Dispatch from England - Part II

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Being an American in England feels like being a golden retriever puppy at a funeral - incongruously enthusiac.

A friend of mine purchased a used bike at a shop for £150. After a series of subsequent mechanical problems over the following few weeks, he realized he had been ripped off and was regretting his purchase. Relaying his story to his brother back in the US, he said, “This 150 pound bike has been nothing but trouble for me.” His brother replied, “What did you expect from such a heavy bike?”

Life in England is an endless series of miscommunications. If you go to the store wishing to purchase eggplants, zucchini, shrimp, rubbing alcohol, or q-tips, prepare for disappointment; the English only sell aubergines, courgettes, prawns, surgical spirits, and cotton swabs.[1] My persistent lack of knowledge on the names of products, brands, and stores has made mundane purchases into scavenger hunts.[2] While one does gradually assimilate, I still find myself regularly consulting my British friends on what things are called and where I might buy them.

Consulting my friends before I go to the store is essential, as asking a British person for advice in a store is among the greatest of personal intrusions. On my first trip to Sainsbury’s (the standard British grocery store), I found myself overwhelmed by a wall full of soups and asked the gentleman next to me, who was also eyeing them, whether he had any recommendations. He snorted and immediately scurried away. Thinking that perhaps he did not speak English or was just in a particularly bad mood, I waited until another person, this time a young woman, wandered up to the soups and asked her the same question. Her eyes widened in fear and she too scurried away. Though I was tempted to conclude that this whole episode was due to my hulking frame and intimidating masculinity, I found it slightly more plausible that the British are incurable introverts and now do my best to avoid eye contact or conversation with anyone I do not know.

An even better way I have discovered of avoiding conversation in grocery stores is to avoid them altogether. While I would rarely consider the British to be on the cutting edge of anything related to technology or food, they have made surprising advances in online grocery shopping. Just about every major grocery store in England, as well as a few that do not even have brick and mortar storefronts, offer the ability to shop online and have groceries delivered directly to your door. The advantages of this method of shopping include easier searching (search by food name instead of wandering up and down aisles), not having to haul your groceries home, and, if you are British, avoiding the awkward event of having American strangers ask you questions in the store. (Perhaps this explains why the British seem to be leading the way in online grocery shopping.) If something you order happens to be out of stock, the store will offer a substitute item which you can either decline or choose to purchase for the price of the original or substitute item, whichever is cheaper. It is also still possible to take advantage of in-store specials, read nutrition and ingredient labels, purchase household items such as detergent and soup, and amend your order up until the evening before your delivery. All of this can be had for a modest delivery fee of £3-5.

While we may agree about the joys of online grocery shopping, the English and I perpetually disagree about the culinary status of the potato.[3] They believe it is the pinnacle of vegetable evolution. I believe they are insane. I have seen “vegetarian” menus that consisted entirely of jacket potatoes (baked potatoes), chips (French fries), and mash (mashed potatoes). I also once ordered broccoli and brussel sprouts from an online grocery vendor whom I shall not name (rhymes with “Stainswury’s”) and had substituted for them two giant bags of potatoes. As a friend had accepted the grocery order on my behalf after I had gone to bed, I awoke to find myself stuck with the embarrassing excuses for vegetables and threw a mild temper tantrum.

Perhaps the final characteristic of the English worth noting here is their ability to conjure up tea in the strangest of places. I was once hiking in Wales in some of the worst weather I have ever experienced (think of a hurricane… on a mountain… at nearly freezing temperatures) and another hiker offered me a cup of tea. I thought he was mocking me and replied, “Only if you have some biscuits as well.” He had both. I could do nothing but stare in amazement (and hypothermia) as he poured me a hot cup of Tetley’s from a thermos (the lid doubled as a tea cup) and produced a sleeve of biscuits (a hybrid between an American cracker and cookie). Another time, the driver who was delivering my grocery order called me to let me know that several trucks had broken down and that it would be of great convenience to him if he could drop off my grocery order a few hours early. I replied that this would be fine but that I would not be home for another half an hour. He replied, “Oh that’s perfect! That will give me time to make a pot of tea.” Apparently, electric tea kettles are standard appliances on delivery trucks. A final story on this note – Churchill College once sent three men to paint the walls in my kitchen and hallways. They arrived early in the morning with their set of tools: paint, brushes, sheets to protect the floor and tables from the paint, and… an electric tea kettle, a box of tea, three cups, and a jug of milk. In the 2-3 days it took them to paint our house, I saw far more tea drinking going on than painting.

This post is part two of a six-five series on my first four months in Cambridge adapted from a mid-year report I submitted to the Churchill Foundation - the sponsor whose generosity is allowing me to spend one year at the University of Cambridge. It was written in January 2012. You can read Part III here.

  1. I once spent 15 minutes ranting about the abomination of Sainsbury’s not selling shrimp, until a moment of inspiration led to me search for “prawns.” 

  2. On one of my first weekends in Cambridge, I spent the better part of a morning searching for men’s shampoo, nearly concluding that British men did not wash their hair. 

  3. I recently learned that several languages, including Austrian German, call the potato the “earth apple.” While such a phrasing does not elevate my opinion of the potato, I think it is a wonderful tradition that the English-speaking world should adopt.