Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Some transatlantic thoughts from Rowan

Thought you might enjoy some last thoughts about the UK. I thought that you might like a chance to to share some of her thoughts. Even though she is Scottishly self-deprecating. She has a much nicer view of Americans than we deserve. However, she has a writer's license to describe the characters as she sees fit. I have some of her pictures (some are really lovely) to put up after this entry. Enjoy!

Rowan writes:

Funny – I have been thinking about the differences between Americans and Brits – the preconceptions built up through bumbling up against arbitrary TV shows and celebrity articles, world events, literature and a few first-hand meetings. I first met American peeps working for the Elderhostel company, when I was making coffee for the retired professionals coming over to Scotland to study a short course in history at the university. I liked them a lot. They were so different from British pensioners, as we call retired people. British professional retired types would not likely acknowledge the waitress – wouldn’t ask her what she was studying, as they would assume that she’d reached her ultimate goal in life. There is nothing wrong with making coffee to earn a living, but the elderly Americans assumed I was studying, using it as a stepping stone to getting somewhere else.

The American peeps were tanned, and launched into the air like redwood saplings – tall rangy old men in sandals – old British guys don’t wear sandals. They wore shorts, the Americans, men and women, wrinkly and proud. They were tanned and healthy and happy in themselves. The old ladies had pompoms sticking out of the backs of their tennis shoes. They wore tennis shoes! Lovely ones I would have coveted myself. I did covet them. British women over a certain age don’t wear tennies, but wear special elderly versions of them which are robbed of the edgy bounce the Converse versions have, and which come in tan and navy wide fitting, designed to go with sleeveless crimplene frocks.

Those old Americans still had zap. They had bounce. Their hair was well-cut, they wore bright lippy, they had pom-pom socks. They wore shorts! They talked loudly of home, over the top of the guide pointing out the lovely scenery as they passed. There were elections at home. They talked, admired, and talked some more, and I learned a lot. I learned about the sun they brought with them in their crinkly smiles; their interest in foreign climes; their lively curiosity about other people – a gentle humorous curiosity which revelled in listening to unusual accents, teasing out differing expectations on life. The interest was touching, because it was based on a premise of kindness, a companionable appreciation of the good in human diversity, but a homely gathering in of like-ness, a sharing of something warm and common and good. They had heart and they had soul, these elderly doctors and lawyers and architects and teachers. They were cool.

The retired peeps – they flew in the face of the trashy tv image of Americans as brash and materialistic. The image of all the women as Krystle Carrington or Alexis Colby – all shoulder pads and lippy and hair stiff with hairspray – image being all. Okay – Krystle had the hair and shoulder-pads, but she was a nice woman. She had worked in a shop before she met Blake Carrington. She knew where it was at. I guess my impressions were sort of overlaid over the years – the Hollywooded image – big jewellery, big hair, big heels. Big demands. Americans are thought here to make big demands, when they are merely being justifiably assertive. Americans are not fobbed off with crap, like we are. We look up meltingly into the eyes of the waiter and tell him that yes, the meal was lovely, when it was inedible. When the lasagne al forno has a frozen core of which the planet Pluto would be proud. There are hairs in the salad and a cigarette butt in the ciabatta; fingernail in the butter and a band-aid in the cream. Yeh, and I’d ordered something totally different, cos I’m a vegetarian but that’s okay. Yes, meat is great, really, and the meal was lovely. Have a £5 tip.

I knew my friend Bob would have no veneer of falseness – she wouldn’t be clicking along in four-inch patent red pumps complaining about the weather. She looked after herself, and took a pride in herself, her clothes, but in the sense of knowing who she was, what she felt comfortable in, what she liked. I knew she was no hairspray slave, cos she said she had wild curly hair; but you know, it is hard to shake off visions sometimes. I knew she was a successful professional in her field. Perhaps she would appear just for the hell of it in a sharp suit, and then I would have to go buy something similar, just to keep up, as I am a mite competitive. Thankfully, she did not!

I learned a lot from Bob. I learned that asking politely gets you want you want, without internal monologues which cause ulcers, and ultimately waste time. Good sightseeing time! Bob was a great time manager. Perhaps that is an American trait. We Brits are the kings and queens of, “where’s the day gone?” We blink in inactivity, thinking our way around how to get things done, how to approach peeps that might be able to help. Americans are more dynamic – energetic, focussed. I would have to say that this is de troowf, based on true empiricist principles and a sample study group of one. Americans talk quickly and get things done quickly and treat their time on this earth with respect. The one I’ve met, anyway – and the retired students in their colourful woollens – men in pink, bigoodness – and cardigans… American men wear cardigans and look good in them. I want pom-pom socks and the nerve to wear shorts when I’m 43, let alone 73, like those dapper and cute old gals. They were fun.

I don’t think Americans second-guess themselves so much. Perhaps the sun warms their backs and shines upon their hearts. Again, I sense it now as a Christian warmth in my buddy, an assuredness in being watched-over. Meeting her has been a blessing. The peace in Bob and the sense of fun and joy in life, was patently visible in her. Bob is smart and funny, and has an amused signature eyebrow-raise which lets you know she’s aware that one is blethering, or in the throes of a characteristic defensive-twitchy British bluster-fest, defending some quirky element of our national psyche. We are quick to take a mild offence about the littlest things, but we don’t parade it. Well, so we are a napkin-needy nation? So be it. (Internal flounce.) However, we are quick to chortle over it, and Bob and I had many good belly-laughs about this aspect of British-ness, and other aspects our national identities. I was struck, on the American website we met on,, how tolerant of each other’s foibles everyone was; what a happy and diverse vibe that created. Sometimes someone would make a bald statement which would offend the sensibilities of peeps here left right and centre, regarding the music/musician in question, but the other posters would kindly nudge them into a more realistic point of view. Perhaps it is a tolerance born of weight of numbers, perhaps it is more that that. Americans spring and Brits shuffle. Yanks are natty mules and we are slippers. The Big Slipper. I am coming to visit the US, will buy my glorious tennies and help avoid the big slippery slope.

It was innnteresting to read on the Thursday Dundee thread that Brits eat differently. Hadn't realised that! Do Americans turn the fork to the concave side and shovel the food on to it in a more practical and realistic fashion? I have always wondered why forks have to be turned over in the UK so that you have to balance food on the convex side. When we are by ourselves and not in company, I'd bet a multipack of Cadbury's Crunchies (9 bars per pack) that 99% of Brits would use the fork scoopy side up. It is a sort of public etiquette thing, mashing it on to the curved side and sticking it in ones mooth before it all slides off onto one's shirt, or if in a restaurant, the tablecloth. I think polite British fork-culture is responsible for a great many duodenal ulcers - stress related, for the most part. Dropping food is a no no, so it has to be precariously balanced then popped in at the speed of light to avoid droppage and consequent mortification.

Can't decide whether the distance-driving thing makes Americans more patient than us Brits, or more impatient. You want to get somewhere, so you get up and go. But you are prepared for the journey to take half a lifetime. We take a more defeatist outlook from the outset, and try to diminish the appeal of the destination, to avoid making the journey in the first-place, a sort of misplaced anti-travel stoicism. Actually emerging onto a motorway and going on a long journey (long being an issue in itself) is thus viewed by the driver as a small act of heroism. I think we are just a leetle unadventurous, cos when we do actually get up and go, we generally appreciate new horizons and are galvanised with a shot of Transatlantic oomph. However, it has been known to go the other way, with some of our visitors. As Caesar said, reflecting on a visit to Northern Britain, "I came, I struggled up off my behind, I just about saw, but it was raining, so I put off conquering till another day." Actually, we Picts were too skeery for dem Romans. They built walls to keep us from stravaigin aboot England on their braw new Roman roads.

Dynamism, peepel: dynamism. Is it true that there is actually more caffeine in tea? Hae ma doots. We are ploddy, as a nation, but we get there, sort of, and enjoy a good grumble along the way.

As Bob said, it is great to travel with a friend and learn about their world, whilst seeing places and people new to both. I would likely never have seen London had Bob not come to visit – that is a thought that is making me sit up, but it is potentially highly likely. My prejudices about London being full of sleazy gentlemen in Victorian dress leering from carriages after sunset, and thoroughfares and stations full of footpads (love that word) and loud ladies in shabby silk décolleté gowns selling roses, were all quickly shattered. The other prejudices, about sullen hordes of commuters thumping visitors with their briefcases and not apologizing, cos they were stressed out and hadn’t seen a tree for a year, were also quashed. London was bright and busy, but quirky and polite. And, like the little boy in the rhyme, I stood in my shoes and I wondered.

I am looking forward to visiting the US and people-watching. I have a real appreciation of the way the Americans interacted on GC and Monkbot. Perhaps fellow Monkbot and Stravaiger Eire Claire and I could be seen as displaced Americans. J Perhaps our forebears were thrown off the Mayflower at the last minute for being drunk or having too much luggage. Methinks, however, that my Puritan ancestor had bladder issues, and had resisted the onboard porthole porta-potty in favour of nipping ashore to use the harbour restroom. She emerged lighter of ballast just in time to see the ship rounding the headland without her.

So, I have seen the UK capitals from all sorts of angles: under arches in antique bookshops; gazing up at the battlements of the Tower of London; listening to echoing footfalls in amazing museums; travelling on tube trains; exploring old bookshops and tacky souvenir shops; singing along to Mamma Mia at the Prince of Wales Theatre. It was a blast. Edinburgh was a blast, too: hefty fortresses; stunning stained-glass; breathtaking art; fragrant festive markets, outdoor skating and Ferris wheels. It is on my doorstep, this jewel of a city, but there was no fun going back unless, as Bob says, you can go with a friend and see it through their eyes as well as your own, and appreciate it all anew.