Times may be tough right now but US expat Jack Tar says the UK’s not just OK — it’s paradise
What’s the attraction? I’m enamoured, of course, with all the usual suspects — the countryside, the BBC, the shipping forecast, the fish and chips.
But there are subtler glories to life here, even in these doom-laden times. And expats, when not complaining about something or other, are often particularly attuned to them. So what’s better in Britain? Why fly to the UK?
Britain isn’t particularly cyclist-friendly. But for pedestrians it is heaven on Earth. Urban walkers here can rely on zebra crossings that every motorist obeys. Rebecca Eldredge, an American who lived for years in Britain, says she pines most keenly for the sceptred isle when she’s halfway across a Dallas crosswalk, pinned between six lanes of oblivious highway-speed traffic.
Of course, many countries enforce pedestrian crossings. But they usually have social or legal penalties for “jaywalkers” as well. In Japan I often found myself amid a late-night crowd awaiting a green man on an utterly empty road, shuffling politely as the Tokyo tumbleweed drifted past. And in much of Europe and even America (I’m talking to you, Seattle) free-range pedestrians will receive sanctimonious looks, finger-wagging or a fine.
Those on foot in Britain enjoy both strictly protected crossings and the stigma-free right to cross whenever and wherever they wish. Like customers in America, British pedestrians are always right.
Not British of course, and routinely vilified as a McDonald’s-like leveller of cultural difference. But like all multinationals, Starbucks’ trick is to mix global branding with a little local knowledge.
And Starbucks’ British adaptations are all flatteringly good news: the food is of a much higher standard than in the Americas, as is the music; the porridge is made with milk, not water; the muffins — and shouldn’t muffins, of all things, be better in America? — are tastier. And unlike in some countries, Starbucks staff here never ask and then shout the customer’s name and ridiculous order — “double shot half-caf skinny latte for Melinda . . .”
A few years ago there was outrage when it turned out that a certain brand of soup was of much higher quality in France than in Britain. Starbucks aficionados in America should be similarly angry that they apparently don’t merit the company’s highbrow UK accommodations.
Even before the present economic crisis, British banks seemed destined, like the bombing of Pearl Harbour, to live in infamy. But British high-street banking remains decades ahead of its American counterparts. Unbelievably, many US bank still don’t allow transfers to another individual without a branch visit.
Those few that offer online transfers charge up to $20 per transfer, and the recipient may be charged too. Hence PayPal’s stateside success. And many American “online” bill payments only generate a remotely posted paper cheque. Seriously. Then there are out-of-network cashpoint fees, a regular burden for customers of a smaller private bank.
Banks here offer easy transfers, cheque-free lives and fee-free cash withdrawals. But the best aspect of British banking is that if you switch current accounts — far more satisfying than complaining — banks have to do all the dirty work for you.
It’s no accident that Homer Simpson’s twin-sisters-in-law — Patty and Selma, aka “the gruesome twosome” — work at the Department of Motor Vehicles. States vary, but from sea to shining sea “the DMV” remains cultural shorthand for eye-watering bureaucracy and state-sanctioned theft of time, money and joy.
In contrast, every interaction I’ve had with the DVLA has been easy. I don’t believe I’ve ever had to go to an office. Paperwork is straightforward and I’ve often had a response within two days, which means they turned it around the day they received it.
British friends are mystified by my admiration for the DVLA — they’ve never even thought about it. For a government agency, there’s no higher praise.
There’s a sense in Britain that things work less well or less often. Whether or not that’s true, official shortcomings in Britain are usually graced with an elaborate explanation that’s either mollifying or amusing.
My local post office recently sealed up its mail drop slot, which means you can no longer post letters after hours. The framed explanation is that letters, which appear to simply fall into a box, are “causing health & safety issues for the staff that maintain the clearance from this collection point”.
It’s ridiculous. But every country has some absurd regulations, while a well-written explanation — whether a sincere apology, a lie or an entertaining cultural leitmotif (wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line) — is more consolation than many manage.
I can never take seriously complaints about motorists’ behaviour here, because I find British drivers to be particularly courteous and considerate.
They share a widespread if weary acceptance that cars joining a motorway should be allowed to merge, that when a lane is dropped drivers should take turns and that cars turning on to a busy main road shouldn’t have to wait forever. Using your indicator, or reacting considerately to someone else’s, isn’t seen as emasculating. And honking — speaking of emasculating, I still can’t bring myself to say “toot” — remains blissfully rare.
My favourite aspect of driving here is the hand wave. It’s occasionally deployed as an excuse for rudeness rather than an expression of thanks. But compared with the most common traffic-related gesture in many countries, be grateful for those extra fingers.
This usually falls somewhere between Fawlty Towers and fish-and-chips in potted reviews of British culture. But its permutations are many and wonderful. Eleanor O’Keeffe, the now London-based producer of Notting Hill’s 5×15 lecture series, fondly recalls a “Stars or Nerds” party during her Paris years: “Every Brit went to great pains to make themselves look less socially acceptable than the next, only to find that all the French came with slicked-back hair à la Alain Delon, or tiny, bejewelled dresses — think Sophie Marceau.”
I’m especially charmed by how it’s OK in Britain to be crap at those activities you’re only doing because you want to. In such realms it’s often as accepted to be comically bad as it is to be skilful. The happy result is a place where it’s unusually easy to do something just for the fun of it, or indeed to learn something new — hobbies, a sport, cooking, whatever. Next week I’m off bowling with some friends. It’s a pleasure as well as a certainty that no one will take it very seriously.
8 Boots the Chemist.
While the sleep of British expats around the world is eased by dreams of M&S underwear department and John Lewis, foreigners in Britain often get mistiest over Boots. Desirae Randisi, a Washington resident who lived for several years in England, is one of them: “Everything at Boots is so tidy — compact, but neat and lovely. It’s like the countryside.”
European pharmacies are mostly clinical establishments that, as Isak Dinesen famously complained of Protestant churches, “let you in on business only”. And North American pharmacies, if they’re not actually in a Wal-Mart, usually resemble one: enormous, cluttered, crowded and loud.
There’s a human scale to Boots — knowledgeable advice and all the basic products, plus a little pampering. And their font is great — fonts seem to be more carefully chosen in Britain too, and are for myself the only pleasurable aspect of the Tube.
9 ID Cards
Many Britons complain about a “surveillance society”, and indeed I was shocked to once receive a fine, via CCTV, for stopping briefly on a high street. But Britain, under this Government anyway, will remain that rare thing: a place where you can carry out most daily functions without identification.
In much of Europe and the world, government-issued ID must either be carried, or produced within a specified time. In the US, ID isn’t required — unless you buy a drink, go to a club, get on an intercity train, or sometimes, make a credit-card purchase. In this respect Britain remains an unusually free society.
British summers rarely deserve the opprobrium that’s so often laid on their short-lived shoulders. Compare them with those in eastern North America: a stupefying, three-month marination in a thundery haze of steamy days and nights that never cool down. Or East Asia’s metropolises, where still swampier conditions reign for fully half the year. I would never trade a London summer for a Toronto, Warsaw or Tokyo one.
A good summer day in Britain is one of life’s finest pleasures: dry and warm but rarely scorching. Their very scarcity results in the sort of fevered indulgence you rarely see in California. And at Britain’s lofty latitudes the lovely, near-horizontal evening light, unlike the summer itself, seems to last forever.