Monday, May 10, 2010

An American In Confusion

So the Tories both won and lost then? Jo scratched her head in confusion. My wife has been loyally trying to share my excitement for the drama of the last few days; however, explaining to an American how the party with the most votes doesn’t automatically become the government is like reasoning with Izzy, our one-year-old, about why she can’t play with the remote control. To her it’s just unfair.

“But if the Tories can’t form a government without Nick Clegg, and Labour got fewer votes than the Tories, why didn’t the Queen just tell Gordon Brown to start packing?”

As I take a deep breath and prepare for a dissertation on the role of the monarchy I warm the teapot – another peculiar English custom with no apparent purpose.

This week we celebrated our fifth anniversary since Jo joined me on an Italian cookery course and never went home. Since then we’ve acquired two dogs, a house, a baby and a marriage. And every day she discovers something about British life to amaze and confuse her.

Roundabouts, Radio Four, rugby: there’s a never-ending list of extraordinary British traditions she’s come to accept. One of the things I most enjoy about living with her is that she questions all sorts of things I’ve always taken for granted. Like George, the postman.

Every morning he drives his van 20 miles from the sorting office to our house to deliver our bills. An hour later I drive to the village to put a pile of envelopes into a postbox which someone then takes out, puts into a van and takes back to George’s sorting office. “So why doesn’t George simply pick up our post when he comes round in the morning?” In fact, George does exactly this if we ask him - he's the best postman I've ever had in the UK - but it's only as a favour because I know it isn't common Royal Mail policy: if Britain adopted this system, which is standard throughout the United States, it would save the country a fortune and make all our lives easier. Over there every home has a mailbox outside with a little flag which you put up if you have any outgoing mail. Simples.

Jo would make a great prime minister. In just five minutes she would have sorted out not only the mail service (the word “post” would be redundant, as we’d no longer actually post anything), but also restored hygiene to our cities with weekly collections from bins large enough to hold all our rubbish, insisted that pubs offer more options than just roast dead animal for Sunday lunch (fine once a month, but every week?), and, top of her policy agenda, revolutionised the beauty salon.

Why can’t they do a manicure and a pedicure at the same time? Here it takes two hours and costs a fortune. In LA I can get both done in 20 minutes. And don’t get me onto shopping malls. How dare they charge you for parking when you’re only there to buy stuff from them?

Next week her parents fly in for a holiday. Jo asked me to make sure there are plenty of flowers in the garden. I tried patiently explaining how in Southern California you just ring up some Mexican gardeners and they come bearing instant blooms. Over here we have seasons and the herbaceous border has a mind of its own. What with this cold spell and the long winter, we’ll be lucky to have a bedful by October. She’s not impressed.

Northumberland be warned: there’ll be three Americans in the county next week, questioning our way of life. I’ve thought of hiring a local travel guide to help me with the more difficult comments. “Why do you call this little road A1 when there’s only one lane?” they’ll ask when we head up the coast towards Holy Island. “Why do your tea shops close at 4.30pm – isn’t that tea time?”

But the most important question my father-in-law will want answered, as we sit round the roaring fire in late May, will be: how on earth could a nice Democrat like Clegg ever believe he should share power with an arch Republican like Cameron? He’ll find that one completely incomprehensible.

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