Thursday, December 17, 2015

American Christmas vs British Christmas: My Top 10 Differences

It's the same holiday and the same festive season, but there are differences in the experience according to which country you are in.

Myself, drinking a pint of Christmas cheer in a pub in Skipton, Yorkshire, during the festive season.

Below is a list of the main things that I've noticed:

  1. For sure, Thanksgiving steals the thunder of Christmas in the U.S. to some extent.  Relatives often make a long journey to meet up for Thanksgiving and don't repeat it for Christmas.  In Britain, there are no nearby festivals to rival Christmas (November 5th is a very different sort of event) and so it is usually the only big meet up point for families during the Autumn and Winter months, perhaps even the entire year.
  2. Maybe surprisingly, given that America is a much more religious place, most of the public holidays tend to be secular, presumably due to the separation of church and state.  In the U.K. the longest and most important holidays of the year are Christmas and Easter, when the country closes down for at least two or three days.
  3. In the U.S. workers maybe get to leave work early on Christmas eve, then they have Christmas Day, but it is straight back to work on December 26th.  In Britain there is Boxing Day straight after Christmas Day, so the holiday is automatically longer.
  4. On top of that, the work culture is much more laid back, so Britain effectively semi-shuts down for the entire period between Christmas and New Year, making the holiday period feel much longer.  I also suspect that the Christmas period generally  involves more work social events, extended lunches, and finishing early, than the more work-intensive U.S.A.
  5. For better or worse, a British Christmas tends to involve more alcohol.
  6. Perhaps linked to the above, Brits generally tend to be more reserved in everyday life, but they go a little crazy when they party and really let themselves go.  Americans tend to be more balanced in that they are more outgoing in general life and less crazy when it comes to partying.  
  7. Most of the connotations of Christmas tend to be Wintry: reindeer, snow, etc.  This fits in well with Britain and the Northern U.S., but it can seem incongruous in the Southern states where the Winters are much milder.  Sorry, but seeing a snowman displayed next to a palm tree in Florida just looks wrong.
  8. Americans are way more outgoing, and even brash (according to British tastes) in their decorations than the more conservative folks across the pond.  It is not uncommon to see entire houses, even streets lit up for the festive season in the U.S., which is much rarer in the U.K.  There often even appears to be a competitive element, with American neighbours attempting to outdo each other.
  9. The U.S. "Culture Wars" often play out in the festive season, with high profile constitutional disputes over nativity scenes at public buildings etc.  In the U.K., where religion is less powerful/controversial and there is no legal separation of church and state, such disputes don't generally exist.  Although there is to some extent a politically correct movement in the U.K. that sometimes challenges the dominant role of Christianity, especially in non-Christian areas of the inner cities.  The disputes are minor in comparison, however, and not on the same scale as the U.S.
  10. America has produced some of the great classic Christmas movies: It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. but there is not quite the same tradition of T.V. Christmas specials which go on for about a month in the U.K.  Generally speaking, the modern U.S. tends to be a more movie orientated country, and the U.K. is more focused on T.V. and radio.
A pair of Christmas crackers.  Source: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, one tradition that you won't find in the U.S. is the pulling of Christmas crackers, which is done in the U.K. usually during the festive dinner. The cracker is pulled by two people, one at each end, it makes a crack/bang, and then the central cardboard chamber is ripped open to reveal a small present or puzzle, a festive paper hat in the shape of a crown, and a written joke that is traditionally read out to the other guests.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back in the UK: Culture Shock!

So I am back in the UK for a few months, after spending a week in New York en route from Florida. 
I also managed to get caught up in the Storm Desmond drama when I eventually arrived back in the North of England (more on that later.)

I had a great time in New York, staying with my old friend Ed at East Northport, near Huntington, on the north coast of Long Island.

Northport, Long Island, New York.

I arrived on a Saturday morning and we had a quiet day eating, drinking, and catching up on people and events since the last time I was in New York, seven years ago.

We went into Manhattan the following day and did poetry readings in the city and then Brooklyn, which as fun.

Ed and I on the F Train.
Me and Ed with poetry host, George Wallace outside the Parkside.

Me reading my cheese poem in Brooklyn (photo thanks to Dasha Bazanova)

I had some great time exploring Long Island with Ed, and met up with my old friend, Lorraine, who showed me around the last time I was in New York, as well as hosting a poetry event in Valley Stream.

With Lorraine in Sip This, Valley Stream, NY
I also went into the city on my own and visited the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, I loved the dinosaurs and there was a Jackson Pollock exhibition.

Me with Ed.  He had lost a lot of weight by this point and was becoming increasingly aggressive(!)  ;)

I walked through Central Park from the Natural History Museum to the MOMA

Jackson Pollock painting at the MOMA
It's difficult to cover everything during my action-packed week in New York and all the folks I met, but it was wonderful.

All good things come to an end, however, and the time came for me to journey to my next destination, dear old Blighty.  I was travelling to the northwest of England, Kendal, Cumbria, to be exact.

Due to heavy traffic, I arrived late for my flight check-in at JFK.  The lady at the desk saw that as personal insult, and was consequently a cow, but I survived (she made me jump through numerous extra hoops just to show her displeasure).  

The subsequent flight to Iceland went pretty smoothly, however.  I was impressed by all the improvements they've made to Reykjavik airport.  It used to look like an old (I think it is a former hangar), now it's like something from an IKEA catalogue.

My flight from
Reykjavik to the UK was delayed by 45 mins but nothing remarkable otherwise.

I arrived in
Manchester the following morning feeling tired and hungry, but pretty good.  Then I found out that due to Storm Desmond and the intense flooding in the North West of England, there were no trains running north of Preston, Lancashire.  It was a similar story with the coach/bus service.

The storm had flooded out whole areas of some towns, including Kendal, knocked out the power, damaged bridges, roads, and caused mini-landslides.  I was stranded just one and a half hours from my destination.

The options for me were to stay in a hotel in Manchester or Preston; stay with a friend in the area; or get a ride home by car from Preston.

After talking to my parents, I caught the train to Preston.  The station cafe bar was full of stranded people: families; mountaineers; students; businessmen; old people, young people, and others.  I consoled myself with a couple of quality pints of draught dry cider (a relative rarity in the US).

In the end, I was lucky enough to get a lift from my parents from Preston to Kendal, but the journey took twice as long as normal, thanks to the flooded roads.

"The Auld Grey Town" of Kendal at dusk

Culture Shock

A few things I've needed to adjust to since arriving back, both good and bad:
  • I got confused by British coins initially, I thought the 5 pence was worth ten, because it is a similar size to a dime.  Kind of embarrassing.
  • The roads were unnerving for a while, as I thought we were driving on the wrong side.
  • Pleasantly reminded of the low prices of beer in the pubs.  In the US you have to take out a bank loan to go out for a night of beers(!)  Prices are less than half here in the UK and you're not expected to tip on top for every beer too. (Liquor is cheaper in the US, including Scotch whiskey, but that's another story!)
  • The English seem so quiet, gentle, and reserved, when you are used to Americans.
  •  English customer service continues to improve, although it is still not always great.  America is still the king of customer service.
  • Americans think the English are super-polite, but the truth is that it is very variable here.  You can go into a shop or stand at a bus stop and chat to some super polite person, then walk down the street and hear young children call each other f**king c*nts.  Courtesy and rudeness tend to rub shoulders much more.
  • Drivers here are almost always way more sane and courteous than Florida, however.
  • I'm still a little jet-lagged, my sleep patterns can be erratic at the best of times, but throw in a five hour time shift and things get interesting.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The trip is on!

“For a long while- for many years, in fact- he had not thought of how it was before he came to the farm. His memory of those times was like a house where no one lives and where the furniture has rotted away. But tonight it was as if lamps had been lighted through all the gloomy dead rooms. It had begun to happen when he saw Tico Feo coming through the dusk with his splendid guitar. Until that moment he had not been lonesome. Now, recognizing his loneliness, he felt alive. He had not wanted to be alive. To be alive was to remember brown rivers where the fish run, and sunlight on a lady's hair.”  

― Truman Capote, A Diamond Guitar 

After a particularly challenging period in my personal life, I have decided to embark upon a major trip at the end of November. There may well be a few more legs to the experience but currently only the first two are planned. 

On the first leg, I am going to spend a week in the New York area. I am going to meet up with old friends on Long Island and do a couple of poetry readings, as well as see some sights in Manhattan (I've been there before but there is always lots more to do!). I am looking forward to it. 

I am flying up there. I did seriously consider renting a car and driving up to New York. It would have been great to visit friends in North Carolina and Pennsylvania en route, but in the end I decided that the expense and hassle were a little too much for my budget - part of the problem being making the journey during the Thanksgiving period (I've still not got fully used to the American calendar). 

The second leg of the journey will be an Atlantic flight from JFK over to Blighty (that's an affectionate name for England/Britain, if you're not familiar with it!). 

I'm going to spend some time with my family in the English Lake District, hopefully scale at least one mountain (maybe England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike this time? Although that might be a little optimistic in the middle of Winter, I don't know?). 

 I also want to spend time with my brother and his family down on the south coast of England in the Brighton area. It would be great to visit others too, and maybe even go over to continental Europe if my finances allow. 

 I will be heading back to the USA at some point in the new year. 

Things that I have missed about the UK 

 • Friends and family, of course. 

 • Fish and chips with mushy peas. 

• World class Indian food at very low prices. 

• Cheese and onion pasties. 

 • A creamy, foamy pint of real ale in a centuries old pub. 

• The sweeping hills, mountains, lakes, and dales of Cumbria and Yorkshire. 

 • The dry English sense of humour. It sometimes feels like every other person you meet is a quality comedian in the UK, and the perception that life is more than a little absurd is common. Americans in general take life more seriously and the humour can be less subtle. 

Things I will miss about Florida/the USA 

• All my friends here, who have become as important to me as my old friends back in England. 

• The openness, warmth and friendliness of Americans generally. The English, as we all know, are more reserved. 

• The Florida sunshine and beaches. 

 • The exotic wildlife. 

• My tennis exploits and my tennis comrades. 

 • The space. Lots of space in the US. Everything can seem a little cramped in Europe when you return. Driving is a completely different experience, not so much because of the driving on the left hand side thing in the UK, more that everything feels more pushed in, busier, and narrower. 

• Last but not least, the cafe bar at Lucky's Market, my peaceful little port in a stormy world.