Still dreaming of those verdant hills and robust cabernets in Napa, and inspired by the story of the Valley’s triumph in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, I’ve decided to conduct my own taste test. I won’t be judging wines, but countries. No prizes for guessing which two. My test won’t be blind and the criteria will be a little more random than those used to judge wine – things like flavour, bouquet, tannin levels, acidity, and my personal favourite, legs. But I will be awarding scores out of twenty, just as the judges in Paris did.
I fully accept that judging entire countries on the basis of some randomly chosen factors, using a sample of one (me), and incorporating data from just two cities (London and New York) is in no way fair or scientific. I ought, at least, to try to get some data from some places like Virginia Beach and Birmingham. But I haven’t got time for a scientific methodology, and neither have you. So I’m counting on you good people to indulge me in a harmless game of compare and contrast.
So. In no particular order, we begin.
PEANUT BUTTER (UK: 8/US: 20)
I knew about American peanut better before we moved here. I’ve been buying it for years. If you haven’t already tried Skippy or Jif, you really must. You’ll never go back to that chalky, flavourless rubbish that passes for peanut butter in the UK. Although you’ll have to work a bit to find the American brands. Ocado stocks them but you won’t find them in Sainsburys, Waitrose or Tesco.
ZIPLOCK BAGS (UK: 15/US: 20)
The only reason the UK comes anywhere close to the US in this category is because of Lakeland, which stocks a dozen types of storage bags which are almost up to US standards. What’s so great about the US version? They’re thick and strong and the ziplock bit actually works. They’re so good that I’ve been known to bring home several boxes stuffed in between sweaters and socks when travelling back from the US to London. Ziploc, by the SC Johnson company. That’s the brand you want.
DUST(UK: 12/US – and really, this has to be a big city thing: 20)
The dust in our apartment is epic. No sooner have you wiped down a bathtub or a window sill than you have to do it again. Dust comes in through the tiny gaps around the windows and through the air vents, or falls from the ceiling, at an alarming rate. There aren’t even any dogs living in this apartment, but the amount of dust and fluff I find under the dining room table every day is astonishing. Without my Dyson, I wouldn’t survive.
WEIRD HEALTH ISSUES (UK: 10/US: 20)
Dry mouth anyone? Nerve pain just north the toes? Me neither. But apparently such afflictions blight the lives of thousands of Americans. I know this because an advertisement featuring one or another of these forms of suffering pops up about every three minutes during any given evening of TV watching. Of course, there’s always a cure, and the cure is always a drug. But honestly, if you were experiencing nerve pain above the toes, would your first instinct be to rush to Duane Reade and pick up that miracle spray, or might you think, instead, I’d better go to see my doctor about this, find out if it’s something serious, maybe have some physiotherapy or something?
There’s an inescapable irony at the heart of all this drug advertising: in a country where so many people don’t have access to affordable healthcare, how can it be that ads about drugs and healthcare make up a such a huge proportion of TV advertising, and healthcare is such a big growth sector? Something is very, very wrong, but then, we already knew that.
MAKING CHRISTMAS LAST (UK: 18/US:20)
I’ve already mentioned the fairy lights in Yountville, California. How they were still ablaze at the end of January. It turns out that Yountville is not alone. All over New York, there are still fairy lights wrapped around tree trunks and wreaths hanging out on front doors (looking a little listless, I have to say). I thought this might represent some sort of laziness on the part of New Yorkers, or an inattention to detail, until a British friend who’s lived here for nine years set me straight. “It’s because they don’t really do Christmas here,” she explained. “They do the more politically correct holiday season, and it lasts from October to March. Those lights you’re seeing aren’t Christmas lights at all – they’re holiday lights.”
Got it. And I’m not saying I disapprove, by the way. I adore fairy lights, so as far as I’m concerned, they can stay up until June.
VOLUNTEERING (UK: 15/US:20)
It’s a pretty well known fact that the Americans do more charitable giving than the populations of most other countries. They do more volunteering as well. The World Giving Index, which measures charitable giving in terms of both money and time, puts the US second, just behind Myanmar and quite a way ahead of the UK (which comes 6th). And it just feels as though there are more volunteers here, particularly in the galleries and museums, where are volunteers of a certain age ready to assist visitors at every turn and on every floor. Two ladies who were sitting behind a desk on the ground floor at MOMA had done a day a week there for over twenty years. “We just love it, and MOMA is very good to their volunteers,” one of them gushed, but it was clear that the volunteers were also very good to MOMA.
BALL GAMES WITH ARCANE TERMS AND RULES (UK:18/US:20)
I know this is a bit rich, coming from a rugby fan, but American football really takes the biscuit. And I can even make claims to a little scientific method in this instance, because last weekend, L1 and I watched a game of Six Nations rugby and a game of American football (The Super Bowl) in quick succession. Utterances such as he’s first and ten, and they’re third and five initially had me flummoxed, but I managed to grasp something of what they meant. The rules about the end zone, however, flummox me still. First there’s the fact that although it’s called a touchdown, no one actually has to touch the ball down. Then there’s the question of whether a player was, or was not, in full control of the ball when he crossed the line, and did he stay in control of the ball, or might he have wobbled just a tiny bit, or quite a lot? And when he was heading into the end zone and he was tripped by that opposing player, was he actually running, or already falling, or something in between?
Wow. Makes calling out things like knock on or hands in the ruck look like a cinch.
It was a fabulous game of football though. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t have known which team to support, but given that one of our close friends is an ardent Eagles fan (and stood to gain from their winning) we did the honourable thing and cheered for the underdogs. You had to love the way they stole that victory right out from under the noses of the favourites. Although, I did feel sorry for the much admired quarterback for the New England Patriots, Tom Brady. That moment when he leaned back to throw the ball, and actually went through with the full motion despite the fact that an Eagle had knocked the ball clear from his hand? It made him look foolish, and I’m pretty sure Tom Brady almost never looks foolish. I was reminded of my own foolish moment, during the one and only rugby game I played in high school, when I took triumphant hold of the ball and ran the full length of the pitch – towards the wrong try line.
Hmn. Let’s take a brief pause here. Reading over all the above it seems I’ve been a little hard on the UK. So let’s turn to a few categories in which the country comes out on top.
TV DANCE SHOWS (UK:20/US:10)
No question, Strictly Come Dancing beats Dancing with the Stars by several quick-steps and a tango. The American show is brash and annoying, and the set is as nothing compared to Strictly’s. Enough said.
In the UK, we don’t wash ours in chlorine. I find it disconcerting that even when I manage to find an organic, free-range, no-antibiotics-been-anywhere-near-it chicken in a New York supermarket, I still can’t be sure it hasn’t been dunked in a swimming pool while on its way to me.
PLASTIC BAG USAGE (UK:18/US:2)
We got to grips with the plastic bag situation in the UK a few years ago. In the first year of charging 5p for a bag, the number of plastic bags used fell from seven billion to just five hundred million, meaning that there were some six and a half billion fewer bags floating around to clog up rivers and oceans, or be stuffed into landfill.
Here in New York, I’m not sure they’ve heard of the plastic crisis. I take my trusty reusable Morton Williams bags with me everywhere, and I decline the offer of packaging whenever I can. But I’m about the only one to do so, and sales assistants look at me as if I’m a bit nuts. This, despite the fact that the reusable bags are on display, available for anyone to purchase. I’ve yet to see anyone buy or carry one.
Come on, New York, you can do better than that. With more than a hundred billion bags being discarded annually across America, you need to get on board. And while you’re at it, maybe do something about those little cardboard trays they give you in Starbucks. (We store them in our coat cupboard, then every now and again L1 returns a stack of them to our local shop. The baristas never fail to look bemused when he does this. He says he’s sure they regard him as the local English eccentric.)
CONSUMER BANKING (UK:20/US:5)
I don’t even know where to begin. The consumer banking system here is verging on the prehistoric. And I’m basing this assessment on a sample of four – L1 and myself plus two other Brits who’ve been here longer than we have. If I go into all of the mind-bogglingly frustrating detail about the continued reliance on cheques, inefficient transfer facilities, charges for this transaction and even bigger charges for that transaction, and dollar limits for absolutely every mortal thing you want to do, I’m bound to lose your attention. Suffice to say that in order to pay the rent to our landlord, whose bank account is, incidentally, in the very same branch of Citibank as ours, it is easier to make the transfer from our sterling account back in the UK. Either that or I can go on-line five days in a row and make five small transfers adding up to the total amount. Thanks Citbank, but no thanks.
If any of our American friends know of a bank that doesn’t operate this way, or would like to contradict me, I’d love to hear from you. I’d switch our account in a heartbeat.
We must move on, though my frustration with the banking system has all but exhausted me before I’ve even started on the topic of mobile phones. Here we go:
MOBILE PHONE SERVICES (UK:16/US:7)
In the US, they are far better at recycling telephone numbers than they are at recycling plastic bags. This means that you constantly get random messages from random people, like Boa noite! from Jorge in Columbia, or Feliz aniversario from a woman who looks remarkably like Cher. The recycling also means that I can’t get a Duane Reade loyalty card, because the person who had my number before me already has one.
Then there’s the problem of the twenty-five sales calls you’re likely to receive every day once you turn on your new phone. I’m guessing that this happens because Verizon pass on your phone number to anyone who wants it, the minute you walk out of their shop. I became wise to this pretty quickly. Whenever a call came in from somewhere like McAllen, Texas or Hackensack, New Jersey, I declined it and immediately blocked the caller. The calls continue though, because in America there’s no shortage of people trying to sell you something.
But I don’t want to end on this sour note, moaning about unwanted calls. We’ve had a very pleasant week here in New York. Mark Rylance wowed us with his performance in Farinelli and the King, Monet’s Water Lillies dazzled me at MOMA,
we enjoyed a couple of lovely meals with friends, and we finally discovered a place in the city where it’s possible for two people to eat lunch – with wine – for under a hundred dollars.
And I’ve even made a couple of friends in our building. Jessie, who lives on the eighteenth floor, and Cooper, who lives right at the end of the hall on the fifth. Jessie’s an adorable white westie, and Cooper is a cheeky white and grey schnauzer. Their dog walker is very nice too.
I’ve also become very friendly with the lovely ladies who run the dry cleaning service located in the lobby. So all is good.
P.S. Spare a thought, and more than a little admiration, for seventy eight year old Nancy Pelosi, Leader of the Demoratic Party, who this week delivered the longest speech in history to the House. She stood – in four-inch heels! – to speak for eight hours, recounting the stories of dozens of Dreamers in an effort to persuade the House to hold a vote that will settle Dreamer status once and for all. That’s storytelling on a level that puts my thousand words a day into the shade.
P.P.S. There’s been a late entry into the taste test, courtesy of a friend (the same friend who set me straight about fairy lights): avocados. According to my friend, American avocados taste better, and you don’t have to wait a week for them to ripen. I hadn’t noticed that, but I’ll be paying more attention from now on.