Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Honorary American

Please welcome our special guest poster, Laura Jane Williams, who has graciously agreed to share her views on life among the Americans with us.

Laura Jane Williams is a British writer and performer. A sucker for adventure and good customer service, she has just returned from four months living near Detroit where she was in a touring theatre production performing for young adults, worked on her essay—collection ‘My Vagina’s Monologue’—and spent far too much time being introduced to people as My Friend Laura From England. She is unashamedly bias toward American culture and American boys. Visit her at A LIFE IN THE DAY OF.

This was my first time in the U.S and I declare with zeal, zest and ardor- I LOVED it. For saying that, even my own mother calls me a Slag of the World because I get around the globe with quite some enthusiasm; admittedly I didn’t get to see much, though.

I accidentally spent 20 hours in New York, nine of which I was asleep for but two of which were spent in The Village eating some really very memorable Mac n Cheese with truffle oil.

And the rest of my four-month trip was spent willingly confined to the state of Michigan, about 20 minutes from Detroit.

I’ve talked at some length on my own blog about the preconceived notions I had about Americans before I worked amongst them in Italy last summer. See? SLAG OF THE WORLD. It was the usual stuff. Too loud. Too in-yer-face. Too ignorant. Too fat.

How wrong I was.

And as soon as I found that out last summer, I decided I needed to observe the Yanks in their own, natural, habitat. I wanted to see what I could learn. Because working with them, slowly it became apparent that they weren’t loud, they were confident. Not in-yer-face but social and outgoing. Not ignorant, but curious. And not always fat. Damn, I saw me some cutie-pies, too. Ding-DONG!

And when I got home to England, the land of the stiff-upper lip and constant talk about the (ALWAYS grey) weather it hit me. At heart, I’m an American. I’m social and curious and positive- I needed to spend some more time amongst them. They are my people. And luckily, so ready to welcome me.

I don’t think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that my time in Michigan was made most memorable by the people. I don’t travel to tick off a list of tourist attractions I need to say I’ve visited—and ultimately go on to forget—I travel to get under the skin and to the bones of a place. And the Midwesterners made that oh so very easy.

Speak and thoust shall be spoken to. I spent sixteen weeks just talk, talk, TALKING. Everybody wanted to know about me, about England, about why I was in Michigan and what I liked about it. They were INTERESTED, and not shy about letting me know that.

The sense of community was overwhelming- doors left unlocked, neighbours baking Easter cupcakes for one another and mowing each other’s lawns, being in each other’s business BECAUSE THEY CARED. I often feel like the UK very much has a sense of the individual about it: “I will succeed in spite others”. The U.S. struck me as being entirely collectivist: “I will succeed because of others”.

The UK can feel to me like it is being run by The Daily Mail: you can do well, but only if you act the underdog and even then you must be careful of doing TOO well. If you do too well you get verbally ripped to shreds. The U.S., though, salutes trying, even in failure. There is an undercurrent of relentless positivity that the UK just doesn’t have. Maybe it’s that grey weather I was talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; there were a few downsides. I do wish that America put less sugar in their bread and learnt how to make a decent bar of chocolate. And if they could recycle a bit more, that would be lovely. Oh, and it’s really quite irritating that the pay-as-you-go cell phones charge to both send AND receive text messages. That was a bit of a minus-ten-points situation, AMERICA.

But really, what’s a ten cents charge between friends when the very air you Americans breathe is laced with such possibility?

We could do a deal. Maybe if we Brits learn to be a bit nicer, a bit more celebratory, a bit more like you, maybe you could talk just a smidge quieter and try to reuse your carrier bags at the store.

I do love my country, but there is so much you could teach us about kindness and loosening up a bit, America. Not to mention your seemingly endless supply of boys with great teeth.

Britannia might rule the waves, but my word, the U.S.A. rules my heart.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

If Winter Comes, Can Spring Be Far Behind?

This week, we’re both pining for some warmer weather.


I walked to the bus stop this morning with my jacket unzipped for the first time this year. This is no small milestone, as at seven in the morning it can be quite chilly even during the warmest parts of the year. But today is warm; the first of many, I hope.

Spring hasn’t arrived so much as it has grown into young adulthood. Britain in the springtime is lovely, as you well know, (Ah, to be in England…and all that). This is not to say it isn’t lovely in the US at this time of year but here we have the advantage of gardens.

If your mind has conjured up an image of a small patch of land in your back yard with tomato vines and carrots, think again. I am talking about mammoth swaths of land, carefully managed and cultivated by the National Trust and other dedicated institutions. Nyman’s, Wakehurst Place, High Beeches are all local and all astoundingly beautiful in any season. But in spring they are a wonder, with the rhododendrons in full flower and the Blue Bells covering hillsides and meadows in lovely violet haze.

Spring is the time I feel luckiest to live here, with all that managed beauty not far away. And there is still more to see; I have not yet been to the mother lode – the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – or even to Leonardslee, a beautiful garden practically on my doorstep.

But wherever you are—even if you are not lucky enough to live in Britain—I hope you are making the most of your spring.


(Lifts head up from desk, and wipes away tears of homesickness.) I remember Spring in England. The joy that winter was finally over, the hope of warmer weather still fresh and well, hopeful - yet to be dashed by the disappointment of July and August. If you think the collective sigh of relief is audible in the UK, it’s positively deafening here in Chicago. Months of sub zero temperatures and gardens bereft of a single hue of green have us donning shorts and sandals when normal people are still wearing fleeces.

And oh, the dashed hopes. There’s a saying which is accredited to everywhere in the USA (except bits of California) “If you don’t like the weather in ------, wait five minutes and it’ll change.” Or as Mark Twain put it, “In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” Quite. In Chicago temperatures regularly drop a full 40 degrees (Farenheit) in as many hours.

In climates like this, your winter and summer wardrobes are completely different and not at all interchangeable. In the summer it’s far too hot for jeans, and in the winter naught but an Arctic parka will do. This necessitates the “seasonal wardrobe switch-out”, which often takes a whole weekend, sees the shelves in stores stripped of under-the-bed zipper bags, and dry-cleaners working 24/7 as the city’s masses take their winter wear for a quick fumigate before storing them till November.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s version of Spring goes something like:

Today – very hot and humid by 9am. Guess this heavy, long-sleeved t-shirt has to be changed then.
Yesterday – I thought they said it was going to be in the 70’s. What is this 50’s and freezing weather, and more to the point, where’s my parka?
Day before – “But mom, it’s warm. I don’t need my jacket for school”. Six hours later – “Why didn’t you tell me about the freezing rain? I’m frozen and drenched.”

You get the picture. I keep packing my sweaters away, only to drag them out again the next day. After twenty years here, you’d think I’d learn really. By the time we get a decent Spring around these parts, it’s Summer. Yay!

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Brit in the Golden State: an Interview with CalifLorna

Our guest this week is Lorna Harris, a Brit living in Orange County, California.  You can read her rambling about life in So Cal, adventures in travel and what she misses about the UK in her blog, Califlorna.
You can also follow her tweets on Twitter.

We know you lived in the UK before moving (back) to the States; how long did it take you to settle in to life in Orange County?

Although we were happy here as soon as we moved, I would say it's taken a good year to 18 months to really feel established. The boys have made genuine friends now, sleepovers and play dates are becoming more commonplace rather than just a token invitation because they're the new kid in town.  School doesn't feel so alien any more; in fact I think the boys would probably think it strange not to start the day with the Pledge of Allegiance.

I'm googling less things, which I think is a good sign! When I first lived here it was without children. I was working over here and although there were still lots of differences, with children, I'm constantly coming up against things I don't know about such as baseball cleats.  We were told we needed them and I didn't have a clue what they were.

Anything you miss about British life?

I miss my friends most of all. I stay in touch with them as much as I can via email, Facebook and text but it's not the same as meeting up at the pub for a drink.

I feel I should say that I miss the BBC and newspapers but with everything being online now I'm able to read British news everyday and don't feel isolated.  That said, I do wish BBC America would improve.  I'm sure there are huge politics and budget issues behind their programming but it could be so much better.  It also seems that there is a vast audience here in the States for BBC America, it could just be an excellent service.

What do you like most about the States?

I love the sense that you can achieve anything - try anything. I'm not sure if that is particularly a Californian thing or not but we seem to be surrounded by people who have wanted to create or participate in something and just do it.  California seems to be full of over achievers!

Anything you dislike?

There must be something; I'm struggling to think at the moment.  I think, for me, as an expat, my biggest struggle is my accent.  I have been welcomed with open arms, no one makes me feel that I shouldn't be living here, but at times I just want to buy something in a store quickly without an inquisition.  It drives me mad that I need to complete an entire questionnaire before I can get a glass of water.  The answers are usually: British, I live here, I'm married to an American, yes I love it here, no I'm not homesick, no I don't know the Queen.

What do you think the USA could learn from the UK?

I wish they would learn how to do television news.  The local news is dire beyond words and the world news isn't that much better.  It's either too sensationalist or very US focused.  Watching CNN report on Gordon Brown leaving office and Cameron taking over was painful beyond words.  The presenter was really struggling to provide a running commentary on the events and let's face it, he'd had a few days to prepare!

And what could the UK learn from the States?

One of the things I'm most impressed by is an American's love for their country.  Once you've celebrated the 4th of July amongst Americans or watched them say the Pledge of Allegiance, you can see how proud they are to be American.  I admire that.

And the obvious one - service.  On a trip back to the UK recently, I was staggered at how bad the service was. Americans get a bad rap for being insincere but everyone I've come across who have visited the States acknowledge that it's not insincere, it's excellent service.  When you hear 'Have a great day!' they mean it, they really do want the rest of your day to be good.

Where do you think you will end your days and why?

Ooh, that's a really good question. I sound like some terrible retiring expat but I really love the weather in California and it would be really hard to leave that. However, I'd chosen the schools in the UK for the boys all the way up to 18, thought we were really settled and decided to throw that all up in the air and make the move to the US. So who knows? Hawaii? Australia? I'm now far more interested in living abroad and experiencing new environments.

Describe Americans in one sentence.

Compassionate, proud, tactile and giving.

What would you like to see on Pond Parleys?

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Absentee voting

Given the recent UK election, we discuss voting as an expat.


America. Home of the free. Land of my fathers (well, father, anyway; grandpa was born in Lancashire). My rock. My anchor. My bolthole if things go really tits up. My primary source of retirement income. And you ask if I still vote in that country?

Bet your sweet fanny (sorry, British readers) I do!

As a dual citizen—or more specifically, an American who does not live in America—I am allowed to vote. I if had maintained my previous residence, I could have voted, not only for President, but for my senators, representatives, county executive, local sheriff and village dog-catcher, as well. But having moved permanently to Britain, I have forfeited my local constituencies and can only vote in the Presidential election every four years. And that’s a pity, because I would feel like I was getting more for my money if I could vote more.

I vote because I was brought up to believe voting is not a right, or a privilege, but a duty. I vote because I still love my country and want to feel connected. I vote because I have a vested interest in America. I vote because I feel it matters.

But primarily I vote because I don’t want them to forget me. Oh, they remember me well enough when tax time rolls around (yes, I continue to file a US tax return every year) but when it comes time to start giving some of that money back, I want them to know I am still an active, registered voter. Because, believe it or not, that does matter.

So I continue to vote, tugged on by a combination of civic duty, pride, homesickness and self interest. And I would be surprised if a lot of other expats didn’t feel the same way.


How funny – I feel exactly the opposite. Actually, I can’t vote in the UK any more because I haven’t been registered to vote in the last 15 years; but even if I could, I’m not sure I feel right about sticking my nose in after all these years. I mean I haven’t lived there for twenty years, and I don’t pay taxes there. What right do I have then to tell resident Brits how to run the country?

If I’m being truly honest, it’s hard enough to keep up with the various political parties and their plans in the USA. Oh wait, that’s probably because they never actually tell you straight what they’re plans are, and a lot of them are prone to changing their minds and even changing parties.

But back to the UK. If anyone challenged me about voting when I didn’t have to live with the consequences, my response would probably be “Fair point.” To me it would be like trying to influence the curriculum of my old school. I may care passionately about the future of the girls still there, (okay, okay, I’m being hypothetical) but it wouldn’t really be appropriate for me to go back and try to change things.

Like Mike and many others, I believe we all have a duty to vote, especially if we feel the urge to complain about things every now and then. However, I also believe that to vote, you should educate yourself on the issues and take the trouble to find out what the various options on offer really mean. I also feel that voters should have a vested interest in the outcome and technically, I'm not sure I have that. Not wanting to vote doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I go back to England as often as three school kids and their schedules allow; who knows, I may even live there again some day, but until then, I’ll vote in the US where it affects me on a day to day basis.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Liz Jarvis on the USA

This week we talkto Liz Jarvis, journalist, blogger, mother and frequent visitor to the USA. (Toni couldn't resist adding a few comments in italics.)

PP - We know you've visited the States a lot; any favourite spots, and why?

Liz - I'm a huge fan of Hawaii - we've been there twice in the past five years and it's somewhere I could imagine myself emigrating if I could get a Green Card! The pace of life there really appeals to me. I also love Florida, particularly Key West, and California - I've done the Highway 1 drive and I think everyone should do it at least once in their lifetime. My favourite US cities are Washington DC - for the architecture and sightseeing - and New York, I love the atmosphere. We visited Chicago last summer and it had been nearly 20 years since I was last there so I was pleasantly surprised - it's a fantastic city. I've travelled all over the States, coast to coast and I'm still finding new favourite places.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons Americans don't travel abroad so much is because there's so much to see here. The vast differences in climate, lifestyle, architecture and topography means you can go somewhere completely different every year.

PP- What do you like most about the States?

Liz - As an American Studies graduate I'm very interested in the history of the US, but also the culture. I also think the US has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I've seen a lot of it by train and I would definitely recommend travelling like that at least once.

Even though this country has hundreds of years of history compared to the thousands we're used to in Europe, it's still rich and interesting, particularly with regard to how towns and cities grew, and where the immigrants spread to.

PP- Anything you dislike?
Liz - The enormous portion sizes and the fact you need a cardigan in some restaurants because the air conditioning is on full blast.

Tip for all visitors - American restaurants are extxremely flexible in what you order. Ask for two appetizers/starters instead of ordering the huge main courses.

PP - How do you think the reality of the USA differs from people's perceptions?

Liz - It really depends where you are. If you're in LA for example and you walk down Rodeo drive or in Beverly Hills it's exactly as you'd imagine it would be. I think the cities - particularly New York and Washington - are maybe a lot cleaner and safer than people here would imagine them to be.

PP - What do you think the USA could learn from the UK?

Liz - I don't want hate mail, but there's one fundamental difference between the USA and the UK. We can make chocolate. You can't.

There are "hoax" Cadburys items here, which are actually made in Canada and other non-UK places. You have to be very careful to avoid disappointment!

PP - And what could the UK learn from the States?

Liz - We don't really have a service culture in the UK. I like the fact you can go into any store or hotel in the US and the staff will be utterly polite and respectful. Here, not so much.

Mind you, I do love going into British shops and being ignored until I need to buy something.

PP - Describe Americans in one sentence.

Liz -That's far too tough, it depends on what state they're from!

Our thanks to Liz, who can be found, followed and Tweeted at the following places: