Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why do the British love to party?

I was reminded by Rob over at The Inconsequential Opinion that Christmas tends to have a slightly more raucous edge to it back in Britain, which is encapsulated by some of the Christmas music, which includes songs by Slade and Wizzard that you don’t hear in the USA.  In fact, I don’t think I have been anywhere that loves a drunken party as much as the British.

I first talked about this topic back in the early 1990s with a Canadian.  We were in Germany, part of a group that included Germans, American, French, Irish and, of course, British and Canadians.  Anyway, it was observed that the English-speaking peoples have a tendency to enjoy getting drunk and going a little crazy, whereas the Germans and French tend to prefer to drink and act in a much more controlled way.

I would actually go further than what I agreed with my Canadian friend at the time and say that the British (and Irish) probably also top the English speaking peoples for raucous partying.  Americans, generally, are pretty civilized by comparison.  I was slightly amused by an American friend recently asking me whether a spoken poetry event that we attend at a local bar was too raucous for me, as from my perspective, it was generally not at all rowdy by British standards.  But her thoughts were understandable – what is usually projected to outsiders tends to be the rather quiet, civilized image of British culture and the other side is often glossed over.

Why do the Brits have this tendency?  I think we are a very schizophrenic group, who, being famously repressed in everyday life, every now and then need to blow off some steam and go a bit ga-ga.  The dark, damp weather is probably a factor too, it keeps you shut indoors and frankly, can get pretty depressing at times, especially in the North of England where I am from.

There is a pretty awful side to British partying culture too, of course, which never gets mentioned in the tourist adverts.  It’s virtually impossible to go through the centre of any major town or city on a Friday or Saturday night without encountering groups of extremely drunken (mainly, but not exclusively young) people spilling out of the bars and clubs, stumbling into the road, puking, groping, shouting, scrapping, swearing and collapsing… It can all seem rather hellish to the sober observer (I have spoken to more than one taxi driver that expressed their absolute horror when they first encountered British drinking culture after arriving from Pakistan).

But despite the downsides, when you’re brought up in British culture, it is difficult not to miss a little of the raucous edge when abroad.

My favourite Christmas song: A Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl (which my wife described as “far too depressing for Americans” hehe!)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why am I living in the USA?

Why am I living in the USA?  Well, there are 2 main reasons why I left my home in the North of England and made the big hop across the Atlantic:

  1. For love.  I met my American wife online.  We weren’t in a dating site, we just bumped into each other on the social networking site, MySpace (remember MySpace?).  Although webcams and email are great, at some point one of you has got to make the leap, so that you can both live in the same country.
  1. For the adventure.  My feelings about the USA are pretty mixed, I love some things and don’t like others, but despite, or maybe because of the ambivalence, I do find it a fascinating and exciting place.  When my wife and I decided that we would be married, we had a choice of her (and her daughter) coming to England, or me going to the USA.  We decided on the latter, mainly because I felt my life, although chugging along perfectly well, had sunk into a bit of a rut.  I relished the idea of doing something completely different, even if that meant risks in terms getting work etc.  (You only live once, right?)
Will my wife and I stay in the US forever?  I don’t know.  I do know that my wife would like to travel at some point.  Having become a single parent relatively young, I think she feels that she has delayed a lot of things, so that she can bring up her daughter successfully, and at some point she would like to spread her wings and go other places.

I have no intention of living anywhere except the US for the foreseeable future.  But now that I’ve made a big move once, the idea of doing it again at some point, no longer seems intimidating.  If my wife had some pension money coming in and I could secure a relatively reliable source of income from internet, it might be tempting to live somewhere like Thailand for a while, where the cost of living is currently about 20% of what it is here in the US.  (Okay, the Thailand idea is a bit of a pipe dream, but not an unfeasible one)

In the distant future, nobody knows how things are going to pan out, especially with the world economy being how it is.  As things stand though, I don’t know if I would want to stay in the US when I was older.  From what I’ve seen, old people can have a challenging time in the US, if they’re not wealthy.  The draw of the UK with its National Health Service and social infrastructure might be too tempting, plus I think my wife would be interested to live in the UK at some point.  But we’ll see.  That’s a long time into the future.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Living in the USA: My Culture Shock Top 10

I read with great interest and was amused by the directness of an essay by Sophia Angelique about the culture shock of moving to and living in the USA, after being in the UK, and I recognized much of what she said - although I must admit that I was a little troubled that she was still undergoing culture shock a full eight years after arriving there.

Some of the videos she posted up on there are excellent too.  The one of Stephen Fry (Brit) talking to Clive James (Ausie who lives in the UK) stood out as particularly outstanding and again, much of what they say is very recognizable to me.  (I’ve included the vid at the end of the top 10).

I thought it would fun to summarize some of the top 10 things that can be surprising and difficult for a typical Brit living in the USA, based on a variety of sources including my own experiences and those observations mentioned above.

I’m writing from a purely British perspective, of course, so I don’t know how much you will relate to it, if at all, if you’re non-British, or if you have never experienced living in the USA.  It also occurs to me that younger Brits might find it easier than older gits like me to cope with the culture shock, as I am probably stuck in my ways to some degree.  But anyway, in no particular order, here goes with my top 10.

  1. As Stephen Fry points out, coming from a monarchy, you kind of expect the US to have more republican values of “all men are equal”, but in fact American values are quite different from that.  Individual freedom is seen as more valuable than equality and justice in the US which gives it a different value system to the UK (and indeed the majority of republics).  Fry argues in the video that it’s rooted in the way that the American constitution prioritizes things.

  1. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s difficult to underestimate and understate the importance of religion in American life, whether it’s in everyday life, or in general society and politics.  Outside of respectable religion, I would also say that superstition and hokey beliefs are also much more common too.

  1. It’s much more commercial and materialistic here compared to Blighty.  Practices that would be considered mercenary back in the UK are much more commonplace.  Money seems to trump all in the USA, maybe even religion.  It certainly runs the political system.

  1. As a Brit, you get told that we’re a class ridden society - and we certainly are compared to places like Germany, The Netherlands, Scandanavia, but in many ways the British class system is nothing compared to the US where there is a stronger sense of hierarchy, and social and economic status really is the be all and end all for most people.

  1. American politics.  Things are shifted so far to the right here compared to the UK, I still have trouble working out who’s who.  Often a ranting politician that I think is a rightwinger, turns out to be Democrat.  The loony, foaming at the mouth, religious nut, I discover later is a respected Republican Senator.

  1. The lack of infrastructure can be frustrating here, if you’re not used to it.  Outside of the big cities, there is very little public transport.  Whereas you will get shops and pubs in the suburbs of towns and in rural areas in the UK, there is very little of that in the USA.  Not only is it a convenience thing, but local shops, post offices, pubs are where a British community would meet and builds ties.  (It was interesting to read that this was one thing that Brits found difficult about moving to Australia in a BBC article that I read).

  1. As Fry points out, America is an enormous place with lots of semi-autonomous states that often have a strong sense of self-identity.  People often have more in common with and identify more with their state than the country as a whole.  (In the UK, of course, we have Scotland, Wales, England and Ulster, but it is different.)

  1. Americans really believe in things.  British people tend to be skeptical about pretty much everything.  We make good scientists but poor dreamers.

  1. The right to bear arms and the gun thing is difficult to understand as an outsider.  I am not particularly comfortable with all the violence that you get in America movie and drama either, although sometimes I think it just acts as a lazy plot device, it can seem to come uncomfortably close to romanticizing violence.  I am no pacifist, by the way, I just don’t think real violence is in any way romantic.

  1. As Fry says, the American ideas of “liberty” and “freedom” are very difficult for a Brit to understand.  For us, “liberty” and “freedom” are essentially concepts, which makes them essentially wooly.  That doesn’t mean that we see them as bad ideas, we just don’t understand them as being solid things.

Ironically, after a year of living in the USA, I quite often feel that I understand it less now than I did when I arrived.


The difference between the English and Americans

Monday, November 28, 2011

Understatement and overstatement (British and American differences)

One area that is a particular source for cultural misunderstandings in relation to British and American differences, that I’ve noticed as an expat living in Florida, is in regard to understatement and overstatement.  Most countries of the world tend to say things pretty much as they are, but people in the UK and USA tend to distort reality in different directions by the way that they express themselves.

In the UK the tendency is to understate, with the implicit understanding being that the real importance or gravity of what is said is implied by what you’re saying, rather than it being explicitly stated.  For example: “I’m feeling a little under the weather” can actually mean: “I am totally suicidal” in the UK, and “We had a very nice day” can mean “That was the most amazing and wonderful experience of my entire life”.

Americans, on the other hand, go the complete opposite way, using large amounts of superlatives and hyperbole, even in what can seem to a Brit like very trivial and mundane situations. 

There are differences in body language and gestures too.  I remember watching Bill Bryson on British TV talking about the difficulties he had as an American moving to Yorkshire, England.  How at first he thought people were being offish with him and he felt like an outsider, until he realized that, as an American, he was looking for much more showy and demonstrative signals, whereas British communication is more reserved and subtle.  An enthusiastic American wave, for instance, translates as a few fingers of a hand being tilted up slightly from the steering wheel of a passing neighbour in their car, or a slight nod of the head.

My problems are entirely the opposite, of course.  Americans often don’t appreciate when I am complimenting them, because I do it in an understated way – in fact, they can wrongly get the impression that I am being lukewarm or averse, when the opposite is true and I’m actually enthusiastic.   On the other hand, when an American comes out with lots of superlatives and hyperbole, I suspect them of being sarcastic, when it is actually a genuine expression of their thoughts and emotions (even if a little exaggerated to my British ear).

It’s a matter of conjecture, of course, but I suspect that most human beings are actually pretty similar beneath their cultural dressing and the negative stereotypes that the British are “cold and aloof” and that Americans are “false” are largely based on misread signals.  It can be difficult to tell if a British person likes you because they don’t tend to be demonstrative.  On the other hand, an American can appear very warm and friendly, but it really doesn’t mean anything serious.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Religion in America

I normally try to avoid religion and politics in my blog, but from time to time, I enjoy the challenge of trying to sail it through choppier, more unpredictable waters.

The power and influence of religion in America was certainly a jolt to the system when I arrived here from the UK.  I already knew that the US was a much more religious place than the UK of course, but even so, it is still quite a culture shock.  I am not sure how much the shock is compounded by the fact that I am not at all religious myself (I would generally describe myself as an atheist).  It was certainly fascinating to read (British expat) Iota’s blog on the subject of encountering US religion, and it made me appreciate that aspects of the experience of coming here may well be quite different for those who are Christian, as she is.

Religion generally plays a very quiet and low key role in the UK, but here in the USA, religion is big and brassy and most American people are very up front about telling you all about their religion and beliefs.  I know that Iota found this approach refreshing, but for me, I must confess that I can find it awkward and I can easily end up smiling and nodding vaguely, as people tell me at length about Jesus and their experience of being saved, or whatever.

The language here is different too - in the USA, if someone is having problems, say they are sick or something, people will talk about praying for them, or ask people to pray for them.  It some circumstances, it can just be a turn of phrase, of course, but even so, it is one example of how the American language contains more religious overtones.

Another difference for me is that religion in the USA nearly always means Christianity, certainly down here in the South, anyway.  Back in Britain, where I was working and living in the inner cities most of my adult life, Christianity was just one of many belief systems: Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism etc.  But here in the US, there is a general sense that Christianity is the big one, certainly down here in the Deep South (although there are multiple different Christian denominations and sects, of course).   

As a non-believer, I often get the sense that being Christian is perceived as the “norm” here and that many Americans generally see atheism (and to some extent some of the other religions aswell, such as Islam) as being more than a little bit suspect.

There is a social respectability that is accorded to those who attend church and pronounce their faith  and values here too, which hasn’t really existed in England for a long time.  What I mean is that you are perceived as being more upstanding and moral by some if you publicly subscribe to being a Christian.  I guess that is why politicians and public figures here pretty much always have to play up their Christian credentials, which is almost the opposite to the UK, where Tony Blair was constantly trying to play down his Catholicism.

One of the peculiar paradoxes about religion and politics in the USA is that essentially it is a secular country (enshrined in the constitution) with a very religious population, whereas Britain (also paradoxically) is officially a Christian country (The Queen is head of state and head of the Church of England) but the population aren’t particularly religious.

I guess I should point out in conclusion that despite me not generally being a big fan of religion, I do strongly believe that people have the right to believe whatever they want.  I am generally a live and live kind of person.  Some of the more conservative Christians here in the US seem less tolerant than me, however.  I have developed a lot of compassion for the plight of gay Americans since I’ve been here, especially those who live outside of the big coastal cities, who can have a particularly difficult time, it seems.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Things that I do and don’t miss about the UK

Every British expat blogger at some point has to write the what-I-miss-since-I-moved-away-from-Blighty list.  It is obligatory.  So here is mine.

Do Miss

Hot cheese and onion pasties (especially on a cold, rainy day).  Hot pasties don’t feature a great deal in sub-tropical Florida.  I have yet to find a branch of Gregg’s.

Affordable dental treatment.  My dentist warned me in sombre tones about the US being absurdly expensive for dental treatment and the standards of treatment being very variable.  I didn’t believe him until I got here.  Some treatment is well over ten times what I paid on the NHS in the UK!  Crazy.

Walking places and catching a train.  I’m completely car dependent where I am living, which is a far more common situation in the US generally, as the towns and cities are often spread out thinly.  I really miss being able to walk to the shops, or back from the pub, and being able to choose to go on a train somewhere.

Hills and mountains.  It’s very flat in Florida.  Climbing up at Otley Chevin or gazing out over the mountains of Cumbria does have a big appeal, although I do enjoy the swampiness here too, but in a different way.

Beans on toast.  Although you can actually buy Heinz beans in the English Section at one of the local supermarkets, so maybe I should do that!  I love it that they have English food section sandwiched in the “ethnic” area between Indian and Chinese, like we are somehow exotic!  Much of it’s the crap food British people ate back in the 1980s, though, stuff like tinned treacle puddings, but I guess the older Brits must buy it?  Or maybe I am just a snob about food?  Both are probably true!

British politics.  American politics is just screwed: playground arguments that pass for a debate, a divided political class who hate each other, a stagnant and archaic political structure founded 200 years ago that can’t cope with the modern world and makes the British system look almost modern… Okay, maybe not quite, but the situation isn’t good!

Don’t miss

The British weather.  Although the sun in Summer can be oppressive here in Florida, I hate those weeks in Britain when it never gets light and just keeps on raining…

Rude store staff.  I hate it when you are stood at the checkout and the person who is running your stuff through the till is talking to one of their mates and ignoring you.  That doesn’t happen so much in the US.  I find it embarrassing to be British sometimes, when I see how rude some of my fellow countrymen can be.

Tea drinking culture.   Tea and the rituals of making and drinking it are revered in the UK, but I’ve never cared for the stuff, so I don’t miss it.  Give me a mug of coffee and I am happy.  Or better still, a beer!  Not all American beer is crap either.  Only about 2/3 of it.  There are actually some great American breweries and failing that, there is plenty of Continental European stuff to buy too – although  the Americans do insist on selling European beer in small bottles, for some strange reason.

Marmite (yuck yuck yuck!)  Why do British expats go on about Marmite? 

The British royal family  I have never been a big fan of the Royal Family, although I did have fun watching the Will and Kate wedding, I admit.  Actually, when I think about it, there’s actually probably *more* coverage of the Royal Family over here than there is in Britain!

British Celebs that I really can’t stand, but they also moved over here, so it feels like I can’t escape from them!

Russell Brand

The Beckhams

Piers Morgan

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to speak American English: 2 Confusing Questions

The old cliché, two nations divided by a common language is, of course, true to some extent.  The English language can become remarkably perplexing to a Brit when it is in the hands of an American (Editor: Shouldn’t that be “mouth of an American”, not “hands”?).  Before my American readership reach for their guns, let me point out that I am not blaming anyone for the confusion.  I just never fully appreciated that American English was capable of causing me such bewilderment before I began living here, especially in public situations, where I am prone to bouts of faux pas, following swiftly by outbursts of embarrassment.  Anyway, here is my latest installment of: “How to Speak American English”.

Confusing Question Number 1:

“Is plastic okay?”


Normally asked by a guy in a green apron who is lingering near the checkouts in a supermarket.  He is normally very old, or very young.

Incorrect responses

“Yes, I suppose so, as long as it is degradable.”

“Who’s Plastic?  I didn’t know he was ill?”

Correct response.  The store attendant is a bag packer and he is asking you if you want your produce (fruit and veg) putting into a plastic carrier bag, or whether you have brought or wish to buy a reusable bag made from a more durable material.  You can therefore answer: yes or no, accordingly.

Reason for confusion.  Bag packers in the UK are relatively rare, you are usually expected to pack the bags yourself.  The staff member working the till will most likely refer to a “plastic bag” or “carrier bag,” if the topic of bags comes up (which isn’t by any means a certainty), rather than just “plastic”.

Confusing Question Number 2

“Could you pass me a Sharpie?”


Normally asked by American family members.

Incorrect Response

Dropping your jaw open and adopting a blank expression.  The family members will then just ask the same question over and over again, apparently perplexed by your bewilderment.

Correct Response

A Sharpie is not druggie slang for a syringe.  Nor is “passing a Sharpie” slang for some kind of sexual behaviour.  It is in fact a form of pen, similar in some ways to a felt tip pen, but fatter and more cigar-shaped.  You should therefore pick up the pen and pass it to the relevant family member, if requested to.

Reason for confusion

Sharpies are not a traditional part of British life and therefore must be comparatively rare, if indeed they exist at all in the UK.  Although, should they ever gain a foothold in Blighty, I suspect that they will breed like wildfire and spread all over the country, rather like tobacco and the grey squirrel did.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

British English vs American English: Which is best?

Following on from my last blog, where I mentioned how lots of Americans love the English accent, I thought that I would ‘stick my oar in’ on the old British English vs American English debate.  The most recent incidence of this controversy reared its ugly head a couple of months back, when Matthew Engel announced in an article on the BBC website, that he found Americanisms irritating.  This was then countered by American writer, Grant Barrett who staunchly defended American English.  A debate then ensued with British and American readers joining the (increasingly) heated debate.

I must admit that I am pretty much an anarchist on this matter and have never worried much about the influences on, or particular fate of British English.  I never really minded Americanisms appearing in Britain and I would hate there to ever be some sort of national council sitting to decide the official rules for what words can and can’t be officially used, as happens in France.  I tend to think that the whole thing should be allowed to proceed organically without any artificial “rules” being imposed.  I am also generally skeptical of anti American English opinions expressed in the UK and suspect that they are rooted in snobbery to a greater or lesser degree.

Although there has obviously been interplay between Britain and America for four hundred years or so, the American English invasion never really got going until the 20th Century when American English expressions started creeping into British English via the American Movie/Film industry.  Before that, British English ruled supreme, thanks to the British Empire.  But as the British Empire declined and the increasingly cool American movie/film stars dominated the popular imagination, all sorts of expressions slipped into the UK.  The process became even more pronounced with the American forces arriving in Britain during World War II, American music coming onto the radio, and more recently, American English expressions arriving via computer and internet technology (e-mail instead of e-post etc).

One possible reason for my own relaxed attitude to English is that I grew up speaking with a regional accent and back in the 1970s, when received English  (“BBC English”) was still seen by some as the “proper” way to talk.  In the class-ridden UK, regional accents were generally looked down upon, which I resented (that said, regional accents became increasingly more accepted by the “well-spoken” from the 1960s onwards and are now pretty much accepted).  Anyway, I think it made me more sympathetic to the attitudes towards language found in the “New World” countries, with their generally more egalitarian approach.

Language is, of course, deeply political.  The Celtic nations in the UK have attempted to bolster and/or revive their traditional languages in recent years, which are associated with a sense of independence and pride.  That makes me wonder how Americans would feel if the situation was reversed with English: if their own American English expressions were gradually disappearing and being replaced by British English equivalents?  Since I began living in the USA, I have noticed that there is a small but significant minority in the USA who feel threatened by what they perceive as an increasing Spanish language influence on their country, especially in the South of the country.  I tend to agree with my fellow British expat blogger, Rob, who argues that America has been a multilingual country pretty much from the beginning and so it is a bit late for people to start complaining.

Anyway, moving swiftly away from the social politics and back to the strictly personal, one practical problem that I have on an everyday level with regard to the British English vs American English debate is, of course, spelling.  When should I use British English spelling, and when should I use American English spelling?  This problem is especially profound when it comes to the internet, which has no national boundaries.  My solution has been to use American English when my writing is mainly aimed at Americans and British English when my writing is aimed at Brits.  And when my writing is aimed at either or both, like with this expat blog, I just spell the words however I like!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anglophilia: Americans Love the English

I was told by numerous Brits and Americans before I came to the USA that the Americans love the English.  But I didn’t quite believe it until I got here.  Here is an extract from a conversation with my next door neighbour, which is pretty much transcribed word for word:

“Where are you from?” she said.  “You sound foreign!”
England,” I replied.
“No, England!”
“Oh, England!  I love your accent!  I’ve always wished that the pilgrims had kept their English accents after they got off the boats and we didn’t speak like we do now - you know, with the American accent…”

Okay, the neighbour is slightly dotty, but her general sentiment has been expressed to me over and over since I started visiting US and then living in the USA as a British expat.  Basically, the Americans love the English, and the English accent, although ironically, many Americans can’t locate my own Northern English accent until I tell them where I am from -  I’ve been asked if I am from Australia or Poland many times.

US and UK mugs owned by my wife and I
I guess I should be pleased, but I do find it a little disconcerting sometimes.  I have never been to another country like this.  As an Englishman, I can travel a short distance to parts of Wales, or Ireland, and find people who dislike me because of my nationality and what they perceive it stands for.  Across the Channel, there are French and Germans who will mutter behind your back when you’re at the bar about the “bloody English” (or sentiments to that effect), thinking that if they say it in French or German, no one in your group will understand them.

(Digressing briefly, I once did a similar thing in Berlin, Germany.  There was some awful music playing in a café where I was eating with a German-speaking English friend.  The barmaid had previously been conversing to my friend in fluent German, so I assumed she was German.  Although many Germans speak reasonable English, I was still confident that she wouldn’t understand me when I described the music to my friend as “dross”.  Imagine my surprise when she bellowed at me in a broad Ulster accent: “This music is not dross!  I picked it myself!”)

Anyway, back to Anglophilia, or rather, moving on to its opposite: Anglophobia.  The truth is that there are many negative stereotypes of the English around the world, but these are probably the main ones:

  1. The English are arrogant and consider themselves to be superior to everyone else.
  2. The English are duplicitous and they play mind games with people (especially when it comes to politics).
  3. The English are at best cold and aloof, and at worst, downright cruel, especially with their humour, which they use to berate people that they don’t like.

How true the negative stereotypes are is a matter of opinion, of course, but Americans don’t generally buy into any of them in any significant way, in my experience.  Quite the opposite, in fact, they have all sorts of positive stereotypes (I can feel a little embarrassed sometimes, because I feel sure that I won’t live up to expectations!)

Britain does generally do a good job of projecting itself abroad.  Possibly too well, I sometimes think.  I remember being back in Blighty and working with immigrants from places like India and the West Indes.  They would sometimes tell me how naïve their views on Britain were before they moved there.  They thought that everyone lived in big houses, either in beautiful old cites resembling central London, or in rambling green countryside, and the British people were very polite and civilized.  In reality, of course, lots of people live in grotty inner cities with grey suburbs and the British people can be a pretty surly and miserable bunch at times (unless they’ve had a few drinks in the pub).

There is a tendency in the US culture to look for simple truths and to some extent there is a tendency to split the world’s countries into goodies and baddies, or white hats and black hats, as they say here.  Americans generally prefer cultures that are similar to their own.  I remember reading a survey that showed the American public overall feel most positive about the Canadians, closely followed by the Brits.  I do sometimes feel a little sorry for the peoples that are designated black hats though (generally those people in arab and muslim countries).

Anyway, having said all of the above about Anglophilia, one question still puzzles me: If the Americans are so positive about the English, why does every other American movie seem to cast an Englishman as the leading bad guy?  ;-)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The UK Riots

A Scottish expat living in Canada asked me about the UK riots the other day, when I was playing an online game of draughts or checkers (the name varies according to which side of the Atlantic you hail from).  They dropped the subject when they found out that I was living in Florida nowadays.  The joke is that I know as much about the riots now, as a British expat, as I probably would have done living in Britain.  Because of the internet, my news sources regarding the riots in the UK are exactly the same here in the USA as they were in the UK, mainly the BBC and The Guardian online (although I can also get pretty much get any US or UK tv channel or newspaper over the internet).

I have lived in numerous places in the UK, but spent much of my adult years in the Leeds area, which strangely enough, was largely unaffected by the UK riots.  I say strangely because Leeds is a big city with some very rough areas and bleak housing estates.  The Chapeltown area, which I know well, rioted back in the 1980s riots, but there was relatively little trouble there this time around.  I have lived, or spent quite a bit of time in some of the English inner city areas that were affected, however, including Dalston in London, Manchester in the North, and Leicester in the Midlands.

I must admit that I wasn’t surprised that there was rioting in the UK.  The sudden drop in living standards caused by the recession was likely to spark trouble at some point.  Plus, for some reason, there often tends to be more disorder when the Conservatives are in power (although that may well be because they are usually voted into power at times of economic struggle).  But like most people, I was shocked by the form that the riots took, with mobs of amoral underclass youths looting at will.  It seemed almost medieval in character.  I’ve heard the UK riots described as ‘shopping with violence’, and it seems difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Everybody looks into the smouldering ashes of the burnt out shops and cars and sees what they want to see at the end of the day and I am probably no different, but here is my take: In recent times, the UK seems to have lurched from crisis to crisis: the MPs’ expenses scandal, the police getting bribes from the News of the World, bankers awarding themselves massive bonuses despite being kept afloat by huge public bailouts, and now the inner city riots...  I am on the centre left politically, but strangely enough I found myself agreeing with an article in the (conservative) Daily Telegraph, namely that:

“The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”

Over here in the US, the problems are no better, but they take a different form, with political polarization virtually paralyzing the government and all the cross party consensus of previous years seeming to evaporate in the new, vitriolic atmosphere. 

The world is not in a good place at the moment.

Further Reading

An American expat in the UK talks about her experience of living in the capital during the London riots in the Telegraph:

Telegraph: London and UK riots: 50 powerful images:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Blowing my own trumpet (and 10 other peoples!)

In the second and final part of my reflective expat blog posts, I thought it would be a good time to recap some history of my British expat blog and give some of the positives that have occurred over this time.  Despite having blogged extensively in the past on sites such as Myspace, I wasn’t actually sure what or where I would go with this blog when I started out.  I did want it to have some sort of definite theme that I could hang my experiences around, rather than just writing a general blog about whatever random thoughts came into my head.  I flapped around in some of the early posts, looking for a style and plan.  

For instance, I tried writing about my experience of the K1 fiance visa process as posts, but after a while I decided that they were too dry for a general consumption (unless you have gone through, or are going through the process, you really don’t want to know about the relationship proof requirements for the I-129 Petition, or the financial support documents needed to support an I-485 Green Card application).  In the end, I put my visa experiences in in their own separate blog which I imaginatively named: My K1 Fiance Visa Experience.

Titles were also something that I toyed around with.  The “From Sheep to Alligators” name was actually the third title I tried, but I felt happy with it enough to make up a unique banner header using an old alligator picture and Adobe Photoshop.

Features and Blog Award

My expat blog about living in Florida has featured online in various websites and online publications, including 'The smart-insegors Daily', the online publication of the expat website for professionals, Insego, which I would heartily recommend as a friendly place to visit if you want an intelligent debate, information and advice or just a place to fraternize with other expats.

Australian blogger, Robynne from Robynne's Nest gave me a versatile blogger award, which I will display here below (I guess the term ‘versatile’ maybe fits, as I tend to mix up my blog with humour, trivia and serious discussions).  I am not quite sure what I am supposed to do with the award, but I do appreciate it.  Do I award it to someone else after I’ve finished with it, or just leave it to gather dust on my virtual mantelpiece?


Early on, I got into putting links to some of my posts on the Social Bookmarking site, Reddit.  Two of my humorous posts got voted up the rankings and each received over 3,000 straight after they were posted.  I enjoyed the rush of 4 digit viewing figures, but I must admit that I felt a pang of relief when the party was over and my blog stats returned to their normal 15-50 visitors per day!

Google Traffic

I must admit that, unlike blogs that I have written in the past, I have deliberately courted Google traffic with this one, picking my keywords and tags carefully.  The nice thing about Google traffic is that people come to your blog even when you haven’t written anything new for a while (if I was ever to cease writing, I would probably continue to get 20-30 views a day from Googlers). 

The Blogger stats tell me how people have reached me.  It is amazing how many people want to know about Lake Alice, brown sauce and bacon butties!  There are also some strange ones.  Because I have written about the different names for underwear in Britain and the USA and my blog is called From Sheep to Alligators, I get visitors coming to my blog who have typed in Google searches for “sheep knickers” and “alligator underpants”, which strikes me as a little, urm, unusual.

The Google searchers are usually casual strangers, however.  So they crop up in viewer stats, but don’t tend to write comments.  I still like my loyal followers, the ones who like to comment and make some online banter, some of whom I know or have known in person, but many of whom have come from cyberspace and the blogosphere.

Pimping: Top 10 Best British Expat Blogs in USA

Last but not least, I pimped some of the other British expat bloggers in my Hubpages article: Top 10 Best BritishExpat Blogs in USA.  Keep on writing folks!

Monday, August 1, 2011

British Expat Blogger Reflections

Looking back over the past six months, I think I was a little naïve when I began this British expat blog.  I just thought it would be a bit of fun and that I might get some views and interesting comments from around the world, as well as keep in contact and report back to friends in the UK about living in the USA.  It has been fun, of course, but after a while you also realize that the topic area can be a bit of minefield.  That’s because you are dealing with issues of national identity and people can get very passionate about that stuff – hell, people have fought wars over it throughout the ages!

I have at times been accused of making sweeping generalizations, getting my facts wrong and being deliberately provocative– all of which are probably true to some degree.  I will admit that there is a streak in my character that makes me want to poke things with a big stick sometimes, just to see what happens, even if I risk getting bitten.  My priority has always been to try and make my blog engaging, however, even if I risk ruffling feathers on occasion, as the thing that I always fear the most is my blog being bland.  I do love getting comments from different corners of the world and hearing other experiences and viewpoints and see the comments as being integral to the blog’s success, as they can often be as or more interesting than the actual original blog post!

I have generally tried to skirt around politics and race, so far, though, which has probably helped me to avoid any serious controversy.  I was genuinely taken aback by the depth of anger expressed against African Expat Wife in her post: Busman’s Holiday Travel Writing.  Sure, I know that there is a negative legacy from British colonialism and I am in no way qualified to talk about the rights and wrongs of Kenyan issues, but it did all seem a little harsh.  Anyway, African Expat Wife wrote a second post clarifying her position and that seemed to clear the air.

Returning to my own expat experiences.  I do have American friends that I know, or have known over the years back in the UK who have experienced a similar thing to me in reverse – dealing with the British visa bureaucracy, moving to Britain, adapting to British culture etc. and, of course, I do read American expat blogs about their experiences of the UK.  British expat experiences in the USA and the American expat experiences in the UK are like strange mirror images.  I thought the American comedian and expat, Reginald D Hunter gave some pretty astute and hilarious interpretations of British and American differences in his Live at the Apollo stint.

You can pretty much reverse the experiences of Reginald D Hunter, if you want to know what it’s like to be a Brit in the USA.  As he points out, English people have a tendency to say one thing, but mean something completely different, which can certainly cause misunderstandings.  I am fairly confident that the people who know me well, such as my wife, usually have a grasp of what I am getting at and can distinguish when I am joking and when I am serious - but I sometimes wonder if Americans who don’t know me so well walk away from our conversations with a completely different impression of what we’ve just been talking about to my own.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Florida Thunder Storm

As has been noted by Rob at the Inconsequential Opinion, one thing about living in Florida, compared to Britain, is that the Florida weather is generally very predictable.  At this time of year, for instance, the day starts out warm and gets hotter and hotter and muggier and muggier.  In the late afternoon, it will often rain, as the sky has taken up as much moisture as it can hold.  The process then pretty much repeats itself the next day and so on.

There are occasional bouts of more exciting weather, however.  Every now and then there is a thunder storm, for instance, when everything goes dark.  And I don’t just mean the sky - sometimes the entire neighbourhood power supply is temporarily knocked out and we have to rely on candles for an hour or more, which always reminds me of the British power worker strikes that I experienced as a kid back in the 1970s!

Anyway, the storm normally announces its arrival with the menacing sounds and flashes of thunder and lightning and then the sky lets loose a heavy rain shower.  Man and beast scramble for cover at this point.  I took some footage of a grey squirrel sheltering under our porch by clinging to the outside of the insect netting, which I found both amusing and somewhat cheeky.

Friday, July 22, 2011

American Family Values (British and American differences)

Everybody knows the clichés and stereotypes when it comes to British and American differences: Americans are individualistic, the British are old-fashioned and resistant to change, Americans don’t do international travel, the British have bad teeth, etc. and sometimes there is a degree of truth in them.  But now and again you come across differences that do not feature in the cliché handbook, which, despite being subtle, are no less powerful.  One thing that is a bit of a shock to the system is that, generally speaking, there is a different concept of family in the US to the UK, which comes as a bit of a surprise, as you somehow expect that it is going to be in a similar Anglo-Saxon mould.

This is going to be a tough one to explain and put into words, but I will do my best.  In general terms, the USA is much more family orientated than the UK and their family values are different.  Families really are the building block of this young, immigrant country.  There are lots more family-orientated things to do and members of families are more interlinked and interdependent in the US.  The bonds also carry on throughout adulthood to a stronger degree. 

The obvious explanation for this from a British point of view is that the family thing is there for purely practical and sociological reasons: firstly the US is more religious and traditional in some ways and the churches emphasize family values and family life, and secondly, there isn’t much of a social safety net, or government help generally, so if someone gets sick or loses their job, they are dependent on their family much more than they are in the UK.  The “obvious” answer falls short, however, in my opinion and the true answer I suspect is a lot more complex and goes deeper, as many Americans relish the family structure and interdependence - in short I would say that the idea of family is a cherished part of American culture, as well as it having practical benefits.

British family values are different, I’ve realized.  British culture generally places a lot more emphasis on the idea of being “emotionally independent” (rather than the “practical independence” promoted in American culture).  In generalized terms, the Brits place more importance on individuals being able to cope emotionally on their own.  It is easy to buy into the stereotype of Americans being individualistic, but in terms of families, they are certainly not, methinks – certainly if you compare them to Brits.

My wife has talked to me a bit about British culture from an American perspective.  One thing that she mentioned was how alien the British public schools system seem to an American (confusingly, the term, “public school” in the UK refers to the elite fee-paying private schools), where the environment is influenced by ancient Spartan style deprivations that are meant to be character building.  I did explain to my wife that in the British class system, the public school culture is a minority one and seems alien to most Brits too – as most of us are educated differently.  But her point was still valid, I realized.  The public schools system is really just the extreme end of stream of thought that runs right through British culture.

I guess this is probably one reason why the Brits can seem aloof and reserved to other cultures and why Americans can seem a little schmaltzy to Brits (I probably shouldn’t mix metaphors by throwing in a Yiddish term, but there you go!). 

I don’t pretend to fully understand all this to be frank.  I cannot get inside an American head, at the end of the day, and most Americans have a limited experience of British culture firsthand, so they don’t necessarily know exactly where I am coming from either (my wife being an exception).  I could say that the American concept of family seems more akin to the Southern European one (e.g. Italian) than the protestant Northern European, but that wouldn’t be quite true either.  I guess the only thing that I know for certain is that the concept of family is not quite the same here to what it is back in Blighty and that came as a slight surprise to me.