Sunday, February 20, 2011

Broadening Our Minds

We've lifted a great quote from Expat Mojo's 365 tips for expats this week, and we're reflecting on how our own travels have colo(u)red our views of our own country.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime".
– Mark Twain


When I first came to the States I admit to being a bit of a grammar snob. If I heard something slightly different from the British version, I automatically assumed (albeit silently, thank goodness) that the Americans had bastardized the original.

I heard the word "momentarily" a lot, especially when waiting on the phone for a customer service rep. "The next representative will be with you momentarily". Of course, "momentarily" means for a fleeting moment doesn't it, I would think condescendingly. Then one day I looked it up in Webster's dictionary (an American dictionary I'll admit) and sure enough it gave two meanings, the other being "in a moment". Americans were using it correctly. Gasp!  There are many other words and phrases that were actually once used in the UK; it's British English which has moved on while American English is often truer to the source. Words such as "closet" are now old-fashioned in the UK, but still in common usage here.

Lesson number one - British isn't always right!

My time here has also made me appreciate this about England:

  • The gorgeous smell of a garden on a summer evening. Here in the Midwest of the USA, there aren't many smelly flowers.
  • The relatively temperate climate. In Chicago we typically have summers in the 90's (Fahrenheit) and winters in single digits.
  • Public swimming pools. Apart from outdoor pools in the summer (which we don't have in the city) there aren't any public swimming pools; you usually have to join a health club and pay monthly fees for all the other things you don't use - like the weights room, and the running track.
  • Good TV. Yes, we might have hundreds of cable stations but they seem to be divided into news, entertainment, sports, crappy reality shows and crappy sitcoms; there are rarely any deep documentaries and the only decent drama comes straight across the Pond, often a couple of years later.
  • Proximity to a coast; being brought up near the wild and windy north east coast line, I thought I missed the sea when I lived in London, but here in the American mid west I rarely smell the salty air. We have Lake Michigan here with nice (man-made) beaches, but it's just not the same.
  • Too many food items to list.

And finally, from a distance, England still looks like a pretty good place to live even though everyone seems to be fairly pissed off at the moment. At least you don't have Sarah Palin!

Every American—at some time during their life—should be required to spend a year abroad.  Really, it would do them good.  Denmark would be a good place, or Belarus, but ultimately the country isn’t important (as long as it isn’t Britain—you can’t swing a bowler hat without hitting an American here these days); what is import is that they get out and understand there is a wider world that doesn’t care about The Super Bowl, how much money Bill Gates is worth this month and who is most likely to win America’s Got Talent.

Similarly, an equal number of Danes and Belarusians need to spend an equal amount of time in America, both to keep their countries from becoming overcrowded while all those Americans are there, and so they can learn that not all Americans are redneck, gun-toting, fundamentalists ready to barricade themselves in their farmhouses and spark up the fuse to Armageddon.  Granted, we’ll have to send them to Michigan, Wisconsin or one of the other more placid states (or at the very least avoid the Deep South) but I think it would go a long way toward promoting universal peace and understanding.

(Excerpted from my upcoming book, Off on a Tangent – the ramblings of an accidental expat, due out in this summer.)

So, in moving to England, my world opened up, and I have to admit it has been such a pleasant experience I am having trouble finding things I miss from my old life back in the States, but with a little effort, I came up with these:

  • Denny’s:  I miss being able to just stop off at an informal dining place for coffee or a Ruben sandwich and some conversation.  The only comparable establishment over here is Wimpy’s, but the food there is the stuff of nightmares.
  • Alieve:  I have to send to the US for this, the only pain reliever that works for me.  And standard aspirin comes in packets of 16 and you can only buy one at a time.  The next time I go to the US I am bringing back a 500 tablet bottle of Bayer.
  • Medical Treatment:  Back home, I used to go to the doctor for a once-a-year check-up.  In Britain, they do not do preventative medicine and only want to see you if you are dying.  And even then they will make you feel like you are wasting their time.
  • Dry cleaning:  Too expensive and really crap service.  I used to take my shirts out for cleaning in the States, and I miss have nicely pressed and starched shirts.
  • Cheap Cuban cigars:  How ironic, that in the country where smoking a Cuban cigar is considered treason (it is part of the “trading with the enemy” act) that I could easily procure reasonably priced Cubans.  When I moved to a country where they were legal, I assumed I could get them even easier, but a decent Vegas Robiena cost about £14 (about $20) at my local tobacconists.  I cannot, in good conscience, set fire to something that costs that much.  I want to smoke it, not frame it.
  • Optimism:  The news here is uniformly awful.  No matter what it is, it is going to kill us all.  There is no sense that good times are just around the corner, the only thing lurking there is certain catastrophe.
  • Friendly people:  It’s a cliché for a reason.  Americans are friendly (but not as friendly as Canadians), and the British, especially the southerners, as a reticent bunch.  I’ve been here ten years and still do not know anyone I could call up and ask if they wanted to go down to the pub for a few beers.  The only people who spontaneously talk to me are displaced northerners and nutters.

And finally, I miss that sense of belonging, of being in a crowd when someone starts chanting, “USA!  USA!” and soon everyone is chanting.  I realize outsiders look upon with a bit of fear and find it very tribal.  But it’s my tribe.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:
MHMail55-MT AT
or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. Michigan, Placid?? Mike, have you ever been to Flint? :-)

    Then again, speaking as a displaced northerner (and likely nutter) I can see what you mean, and will gladly allow you to buy me a beer any time you like! :-)

  2. Steve; Hmm, I forgot about Flint. We'll send them to the nicer places instead ;) And I 'll buy you a beer anytime, as long as you buy me one if I am ever up in your neck of the woods.

  3. Ah, summer evenings, yes... (closes eyes, gets nostalgic).

  4. Mike, actually if some of your proposed Danish travelers went to the Deep South, they'd learn that it too is not full of "redneck, gun-toting, fundamentalists ready to barricade themselves in their farmhouses and spark up the fuse to Armageddon." To the extent you want to perpetuate the Deep South stereotype, however, and send the proposed Danes somewhere else, perhaps Wisconsin isn't the best example of sanity right now. The Democratic congressional delegation has left the state and is hiding out in Illinois because, since November, they don't have the votes to block public sector union reform. (Since the legislature can't vote without 20 members present, and the Republicans only have 19, by leaving the state the Democrats have shut down the legislature completely.) Protesters have swarmed the capitol area carrying signs such as, "If Teabaggers are as hot as their Foxnews anchors then I'm here for the gangbang." Not exactly an example of levelheaded America, that. And for the record, from Texas, not the Deep South, I don't know anyone who cares much about how much money Bill Gates has, though I have had a few discussions on his charitable donation initiative and have written about how such private donations affect, or are affected by, governmental regulation. I don't even know anyone who watches America's Got Talent, though a few watched American Idol the first few seasons. The Super Bowl, I'll grant you, though how our obsession with the Super Bowl is a strike against us when World Cup mania everywhere else isn't a negative--well that's an interesting topic that I gave some attention to back during the World Cup.

    Otherwise, do you have any blog posts on the medical treatment/lack of preventative care topic? I'm running into that often myself.

  5. Here's something we did in November 2010 and there are quite a few more. Somewhere.

  6. Every time a Yank says 'momentarily' I want to scream! "We will be loading the plane momentarily" makes me think "Yikes, I want to be on the plane for the whole journey, not just a moment". And as to what american dictionaries say, frankly my dear I dont give a damn, it still sounds ludicrous!

  7. That's a great quote, isn't it?

    Yes living overseas has helped me appreciate my American life much more--it has even helped me to become more patriotic, but in a far more realistic 'they're flawed but I love 'em anyway' kind of patriotism.

    Living overseas has also taught me that you can make a home anywhere, and that each place and the people there have qualities and enchantments unique to that place, but that still work all the same--even quirks to English grammar!

  8. While it's true I've only been an expat for a paltry 10 days, I can say with earnest that I already miss the variety of salad choices on restaurant menus the States have...and dressings for that matter! Most salad offerings I've encountered are a side salad of rocket, 2 slices of tomatoes and a slice of cucumber - all drenched in some sweet Italian dressing.

    My new kingdom for a Caesar or Cobb salad!

  9. Jeez, in the UK for 10 days and whining already.

  10. I have enjoyed reading these two very different accounts of life in England & USA.

    Like Toni, I think I would miss much of England, especially the things she lists, but I like to have a good grumble about my country. Not too tolerant of *outsiders* grumbling about it though! LOL!
    While on the subject of grammar, what about the word.... *gotten*?

    I can see why you might grumble about a lot of things here, Mike & as you have been here a long time, I think you might be justified in a bit of a grumble but pleased you like a lot of things here too.Is your pain relief REALLY that much better or is it psychological cos you are used to it????!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  11. Apologies to Mike, but living in America has made me really appreciate the NHS. Going to the doctor here is a nightmare - never knowing what you are going to be charged, insurance or no insurance, what will the co-pay be, what will a medication cost (I was charged $90 for a prescription migraine tablet) - plus I always seem to wait about an hour in the waiting room. It's so confusing, very unfair and the 'check ups' that you do get are (according to my medic husband) mostly unnecessary.

    The other thing I appreciate about England now is lack of mosquitoes in the summer. I love the warm summers here but by the end of August the mozzies really are spoiling the party.

    Oh, and it's made me realise how much more environmentally concerned the Brits are. A real eye opener.

  12. I 'll buy you a beer anytime, as long as you buy me one if I am ever up in your neck of the woods.


    That's a deal I'm definitely up for Mike

  13. Anonymous, American dictionaries also say that people typically capitalize proper nouns such as "American".

    Of course, dictionaries are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive - say a word one way often enough and the lexicographers will happily go along with you! This is why we now say "a pea" instead of "some pease".

  14. Maggie: It may be all in my mind, but that is my pain reliever of choice. And that works for me ;)

  15. What I never got used to was hearing people refer to "urbs". Shudder!

  16. @ExpatMum, thanks for the link.
    @Moe, rocket and parmesan boring you already?

  17. Funny, the NHS is one thing I really miss. I had no idea that Wimpy's was still around, do they still manage to make all the food that very special tepid temperature by the time it reaches you?

  18. Inconsequnetial: I am sure the quality of the food at Wimpy's differes from place to place but the one in Greenwich still holds the record for The Worst Cup of Coffee In The World. And I think they heat their food up by ironing it.

    Incon, et al: I do the NHS a disservice; they are not as responsive or thorough as my US doctors, and the governent is hell-bent on destroying what efficiencies remain, but after ten years here it is hard to imagine life without the NHS. As with a lot of Brits (which, in fact, I am) I complain about it, but I'm glad it's there.

  19. Just because we live in the same city Expat mum I do feel the need to point out there are totally public pools in Chicago. Heck I live within walking distance of 2, though one is outdoors so for some mysterious reason is closed in this time of year. I also def grew up with public pools in Massachusetts.

    I am however totally down with missing the ocean. For a long time I found Lake Michigan really upsetting for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on. Finally I realized that it was because it looked like the ocean, but didn't smell at all right.


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