USA vs. UK: Commemorating World War I

Earlier this month marked the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. This has been commemorated by all sorts of ceremonies and events attended by royalty and political leaders.

But I feel like Britons have been commemorating World War I since I moved here 1.5 years ago. There’s been a non-stop barrage of books and documentaries about the conflict. Each one seem to take turns coming under criticism for ignoring a crucial element (“this book ignores the suffering of civilians,” “this documentary fails to mention the contributions of soldiers from New Zealand,” etc.)

Each year in October and November, Britons wear “Remembrance Poppies” on their lapels. You get one for making a donation to a charity that supports current and former military personnel. Technically, the poppies commemorate all soldiers who have died in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. But the focus is on World War I. After all, the poppies were inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields.”

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In British politics, the poppies are roughly equivalent to the American flag pins that US politicians wear. If an elected official appears in public without a poppy, he obviously doesn’t support the troops. (But, seriously, who wouldn’t wear one? They look so good.)

As an American, the focus on World War I is curious to me. Americans hear about World War II on a regular basis, but its predecessor is largely ignored.

This is what I know about World War I:

  1. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated; people started fighting.
  2. After a long time, America got involved.
  3. In a 10th grade history class, our teacher told us that President Woodrow Wilson made a campaign promise to keep America out of the war. He lied. This outraged me at a tender age and probably helped steer me onto my path towards libertarianism.

I’ve heard a theory that it would have been better if America had stayed out. Both European sides were about evenly matched, so they would have been forced to reach an equitable peace settlement. The Treaty of Versailles that followed American intervention was unduly harsh on the Germans and helped fuel Hitler’s rise to power. I’d need to study the matter more closely but that sounds very plausible.

Obviously, Word War I had a much deeper impact here than it did in the US. Nearly 1 million British soldiers were killed (as opposed to about 117,000 Americans out of a much larger population). Aside from the terrible losses, there was also the complete disruption of society.

Beyond that, I sometimes wonder if the British emphasis on commemorating World War I is an attempt to make up for the meaninglessness of the conflict.

Well, these are some quick thoughts about one way Britain differs from America. It’s good to honor the brave soldiers who gave their lives – as long as you maintain a healthy perspective on the leaders who start the wars. Come October, you will see me wearing a poppy.

You Can Walk-In Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave

nhs-logoWe’ve all seen homeless people acting crazy in libraries. It’s unsettling. I have friends who are librarians, and they tell me these are very tough situations for them to deal with. It’s obvious why a homeless person is attracted to a library – it’s a public building with air-conditioning and bathrooms where they can hang out for extended periods.

Well, in England, there’s another place like that: NHS Walk-In Centers. What is a Walk-In Center? I think it’s supposed to fall somewhere between a doctor’s office and the emergency room. Basically, you can “walk-in” at any time during opening hours (typically 9-5) and be seen by a nurse. Walk-In Centers don’t have x-ray equipment, so if you think you’ve broken a bone you should head to the ER.

Apparently, one of the primary functions of Walk-In Centers is to dispense contraception. At the one in Exeter, there’s a large sign in the lobby advising that you can’t get condoms from the receptionist. You have to see a nurse.

Walk-In Centers are like a general public space where everyone feels free to stop by – for any reason. When I was there last week, a lady asked the receptionist for a blank sheet of paper and then left again. Because the NHS’s care is free at the point of use, pretty much everyone who says they are ill has to be seen. The nurses at Walk-In Centers are more like social workers than medical professionals.

Like any sane person, I avoid the Walk-In Center like the plague. I’m registered as a patient with a local doctors’ office, and I’m generally happy with the care they give me. But there is one area where I occasionally have a problem: I require regular blood tests for an issue with my thyroid. For some reason, at my doctors’ office, you always have to wait 2-3 weeks for a phlebotomist appointment. I’m normally good about scheduling them in advance but I forgot to do that when I spent a month in Brazil this spring. So I had to get my blood drawn at the Walk-In Center instead.

As I arrived, three police officers were dragging a half-dressed, tattoo-covered homeless man out the door. I shared the waiting room with another crazy homeless man who was loudly singing a mix of gospel and pop songs. Then arrived a teenage girl with a baby named “Bella” (surely not the only teenage pregnancy caused by those Twilight books) talking on her cell phone about her fights with her boyfriend. I had to wait 1.5 hours. The nurse who finally drew my blood did such a bad job that I had to wear long sleeves for a week because I worried people would think I’m a heroin user.

Last week, I was forced to frequent the Walk-In Center again because the phlebotomist at my doctors’ office had called in sick. Thankfully, I had learned a few lessons from my previous visit. So this time everything went fairly well.

Here are my top tips for visiting an NHS Walk-In Center:

  1. Arrive early in the morning. There’s almost no one else there and you’ll be seen quickly. Apparently, crazy people like to sleep in.
  2. Bring a bottle of water. Air conditioning is not guaranteed.
  3. Bring your ipod. To drown out the homeless singing guy, obviously.
  4. Bring an educational book to read. Then at least you’ll feel like you got something useful out of the experience.

So that’s how I’ve learned to make my visits slightly better. But, man, I hope I’ll never have to walk-in to a Walk-In Center ever again.

A Week of Freedom in Cambridge

Last week, I had the great privilege of attending Freedom Week, a seminar on classical liberal ideas co-organized by the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute.

Freedom Week was held at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, which was founded in 1596 by Lady Frances Sidney. She was the aunt of the poet Philip Sidney. The college’s most famous (to be honest, its only famous) alumnus is Oliver Cromwell. His death mask frowned at us disapprovingly in the room where we had our lectures. I tried to sit out of his line of sight.DSCN1989

An easy train-ride from London, Cambridge is usually overrun with tourists. But when you’re staying in a college, you have an oasis of calm in which to escape the hordes. I grew very fond of Sidney Sussex. I felt completely at home dashing between the various court yards to get from meals to lectures, etc.

DSCN1997DSCN2005There were about 30 other attendees, most of them undergraduates. If I wasn’t the oldest, I certainly felt like it when 1) I mentioned to one girl that I am married and she looked at me like that was strangest thing she’d ever heard, and when 2) I got up at 2am to tell some drunk people in the hallway to be quiet.

Visits to the pub were an important part of the week. I went along sometimes but never stayed very late. I would say I’m getting too old for that sort of thing – but this would imply that I was once young enough. And I don’t think I ever was.

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We typically had 4 lectures per day. These ranged in topic from spontaneous order to monetary policy to sin taxes. There was a surprisingly fascinating lecture on prison gangs in the US. Apparently, gangs arose to provide extralegal protection as a result of the exploding size of prison populations. I was relieved to hear that women’s prisons don’t usually have gangs. After all, you never know.

DSCN2010During one panel discussion, a speaker said that the greatest threat to liberty is…robots. I arched an eyebrow, but then he explained that in the future robots will take over all low-skill jobs. He thinks that about 10-20% of humanity lacks the mental capacity to do anything other than a low-skill job. So we will need a large welfare state to give them handouts. Personally, I’m more optimistic about the market’s ability to create new jobs in the face of technological advances. But it is an interesting question.

When I got home on Saturday, my husband and I watched a new science fiction show called Extant. It envisions a future in which robots are so much like humans that they live in our homes as members of our families. Immediately, I began to ponder the questions raised at Freedom Week. Extant’s lead characters are successful scientists and astronauts. But is there also an underclass that lives off these rich people’s tax dollars?

Freedom Week presented me with many interesting ideas. I’m inspired to read more and develop my understanding. I met cool people who I hope to keep in touch with. So it would ironic if 20 years from now the main thing I took away from Freedom Week was an abiding fear of robots.

Shopping at Primark

On this blog, I’ve written about Cath Kidston, a very tasteful and very expensive chain of English stores. Now let’s talk about the opposite end of the British shopping spectrum: Primark.

How to describe Primark? I guess it’s mainly a clothing store, but it also has makeup, houseware, and all sorts of random stuff that you couldn’t even imagine existed (yet find yourself buying).

Primark’s chief attraction is that everything is very inexpensive. A lot of their clothes are really tacky but they also have tons of great basics. I still remember the first time I entered a Primark. It was in 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland, when I was spending a few days there for a conference. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I bought so much, it didn’t fit in my suitcase and I had to wear 3 layers of Primark clothes on the airplane home.

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I think many foreigners have experienced the same sense of rapture. Last week, I was in the Primark in Exeter while it was being overrun by a horde of very fashionable Italian teenagers. They were probably in town on a school trip, and I got the impression this was the highlight.DSCN1978

Primark definitely caters to their tourist shoppers. They offer loads of products featuring the Union Jack. That’s hard to find elsewhere so Primark is my top destination to buy gifts for friends back in America. And, well, to buy stuff for me. I love the Union Jack. It’s beautiful, and I like to display my affection for this country.

So I mentioned that Primark is very inexpensive. As you may have guessed, that also means it’s not very good quality.

Here are my top tips for Primark clothes:

  1. Don’t ever put them in the dryer. You are sentencing them to death.
  2. Wash at the lowest temperature that is still hygienic.
  3. Buy clothes a couple sizes too big. Even if you’ve been following tips 1 and 2, they will shrink dramatically. I recently bought adorable pink flannel pajamas that were big enough for a sumo wrestler. A couple washes later, they almost fit.

So have fun at Primark. You’ll end up buying more than you intended. Some of it will be stylish. None of it will last long. But at those prices, who really cares?

Scourge of the Air: Why I Hate Seagulls

DSCN1974Today, I was visiting my local library when I overhead a patron approaching the librarian. He was concerned about some disturbance outside being caused by the seagulls. The librarian paused for a few moments and then – unsurprisingly – said, “Well, I’m not sure what I can do about that.” Nonetheless, I observed that she and the patron spent the next 10 minutes looking out the window, discussing what the seagulls were up to.

I then left. But I’m sure they eventually took no action whatsoever. I’m also sure that, whatever those seagulls were doing, it was pure evil.

Seagulls, as I’ve discovered, are vicious. They are the rats of the air. Living near the sea has some advantages, but this is a major downside. In our previous apartment, the trash bins were easily accessible to seagulls who would forage through them for food. Fortunately, in our current house, we can put our bins in a covered spot. But that doesn’t mean I’ve escaped the seagulls’ reign of terror.

When we were in Teignmouth, my husband and I thought it would be nice to get some takeout and enjoy it on a bench overlooking the sea. Big mistake. We were immediately surrounded by 3 seagulls who started to slowly creep in towards us. Then suddenly one of them jumped into the air and started flapping its wings right above our heads. In the scuffle that ensued, I lost the food I was holding. We beat a hasty retreat and finished our meal in our hotel lobby.

Last summer, before my very eyes, a seagull snatched my father-in-law’s ice cream cone right out of his hand. He was left with a dazed expression holding the bottom part of the wafer.

And then today, seagulls stole taxpayer funds in the form of that librarian’s time. I’m sure she could have processed at least 3 returns in the time she spent looking out that window.

To the seagulls of Exeter, I say: some people may think you’re cute, but I’m on to you. I guess we have to put up with each other. But, please, stay away from my trash bins.

The Riviera That’s Just Around the Corner

Did you know England has its own Riviera? I certainly didn’t until I lived here. The “English Riviera” is a natural harbor on the English Channel in the south of Devon (the county in which we live). The Riviera’s resort towns with their lovely sandy beaches had their heyday in the Victorian era. Apparently, as many as 10,000 tourists per week would make the 5-hour train ride from London. Today, the English Riviera still has a distinctly Victorian look. (So does much of England. But that’s another topic.)

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Some of the resort towns have planted palm trees in their public parks. It’s nice that they’re embracing their “Riviera” image. But, to me, the sight of palm trees in the drizzling rain is just depressing.

Last week was my birthday. To celebrate, my sweet husband arranged a 2-day trip for us to Teignmouth, one of the smallest towns in the English Riviera. We wanted to get away, but not have to travel very far. Teignmouth was the perfect choice. We had a very relaxed 40-minute train ride and alighted beneath the staggering beauty of red sandstone cliffs.

Our hotel was around the corner from a house where John Keats lived for a short period. This being Devon, it rained incessantly during his stay. He wrote to a friend, “We are here still enveloped in clouds. I lay awake last night listening to the rain, with a sense of being drowned and rotted like a grain of wheat.” I completely understand how he feels.

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We attended a folk music evening in the local pub. Different musicians took turns singing and everyone joined in the choruses. One gentleman played a beautiful song from the Irish independence movement.

When apples still grow in November
When Blossoms still bloom from each tree
When leaves are still green in December
It’s then that our land will be free
I wander her hills and her valleys
And still through my sorrow I see
A land that has never known freedom
And only her rivers run free

I found this deeply moving, but then he followed it up with a song he’d written himself about the tragedy of car factories shut down when subsidies and protectionism were withdrawn. I don’t think he entirely understands the meaning of freedom.

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We also took the “ferry” from Teignmouth to Shaldon. It would be more accurate to say its a 5-minute ride in a tiny boat. But apparently there’s been continuous ferry service there since 1296. Shaldon has a mysterious “Smuggler’s Tunnel” that gives access to a tiny beach called Ness Cove. Walking there, I was imagining scenes from a Daphne DuMaurier novel. Later I read that the tunnel was actually commissioned by a local aristocrat to make it easier to access Ness Cove. Sigh.

DSCN1916Oh well. Such small disappointments aside, the English Riviera is a wonderful place for a vacation. I highly recommend it. Those Victorians knew what they were on to.

 

 

Mary Poppins No More: The Demise of English Nannies

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What’s more English than an English nanny? Surely she’s up there with institutions like tea, red phone boxes, the BBC, and Beefeaters.

Well, not anymore. Apparently, today’s English nannies are lazy. Britain’s upper classes are hiring foreigners to look after their offspring.

For Americans, the first English nanny we think of is, of course, Mary Poppins. With her steely yet gentle gaze, she swept into the Banks family and sorted out their problems faster than you can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” More recently, there was Nanny McPhee, portrayed by Emma Thompson. She was a lot uglier than Mary Poppins, but just as competent. The dour, no-nonsense nanny is a fixture of all those English period dramas that we Americans adore.

While she still exists in TV shows, the real-life English nanny seems to be extinct. Media outlets have recently been examining the domestic arrangement of Britain’s upper classes: most of them hire a foreign nanny. Prime Minister David Cameron’s family has long employed a nanny from Nepal. When she took a long holiday a few years ago, her substitute was an Australian. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s family relies on a nanny from Belgium. The ultimate blow came last week when news broke that Prince William and Kate Middleton’s new nanny is, gasp, Spanish. Yes, the future monarch of England (i.e., the person who is supposed to embody Englishness) will be raised by a non-English nanny.

While William and Kate’s choice might seem unpatriotic, the response in England is mostly sympathetic. Many parents have been sharing their own terrible experiences with English nannies. Apparently, they take long lunches and lots of sick days. They talk on their cellphones when they should be watching your children. They refuse to help out around the house. They’re always reminding their bosses that some things are not in their job description.

One commentator wrote about asking her nanny to put mashed potatoes on top of the family’s shepherd’s pie. The nanny only put it on the children’s half – to make the point that she only performs tasks related to the children, not the adults. That’s an extreme example. But I have some sympathy for the nannies when it comes to domestic chores. If you’re hired to watch the kids, you shouldn’t also be the cleaning lady. Even the character Nanny West on Downton Abbey insists that she’s “not a servant.”

Either way, unless these nannies get their act together, they will be living only on English TV screens and not in English homes.

 

 

 

The Next King of Scotland: 4 Contenders

In September, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether they want to stay in the United Kingdom or become independent. Obviously, disentangling countries that have been united for centuries is a complicated business. Proponents of independence would like to keep the British Pound as Scotland’s currency. However, UK government leaders recently announced that that will not be permitted. (After all, Britons have only to look across the Channel to see that currency union without political union is a bad idea).

Most Scots would like to keep the Pound. Thus, the announcement is seen as a blow to the campaign for Scottish independence.

I have a suggestion to rejuvenate it: get a King

Under the current plan for Scottish independence, Queen Elizabeth II will stay on as head of state. (This is basically the same set up that countries like Canada and Australia have.)  If the Scots have their own currency, I think they should put their own monarch’s face on it. Queen Elizabeth would visit independent Scotland, at best, a couple times a year. A serious country needs more than a part-time head of state. Liechtenstein (population 36,000) has a full-time monarch. Surely Scotland should have one too.

Here are my top 4 contenders for a new King of Scotland:

1. Prince Harry

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The birth of Prince George last summer makes it very unlikely that Prince Harry will ever take the British throne. He would bring glamour and prestige to Scotland. He seems open to the role. As a teenager, Harry was once asked by a journalist if he’d like to be King of England. He replied “I’d love it!” Well, Harry, I’m afraid it’s only Scotland. But it’s still pretty good.

2. Prince Edward

Prins Edward, earl av Wessex - version 4Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son is a safe bet. He’s been plugging away at his royal duties for years – with very little public recognition. The people of Scotland could rely on him to be a faithful and devoted King. He’s been happily married to his wife Sophie for 15 years – so there wouldn’t be any royal divorce dramas. Bonus: he already has 2 kids so the heir and the spare are guaranteed.

3. Sean Connery

Sean_Connery_1999He was voted “Scotland’s greatest living national treasure” in a poll. So it’s not a very big stretch for him to become King. Also, he is an outspoken supporter of Scottish independence. He was knighted by the Queen in 2000, so he’s already comfortable with a title. As a trained actor, he would deliver his royal speeches with perfect pitch and inflection. And, c’mon, who wouldn’t want James Bond as their King?

4. My husband Lucas

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OK, I realize he has no connection to Scotland whatsoever. But I guarantee that he would rule Scotland with wisdom and justice. He rejects war as politics by other means. And he would abdicate his throne before he would allow the Central Bank to play games with Scotland’s new currency. Also, we visited the royal palace in Edinburgh last year (see photo). Wouldn’t we look good on a postcard?

Who do YOU think should be the next King of Scotland?

Photos of Prince Harry, Prince Edward and Sean Connery courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Instant coffee: England’s Beloved Beverage

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Let’s play a word association game. What springs to mind when you hear “instant coffee”? It’s probably things like:

Nasty stuff
Pond scum
Worst-case scenario
Only coffee left after a zombie attack

To English people, instant coffee is just normal coffee. They even seem to think it’s an interesting, varied beverage. I first encountered this several years ago when I was still living in the Netherlands. My company sent me on a training course in London. For our morning break, the organizers set out some lovely pastries, assorted fine teas and … 4 different types of instant coffee. I was dumbstruck. But no one else batted an eyelid. Many people helped themselves to one of the 4 jars. I opted for tea.

Recently, I’ve been doing some part-time work at a local office. The building management supplies free instant coffee. Surprisingly, many of my colleagues are opting to bring their own instant coffee from home. They buy fancier kinds. I accept that some types of instant coffee are less awful than others. But I’ve tried the stuff our building supplies. It is decent quality. It’s even Fair Trade. So why do my colleagues pay money for a product that will always be inferior when they can get it for free?

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In America, instant coffee is widely seen as a poor substitute for the real thing. I remember the uproar several years ago when Starbucks introduced a line of instant. They were seen as devaluing their brand.

Great Britain has never had a great coffee culture. I remember Agatha Christie’s legendary words, “Coffee in England always tastes like a science experiment.” That’s changed a bit in recent years. High-quality coffee bars are gaining popularity. Exeter has several wonderful ones, and they all seem to do good business. But I think English people see coffee as a two-tiered beverage. There is the $4 café latte they savor on Saturday morning while chatting with a friend. But that has no connection to the packet of instant they plop into some hot water at their office on Monday morning.

Far be it from me to tell anyone what they can or cannot drink. Enjoy your instant coffee, English people. But please keep your mugs full of science experiment far away from me.

How to Talk to English People: 4 Proven Tips

I’ve been living in England for over a year now. I’ve learned a lot about local culture, but I’m still struggling on the social front. While I have a large circle of English acquaintances, I have only a few friends. And that’s certainly not for lack of effort on my part.

Here’s four things I’ve learned along the way:

1) English people aren’t unfriendly. They’re just awkward.
When you meet an English person, they may give you a limp handshake, look down while they speak to you, and back away slowly while you speak to them. When I first moved here, I assumed that meant they didn’t like me. I now realize that 1) they do it to everyone and 2) they don’t mean it badly. They’re just awkward. And they’re probably suffering more under their awkwardness than I am.

2) Names are private
English people don’t like to divulge their names at a first meeting. They consider names to be private. It’s so weird. Back in America, when I met someone new, I usually introduced myself with both my first and my last name. This is practical and convenient for many reasons. But in England, you can have an extended conversation with a person who has never actually introduced themselves. One solution that I’ve tried is to casually say, “By the way, I didn’t catch your name” at the end of a conversation. English people usually respond with an awkward laugh and say, “Oh but I hadn’t told you my name.” Then they will tell it to me as if they’re revealing a state secret.

3) Everything else is private, too
English people get suspicious when you ask them about, well, anything. In America, it’s quite normal to ask someone you’ve just met a few questions to find some common ground. Warning: do not try this on English people. They react very badly to your innocent queries about where they work or how long they’ve lived in this city. What harm do they possibly think you could do them with that information? I have no idea.

4) The weather: Your dynamite conversation starter
In England, the only topic that is always acceptable to discuss with anyone at any time is the weather. The awkwardness disappears. When you talk to an English person about the weather, you are meeting them on their home turf. For me, conversational fodder has been especially rich in recent weeks because my region has been afflicted by heavy rains and flooding. For the sake of my social life, I hope it keeps raining for a long time.

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