A Day in America According to a (Baffled) Foreigner
As I cower in my Brooklyn apartment, emaciated and terrified, I can't help but think back to what a friend back in London said to me when I first told him I was getting married and moving to America. "I'll tell you what, old chap," he said as he snapped his braces and leant back on his servant. "I've met an awful lot of foreigners in my time, and most of them couldn't be more peculiar if they painted themselves puce and grew tits on their shoulders. I've lived in Belgium, for Christ's sake. But for all our shared language, Americans are the oddest of the lot. I wouldn't want to be you, my old mucker. Not for all the bumbershoots in Hertfordshire."
"Englishman in New York" has been in my head every day since I got here. God, I hate that prick.
That was three months ago. Now I find myself in a country in which we all speak the same tongue, and yet every tiny task is so fraught with misunderstanding that it's less stressful just to barricade myself indoors and live on a diet of bathroom mold and cockroaches.
Here is a sample day in the life of a foreigner in your charming fucking country.
7:00 AM: Time for tea!
Things don't start well. Staggering from the bedroom, I make a beeline for the kettle; like most Englishmen, my morning tea injection is the only thing that will reduce the shivers to a manageable level.
However, I soon discover there is a technical problem with my wife's electric kettle: The cable is missing. Being an excellent problem solver, I hold the kettle above my head and turn it upside down, causing its cold contents to cascade onto my forehead and thence into my dressing gown, where they venture downwards past the nipples, over the Pudge Hummock and deep into the forbidding copse of pubes where no living soul should ever venture. This is not how a morning cuppa should start.
7:15 AM: Electric kettles are for COMMUNISTS
Eventually I realise that the kettle has no electric power at all. America, futuristic land of wonder and 24-hour drive-thru liquor stores, has never heard of an electric kettle. After some furious Googling, I discover that these arcane steam-devils are the province only of the incurably pretentious or the nauseatingly rich, since they cost around 10 times more than in England. My old 6.99 kettle had clear sides and a blue neon strobe light which turned the preparation of Old Grey into a throbbing epileptic discogasm, and here I am, manhandling an ancient cast-iron cauldron which might be acquainted with the concept of "boiling" but has no intention of trying it this century.
And I really do mean every single bastard day.
Well, I say it's ancient; the handle is nevertheless composed of some kind of futuristic superconductor that wastes no time in relieving me of my fingerprints, causing a pleasant D-Major chord to float from the window as the feeble whistle of the kettle mingles with my piercing, bloodcurdling scream. And when the agony is over, there's the unique pleasure of trying to decode the milk. Half-and-Half? Two percent? One percent? In England, we have Full-fat, Semi-skimmed and Skimmed. You know where you stand with those proportions. American milks sound like members of an underage hip-hop act; except for Heavy Cream, which I still believe is some kind of radioactive lactose isotope.
Even the colours of the cartons are different. This is only a little thing, but believe me, when you are a creature of routine (and who the hell isn't), little things like this can start to pile up quickly.
7:30 AM: Good luck dressing yourself, buddy
But hey, cultural differences aside, clothes are clothes, right? At least I can leave the house with a solid pair of trousers over my pants, dressed in my favourite vest and jumper. But I'd better not ask my wife to bring me any of those things, otherwise she will look at me as if I've just opened my mouth as wide as possible and emitted a continuous high-pitched farting noise.
"You can hear it in my accent when I talk / I'm an agonizingly annoying little piss-copter"
Clothes, you'll be relieved to know, all have the same names in America. The only trouble is that those names refer to different clothes. To make things easier, here is a little table categorising the main differences.
This is assuming I have any clean clothes at all, seeing as there are no washing machines in this entire city. Now, I know not all America is like this, but Jesus. What century are you living in, New York. In England, no one actually uses launderettes any more. They're charming anachronisms inhabited by doddery old perverts who just need a place to masturbate in the warmth. Most of the machines haven't been switched on since 1959 and many are now comfortable nesting places for owls.
8:00 AM: Facing the outside world
But anyway. Clad in my fetching purple jumpsuit and training bra, I am now primed to brave the hooting house of horror that is New York. Unbeknownst to me, I seem to have moved here just when the National Honk Festival is reaching its climax. All around the city, drivers are headbutting their horns for no other reason than the joy of being alive; a joy almost denied me when a truck emits a mind-buggering blast of pure noise from behind, propelling my body straight into the path of an oncoming car.
8:05 AM: Road safety? Where we're going, we won't need... road safety
And here's how I first learn about the American traffic system. Not only does everyone drive on the other side of the road (let's not drag up that old chestnut again) but it's also fine for cars to turn into your lane when the "walk" sign is lit. I cannot convey the sense of impotent moral outrage I felt when I learned of this fact the hard way, nor the clammy sadness as a rapidly-cooling stream of urine emerged from my trouser leg, punctuating my homeward trail with tiny puddles of shame.
Currently Googling for "STING HORRIBLE CAR ACCIDENT FANFICTION." Note to self: Learn how to filter out results from own website
Maybe you can explain the honking. After all, other countries have a reason for letting off their horns. Greeks do it because they have no traffic "rules" as such, and every journey to work is a thrilling race through carnage and flame. Italians honk because of their wonderful philanthropy, believing that there are no strangers in this life: only prostitutes you haven't picked up yet.
But Americans seem more like the protagonist from Memento, rediscovering every few seconds that their car has a horn and thinking, "Holy shit! What do I do about this? The world must be told!"
Also, it's apparently legal for American cyclists to run you down at any time. I can only assume that there is an amendment in the Constitution that permits murder provided you do it on a Fixie.
8:30 AM to 6PM: Let's go right the hell on to work
Finally, I am out of the Death Zone and into the Zone Of Perpetual Terror. I've been drenched, burned, ridiculed, deafened and ran-over twice, but it's all worth it, because I now get to spend nine hours in constant fear of losing my job. In England, provided you're not in the service industry, it's ludicrously hard to get sacked. Americans, however, have this thing called At-Will Employment, which basically means that an employer can fire you if he's uncomfortable with the size of your eyebrows.
On the flip side, if you manage to become an employer yourself, holy balls can you get rich. This is my plan, which I will put into action as soon as I've found a way of keeping my damn facial hair under control.
6:30 PM: Purchasing things from your fine establishment
After collecting my ulcers and leaving the office, I begin to feel the pangs of hunger. And then, almost immediately, the backwards vomit of dread. You don't realise how dependent you are on brand familiarity until you find yourself plopped in another country where almost all of the brands are alien.
Let's try to make a basic stew, for example. We'll start by buying a cube of Oxo. Except there aren't any. Oh well, move onto the potatoes; a couple of nice floury Maris Pipers should do the trick. Except that there aren't any, and when I ask the nice lady which potatoes are "floury," I can see her silently forming the syllables with her mouth over and over again, as if she finds the word intensely erotic.
Know who isn't intensely erotic? Sting.
Things don't improve when I ask her for the location of the rocket, courgettes and aubergines, although judging by her mouth movements she is now shuddering her way through a full-blown orgasm, so I should probably just leave her to it.
Besides, I just saw this thing called "Hungry Man," and I'm certainly a hungry man right now, so let's just cut the shit.
6:45 PM: Perplexed by prices
I arrive at the till with my Hungry Man, trying not to look at the obvious misprint that follows the word "calories" on the box. The price sticker says $3.50, which is causing me some trouble because I'm not actually sure how much money I have. There are plenty of coins in my pocket, but some of them say "Dime" on them and don't say anything else. I'm going to assume they are five cent pieces because they're the smallest, although Christ knows British currency is no yardstick for this. I should just be glad I'm in a country that uses the decimal system: Until 1971, Britain's currency was base-16 and the principal unit was the Goat.
Regardless, I have what I think is exactly $3.50, and with relief, I see that the lady has recovered from her mid-shop crotch explosion and is now ready to serve me, so I give her the Hungry Man and then groan with exhausted exasperation as I see $3.80 appear on the screen. There is no longer any logic to my persecution. At this point, I have to assume that the entire world simply hates me.
It will later be explained to me that no one actually includes sales tax in their price tags, and I will then explain that this is flamingly retarded like everything else in this stupid country, and it will finally be explained that in conclusion I am an asshole who probably wants to sleep on the couch tonight.
6:50 PM: Confused by a credit conundrum
But right now, all I want is my goddamned Hungry Man. As a last resort, I give Mrs. McClimax my credit card and stand back waiting for the next thing to go wrong, which it does with remarkable speed. "Crebid O'Debbid," she mumbles, lips rubbery from the afterglow.
"I... uh... beg your pardon?" I ask.
"Credible Debbie," she responds.
I am now in serious trouble. As an English person, I cannot ask someone to repeat something more than once, because that would be embarrassing myself and causing a fuss. My only option is to do a slow half-nod, but for god's sake not to look as if I'm actually saying "yes" to anything. So I try this. I tilt my head up noncommittally and pray she will show mercy.
She does not. "CREDIT," she blares, staring at me in a way that makes me want to crawl back inside my mother, "OR DEBIT."
No one likes their toast done on one side, Sting. No one. Also, this is the last Sting picture in this article.
Now I understand why this made no sense to me. No one ever asks you that in England. Your credit card does not have the potential to magically change into a debit card when out of view. It is either one or the other. You do not have to wrestle with a quantum paradox every time you purchase some crisps, and I don't believe I will ever understand why this has to be different in America.
With the flippancy of total incomprehension, I tell the lady that my credit card is a credit card, and then I ask her if she needs any further elucidation on this point. The rest of the transaction proceeds in stony silence, but I don't care. I've got my Hungry Man, and the day is over. I am going home.
7:30 PM: Attempting conversation with one's American wife
But even after the Hungry Man palpitations have subsided and I'm fairly sure my arteries aren't going to snake out of my body and strangle my brain, the pain still isn't over, because I'm not allowed to go to bed without getting laughed at for a good hour-and-a-half first.
Conversation with my wife often ends with fits of hilarity on her part; hilarity which will ultimately result in her brutal murder and distribution to the various local dogs whom she adores so much. The reason, you see, is that all my English idioms are just so blooming cute that they make her crack up whenever I'm attempting a serious conversation. This would be fine, provided I was able to laugh back in her face with equal force. The problem is that I can't. And here's why:
English people have been reared on Americana since the day they were born. I spent my toddling years watching Sesame Street, and when I reached the appropriate age of maturity (seven-years old) my sister introduced me to Aliens and Nightmare On Elm Street. As I stumbled through the rest of my "childhood," hollow-eyed and weird, I already understood American slang, and I knew who was a cultural icon in America and who wasn't. We all did.
But it doesn't work both ways. Aside from the slang barrier, Americans have absolutely no idea about English celebrities. Not unless they're That Guy From Love Actually, or they've starred in an English sitcom funny enough for it to be remade with completely different cast, characters, story and overarching ambiance. This is understandable, since most English celebrities are really ugly, but it does make our conversations somewhat lopsided.
I mean, LOOK at the fucker.
In an ironic reversal, I now feel like that lover who has noted down all of his partner's tastes and phobias, knows what her friends do for a living and can talk with eloquent comprehension about every aspect of her life, but he never gets the chance because his lover doesn't actually know they're going out, or even that he exists. England is basically the pathetic stalky "friend" of America who will one day snap, threaten America with a knife and end up getting buggered in jail by a swarthy continent sporting a teardrop tattoo.
12:00 AM: To sleep, perchance to write a pithy and moving conclusion to this article
And so another day ends in this totally normal, totally bewildering country. There's an old saying that Britain and America are countries divided by a common language; but in reality, they're divided by everything humanly possible, and the pettiness of the divisions don't make them feel any less alien.
My wife is indifferent towards you, Sting. But I hate you so much. I just wanted you to know.
Still, as I pull up my all-American comforter, wondering why in Christ we couldn't just buy a duvet (in England, duvets are ten-a-penny, much like the fabled mechanokettle) it occurs to me to wake my wife up and tell her that no country is right, and no country is wrong; we are simply different, and it's our differences that make us strong.
And later, as I stare blearily at the clock from my position on the living-room couch, it also occurs to me that I can pass the night by buying some whiskey from the 24-hour drive-thru liquor store and then firing a gun right outside my bedroom window. I think I'm going to like it here after all.
When not writing sting dismemberment fanfiction, Tim Cameron is a gaming addict trying (and failing) to go straight. Feel his pain at www.thesillyaddiction.com