The Real Difference Between Britain and the US, Part 1

Jun 1, 2011Blog0 comments

Being an ex-pat for nearly 16 years now, I sometimes feel that I belong somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic but not on either shore. The differences between the cultures glare just as brightly as they always did and I am always keen to step into the shoes of the foreigner.

Take the May Bank Holiday in Britain, the second one. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to identify if, like the Americans, it had a unique name? This particular day is called Memorial Day in the US and it is a day to remember those who died in the Armed Forces due to conflict. It has a purpose beyond that as it is the unofficial start of summer and has the added bonus that indicates you are allowed to wear white until Labor Day which is the ‘Bank Holiday’ in September. Clear demarcations in the calendar and fashion guidance in one.

In Britain every national holiday is a Bank Holiday. When I first arrived in Britain, many people took this day off – shops were shut and you could only really speak to your friends on the phone as no call centre existed or would have been operating on that day. There was no post and you had to send payment for your credit card bearing in mind that it would take an extra day to clear. Now it’s only the banks who really have off and it celebrates nothing in particular. I still see people wearing boots after the second May Bank Holiday for goodness’ sake!

This lack of attention to celebration is perhaps one of the reasons why events such as the Royal Wedding (still really only a Bank Holiday) are such a big deal. There really aren’t that many moments when there’s universal acknowledgement. I first experienced this when my son was finishing school. In the US he would have graduated – from kindergarten (he’d already graduated from nursery school before we left the US), from grade school, from high school. Here, he just…left. There was some evening the following November where they brought students back to the school to announce their A level achievements. He was already living somewhere else. i don’t know how many actually showed up so maybe it was a great occasion.

Thanksgiving is another holiday that flummoxes the people over here. I just tell them it’s a gigantic harvest festival. Their minds boggle.

I know it’s because the US is a young country that we need our mass celebrations, a common frame of reference. But aside from missing family and friends over there, it’s those moments I pine for – when you know exactly what every American is doing, eating, and most likely feeling. It doesn’t take a wedding or a funeral for us to stop and commune.