Well, it’s been a little while hasn’t it? I’m sorry. I did worry that this would happen – that once life got a bit busier, I’d still have the inclination, but far less time, to keep you updated on my Washingtonian wanderings. Part of my excuse lies with the fact that I had to go back to the UK for a while to sort out a new visa… and as such wasn’t around to Make Observations quite so much. It was a surreal homecoming to DC after that, since I had only been in the city for a few weeks before I left – a time which, while I was back in England, began to feel rather like a lovely holiday.
But I was extremely happy to return to our lovely new flat (sorry, apartment!) – which is now filled with all our worldly goods and feels a lot more homely. I was especially pleased that I was able to bring quite a lot of books back from the UK – the British Airways check-in man gave me quite a stern look and said ‘You are EXTREMELY overweight’ after my luggage, meant to be 23kg, tipped the scales at 55… But before I could even start blushing and saying ‘How rude!’, he turned quite twinkly and said ‘I’ll let you off this time…’. Maybe he was simply impressed at my packing prowess. Either way, we now have a nice full bookshelf full of tomes just waiting to be read.
I won’t bore you with all my peregrinations over the last few weeks – suffice it to say that coming back to DC this time felt a lot less disorientating, and its big wide streets and stately buildings certainly seemed calmer and less frenetic than London, if, perhaps, a bit less exciting. In fact, more generally, things here in the US are starting to feel a bit less strange and a bit more natural than they did. Perhaps it’s partly because I have Got A Job – another reason why this blog has lain dormant for so long.
One thing here, though, that I don’t think I’ll get used to is the greetings card industry. It sounds like a small thing, but buying a birthday card for Husband’s sister posed something of a challenge.
Firstly, I looked in the ‘sister birthday’ section of CVS (sort of a cross between a Boots, a Superdrug and a WH Smith). ‘Sister, you are my guardian angel, my best friend, my confidante’, they all bleated. ‘Sister, there is nobody like you. You are a shining star.’ I love Husband’s sister dearly, but didn’t feel that such sentiments, or those like the ones below, would make either Husband, his sister or me feel very comfortable.
I thought that perhaps I’d be on safer ground with something a little less personalised. A generic ‘Happy Birthday’ card oughtn’t to be too difficult, right? Wrong!
The Birthday section was just as bad…. mostly along these lines…
In the end, I left with the one blank card the shop seemed to sell, with a rather gloomy picture of flowers on it – probably meant to go with a funeral flower arrangement or some such dreary offering. But it was impossible to find anything expressing a tasteful and moderately affectionate sentiment. All the cards seemed to take the attitude ‘Well, if they’re forking out 4 dollars to express themselves, they’re gonna want a big bold statement!’
Similarly, the big bold statement that is the entire American greetings card industry appears to have gone out of its way to drum up OTHER expressions of affection/gratitude/joy – in the form of made-up occasions. I knew, as many British children with even vaguely traditional parents will know, that Father’s Day is ‘only made up by Americans to sell cards’ and is entirely pointless (this didn’t stop my mother using it as an occasion to force us to buy my shopping-hating, accountant father the new shirts/socks/jumpers he consistently refused to buy for himself all year round).
Here, in fact, are some dad-based US offerings that would, I fear, make my own father squirm with embarrassment were he ever to receive them:
But it seems that they’ve gone to whole new levels here since whenever Father’s Day was dreamed up. Sometime around the day I visited CVS turned out to be ‘Administrative Professionals’ Day’. Oh yes. If you have a secretary and you didn’t get him or her a card to show your gratitude for the fact that they, erm, do the job they’re paid to do – well, turns out you’re heartless. Look what you could have won:
Who knew that orange and yellow is the colour apparently favoured by ‘administrative professionals’ everywhere? Must be all those post-it notes they get through! Likewise, I was also meant to be celebrating the nurses in my life, with Nurses’ Day… It’s almost too much to keep track of!
My trip to Britain, on the other hand, made me realise that there appears to be a difference in what Brits want from their cards. It seems, from the evidence in the shops, that OUR way of showing true affection for someone is not to shower them with gushing, badly rhymed poetry made up by someone else – but to make them laugh, often with rude words or by taking the mickey out of them. Most British people I know would feel far too uncomfortable being laden with praises about their wisdom and beauty and rock-like qualities as a friend. They’d rather have something along these lines:
Or even, from a deeply true and loving friend, this:
They’d also, in true British style, rather nobody made too much of a fuss:
It’s that ‘bit of cake’ at the end that sums it up for me. ‘Let’s not go all out lads…just a birthday after all. Happens every year. Slice of Victoria Sponge and a couple of pints down the Dog and Trumpet will do me fine. None of this Hallmark nonsense.’
Getting carried away with American-style sentiments is, after all, dangerous – as this card warns:
I think this – rather crude – row of cards pretty much sums up these very British birthday themes – piss taking, drinking and general down-playing of the affection or celebration the occasion might warrant:
Interestingly, I got chatting to the lovely people behind the counter in Scribbler Covent Garden (where I found all these gems), telling them how refreshing all their stock was, and they said they’ve had a few ex-pat Brits in buying several cards in one go. Of course, this entirely un-scientific study could probably be disproved by visiting a different British card shop or a different American one.
But I think the point does hold. The thing to take away from this is that neither group of cards is entirely sincere. No American card-giver (surely?!) REALLY thinks their sister is a star sent from heaven to guide the way, or whatever cobblers Hallmark might have come up with. Neither do most Brits give their friends cards telling them they’re a penis and really mean it. Not entirely anyway. It’s just that here in the US, an optimistic, friendly society, people prefer to tune their true feelings UP a notch when committing them to paper – whereas back in dear old Blighty, we dial it down a bit. And add some un-necessary swear words. Then maybe have a beer or two. Bit of cake.