Sunday, May 31, 2009

For Whom the Bells toll

This week we take a look at religion and church-going in our host countries:


It is a well-known irony that, in Britain—where they have an official religion and the monarch is also the head of the church—that religion is barely noticeable, whereas in the US—a rabidly church and state separated nation—religion thrums constantly in the background.

The household I grew up in was not particularly religious, yet at various times of my life I have been a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and a disciple of a charismatic, fundamentalist cult. In addition to those active memberships, I have attended Baptist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Catholic, Episcopalian and Unitarian services; just think where I'd be if my family had been religious.

While visiting the States, my wife, who maintains a British view of religion, was quite alarmed when friends spontaneously began praying over us—asking God to give us a safe trip home—in a pub. And I, myself, am surprised at the number of people who, when we visit, say grace over the meal.

England and America treat their religion like their patriotism, which is why it is bold and brash and ready to give you a great big, bear-hug in the States, and is sort of quiet and apologetic here in Britain (unless, of course, you happen to be a Catholic who wanders into a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast).

I don't mean to portray the British as non-religious. After all, they were responsible for our Puritan forefathers and enthusiastically burned, beheaded and otherwise made life unpleasant for whichever religion didn't happen to be in power at the time. It's just that, as with much about their lives, they simply prefer to keep it to themselves. (Besides, since the outlawing of overt persecution and public executions, religion just isn't as much fun as it used to be.)

It is, however, an established fact that church attendance is falling off, and I have yet to encounter anyone standing on a street corner trying to save my soul, so I think it's safe to say that, religion-wise, the US wins hands down, or hands up, depending on what sort of church you belong to.

Personally, I prefer it this way. As a comedian pointed out on the telly not long ago, "Religion is like a big dog; when it's yours, it a comfort and a companion, but when it's someone else's, it's frightening." But most of all, it eases my mind to know I don't have to worry about people impulsively praying over me in the pub.


Any British expat here will probably agree that the USA is a far “holier” place than the UK. Not that we’re surrounded by saintly people, but a large percentage of the population go to church. On a regular basis. And do more than stand at the back and mumble along with the service.

I was raised Catholic, but we won’t go into that since I’m now what you’d call “lapsed”. When I first moved to the States I lived in Dallas, which can generally be regarded as part of the “deep south” when we’re talking religion. Large families saying Grace before meals at the local International House of Pancakes was commonplace, and more than a few parties started with a group prayer, holding hands with complete strangers and asking the Lord to ensure we had a good time. And there are some fairly extreme forms of religion, such as not touching alcohol, (extreme in my books anyway), speaking in tongues and snake-handling, which is done mainly in the south eastern states. I have to emphasize that they are not mainline church groups and are generally looked on as crazy by most people here too. In fact, since 75 people have been killed by snakes in the last 80 years, most states have banned or restricted snake-handling, except West Virginia.

The other thing that surprised me about Americans is that they talk openly about their church. Not that it was a huge secret when I grew up, just that we didn’t mention church really. At my Catholic school, obviously everyone went to church but we didn’t really talk about it. Had any member of my family suggested grace before meals, I would have first assumed it was a joke, and then promptly died of embarrassment, even though we said it every day at school.

The thing that bugs me slightly in the US is the “separation of Church and State” stipulation, and the fact that it’s pretty much ignored. I resent being told, say in North Carolina, that I can’t have a beer or a glass of wine with my meal just because it’s Sunday; it annoys me that in states like Colorado and Utah (or large parts thereof) you can only buy alcohol at the state rune liquor stores, and that in my local supermarket I can't buy wine till 11am on Sundays. Are they hoping that more people will hang out in churches until the wine aisle opens? (I know there are restrictions in the UK, but nobody’s pretending that it’s not a church-based country. The Queen is the titular Head of the Church of England too.)

If anyone moved here genuinely thinking, as in the olden days, that they would be free of religious persecution, they’ll be somewhat taken aback. Not that anyone’s going to throw big heavy stones at them, but there are a lot of laws that are unabashedly based solidly on religion.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

School's Out. (Well, almost!)

This week's guest blogger is Not From Around Here, an American who moved to the UK for work reasons.


It's that time of year again; US high school students are preparing to graduate, party and move on, while comparably aged students in Britain are taking exams, the results of which won't be known until mid-August. High school graduation is a monumental right of passage in America. Imagine my shock when I arrived in the UK and found that there was no local equivalent! As an outsider, the system of secondary school in Britain is baffling, to say the least. There are a set of exams at age 16 (“GCSE’s ”) that form the historical end of uniform secondary education; (in the near future students will have to stay on till age 18). Although they’re called “General Certificates of Education “there is nothing general about them. Students take a series of exams of their own choosing, both in terms of number of subjects taken and the topics, thus ensuring that there is no uniform qualification on finishing school—there is nothing equivalent to a US high school diploma. The time that Americans would call 11th and 12th grades is here “Sixth form” and sometimes students switch to different schools (“sixth form colleges”). At this point there is an early specialization that would stun American 18 year olds; only a few subjects are studied in sixth form. Again the end is marked with a series of exams (“A-levels” for Advanced Level) that determine college entrance, along with an in-person interview (only possible or practical due to the relatively small size of the country, I suppose). Ironic that in a land of exams there is no equivalent to the US general aptitude college entrance tests (SATs or ACTs).

My biggest beef with the UK system is probably what a Brit would claim as its greatest strength, the importance of single exams in determining outcomes. I admit it, I'm from an American education system where exams might count for some of your grade, but so did projects, essays, presentations, group work, and other things that are more representative of the things you encounter for the rest of your life. The mark of performance in the states is your Grade Point Average (GPA), representing your marks in a whole bunch of subjects averaged over a whole bunch of years. One bad day does not scar you for life in the GPA system. And once you leave your education behind, exams are probably a thing of your past, so how is an “education” system that emphasizes being a good test-taker preparing people for the real world? Of course, my British colleagues would probably suggest that's not the point of education.

There has been a move towards adoption of American-style traditions in the UK. Borrowing from our “Class of XXXX” sweatshirts with the names of all students in the year printed in tiny type, it's now common to see similar shirts in the UK. Except they say “Leavers” and the year. Just doesn't have the same ring as “Graduates” does it? If you google the subject (as one does) you will find some in the UK calling for graduation ceremonies. It's always amusing to this expat to find the rare instance of “There are lessons to be learnt from the United States” written in black and white on the BBC website, but for this subject, it actually does appear to be true. I've even caught wind of something like a GPA catching on over here, but I'm not holding my breath.

British employers seem obsessed with GCSE and A level exam results, and it's a common gripe of expats that they have a hard time getting jobs because they don't have any of these results to put on their CVs. Overall, my feeling is that most people think the system they came through is far superior, and that the other country has it totally wrong. So of course, as an American I'm baffled by the UK system, don't think there should be such overwhelming emphasis on exams and exam results, and think there should not be such early specialization, certainly not before University. I feel bad for the UK students who don't get a rite of passage (with accompanying party and gifts) in early June and who spend so much time stressing over their exam scores. Mostly, I think fondly of my own halcyon days as a high school student—free of the fear that a few exam scores would follow me around for the rest of my life—and I will vigorously defend my American education.


I’ve said it before – if there’s one thing that will make you feel like en expat here, it’s the education system. As NFAH has clearly explained, the high school approaches are nothing alike, although as the mother of a student about to embark on the ACT/Sat path, it seems as stressful as any GCSE and A level experience I had. Perhaps this is made worse because students here quite often apply to more than ten colleges, visiting many of them for long weekends. And remember, this country is BIG, so that can be expensive.

My confusion is compounded by the names the students are given. A first year student (note, not “Pupil”) in High School, equivalent to Year 10 is a Freshman. OK, I get that. The Second year in High School (Year 11) is your Sophomore Year. Hmm. Lower and Upper Sixth formers respectively are Juniors and Seniors. Seniors I get, but shouldn’t Juniors be the new kids on the block? Fortunately this terminology is also used at college.

In defenc(s)e of the English system, given that most universities look for a range of GCSE’s (English, Maths, a language, a science and sometimes an art subject), taking more than 7 gives you a fairly balanced education. I agree that it’s alarming to have to winnow your education down to a few subjects at seventeen, but we started school a good year earlier than most Americans, so again, it’s perhaps not as drastic. When I did my A levels, it was common to take three to secure a place at university, but kids these days are taking a few more, which presumably means their education remains a little broader. Specializing before college however, does mean that there’s no room for error or dilly dallying. If you’re halfway through you’re a A level syllabus and you realize that you should have done physics instead of economics, you can’t really switch. My nephew is currently taking his GCSE’s and has already had to choose his A level subjects, even though he has no idea what his GCSE results will be. To help select his A levels, not only did he have to think about what he wanted to study at university, but also about his eventual choice of profession. He wants to be a pilot, - a fairly specialized career with a lot of competition so you really have to make sure you have the right academic background for the course and the job.

I agree that British kids miss out on some great end of year activities, and it seems far nicer to end school knowing where you’re going to college, rather than dangling in paranoia for most of the summer. High school graduation and proms in the US are fun, and the UK should recognize the efforts of its high school graduates with a little more celebration. But please, no corsages and no cheesy Prom Kings and Queens!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Frames of Reference

Finding your feet in a foreign culture


I chuckled a while back on reading that Lakeland Jo had been called an “anorak” because she blogs. How very insulting. Unfortunately there was no one around with whom to share the joke. The word “anorak” isn’t used a lot around these parts. There are heavy duty Parkas and rain slickers, which are light rain jackets (like cagools). Anoraks however, are simply called jackets, or quilted jackets at the most. And there is certainly no inference of anything train-spotterish attached to them.

Similarly, I can never really use the term “sticky back plastic” with any great results. First, because it’s called contact paper in the US, and second because it was never used for every flipping project on Blue Peter. Saying “Here’s one I made earlier” just makes you look very well-prepared, or obsessive compulsive, depending on the circumstances.

It’s very odd, living without a frame of reference. When I’m with other Brits, I find myself over-indulging in words like “sodding” (my fave), “chuffed” or “dodgy”. After almost 19 years here, I still haven’t lost the urge to say them, and the word “knackered” (my permanent state) constantly creeps into my conversations, only to be met with the glazed-over look Americans get when you’ve completely lost them. The Ball & Chain lived for three years in England and travels there on a (far too) regular basis, so I’m better off than some expats in that he sometimes gets it.

My sons watch Top Gear on a (far too) regular basis, and I’m thrilled at all the English they’re learning. However, they miss so much because they don’t have the “frame of reference”. For example, in one episode where they’re all trying to cobble together a car out of potato peelers, hair accessories and bread bins (or something), gently playing in the background is the Blue Peter theme tune. They couldn’t understand why I was laughing. Another time they asked what “bloddy” was. I knew they didn’t mean “bloody” as I sssay it all the time and they’re very familiar with it.

“Give me the sentence” I asked.

“Oh look, it’s bloddy”, they responded.

No, it wasn’t Noddy.

“Give me the scene” I ventured.

“Well, Hammond was off looking at exotic birds and they called him bloddy.”

“Ah….Bill Oddie”, followed by half an hour’s background information.

I give up sometimes, I really do.


As an expat, I often feel as if I am adrift in a sea of idioms. After seven years, I now know where most of the reefs are, but there is still the overall feeling that I am, ultimately, an outsider, both because I occasionally find myself not understanding what is going on around me, or because, more frequently, I will say something that elicits confused stares instead of understanding.

Even now, while watching TV, my wife will suddenly begin laughing but will be unable to explain why, beyond the brief and unsatisfying explanation that it was, "in reference to a show that was on before you came over."

Conversely, when I make suggestions that our MPs should be enrolled in "Accounting 101" or allude to them arriving at Parliament "on the short bus," no one nods or smirks; they just look confused.

At restaurants, when someone at my table orders the Chocolate Mousse—an occasion that, in the US, practically insists you say, in an appropriate cartoon voice, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!"—I have to remain silent, or risk being thought quite mad. And no one gets the double-entendre implicit in "Nice sweater, Mrs. Cleaver," either.

I also sorely miss in the ability to find out a great deal about my drinking companion by his answer to the question, "Ginger or Maryann?" If I tried that here, he would probably think I was asking about his preference of spices. It really leaves me feeling vaguely out of touch, with my companions, as well as society in general.

By not sharing the same frame of reference, you can never truly be one of the crowd; events and conversations will continue to unfold in a place you can only peek into but never be part of; and you will find yourself staying quiet a great deal more than you might prefer.

But for me, the most annoying aspect is—now that I am attaining an age when I can recall a lot of things many of my companions cannot—I can no longer get any mileage out of the fact that I met Virginia O'Hanlon of, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," fame. My one brush with greatness and, just when it starts to do me some good, I move to a country where no one knows who she is.

At least now I can trot out the previously useless fact that I grew up next to the house Jennie Jerome used to live in.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Popularity Competition – Call Waiting

This week we discuss that affront to good manners that is Call Waiting.


Call waiting is alive and well in the USA. That helpful little beep when you’re on the phone that tells you someone else is calling in. I say “beep” but these days it’s loud and long enough to miss half a sentence of the conversation you’re having, so there’s no doubt that you have another call coming in. Call waiting is also the bread and butter of the psychiatric therapy industry over here; that and the plunging stock market, of course.

Think about it. You’re chatting away with your friend, and she suddenly interrupts you saying “Hang on, I have another call coming in”. You’re then clicked into the cyberspace holding zone, waiting to learn where you are in her pecking order of phone friends. She then comes back and, if you’re lucky says, “I have to take this” in a slightly worried tone, before you’re clicked off altogether. I say, if you’re lucky because there’s nothing worse than being told who’s on the other end, - followed by the dismissal. Anonymity of the caller allows you to think that her parents have met an untimely and grizzly end, which demands her immediate attention, or that her eldest child has just been expelled from school, rather than that’s she’s just bored with your conversation and needs any excuse to get off the phone. If this happens more than once a week to the average American, it can lead to serious self-esteem issues people.

There are two sides to this dastardly coin, and we should also pity the poor popular person whom everyone is calling. Again, picture yourself on the phone, and another call comes in. This time, because you also have Caller ID, a huge decision needs to be made. You can see who’s calling in, but is it a life or death situation? If you’re like me you might think, “Oh it’s my sister, I’ll call her back in five minutes and we can have a good natter”, then spend the rest of the current phone call unable to process thoughts because you’re imagining any number of family tragedies and you weren’t available. (Guilt for the next twenty years.)

Here’s a tip – If you answer the phone to a boring friend, start with “I’m expecting a call from the hospital/work/school so I might have to take it”. This gives you a great escape, although don’t try to fake a call-waiting situation as the other person can usually hear a beep too (i.e. know when there is a distinct lack of one.)

I think Oprah’s producers may be planning a special on Call-Waiting Anxiety Disorder (CWAD), it’s reached such levels here. In fact, I’m seriously thinking of launching my next business - “Call-waiting Techniques for Beginners”, available on CD or DVD in six easy payments. (That’s copyrighted by the way. Hands off.)


Yeah, what she said.

This post was my idea. It recently occurred to me that I had never encountered Call Waiting here in the UK, so I did some in-depth research on the subject (I asked my wife and a few of my co-workers about it). The consensus seemed to be that Call Waiting is sort of like NHS Dentists; people had heard of it, but had never actually experience it. Then I wondered if maybe the phenomenon had dwindled out in the US since I had left, so I asked Toni. Her response is above.

While in the States, I hated Call Waiting, for all the reasons Toni cites. It is simply rude, and that is why I think it hasn't made big inroads in the UK; they are too polite here to tell someone they are talking to that they would rather talk to someone else. The teenagers are rude enough, but they mostly text, and there is no need for Call Waiting if you're texting someone. (The exception to this rule is when they want to spill their personal life to everyone else in the train car by shouting into their phone about what they did the night before.)

Another reason it isn't popular could be the fact that is it £2.50 extra per month if you want it. Bad enough it's an invitation to be rude, but to pay for the privilege is just too much.

It always baffled me why anyone thought this was a good idea, to interrupt a conversation and then put the poor person in the position of having to choose between two friends. Needless to say, I never had it, and was always annoyed when a friend put me on hold to go off and chat with someone more important. I always agreed with Dave Barry who thought a better solution to this situation would go something like this:

"If you call someone, and they are on the phone, there should be some sort of signal that you receive to let you know the person you are calling is already on the phone so you could call them back later. They could call it a Busy Signal."

And if you really want to get a message to them, send them a text.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

It's a Fair Cop

This week we share our thoughts on British and American law enforcement.


Okay, let’s get this out of the way from the get go: the biggest difference between cops in the UK and cops in the US is guns. It really mystified me when I came over here and saw cops without any side arms. It still does.

The result of this disparity is apparent if you watch those “Cops With Cameras” shows currently populating our viewing schedule (I call the UK version “Cops Without Guns”). When the UK cops engage in a wild vehicle chase through the village streets and the offender finally fetches up against a stone wall, he always makes a run for it. Wouldn’t you? He’s young and fit and the cop is nearing retirement and weighed down with a Kevlar vest and a utility belt jangling with handcuffs, pepper-spray and other law enforcement do-dads. Frankly, I’m surprised they ever catch anybody. In the US version, after bringing a vehicle to heel, the occupants generally can’t assume the “face-down spread-eagle” position fast enough in order to avoid being shot. Good thing, too; the US cops spend a lot of time in the donut shop; they need the advantage a reliable revolver provides.

But guns aside, the most surprising difference is, in the UK you can be a cop—a real, official, pepper-spray carrying cop—just for the hell of it. They call them “Hobby Bobbies” and they are unpaid volunteers who get genuine police training and some complimentary nylon hand restraints (or maybe not; I just made that part up) in exchange for working a minimum of four hours a week. For free. The trade off is, the police force gets bulked up with a platoon of competent (and, one has to assume, eager) volunteers and the “Special Police”—that’s their official title, but it doesn’t mean they are driven to the police station in the short bus—get to wear a spiffy uniform and enjoy nearly all the powers of an actual, paid police officer. Which, in my view, must stick in the craw of the PCSOs.

The PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) are sort of police, but not really. They help out, give support (hence the name), take on some of the more menial duties but have no real police powers. They do, however, get a spiffy uniform and a pay check. We have PCSOs in our town, and their main contribution seems to be fooling the public into believing there are more police officers than there really are. The uniforms are identical, save for the insignia, and if you are close enough to read it, you are already nicked.

But in either country, it’s better to stay on their good side; recent TV footage has confirmed that the cops here are pretty keen on thumping people up, even if they aren't allowed to shoot them.


First off, I don’t have a problem with cops carrying guns. They look a bit scary when it’s your friendly local police officer helping children across the road, but I can see why they’re needed here. Everyone else is armed to the teeth so obviously our protectors need to be too, but that’s another debate and we’ve already had it. I do think they ought to leave them at home when they go out for a drink, but apparently most of them carry them at all times. There have been some incidents in the past where an officer’s judgment has been somewhat cloudy and guns were involved. Never a good combo!

On the whole I find US police officers a lot more “normal” than the ones I encountered in England (on very few occasions I might add). Here, you can talk to them as if they live next door, whereas in England I remember a frisson of nervousness when addressing anyone in the police uniform, even if it was only to ask for directions. (And don’t get me started on the withering sarcasm that British bobbies are capable of.) The only “friendly” thing you must never do here, is get out of your car if you’re pulled over. You wait in the car with your window down and your hands clearly visible. If you step out of the vehicle, they will draw their weapons. Apparently more than one British tourist has fainted at this point.

Probably most confusing over here is the fact that cops come in various hues. The standard ones wear the dark uniform, much like British police except with a big fat holster at their hips. If you drive on many expressways (motorways) however, you often see a fetching beige and brown car with “Sheriff” or “State Trooper” along the side. These guys usually have the same powers as the ‘regular’ police, so it’s a good idea to get yourself off the phone and under the speed limit when you see them – and no smart comments about men in tights.

Educational Tip - A little know fact in the States is that May 1st is Law Day. In 1958 President Eisenhower proclaimed Law Day to strengthen the American heritage of liberty, justice and equality under the law. Each year, the Law Day theme is different, for example, in 2005 it was “The American Jury: We the People in Action”. Awards are given to groups and individuals who organize activities to support Law Day.

OK, classed dismissed!

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