday. Oh yes, in England. There is that. The complications of doing something rather difficult in another country really could have been stressful, if I had not thrown caution to the wind and hired actual professional movers.

The movers cost me almost exactly an additional month’s rent. Add that to the deposit on the flat (1.5 months rent) and all the incidental one-off charges associated with the move, and it was about three months extra of rent that I’ve paid in the last few weeks in order to facilitate this move. And as I sit here in the new place, planning for my suitcase packing and departure for America tomorrow, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’ve hit some strange place where, after living in England almost four years, most of which were in some ways rather uncomfortable, I’m completely delighted at the fact that I ate into my savings but got me and all of my worldly possessions out to the new flat with a minimum of fuss on my part.

Even better, I tipped these guys (as far as I can tell) more than they are used to. It was totally in my nature to thank people who did a job well, fast, and orderly. (NB occasionally I tip well when a waiter flirts with me, but that’s a different story.) And there is in this case the instance where tipping is actually fun, as opposed to obligatory: when you really want to reward someone for a job well done. It’s not the same as giving a Boston cab driver more than what reads on the meter but still being berated for not tipping enough (as has happened to me in the US.) I actually wanted to thank these guys for being pleasant to work with and professional and fast. It was utterly voluntary. I was unclear of the etiquette and so played up my American card, and just asked the leader of the moving crew (when I was making out the cheque for the formal cost of the move) if it was okay to tip them. He said something like, “well, you don’t have to but it’s much appreciated” and so I did. Perhaps extravagantly. Call me American. (It took the total from just under a month’s rent to just over, and I am so very OK with that!) Notice how happy I am at how well this all went. Said moving crew leader made a sweet comment about taking the guys out to the pub tonight (especially since they were done at my place at 3 pm!) and I felt happy and at one with the world.

The deeper meaning of this move has not escaped me either. I did not incur that additional three months’ rent worth of charges to have done this temporarily. My several years in work-subsidized but not exactly comfortable housing was very economical. In the last few weeks, I have made a significant investment in my life in England. Not that I claim that I will be here forever, I still don’t have a long-term plan. But I do think now that I will have to start working on that application for permanent residency.

Permanent. Now there’s a scary word.

Midwestern Mash-up

It was always going to be a good idea. I had a massive deadline for 4 pm today, probably the most serious deadline I’ve faced in my professional career. Coincidentally, I had been trying to schedule with one of my Minnesotan-in-England friends a pub meet-up with a couple of other midwestern girls. The only trouble for me was going to be staying awake, after the 4 pm deadline and a 4-5 pm meeting, I was dragging at 5:30 and unclear how I would make it to the pub for 8:30. Fortunately I persisted with wakefulness and managed to go. And oh what I would have been missing had I not stayed awake.

The round up is this: I’m native Minnesotan but went to college in Michigan. My Minnesota friend is actually a transplanted southerner. The two new acquaintances were a Michigander who went to college in Wisconsin and a Wisconsinite who moved to Minnesota around age 10. And here we all were doing girls’ night in a British pub. Can you see all the conversation possibilities? Yes, it worked. Awesome. Throw into the mix that I’m having dinner tomorrow with another friend who’s actually from Illinois, and I’ve managed to cover a pretty large proportion of the midwest in a short period of time.

It’s a good question, though, why it’s such fun to hang with fellow midwesterners (I mean, not just other American women but specifically American women from the heartland) in England. Perhaps an even better question is why are so many midwestern American women in my local town? And how is it that they are all such interesting women, with interesting careers, opinions and experiences such that in all cases I’ve definitely wanted to see them again? Soon! Does this reveal something intrinsic about midwesterners, or just about the midwesterners who happen to move to England? And where are the British girls with equivalently interesting careers, opinions and experiences? How have I been here for three years and not met them, but I’ve met a whole gaggle (technical term) of midwesterners in the past few months?

I’ll have my beer to go

Some things about the English pub system are just too good for words. I have mentioned previously how, at the end of the night, when a pub closed down they gave us plastic cups to take our remaining beer away with us, so as not to waste it even though it was closing time. That was funny. But today I think I had an experience that was even one better. My very favorite British friend was in town, and he suggested we go get a pint before dinner. Now I believe he said something about getting the pint and going out to sit on the grass, but I was not really paying attention to the details, as I was not 100% sure which pub he was even talking about when we set out. But we got to the pub, which was directly across from a large park (with plenty of grass to sit in) and it turns out that when ordering our beer, we were asked if we wanted it to drink in or take away. That’s right, folks, the beer is available for take-out, as it’s expected that you’ll grab it and dash to the park across the street. Even better, if you bring the empty plastic glasses back when ordering a second round, you get a discount. I leave you with the image of my take-out beer, safely out of the pub and in the park across the street. This is truly an amazing country.

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Plastic pint glasses?

I could not help but chuckle and roll my eyes simultaneously when I stumbled on this article about calls for plastic pint glasses in Britain.

Plans are afoot in Britain to replace the classic pint glass with one made out of plastic.

The government’s idea is that by introducing shatter-proof plastic vessels it will help address the increasing problem of beer drinkers using pint glasses as weapons in their local pubs.

Needless to say the plan has gone down about as well as a warm beer served, well, in a plastic cup.

There have been cries about how the proposed plastic vessels will substantially affect the quality of the amber nectar being drunk.

Others claim it’s yet another example of the government’s attempts to transform Britain into a “nanny state”.

The last point is a good one, although sometimes you wonder if a nanny is needed when you see statistics like this one, also from the article:

The motivation behind the push for the new model comes from official figures showing that 5,500 people are attacked with glasses and bottles in England and Wales each year.

I do not know what to do about Britain’s binge drinking culture, or the associated violence. I experienced some of this for the first time a few months ago, when on a sunny afternoon I had to walk out of my way to avoid a drunk guy who was covered in blood and fighting with another guy. It just made me sad. And a little frightened. One of the things I loved about England when I first moved there was the ability to walk down the street at night alone without feeling as frightened as I would have in the US. But that’s no longer true, especially when you take the pub closing times into account.

It is my last full day in America until December, something which has made me surprisingly melancholy. I think I spent too long in the states this trip–I’ve acclimated myself back to American ways and now I anticipate a tough transition back to British life. That said, I am tired of living out of a suitcase, something which I have been doing for most of the days since late June. I have no travel planned until mid-December, and for that I am increasingly grateful. I also look forward to getting back into a normal routine after all this time on the road. I woke up yesterday afternoon, napping after returning very early from the beach (to avoid beach traffic) and had absolutely no idea where I was. That makes sense, as this trip has seen me in New Hampshire, Boston, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and last but most certainly not least, Minnesota. No wonder I had no idea where I was! And that’s after a summer that also included Singapore, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Time to go “home” to England and stay there for a while.