Sunday, February 28, 2010


We know Americans celebrate their wins, but what do the Brits do (in the event that they win something)?


There is, without a doubt, a difference in the way the British celebrate achievement in comparison to the way Americans do. However, since I have not raised any children over here, and I know few people who have, I am not in a position to speak about how parents one-up each other, as they do in the States.

Competition between whose child is smarter, better, more athletic has, on more than one occasion, resulted in gunfire in the US. Not so much here. The few people I do know with children of high calibre—championship swimmer, concert violinist, doctor—treat them and their achievements as a matter of course. They are naturally proud of their offspring, but they don't push it in your face. At least not in mine.

Achievement on a national level is not easy to define as the Brits pick their heroes for the strangest of reasons.

Shackleton: He had many achievements, but the one that secured him enduring fame and a place in the heart of Britons was the voyage that ended in failure.

Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards: an Olympic legend for being the best (and only) ski jumper from the United Kingdom. He came in dead last in both the 70 and 90 metre competitions with jumps laughably short of the next worse competitor.

The British, it would seem, don't just love a winner (as in the States) but as often as not will side with the underdog, feeling true admiration for a person who makes a jolly good attempt.

And if someone actually does succeed in an outstanding achievement—sail solo around the world, for example—they have a way to honour them that makes the Americans and their ticker tape parades and appearances on Oprah pale in comparison: they knight them. Now how cool is that?

Dame Amy Williams, anyone?


As a parent to American children, I know I stand out when I don’t give them high fives and “attaboys” for every little thing they do. I’ve grown out of the British habit of actually addressing below-par performance, (“Try a bit harder next time” being a cardinal sin over here) but, I’m still not whooping and hollering on the sidelines. The thing that makes me laugh is that, despite this country’s reputation for stiff competitiveness, my children’s t-ball teams (that’s baseball for little people, where the ball is hit off a tee instead of being thrown at them) never seemed to have a winner. That’s partly because most of the kids kept getting up at the wrong time and playing on the opposition team, but somehow it was always a tie anyway.

What Americans do very well is celebrate their “winningest” people (and yes, that’s a word.) Whether it’s people coming back from a far galaxy, bringing home Olympic hardware or winning a Presidential election, Americans celebrate in the time-hono(u)red way – with a Parade. It’s engrained in the American way of life. They even write songs about it – Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” coming instantly to mind.

In New York City they throw you a ticker tape parade if you’re really impressive. That’s where they rip up what looks like bus tickets and throw them all over the place. The last one (November 2009) celebrated the New York Yankees’ win in the (baseball) World Series, and what a mess it made. They aren’t as common as they used to be, presumably because city budget cuts no longer cover the clean-up costs.

Although the US has topped the medal league in the Winter Olympics, I’m noticing there hasn’t been as much chest-puffing and general self-congratulations as I would have thought. Perhaps that’s because half the population is still scratching its collective head at the thought of people winning medals for sweeping the ice!

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Living the Dream

We hear a lot about The American Dream, but is there a British Dream?


Here in the US, the American dream is a common phrase, and defined by Webster's dictionary as "an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal".

I'd say there's a lot of it in the UK, too, whether or not is has a name. You know, eyeing up the neighbour's new car, mortgaging yourself up to the hilt to get the bigger house, buying the kids designer duds 'cause all their friends have them. Material possessions mean so much to some people that they'll actually take on far too much debt to get the goods. "All fur coat and no knickers" as my gran used to say, lips pursed and hands clasped firmly on her handbag. Of course, very few Brits actually admit that's what they're doing, even though they're desperate to show off their "stuff".

Over in the States it's more like a kindergarten show and tell. Big houses, big cars (still), earning them a pat on the back from friends and neighbors. None of that "Who do they think they are?" cynicism. The further up the social ladder Americans can haul themselves, the more you'll hear about it. The millionaire who's the son of a truck driver, the music executive who once lived on the streets - they love all that.

Part of the need for material wealth and possessions is that the ancestors of many Americans came to this country literally with the clothes on their back. Financial security became the number one priority for them and this was instilled into future generations. Look at the millions of students who will take on huge debt to get themselves through college thus educating themselves further up the social ladder and usually ensuring financial security.

Much as I hate to use Simon Cowell as a source, this alleged quote is quite apt, I think:

“If you would have asked me what I thought of America before I came over here I would have used the word `corny`. And then you come over here and you find that it`s not corny at all. British people are very cynical, they cannot bear someone else`s success. Americans embrace other people`s success. Everything in America is larger than life.”


Is there a "British Dream"? If you go by strict definition, no. The American Dream is well documented. We talk about, write about it, analyse it, debate it, wonder why our kids don't take it as seriously as we think they ought to, agonize that the immigrates are taking it over. So, yeah, the American Dream is real.

In my own family, my great-grandfather left his native country (England, ironically enough) to find a better life in America. (Or, he was deported, depending on the version of our family history you subscribe to.) At any rate, he was a laborer in Lancashire and, after arriving in America, started a catering business and eventually opened a hotel, thereby ensuring that my children would grow up believing that a three-course dinner consists of a Big Mac, large fries and a hot apple pie. One could say, he achieved the American Dream, and I'm sure he would have gladly admitted to it.

But take my limited experience is Britain. My own family, the recent immigrants as well as those with longer lineages (Britain, like America, is a mongrel nation; they are just loath to admit it), all worked hard to improve their lot and provide a better future for their children. One could argue this is The Dream, it just doesn't have a name. Nor would they, as good Britons, give it one. Proclaiming your rising status and intentions to rise higher would be vulgar and arrogant and, frankly, something you might expect from an American.

But to an American, it is not arrogant; it is confidence, and a belief in an ideal handed down by our forefathers.

In my view, Americans strive for The Dream, feel confident that they will achieve it, become insecure when they do because then they want more and worry that their children won't have the opportunities they had, especially with house prices the way they are, and have you seen how the interest rates are going up, and those (pick a nationality) have moved in next door and that's going to wreak havoc on the local housing market, while the Brits just get on with it.

So is there a British Dream? I believe so; the British just don't bang on about it.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shiny, Happy People

Following on from last week’s comparison, this week we ask “Who’s the happiest, Americans or Brits?”


You know a country’s setting itself a goal when its Declaration of Rights declares “the pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right. Looking around however I see that many Americans are doing a fine job in upholding their Declaration.

A 2006 Pew Research Center report had a staggering 84% of Americans claiming to be either “pretty happy” or “very happy”. Heck, there’s even the American Happiness Association, which encourages people to “Take Charge of Your Own Happiness”. They organize conferences, have regional meetings and even sell e-books such as “How to be Positively Happy in Today’s Negative World” – “describing in 37 pages what to do to transform your daily activities into happier ones that you enjoy more.”

I did the same search for the UK and found one similar poll – the Great British Happiness Survey (August 2009), which revealed that about 88% percent of Brits were less happy than when the recession started! There are a few other British surveys which identify the happiest and most miserable places in the UK but the results were so controversial they seem to have just pissed everyone off.

Even the answer to “How are you?” elicits different responses on either side of the Pond. Americans answer with an exuberant “Great” at the very least, while Brits prefer a modest “Oh, can’t complain”, or “Not too bad thanks”. Last year, in a debate with Mike on BBC Radio’s Five Live show, I described living over here as “living with three hundred and fifty million Labrador puppies”. Absolutely exhausting, but who doesn’t love a Labrador puppy? For a Brit however, it can be a bit frustrating when you’re never allowed to have a good moan.

- Just backed the car out of the garage into your neighbor(u)r’s wall? Thank goodness you didn’t have a car full of kids.

- Locked yourself out and no one’s due home for another two hours? Yes, but what a lovely sunny day to do it. It could have been raining.

- Suffering from the world’s worst hangover? You must have had a great time last night.

I know, I know, it’s probably better to have the glass half full, but sometimes I just want to shout “YES, BUT I’M REALLY PISSED OFF!”


I think Toni touched on the heart of the matter: it’s not so much about happiness, it’s a matter of outlook. Americans are very “glass half full” and their optimism is, to be polite, infectious. Other people (not me) might call it nauseating.

It’s as Bill Bryson (another professional expat, a bit funny, like me) pointed out: If you tell an American that a meteor is going to strike the earth and end human life in six weeks time, he’ll say, “Gosh, I’d better sign up for that woodworking class then.” But if you tell a Brit the same thing, he’ll say, “Wouldn’t you just know it; and have you seen the weather forecast for this weekend?”

But the Brits are happy in their misery. “Mustn’t Grumble” is their unofficial national motto. If “Having a Moan” was an Olympic sport, no other country could touch them. And they revel in their gloominess; it defines them. Take it away and they would be really unhappy.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

1941. Their homeland besieged by a superior enemy. Invasion imminent. Their cities bombed, their food running low, their supplies laughably inadequate and the Americans still dithering across the pond about whether to help them out or not. They were alone, with no hope and no help. And what do they call it? The dark days of the forties? The Terrible Time? No, it’s Their Finest Hour! For once, nothing could get worse, and they were ecstatic.

Then they won the war and everything has been going downhill ever since.

So the Brits are actually very happy people. They’re just happy in a different way.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

How Very Dare You!

Although the Brits have a reputation for being a tad uptight and "proper", are they really more prudish than Americans?


When I go on holiday/vacation to European beach resorts, I’m instantly reminded how long I’ve been in the States. There are grown women with children wandering around TOPLESS and I’m embarrassed. Not sure if I’m embarrassed for me or for them as some of the sights are not pretty. I was trying to think what might happen if someone tried this in the States, but no one would try it in the first place, perhaps with the exception of Miami Beach. In fact, I’m convinced there’s a secret law that says once you reach the age of about thirty, and/or have a child, you must wear a one-piece; bikinis are for smokin’ hot bodies only. Flash a flabby belly or display less than perfect abs and you are escorted from the beach or pool area.

There’s no doubt about it, Americans are still Puritans in some matters. My friend’s children go to a school where the girls’ uniform is a jumper/pinafore, but modesty demands they wear spandex running shorts underneath. Apparently children’s knickers/panties with Dora or Hello Kitty motifs are deemed too salacious, no matter that that the skirts aren’t short enough for even the quickest flash. (Simple solution in my opinion – let them wear trousers.)

Laws governing indecency or “public lewdness” are set at the state level, and indecency includes exposure of the female breast. Many of the fines are higher than those for drunk-driving, and only Virginia specifically excludes breast-feeding.

And now I’ll excuse myself. It’s Super Bowl night and who knows, there might be another “wardrobe malfunction” to titillate the nation.


The idea that the Europeans in general and the British specifically subscribe to a more casual outlook concerning the human body never occurred to me when I moved over here. It was not until I was here a few weeks I noticed topless women cavorting in a newspaper my mother-in-law was reading. I was stunned. When I pointed it out and remarked that such a thing was unheard of in the States, she said, "Yes, we have always thought of the Americans as a bit prudish."

Prudish? Moi? Well, I guess so, when you consider that I have heard the words, "Fuck" and "Cunt" on the telly and seen them in print in mainstream newspapers, and witnessed full-frontal nudity on programs shown after the 9 PM watershed (though, I hasten to add, not nearly often enough).

The people of Europe regard a naked body as something natural. While we Americans understand it is an utter perversion to be naked. (Say, you don't think we have a hang-up or anything, do you?)

The Brits also don't shy away from telling it like it is. If an opinion piece or new article requires an emphatic, "Fuck me!" then they put it in.

If you remain unconvinced, I remind you of the 2004 Superbowl. After flashing a pastie-clad boob, the Federal Communications Commission was called to investigate whether CBS violated decency laws, with potential fines running into the millions. A year or so later, during a singing contest, Javine flashed a totally unadorned boob and the British public were so outraged they did, well, nothing. No one got excited over it.

It does make life more interested, but it gives me a sore neck from staring at the TV for hours on end in case I miss something.

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