Monday, September 21, 2009

Strange Things Have Happened

When does the place you live become "home"? It certainly isn't something that happens overnight, regardless of whether you're relocating halfway round the world or just moving into a new house. Instead, it is a change that takes place incrementally. Over time, you become more comfortable with your new surroundings, novel experiences become everyday, the foreign becomes familiar.

And so it has been with me and San Francisco; over the past two years or so, I have been undergoing the steady transformation from outsider to resident. Sure, my accent and immigration status are just two things to remind me that I'm still officially a foreigner in the United States. But that doesn't change the fact that this city now feels a lot like home.

Two events stand out as important markers along the way. The first was election night last November. The announcement that Obama had triumphed would have been a cause for celebration no matter where I was living. But that night as I danced in the streets with friends, it felt like a win for the home side, for my team. Over the course of the election campaign, my stake in the result had increased mentally and even financially (as a resident I may not have been allowed to actually vote, but I was able make campaign contributions). And now, at the end, surrounded by jubilant locals, it wasn't just their guy who had won, but mine too.

The second was more recently on the Fourth of July. My wife and I spent the day with friends in the East Bay so that I could experience a typically American Independence Day parade, and Piedmont's festivities didn't disappoint. At times it seemed as if the whole town was marching past us (even though the whole town was also lining the street). There were jazz bands, bagpipes, cheerleaders, Irish dancers, mop-wielding sailors, people dressed up as Snow White and Uncle Sam, basketball and rugby teams tossing balls around, a samba troupe, half a jet fighter mounted on a trailer, ballet performers, and enough vintage cars to bankrupt the government's cash for clunkers scheme in one fell swoop.

Watching this strange cross-section of cultural contradictions stream past was a reminder that the United States is a country with no single cultural orthodoxy, no shared roots, not even an official language (despite the best efforts of a vocal minority). A place that may not welcome immigrants as readily as it once did, but one where the new arrivals who do make it through the red tape are assimilated faster than almost anywhere else on earth.

Which is why this is my final post here. There are still plenty of things I find remarkable and fascinating about living in America, like finding a "British" section in the ethnic food aisle of supermarkets, or the strange debate that's currently raging over whether or not to provide everyone in the US with affordable health care. And there are some things I may never fully understand, such as baseball. But I'm beginning to see all of these peculiarities as quirks of the place I live, as my weirdness, rather than something to be gazed upon with the safe, insulating distance of an outsider.

And what's the point of writing as an emigrant if I feel like a local?

You can follow my continuing adventures at my website and on my new blog Ludovician.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The terrible curse of the shrinking pint

Americans are often surprised when I tell them that we Brits share their arcane system of weights and measures.* Sure, in the UK we at least try to teach schoolkids about weird European stuff like kilograms and metres, but we also measure height in good old feet and inches, calculates road distances and speed limits using miles, and even add some extra confusion to the whole festival of irregularity by weighing ourselves in stones, which are equal to 14 pounds. And our pubs serve beer in pints, just like they do here.

Or at least I used to think they did.

I've resisted writing about this before because ranting on about "The Pint" is an effective measure of small mindedness in the UK. It is a symbol of Britain's independence from Europe second only to the portraits of the Queen that grace our coins and banknotes in importance. Indeed, for a certain section of xenophobic idiots, the idea of ordering a beer measured in millilitres would be tantamount to replacing "God Save the Queen" with "Frère Jacques", or knocking down Buckingham Palace to make way for a Volkswagen dealership, a new branch of Ikea and a couple of pizza restaurants.

While I don't agree with such sentiments, I have come to realise that the British pint is more important to me than I thought it was. I'm not talking about the fact that pints back home are about 20 percent bigger than American ones (568 ml compared to 473 ml, fact fans). No, it's the way that when you order a pint in Britain, you know exactly what you'll get: a pint. But depending on where you order one here, it will vary in size from a full British pint, through a standard 16-ounce US measure, all the way down to 12 fluid ounces or less – which isn't much bigger than a half pint back home.

To compensate for serving smaller drinks, some sneaky bars even use special glasses with thicker sides and a heavy bottom that look and feel like the real thing, except that you run out of beer unexpectedly quickly. Other places, particularly music venues or clubs, tend to be a little more upfront about it, probably because there isn't much you can do to disguise the size of plastic cups. Either way, you only know what you're getting after you get your first drink in your hand as bars don't tend to advertise the size of their pours, and prices rarely change to reflect smaller measures.

To someone from Britain, a country where pint glasses carry an official Government stamp and any beer not filled to the brim is immediately returned to the bar for topping up, such irregularity seems unforgiveable. No one in the States would tolerate petrol stations that sold pint-sized gallons, or butchers who shaved an ounce or two off a pound of meat, so why the laissez faire attitude to beer?

Thankfully there is a silver lining to all this bar-based debasement of measurements: the spirits pours here are similarly irregular in size, but uniformly generous when compared to the mean thimblefuls that are served in UK pubs. So perhaps in future I should be ordering a half and a half instead.

* NOTE: Many of Britain's Imperial measurements differ from United States Customary Units in size. However, both systems share a common ancestor, which explains their many similarities - including a complete lack of logic or common sense.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The dollar fades, but refuses to die

One result of all the recent economic chaos and tumult has been a dramatic change in the value of the US dollar on international exchange rates. It has dipped against the yen, swung both ways against the euro, and soared against the sickly sterling. But the value of the physical one dollar bill - the banknote rather than the currency - never seems to change. Immune to the ravages of time and inflation, it holds a special place in the hearts of an American public that can't seem to let it go.

These strange, battered pieces of paper seem like a relic of a bygone age to someone from the UK. The Bank of England withdrew the higher-value £1 note from circulation over 20 years ago. Britain's lowest denomination banknote these days, the fiver, is worth around $7.25, and at one point last year it leapfrogged even the US $10 bill in value.

There have been several efforts to replace the humble greenback with $1 coins over the years, but all have failed. And little wonder: the most recent version looks and feels more like a car-wash token than a unit of currency. But that alone can't fully explain the reluctance to part with paper dollars. Perhaps it has something to do with bar culture here. Tipping serving staff just wouldn't be the same using small change rather than small notes (although at least dollar coins wouldn't get as soggy when left on wet bars). Or maybe Americans simply prefer fat wallets to bulging pockets: A thick billfold always feels nice, even if it is largely padded out with ones and not one-hundreds.

Whatever the reason, the original George Dubya (Washington, whose portrait graces the dollar bill) looks set to stay with us for at least a while longer.