From a place called Kentucky…

photo by rhythmzslave on flickr

I am a quiet American. At least compared to most Americans in London who, even to my ears, sound loud.

Recently a British friend said to me, “Americans like to talk, don’t they?” and I didn’t know what to say. I never really thought of it like that. Americans here are more extroverted than your average Brit. I will risk generalization and say it’s not so much that we like to talk but we are spared that shy awkwardness that marks the Londoner’s public face.

I have learned this face well and am mostly silent. This is interesting, especially when the idea of “the American” comes up. I have heard everything from “eating meat is in their blood” to “they have no right to be in England. Why are they here?” (said a knitter who glowered over her clacking needles while tsking the deportation of two of my fellow ex-pat knitters.)

Any American that doubts that we are hated the world over should do a bit of traveling. We are easy to dislike simply because so few of us do travel and those that do are often obnoxious. We come from a service culture where even if you have little money, you can go to a restaurant and eat well and be “taken care of” in a way that is unheard of in the UK or Europe. And that’s why so many people travel to the US, to partake of this hospitality. It’s also the reason that most of Europe and the UK find American tourists obnoxious– Americans are hoping for the service and value they find at home, and here that is reserved for the ultra wealthy. At a recent job I had to attend a seminar on “customer service” where many presenters apologized for the idea which they said was “very American.”

Of course, if one is an American living in London, there is a good chance you are one of the ultra wealthy– it is quite difficult to obtain a visa to live here unless you are rich, highly skilled or married to a Brit. Very few people here know what range of Americans actually exist. They fail to understand that most Americans, just like your average Brit, are struggling to make a decent life for themselves against a government that has stacked the odds against them. And we both love American movies, American shopping and American food too. Maybe there is some small comfort in the monoculture being exported. We now all have something in common.

In the gym locker room today I heard a few ladies discussing rude customs officers in America, and they began to generalize so that soon it was the entire nation that was thoughtless and gluttonous and rude. One woman said, “Well, if you were American, you wouldn’t want anyone to know because everyone would just hate you and slag you off.” And there was a hum of agreement. Another said, “And can they eat! They are like pigs! Eating enough for a whole family for one meal! The portions!” And they then went on to describe the many holidays they had taken to different parts of America and the food they had eaten there, and how marvelous it was but the drawback was having to eat it with so many gluttonous Americans. (More tsking). Finally I said, “I miss those big meals– especially a nice big salad. Or having a great big drink when you’re thirsty. You can’t really get those things here, unless of course it’s beer.”

And they looked at me wide eyed and then agreed that Unlimited Refills ™ was a revelation, and why don’t they have them here? Another woman mentioned what a great time she had at Sea World where she bought a cup with a whale on it that she could fill as often as she liked. And someone else had gone shopping in New York, and another had stayed at some posh hotel in Vegas, and wasn’t it a bargain?

And then another girl said, “And the KFC there is better. The biscuits aren’t sweet and crisp like here– they are warm and fluffy and so good.” Here in London there is a KFC on every high street, and countless “Yankee Chicken” clones which I have happily avoided for the past three years, but most people here seem to live on this stuff.

Another went on to wonder, “Why can’t they make those biscuits here?”

And someone else said, “Because it’s from there, innit?” She looked at me for affirmation.

“Yes. It’s from Louisville.”

Blank looks.

“Louisville, Kentucky. It’s in the South.” I thought about grits with butter, and the familiar twang of my great-aunt’s voice when she would say, well, good night! when something amazed her.

But they were already on to talking about lobster in New England.

4 thoughts on “From a place called Kentucky…

  1. I’ve noticed that everyone loves to hate America, but in my experience being an American abroad is great. You’re like some kind of magical, albeit frightening, animal.

  2. I have really enjoyed this article. You are so right. I am an inhabitant of Amsterdam and I live not far from Central Station in a house that is partially rented to young American Tourists. Yes, they expect service in restaurants and bars, but if you are looking for service and a kind reception anywhere in Amsterdam I am afraid you have hit the worst spot on the planet. Even after drinking plenty Vodka-7s and a copious meal drowned in precious wines with friends — which adds up to an enormous bill, I am being shouted at and abused by the owner of the restaurant if I ask for a clean fork for dessert. When an outburst like that does not happen, I will always politely ask the waiter if he has any problems he may want to discuss with me.
    Amsterdam is the last place on earth, where anybody can get good service. It is not available for us, the citizens of Amsterdam, so I can only wonder how they respond to Americans in restaurants who like to keep waiters from their work with detailed discussions about the ingredients of the meal they are about to be served.
    Still, I think some Americans expect any other country to be just like the US. For instance eating with one hand under the table, instead of using both knife and fork to eat, can cause irritation here more than the loudness of speech. Another thing that bothers us is that a small group of young Americans does not understand that smoking dope and drinking loads of alcohol simultaneously can create severe toxic problems, causing vomiting and fainting.
    But we take all of that with the kind of understanding that one would reserve for a yet undiscovered tribe in the Amazon. We start to become really obnoxious when the Brits come over for the weekends to buy cigarettes and to smoke too much dope only to top the day off with the worst mistake of all; by entering a bar that does not close until 6:00 AM. (Unlike the neighborhood pub, that has a lot of resemblance to a gas station for alcoholics in times of shortage. And no, drinking luke warm beer by the bucket is not my idea of happy socializing either… )
    Traveling to the US is not an option for me, despite the weak dollar. The good service you mention reminds me — and a lot of other Dutchies — of the black pages in our history books slavery and colonialism. Looking at a waiter dressed as a chicken who makes funny dance steps while singing a song before taking the order, makes me feel really uncomfortable.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, HvdK. I have been to Amsterdam and seen the obnoxiousness you refer to– it can be rather grim, particularly the Batchelor Parties and groups of partying Lads.

    I want to perhaps give a bit of context to my comments about customer service in America. I suppose it is doubly frustrating for me, becasue in America I had been a waitress, a maid and a sales clerk for most of my life– all professions that involved customer service. I took pride in my work, and I wouldn’t compare it to slavery.

  4. At the risk of spamming your blog, I wish to thank you for your response and add to it. You have taken pride in the jobs you had and I would like to explain why the Dutch would rather drop dead instead of being nice to customers. On one hand they have never recovered from being the Empire that ruled The Seven Seas to become a country of dope, prostitution and ugly souvenirs. This can happen to the best of us. I could imagine the same happening to the US in the future.
    On the other hand we have lived in a socialist political climate for decades, where writers and artists would receive enormous grants to survive, even if their work was not published or exhibited. There was a right for every Dutchman to refuse a job that he or she considered to be below their intellectual standards. That is why we had to import workers from North Africa and the Mediterranean. The same people that are now blamed for structural poverty in rural areas, which I think it is a lie.
    In the last decade the Dutch have tried to become part of a World Economy and they really do their best. All good things like health insurance and other social benefits have been cut or completely abolished. It pains me to see food banks for the poor in our city, the capital of one of the richest countries in Europe.
    But whatever comes from all these changes, an Amsterdam waiter will always be a pain in the neck and maybe we should take a look at the geography of the city to understand that better. The actual Center of Amsterdam has about 150.000 inhabitants and every year it is invaded by millions of tourists who expect a free city where anything goes. Even the best of waiters start losing it after a month or two. It is just too much pressure, I believe.
    Two weeks ago I moved my server for my main site to the US of A. When my partner came home she found me behind my desk — crying. ‘What happened?’ she said. I was so choked up I could hardly answer. ‘I had this technical problem, ‘ I said. ‘You know the kind of problem that would take me ages to solve and they solved it for me in five minutes free of charge! I insisted on paying for that service, scared as I was that they would not help me in the future, but they did not accept my money.’
    ‘So what’s the problem and who are THEY?’ she replied.
    ‘Our enemies, the Americans,’ I mumbled.
    ‘Ah, now I see why you are so upset!’

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