As I work in Sunnybank’s secret garden pulling little weeds that constantly try to establish, I often ponder the sometimes startling differences between the European and American way of life, just to keep from perishing from boredom.
A German friend who’d married an American and relocated here would nervously creep up to signaled intersections for months, horrified by our heavy, dangling stoplights, which sway on windy days. Even a year later she still hadn’t fully adjusted. In Europe, traffic lights are bolted onto sturdy poles on streets’ edges. The American arrangement seemed irrational to her, especially in “tornado alley,” because the heavy streetlights are unguided missiles in high winds.
Tornadoes are vanishingly rare overseas.
Dry cereals seemed to her like eating colored paper. She couldn’t bring herself to try cornflakes with milk. In Germany, a slice of bread and coffee or tea starts the day; the big meal happens in late evening.
Here, most restaurants serve all day long and offer endless coffee refills. In Britain, one pays anew for every cup.
In England, renovating my cottage in 2009, I’d often forget the time, immersed in a task that required my full concentration. But then, at around 2:45, I’d realize I was ravenous. There was no food in the cottage: heck, there was no kitchen. It needed a complete redo after being ruined when overhead pipes had burst in record cold weather-- so I thought: ‘I’ll pop down the hill to the Axe and Cleaver and indulge in a pub lunch!’
But then I’d realize I was well over an hour too late! From 12 to 2 o’clock restaurants and pubs offer hot food. The cook, hired for just those times, cleans up right at 2 o’clock, and then goes home for the day.
Restaurants open again after 5 and remain open until 9 or 10:00 p.m. I eat one meal, usually around midday, so losing track of time over there carried a stiff penalty for me. Apples, or cheese and crackers, tightly sealed in a tin that even clever rodents couldn’t open, were a comfort when I forgot the time.
One miserable afternoon early in the renovation I really needed a decent meal; I popped into a local hotel nearby, explained my circumstances, and asked for a sandwich, and tea. The receptionist discussed this shocking demand with staff at length, and with much waving of hands before they were finally persuaded to bring me a tiny ham and cheese sandwich and a small pot of tea. The bill for that scant fare was a whopping 21 pounds. (Thirty-five dollars) Horrified, I inquired why. “Madam,” the desk clerk said stiffly, “food is served beginning promptly at noon; staff are not accustomed to feeding people after 2 o’clock. Come back at 6 for our evening meal.” I felt about an inch high. But I knew it would be useless to show anger. I paid the extortionist price, but never went back there.
The Brits love their dogs and their pubs. Pubs in Britain have generous windows and lovely, truly ancient interiors. Their thick, deeply worn, blackened wooden floors and ceiling beams might be over 800 years old. Flower baskets hang everywhere. Often, pubs come with a resident ghost.
Families enjoy steak and kidney pie, or fish and chips or stew, or steak or lamb, as well as fancier meals. Children and dogs are welcomed. They sit or lie quietly at their owners’ feet at the bar, or at their tables, content to wait for as long as their masters wish. Mostly they snooze, or enjoy pats from patrons. And sometimes fries (called chips) might slip off plates and land under delighted canine noses.
Here in America, there are no cheery pubs; instead, we offer windowless, secretive bars, many of which are dark and broody inside. Having loved the real thing for 50 years I can never go in them. (Dogs, children and families are rarely found there.)
When I visited Paris many years ago, leashed dogs would enter various little shops with their owners. Nobody thought a thing about it. I never witnessed an unruly dog in a shop. They just kept quiet and padded along, sniffing delicately.
In France, women frequently wear only swimsuit bottoms. When traveling through France in the late 1980s Joe and I would bike along lovely streams bisecting the countryside, and noticed everyone from very old grannies to lovely women and girls enjoying the briskly flowing streams. Most were topless. Men of all ages, and boys who were often naked, thought nothing of this. Everyone sat on blankets spread out on the grass to enjoy lunch, all the while keeping a sharp eye on littler ones splashing about in the shallows. It was close to 100-105 degrees every day during that July and August, so, during the intense afternoon heat, villagers would abandon field or housework and gather wherever there was water to gossip, nap, and chat. Though initially startled we soon adapted, and, like the French, ignored the nudity.
British cars are 98% standard shift models. People are nearly undone when confronted by automatic shift cars. They find them too difficult to manage. One of the workmen offered to move my (automatic shift) car so he and his mates could unload timber to renovate our flooded out cottage. The guy unraveled when he tried to back out, and then drive it forward. He had no clue how to proceed, and got out cursing and flinging his hands, so I had to take over. The workers were incredulous that I would want to drive such a complicated car!
I found their shock fascinating.
Personally, standard shift driving is much more complicated to learn. It’s all about coordination.
With automatic shift cars, though, all one does is press the ‘Go’ pedal or the ‘Stop’ pedal. With the right foot.
When I travel there and need wheels, I must reserve an automatic shift vehicle from car rental agencies. And, this, of course, means paying extra, partly because it can take a good while to find such a car. I like ‘automatic’ because I tend to gape at the scenery- Britain is gorgeous- and refer to maps. Thought I drive standard shift perfectly well, I like to keep tasks simple, especially when driving on ‘the wrong side of the road,’ which requires great concentration.
In Britain one sees long aisles in grocery stores big and small, which hold hundreds of stacked eggs nestled in cartons. They are never refrigerated. I was openmouthed- and yes, horrified- the first time I saw this, but, thinking about it, I couldn’t remember that newspapers had ever reported people sickening or dying because of this practice. Still, it seemed unsafe. All sorts of bacteria might grow inside a room temperature egg. I constantly wondered how long the ocean of eggs on those shelves had been sitting there. How could one keep track?
Properly attired men fishing for trout in lovely streams wear suits, vests and ties, and, of course, chest-high boots, and a special woven basket is strapped to their shoulders to hold their catches. It was those tweedy suits that always grabbed my attention. Who would think?
Part of visiting another culture is learning to adapt- and even to appreciate- these intriguing continental differences.