Common Misconceptions

February 28, 2007

I would never presume to re-educate ‘my fellow Americans’, not that I am entitled to use that term, given that I am a Limey who hasn’t taken his Citizenship test yet, but I do feel it is within my rights to put pay to a few misconceptions and in the process hopefully right a few wrongs.

First of all, let us look at American misconceptions of the English.

Part 1. Teeth
We don’t all have bad teeth! I really don’t know where this falsehood first began but it simply isn’t true. I spent 31 years of my life in England and I did not see a larger percentage of the populace with crooked, yellow or generally bad teeth as I have seen here in the U.S. I think films like Austin Powers just help to exacerbate the pre-conceived myth that all British people have bad teeth. Not true.

I will say this however, there is definitely a morbid fascination with “whitening” and “straightening” one’s teeth here in the U.S. The number of commercials on TV dedicated to products and services to make your smile whiter than pure snow is quite remarkable. The marketing machine making all Americans think they have to have perfect, white teeth is so mind-alteringly insidious, its almost as bad as the same marketing that makes all women think they have to be stick thin.

Will you meet a Brit with bad teeth? Yes quite possibly, but would you like to stand them up against a hillbilly as a shining example of the average American? I think not.

Part 2. Royalty
There are two rife misconceptions that need to be put to bed here right away! The first is that every Brit you meet must know the queen. False!
The second is that most Americans think they can trace their lineage back to royalty. Also False! There are over 60 million people in the United Kingdom, that’s almost one fifth of the entire U.S. population on an island 40x smaller and hardly any of them can trace their ancestry back to royalty, so what makes you think you can? And if by the remotest chance I am mistaken, then we have a situation where the majority of settlers that departed England’s shores to start a new life here in the Colonies are related to royalty, which means that the War of Independence would make no sense at all. A war to gain independence from governorship and taxation by an English government backed by a monarchy, when we’re saying that most of that royalty was already over here? Wouldn’t that be somewhat akin to fighting yourselves?

Part 3. Fruitcake
Yes its true a large number of English folk love a good, heavy fruitcake at Christmas. I will say this though in its defense, it is not the same cake passed around year after year because no-one wants it. Now that might be true here in the U.S. where the definition of ‘cake’ appears to be a pound/sponge cake covered in fake cream icing. A really good Christmas fruit cake is home-made, extremely dense, heavy and moist and contains a lot of alcohol (usually Brandy or Rum). Unfortunately these ‘quality’ fruitcakes that English families enjoy bear little resemblance to the dry, unsavory fruitcakes that are sold commercially in stores and it is these, regrettably, that fall into the hands of our American friends.

Part 4. Tea
We all love tea! This is for the mostpart true. Tea is an excellent brew and a wonderful drink befitting any time of day. I have found that a really good, quality tea is very hard to purchase here in the U.S. Even in specialty stores, the shelves here in the U.S. are stocked with ‘fragrant’ and ‘piquant’ specialty flavored teas like Darjeeling, Earl Gray, Green and Orange Pico and some other very bizarre offerings involving plants that should never be spoken in the same sentence as the word tea. Given that these options are all that is available to most Americans I am not surprised in the least that America has fallen in love with coffee instead.

Part 5. Stuffy
I often get my American friends and family trying to impress upon me their impressions that English are stuffy, stand-off’ish and arrogant. Let me break this down:

i) Stuffy – Only the very rich have a tendency to exhibit this behaviour. As the very rich only constitute 1% to 2% of the British population, its not really true.

ii) Stand-Off’ish – This is a mis-perception. English are typically very reserved and quiet when you first meet them. They like to study you before they get to know you but once they do you will find they can become some of the best friends you will ever have. Sadly if you only visit the U.K. as a tourist or on a business trip, you won’t be around long enough for the average Brit to warm up to you so I can see where this impression comes from.

iii) Arrogant – I think there is some truth to this but it is true on both sides of the pond. American arrogance is more brash and down-to-earth (and in-your-face) whereas British arrogance is more aloof and intellectually inclined. Neither nation likes this manifestation in the other so its touché I’m afraid.

Part 6. London
It never ceases to amaze me how many Americans make the assumption that I am from London. Only about 8% of the entire population can be considered to be ‘from’ the London and Greater London area which covers over 600 square miles. I’ve been asked “What part of London are you from?” on several occasions. This, to me, is akin to asking Americans “What part of New York are you from?”. Sadly the same fascination with London drives the tourist driven American to visit little more than London when they travel to the United Kingdom and then make the assumption that they have “seen England”. How much more inprecise and an injustice this could be is hard to fathom and would be like an Englishman visiting New York and saying “That’s it. I’ve seen America. Now I can leave content!”.

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There’s a lot more I can cover but that will do for now. I now want to cover a different area which can cause considerable embarrassment for Brits visiting America and Americans visiting the U.K.

American terms
Fanny pack – In the U.K. a fanny is not your ass (we say ‘arse’ by the way). On the contrary, a fanny is slang for a woman’s vagina. So please, when you visit the United Kingdom, no shouting out phrases like “Anyone seen my fanny pack?” or “I slapped him on the fanny”.

Puffs – Here in the U.S. “Puffs” are delightfully soft tissues for blowing your nose on. However, my American wife and her family were very bemused when I first emigrated over here and they presented me with a box of “Puffs”.  I was suffering a mild cold at the time and upon being presented with said “puffs” I proceeded to laugh uncontrollably. You see, in the U.K. “puffs” are homosexuals. So again, please save yourself and everyone around you the embarrassment of asking for some puffs or what you would like to do with them.

Beer – This information I am giving you now is probably the most valuable snippet of information you can take with you on a trip to England. What you Americans call beer, the British call “lager”. Lager is a light, slightly carbonated and chilled beer, in other words, Bud, Miller etc. It is not what British people consider to be real beer. So, if you like your Budweisers and your Millers and your Heinekens then ask for a can or bottle of lager when you’re in a bar or pub. If you ask for ‘beer’ you are going to get a draught pulled pint of bitter or mild which is pumped to the bar from barrels in the cellar at slightly colder than room temperature. This is what British consider to be “real” beer and is a lot yeastier, uncarbonated and will often come with a creamy, frothy head (if its a good pint).

English Terms
Fag – Please, my fellow countrymen, when you come to America, do not visit a store and request to purchase a packet of “fags” when desirous of obtaining cigarettes. “Fags” are homosexuals here in the U.S. and not cigarettes. You will not be received warmly if you ask if you can “bum a fag” (Ed. English slang for ‘borrow a cigarette’)

Arse – Use the word “ass” when traveling the Colonies please.

Lorry – Americans have no clue what a lorry is. Just say “Semi”, “18-wheeler” or “truck”. Be careful though, a “truck” is also used in local lingo to denote a “pick-up truck” which is typically a 4WD vehicle with 2 or 4 doors (quad cab) and a 4foot or 6foot flat-bed loading area at the rear with drop tail-gate.

Loo – If you need to use the bathroom here in the U.S. don’t say “loo”. Americans love to refer to the bathroom as the “rest room” and have no idea what a loo is. Also try and refrain from using the word “toilet” as for some strange reason they find it vulgar. “Lavatory” is passable but I would stick with “rest room”, “gents” or “ladies” if I were you.

and on the subject of housing…

Bungalow – They call it a ranch (don’t ask)

Semi-detached – They call it a condo or duplex

Housing estate – They call it a sub-division (again, don’t ask). When my wife and I first started dating, apparently I lead her to believe that I was a lot wealthier than I am by telling her I lived on an ‘estate’. She spent several months believing I lived in some kind of manor with expansive grounds instead of my humble 3 bed detached.

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Please post a comment if you have anything else you would like to add!

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Prestel and Micronet800

February 27, 2007

Who remembers the golden days of Prestel and one of their top service provider partners, Micronet800?

For those that don’t, Prestel was actually developed in the late 1970’s by a software team at the research and development laboratories of (what was then) the Post Office, based at Martlesham in Suffolk. Prestel became a commercial service provided by the UK’s largest telephone carrier, BT (British Telecom) and utilised Videotext (viewdata) as its display medium. By today’s standards it seems archaic but the 40 column, 24 line 8 coloured ANSI/ASCII screens were very new and exciting back then, far in advance of anything available at that time.

Prestel Welcome Page

Unlike the Ceefax and Oracle services which were read-only teletext services available on your home television (data transmitted between the visible scan lines on your television), Prestel was the first “interactive” service that was available to home users. It was accessible via a home computer such as a BBC Model B microcomputer or a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the addition of a dialup modem (often an acoustic coupler modem). It is difficult nowadays to explain the joy that was had from using your 48K Spectrum to dial up through a Prism VT5000 modem on your telephone line and connect to Prestel at a speed of only 1200/75 baud. Once connected you were greeted by the welcome screen you see above.

Prestel was, in essence, the internet of its day but by the mid 1980’s it had been overtaken by home computers and a fledgeling internet with technology that could not have been foreseen back when Prestel was first launched.

There was a monthly subscription fee to use Prestel and Micronet800 services but in addition to that were the telephone charges themselves which, if you weren’t careful, could stack up very quickly. Most home users would attempt to connect after 6pm in the evening or at the weekends, which was commonly known as “cheap rate” time when the cost per minute was only 1p (pence: smallest UK coin denomination – equivalent to about 2 cents). Any time outside this window would result in charges as high as 7p a minute (14cents/minute). Navigation around the screens in Prestel and its service providers was done by punching in 3 digit numbers that corresponded to page numbers as well as the use of control characters # and *

There were a bunch of services and information available through Prestel itself but much of the content was provided by what were considered tier 1 service providers. For the younger generation insterested in games and chat forums etc., the principle provider was called Micronet800 (see screenshot below – Thanks to R.T.Russell for this screenshot).

Micronet800 Welcome Screen

British Telecom eventually purchased Micronet entirely around 1989 . Micronet’s editorial staff were originally based out of Clerkenwell in London but after they were acquired by B.T. they were moved to a new B.T. location in Apsley, Hemel Hempstead. The technical staff were originally based out of offices in Peterborough but were moved down to offices in London back in 1986.

Multiplayer Games on Micronet800: StarNet & SHADES

The reason why I wanted to write this blog entry was to mention two of the most exciting things about Micronet800’s service. The multiplayer games.

SHADES
Micronet800 brought us two of the world’s first multiplayer games. The first was called SHADES, a realtime (kind of..), ascii text driven Dungeons & Dragons type role playing game where the goal was to get to immortal status. Shades was written by a guy who called himself Hazeii. I forget his real name but it was something like Ian or Neil I think. I spoke to him (in-game) a few times back in the day as he was kind enough to a) listen to player feedback in respect to modifications or additions to the game and b) would sometimes appear in the game itself as a god-like immortal character.

StarNet
The second game was called StarNet (Not to be confused with a little known southern Florida BBS called “Star Net”). Not many people who played StarNet and also owned a Sinclair ZX Spectrum realized that the guy who developed the enormously successful Speccy computer games, Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge, was the same guy that developed StarNet, Mike Singleton of Beyond Software. You can read a really old interview with Mike Singleton here.

StarNet was based very closely on a PBM (play by mail) game Mike had developed called Star Lord which he ran on a commodore PET in his home. You can read more about it here.

In brief, StarNet was a turn-based, space strategy game in which players had to make economic and military decisions. At its peak, StarNet could accommodate up to 500 players.

You played a space captain and began the game with 50 starships in a fairly safe part of the galaxy (I think it was 50 . . . it might have been 200 starships.. my memory isn’t what it used to be) . As stated, the objective was to make economic and military decisions which would eventually lead you to be in a position to defeat the emporer (another real world player who had become very powerful indeed) and take over the galaxy.

You could form alliances with other players and coordinate your turns as a group in an effort to grow, attack, and take over other players’ starships, planets and even whole sectors. The game really was an excellent concept and a wonderful experience at the time. You would enter your moves for all your ships, acquisitions and attacks and wait impatiently for the following day when all the players’ moves would be calculated and the results executed.

Starnet Welcome Screen

One of the things I loved about StarNet was that all the names were only 5 characters long and in caps so for example, my StarNet captain was called “ULCER”. It was quite a challenge to come up with original new names that were only 5 characters long. There were basically 3 factions within the game: those who formed alliances against the emporer, the emporer himself and those that allied to him, and pirates(renegades) who were basically players who chose to play solo and not ally with anyone at all.

The excitement of logging in the next day and making your way to the StarNet pages of Micronet800 to see the results of your moves from the previous day (and/or those of your allies) is not something you can explain to someone easily these days. A ‘game’ could last months. Once the emporer was finally defeated, the player who defeated him would himself become the new emporer and so the game would begin again.

I made numerous friends through that game and we initially kept in touch through the chat services provided through the Prestel service itself. Eventually we got friendly enough to actually call each other up on the phone, and, in the ultimate demonstration of geekiness, we ended up scheduling a StarNet meet at a pub in London. Good times!

If anyone remembers playing StarNet and remembers their StarNet game name or that of friends I would be very interested in hearing from you. I’ve been thinking of compiling a list of players.

Time for a Revival?
I would love to see StarNet revived in a web-based emulation , complete with blocky viewdata graphics. I’m sure someone who knows how to program in Visual Basic, Java or php could come up with something that could be hosted on an ftp site and serve pages to a user on his/her web browser perhaps tied in to a simple MySQL database to manage the players, their ship inventories and affiliations and some simple server-side code to execute the moves/turns and serve the results.

I’ve spent many an evening scouring the web for someone that might have made any efforts in this direction but sadly the only thing I’ve been able to find are genuine teletext or viewdata emulation efforts by the viewdata purists out there. Personally, I don’t think it would be necessary to actually simulate viewdata (and all that entails) only emulate it so that it looks like you’re looking at the Prestel/Micronet800 type pages, especially if those pages could easily be created with a basic text editor as opposed to created with a genuine ANSI editor and forced to abide by the teletext standard.

Where is Mike Singleton Today?

“Mike Singleton where are you?” If you read this Mike, get in touch. If someone who knows Mike knows of his whereabouts and what he’s doing these days, please let me know. Just to know he’s alive and well is sufficient. I don’t need his personal banking information and shirt collar size. I believe Mike hailed from Merseyside (Liverpool, England) so some kind Scouser must know the answers we seek.


Heritage – Who Cares, You’re American!

February 25, 2007

If there’s one thing that I have come to loathe since living in America its that every time I meet an American for the first time, they feel an innate need, nay driven even, to expound on their personal and family heritage with me. Its quite often the conversation starter that immediately follows the ice-breaker “what part of London are you from?”.

I have not spent more than 2 minutes in the presence of an American yet without them telling me what generation of American they are. What country or countries of origin they, their parents and their grandparents hailed from. Even those who have since become my best friends have rolled this one out on me on at least one occasion. A typical conversation will take the following form:

“I’m 3rd generation American you know! My mother is Italian and my father is from Scotland. Hey that makes us countrymen right? My grandfather on my father’s side was from Poland and my grandmother on my mother’s side was half German and half French. (I’ve usually tuned them out at this point but being polite I feign interest, perhaps even dropping in the odd ‘Oh really?’ or ‘That’s great!’). I guess that makes me half Italian and half Scottish… or is it a quarter Scottish, a quarter Polish, a quarter German and a quarter Italian? Oh wait.. I forgot French! Oh but we don’t like the French do we!”

Now the reason I switch off is not because I am rude. On the contrary, I am a true people person and if you met me in person you’d know this. No, the reason I switch off is because after 10 years I’ve probably had this exact same one-sided conversation play out at least a thousand times.

Here’s where I usually let them take a breath and I ask my questions.

Me: “Where were you born?”
Them: “Ohio.”
Me: “OK, and where were your parents born?”
Them: “Well my father was born in Pittsburgh and my mother was born in San Diego”
Me: “So you’re American then”
Them: “Well yes but…”
Me: “And your parents are American also”
Them: “Well yes but I’m quarter Italian, quarter this..quarter that.. (you get the idea)

Now for me as a Limey, here’s the paradox. For a nation that is so nationalistic and full of self pride, why would almost all of its subjects choose to harp on about the fact that their ancestry is anything but American? Its almost as if to call yourself a full-blooded American – born and bred, is a dirty word. Yet, you will never find a country that waves its own flag harder than the United States.

America is the best and worst of all things. It is truly the world’s greatest nation at this moment in world history. A true world power. That alone would make me believe that if you were born here, you would want to call yourself “American” first and foremost, especially to foreigners such as myself. And yet, when I question an individual that feels this need to proclaim their diverse ancestry to me and I ask them “why they don’t just call themselves ‘American’ I am either met with confusion or in some cases actual hostility.

Every great world power that has ever been started out a pure ethnicity, but by its very nature, a world power must continue to grow and expand in order to survive and not stagnate and as such expands its physical and political boundaries to draw in other cultures and ethnicities. Look at any of history’s great super powers, the U.S.S.R, the British empire, the Roman empire, the Egyptian empire, the Mongolian empire etc. etc.

In heritage terms, the only thing that separates an American from an Englishman is time. If I were to be pedantic, I could argue that I am part Roman, part Saxon, part Norman, part Goth, part Viking etc. but centuries and millenia have molded the English in to one unified nation. I was born in England, therefore I am English, and proud of it.

So, to all Americans I say this, if you were born in America, you are American! Be proud of it. This nation is a great one and although it seems at times that the world is against you and you are alone in your struggles, you are not alone and you need not mask your pride in your birthright. So cast off the chains to past heritage and association. You can be proud of your ancestry without having to try and be anything else but what you are, an American. So, move forward as Americans and stop telling Limeys like me that you’re anything but pure blooded American!


Understanding the Differences

February 25, 2007

So, we all know that there are differences between American English (or “Webster” as I prefer to call it) and the Queen’s English (or “real” English as I prefer to call it) but on both sides of the pond, few know just how many there actually are.

Few Americans realize that there is a world outside of the United States. Fewer still realize that it wasn’t they that invented the English language, .. or sandwiches .. or space travel (I could go on but I won’t). In fact if you are a Brit living in America, most Americans will happily tell you that a) you have an accent and b) you don’t speak English (as they understand it). A sad truth is that even fewer Americans know, that even before full independence was achieved, there was a conscious effort to begin a ‘separation’ process on many levels from England. Not least among these was the development of Webster’s English (now American English) which would be taught in the developing school system across the 13 colonies and beyond. This modern take on the English language included changes in both spelling and pronunciation of many words and also included the introduction of some new words.

Now a polite word of warning. . .

Unfortunately the above facts appear to have been conveniently forgotten and if you are a new Limey in America, you can be forgiven for thinking there is some kind of bizarre conspiracy going on to make you think that all you have been taught in English schools is somehow wrong and that you are being made to feel somewhat stupid as you inadvertently stumble over numorous “mispronunciations” when engaging in conversation with your new American acquaintances or families. Now here’s the best advice I can give you:

i) Don’t keep fighting it. You will never single handedly re-educate 300 million Americans. Especially when 1 in 8 of them has Spanish as their native tongue.

ii) If you plan on living here, as excruciatingly painful as it is to try and start pronouncing words the same as Americans, you might as well give in and make that effort because you’re already at a disadvantage with your accent and if you walk in to a room and start throwing around words like ‘to-mah-toh’ and ‘yog-urt’ and ‘alu-min-ee-um’ you are going to get some very blank stares. Believe me.

Now while we are on the subject of accents, let me also prepare you for two constants that you will come across:

1. Americans will take much joy in asking you where you are from, but not before they have tried to guess. Guessing will usually take the form of “Australia?” “Canada?” “Scotland?” or “Ireland?” but don’t be surprised if you get thrown curveballs like “Are you from France?” This has happened to me more than once in the seven years I have lived here.

2. You come from London! I don’t care if you are from Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Ipswich or Bristol many Americans (especially those working behind the till in gas stations) will ask this question of you:

“What part of London are you from?”

Now you can muse as much as you like about whether this question derives from their belief that Britain = England = London or whether they believe (as some do) that the U.K. only has two cities, London and Edinburgh (“Ed-in-burrow” <cough>) with a road between the two.

Now, to be fair to Americans, most “could care less” as they are want to say. Although for a Brit, that would beg the question, “how much less could you care?”. The correct phrasing of “could not care less” appears to have totally escaped all but the best educated over here. Thankfully my wife, who hails from Michigan, is not among the unknowledgeable, and had she been, I would not have failed in my duty to correct her!

In the next blog called “Things” I’ll make an effort to list all the things that can cause the greatest confusion between our two great cultures. I plan on “Things” being an evolving document which I will keep adding to as I remember stuff.

Readers are more than welcome to contribute their suggestions for things they feel separate English and Americans (Limeys and Yanks) and I am interested in hearing from both. After all, I don’t want this blog to be completely one-sided.

(Ed. “Yanks” is a term that almost all British people call Americans, regardless of whether you are an American from the north or the south. Its our equivalent to your “Limey”)


Those First Impressions

February 24, 2007

Born in 1966, the year England won the football World Cup (that’s ‘soccer’ to you Americans), a stone’s throw away from Stonehenge, I was denied a West Country upbringing when my parents had to move six hours north to Yorkshire due to my father’s work.

I greatly enjoyed my Yorkshire upbringing in “God’s Own Country” as born and bred Yorkshiremen like to call it, and if you’ve ever been there and/or seen the scenery across this large county, you’d find it difficult to disagree with them. However, to anyone that knows Yorkshire folk, you’ll know that unless you are born and bred in Yorkshire, they will never consider you a true Yorkshireman! Despite this hanging over my head, I was never made to feel unwelcome or separate, a feeling experienced more acutely in later life and something I will touch on in more detail in a future blog.

By the age of 16 I had a big choice to make: pursue a college/university education, or have a shot at an apprenticeship hosted by one of my home town’s largest and most successful employers, an electronics manufacturer.

Knowing that my parents’ finances were probably not up to the task of seeing me through 4 years of higher education, I opted to drop out of High School and take on the 4 year apprenticeship with said manufacturer along with 6 other individuals who I was to become close friends with over the ensuing 4 years. The advantage of pursuing this path, was that I was still afforded a higher education on day-release to college/university, but at the same time I could earn working pay as an indentured apprentice (albeit a paltry pay) and receive excellent on-the-job training in all manner of skills pertinent to that industry.

In hindsight, this proved to be the right choice, not because the path I chose to pursue was a superior one, but because in 1987, when I was 20 years old and three quarters of the way through this apprenticeship, my father died of a heart attack following two huge strokes and a smaller heart attack. With no household income other than a reduced widow’s pension received by my mother, my salary proved to be a valuable contribution to the household income.

So where am I going with all this you may ask? Good point!

Around about this time, I made two life choices, both of which I have lived to regret. The first was to start dating a girl who would eventually become my first wife. This was definitely one of those life decisions we all make that takes years to realize we messed up but as we all know, its then too late to turn back the clock. I won’t bore you the reader with any more discussion on this particular subject.

The second choice was equally as bad as the first but without doubt, has been the most instrumental in effecting the path my future took, and in shaping me as a person. The former has always been cause for great regret, the latter is something I don’t think any of us can plan for, it just happens. What was this choice? With less than a year to go of my apprenticeship, I decided to make a strategic move (or so I thought) out of the manufacturing, design and development side of the company and in to the national Sales Office, and from here, to push for an outside sales position which I eventually got. Sales. If I can impart one word of wisdom to any young people who might come across this blog and are thinking about going in to a career in sales, that word would be “don’t!”. You can choose to accept my wisdom and you will never know what you have saved yourself from OR you can choose to ignore it and twenty years from now be writing your own blog expounding your own regrets.

So why should a misguided career in sales have anything to do with a blog about a limey living in America? I’m getting there! Bear with me! You may be thinking that the title of this particular first article is about helping you (the reader) to form first impressions about me. While I am sure that this is also true, the real reason is to get to a place where I can, in context, give you _my_ first impressions of Americans.

Prior to becoming a salesman, my only experience of America was through watching TV shows that UK broadcasting companies purchased under license or syndication from American broadcasting for airing on British TV. My generation grew up with gems like The Lone Ranger, Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Grape Ape, Scooby Doo, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonderwoman and The Partridge Family and while these shows were a great part of childhood, in later years shows like Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazard, Colombo, Kojak, Cagney & Lacey and the Rockford Files were the normal vieiwing. Needless to say, by the time most of my generation reached the age of 18, we were of the belief that all Americans were loud, brash, drove ridiculously large cars and carried hand guns with which they would shoot at each other on a daily basis.

You see, one of the positive things about being an outside sales person is that you get to travel and travelling means you get to go to lots of different places. Going to different places means seeing and meeting all kinds of people you might never normally come in to contact with, whether by choice or not. And so it happened. One day I was sitting in a Motorway Service Station grabbing a drink and a bite to eat (kind of like a rest-stop/oasis off the Freeway) when a coach full of American tourists pulled up. 50+ American Seniors proceeded to pile off the coach and make their way in to the restaurant service area. Now three things struck me about this experience and I will try to list and quantify them:-

1. They were loud! I mean LOUD. English people are, by nature, quiet and reserved, prefering to fly beneath the radar so-to-speak. But these Seniors seemed to be in competition with one another to see who could talk all over the next person the loudest. Time and again I would hear one individual start to say something only to get quashed mid-sentence by another who would interject loudly to ensure they were now the conversation dominator. Strangely though, this didn’t seem to be a problem for these Americans as they were all doing it to each other constantly. This was a most bizarre experience for me. Even though I was sat several tables away from these people I could clearly hear 90% of what was being said.

2. I had never seen so much plaid material of both pastel and gaudy bright colors used so excessively in trousers before. It was as if the men had all stepped off a golf course. If there was one man in gaudy plaid pants, there were 20! The women on the other hand didn’t seem so different to British Seniors, except for jewelry. Lots of it. I notched that up to Americans just having a better quality of life through higher average incomes, which for the most part turns out to be true. Although, there is a definite penchant for well-heeled American women to show off their affluence with excessive wearing of jewelry.

3. Outspoken – Perhaps the biggest shock for me was just how outspoken these Americans were. Let me put this in perspective. An Englishman goes in to a restaurant and orders a meal, the meal arrives late and is barely warm. What would YOU do? Well, hold that thought! Most English people will sit there and take it, choosing to deal with the unsavory situation rather than make a scene. That would never do! Now I am not saying that that is right, on the contrary, but that day was my first experience of how Americans expect to get what they pay for and are not shy in speaking out if they don’t get the service they expect.

Now here’s the funny part, at least for me. As I listened to the conversations around me it became clear that this particular coachload of tourists were from Washington DC and they had travelled to the UK to be transported to a city called Washington in the North East of England, the city after which Washington DC was named. The rest stop I was at was “Washington Services” by the way! Now I do not know what these American Seniors were hoping to expect before they arrived, but let me tell you this, Washington, Tyne & Wear is a working class town predominantly covered with tech and industrial parks. You would be hard pushed to find anything of tourist interest in Washington.

The general air of disappointment and poorly disguised disgust emanating from these tourists was quite palpable, not least because they were more than vocal about it (see point 3). I felt really bad for the poor English tour guide who had also entered the restaurant for a bite to eat. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable than a 6+ hour coach ride back to Heathrow Airport with a coach full of disgruntled American Seniors… in golfing pants.

So. Those were my first impressions of Americans. Not a good start. Things were going to get better though. I just didn’t know it at that time.