One thing you learn very quickly as a British expat — I moved to New York from London with my family about three months ago — is that despite their common language, these are two very different cities. Expats like me regress from streetwise founts of urban knowledge to clueless, awkward interlopers. When you’re here on a permanent basis, the old “I’ve only just moved here” excuse doesn’t cut it after about 3 weeks.
Here are some of the major lessons I’ve learned so far, including, as you’ll see, how to spell the American way.
NEVER, EVER, EVER eat pizza with a knife and fork
Jon Stewart called it ‘the greatest sin a native New Yorker can commit.’ It doesn’t matter what Giorgio Locatelli told you on a BBC cooking show: eating pizza with a fork nearly brought down a mayor. Pizza slices should be folded by hand and shoved headlong into your face.
You are not a superhuman alcohol consumption machine
Most Brits scoff at Americans’ self-proclaimed drinking prowess — after all, we’ve been drinking cider on the village green or at the bus-stop since we were 14. Plus, we remember the pre-21s on student exchange, approaching our university’s student bar with the naïve vigour of a kid in a candy store for the first time — and retreating in a whirlwind of tears and vomit.
But when you’re a grown up, American drinks get stiffer. Beer ABVs start with numbers like 7. Cocktails are free-poured and the measures are definitely commensurate with how much you’re tipping. The best cocktail bars in London would struggle to get more than 6/10 on foursquare if they upped-sticks and slotted into the Lower East Side. Thankfully, Alka-Seltzer is very widely available.
Uber and Lyft are your best friend
You’re far too polite and self-conscious to stand a chance of hailing down a yellow taxi. There’s little chance of you achieving it without looking like Mr. Bean or saying “this is ridiculous” in haughty exasperation that makes you sound like a Downton Abbey character to any American ear. It’s a jungle out there. Make it easy on yourself. Uber. Lyft.
New Yorkers have reinvented brunch
Any meal before 4pm on the weekends is referred to as “brunch,” and this necessitates what Americans call ‘day drinking’. And lots of it. Learn in advance of the drinking how you want your eggs cooked, unless you want your new friends (and maybe the waiter) to laugh in your face when you ask for an explanation of what ‘over easy’ means.
Winter is coming
You don’t yet know what snow can mean until you’ve been in New York during a “Nor’Easter” snowstorm and seen the footpaths transformed into narrow trenches. You also don’t know what cold feels like. The record low in January in London is 23°F. In New York it’s -4°F. If you’re unfamiliar with Fahrenheit, that probably doesn’t mean all that much to you, but here’s the basic rule: anything minus in Fahrenheit is an unfeasibly awful temperature. You’ll just want it all to end. It’s genuinely horrific. Keen observers may wonder why my company decided to organise a naked run in NYC in February. That’s a good question.
New Al Fresco drinking rules
While necking a can of lager on your local high street isn’t socially acceptable, sitting out in a public park in London with an alcoholic beverage is an unalienable right. But settle down in an alluring green space in NYC with a glass of Sauvignon and you’ll feel the long arm of the law. In a complete inverse from the situation in the U.K., about the only place you are allowed to drink outside in the U.S. is on a golf course or in your garden. But this is New York, so you don’t have a garden and the nearest golf course is probably in New Jersey.
Get to know the grid — then expect to get lost anyway
On paper, London’s meandering thoroughfares, built up over 2,000 years, pose a more difficult challenge than the grid structure laid out by the pragmatic founders of New York City. Even downtown where the streets have names and a more chaotic floor plan, it’s still a simpler map. But that’s exactly the problem. Directions in New York seem so intuitive that you’re lulled into a false sense of security: “I understand the alphabet and numbers, straight lines are easy to follow!’
Big mistake. All of a sudden you’ve lost count of blocks and are wandering around Astor Place in cold sweats, too embarrassed to ask for directions, faced with the conclusion that, yes, it is more than possible to get lost even when the streets are apparently an idiot-proof alphanumeric grid. I actually once used position of the sun to help me find north, such is my affliction to asking strangers for help (male, eldest child, basic interest in astronomy).
However, the first time someone asks you for directions and you actually know the answer, you’ll feel a feeling I won’t even try to describe in words. Look forward to that.
Your apartment will be small.
I mean, very small. Look, London’s clearly expensive, but at least you get a few square meters for the extortionate prices. In New York, people feel grateful to find apartments with no windows in the living room and a shower in the kitchen. Unless you’re part of the 1%, expect to lower your standards. Brooklyn’s no panacea, either — these days, in many cases, it’s even more expensive than Manhattan.
Tip your bartender, or else
All Brits have heard about tipping, but the finer nuances are lost on most of us. 15%, or is it 20%? But here’s a rule to live by: if you do not add at least a dollar per drink to your bar tab, you will be regarded in New York as belonging to the same pantheon of evil as despotic dictators and Boston Red Sox players.
Know your sporting limitations
You played cricket at school, batted number 4 and had a mean off-spin up your sleeve. Well done. But don’t expect that to qualify you for anything other than abject failure and ridicule when you head out to Randall’s Island to play softball with your work team for the first time.
(And don’t try and explain any of what that first sentence meant to Americans. They don’t care.)
Having a British accent doesn’t make you special
Most Brits who have travelled in the U.S. can attest that there are places where “I like your accent” is a common refrain, and just opening your mouth makes you feel like a marvellous curiosity. Ordering a coffee gives you the instant gravitas and charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch. New York City is not one of these places. You’ll have to find other ways to demonstrate that you’re special. And beware, the most likely thing to hear when you open your mouth is, “oh, are you Australian?”. The shame.
“You’ll be here ‘momentarily’? But I’ve cooked a whole duck!”
To Brits, momentarily means ‘for a moment’. To Americans, momentarily means ‘in a moment’. They have not got better places to be, they’re just a little bit late. Also look out for the subtle difference in Americans’ use of the word ‘Horrible’, ‘X’ and ‘Y’
Tax goes on top of the price tag.
This is probably the single most stupid thing about America. The prices you see on the tag, or on the wall at Starbucks are pre-tax. So when you come to pay, you’re hit by new higher numbers. And you’re like ‘What? I thought it was.. Ohhh the tax. Damn.” for your first few weeks. And even after that you still never really know how much anything costs because you’re trying to add the tax to everything and then convert it mentally to pounds because you’re new and your brain still thinks in pounds. And then you have the internal monologue debating whether or not this is a place where you should be tipping. And you’re not sure, so you do tip. And then you have no money left.
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