The place in question: ‘Ashley’s’ on Lexington Avenue, Midtown, NYC – a deli with an eat in section. It was the location of my first proper interaction with a New York employee. I am not sure if she was a ‘true’ New Yorker’. It was my first experience of eating in America and the first proper place I went. Because of this, I guess it has special significance. That and the fact that the food is amazing – if a little ‘canteen-y’ looking.
The girl on the register was glum faced to say the least and hardly spoke at all. She barely grunted. In fact, it was so hard to make out that I couldn’t really tell from her accent what her first language was. She seemed Hispanic. I was rambling about not understanding the money as she looked at me with raised eyebrows. I could see she was really wanting to roll her eyes but propriety stopped her. As I thanked her and left, she almost gave a small smile. Picking up her phone, she looked down at it and sighed. I felt I had inconvenienced her day, for sure. Far from making me feel unwelcome, it made me smile. It felt familiar and like being in Europe. It’s not uncommon to feel that you are a blot on a shop attendant’s otherwise exciting day. Mild ambivalence and formality seem to often be the order of the day.
It wasn’t what I was expecting when coming to America. I suppose I’d always expected larger than life, friendly, warm behaviours. I wasn’t wrong, that was exactly what happened post Ashley’s. Apart from the occasional irritated walker in New York, basically everyone I met during my two journeys around America seemed to be essentially open. I was asked so many times; where I was from, what I was doing there, how I was liking it? It never seemed false or forced. There appeared to be a genuine curiosity and sense of care. I really felt like I would have no trouble finding someone to help me out if needs be. Not only that, they were upbeat, jovial and generally very optimistic in their curiosity and in sharing what they could about their country.
My two trips around America were bus tours and therefore, some of my ‘conversations’ were with the bus drivers themselves. The first driver was a Southerner living in New York, the second a Cuban living in Miami and the third a Texan from Texas. The first driver, the Southerner, called me ‘honey’ or ‘ma’am’ which was funny to me. He was warm and kind, although not that chatty with the passengers per se. He drank huge blue drinks from containers that a European might describe more as a bucket than a cup.
The second driver made me laugh. He said little but you could tell he was thinking many things. Older, he’d probably learned, best just to smile and say nothing. He was understated, small and peered at us through slit eyes. He would nod slightly and say ‘good morning’ with a thick accent. He always had a cool air about him. He turned our huge bus around – illegally – on a jam packed road into Miami in order to get us all out of a grid locked traffic jam and to where we needed to be, on time. He was a quiet, confident operator.
The third driver was again, as I have stated over and over again – warm, kind, friendly. They all were. Maybe it’s a rule for being in America. However, unlike the first two drivers, this driver was chatty as chatty can be. He seemed to irritate the guide a little with his commentary on things. During one amusing conversation, the driver asked me if we had cars in England. The tour guide’s eyes nearly popped out of his head and he irritatedly muttered something about comments like that being why other nationalities thought American’s were stupid. The driver answered, “well, I know the roads are small, maybe they use bikes”. I reassured both the guide and the driver that I understood perfectly and I did not think the driver was stupid. I did find the whole interaction hilarious though.
There really was a difference between the North and the South of North America. One helpful person informed our tour group that, ‘it takes two women ten minutes to make a cold sandwich in the South’. I don’t know that it took ten minutes but I caught their drift. Things move at a slower pace. They want to talk more, ponder longer and take things steadily. I actually loved this because, by contrast, in Europe you always feel like you’re in people’s way, wasting their time and generally slowing everything down – even when you’re rushing. I very rarely felt like I was inconveniencing anyone when in America. But this sense was multiplied ten-fold when going to the South.
Nothing was too much trouble in the South, the time was taken to really acknowledge you. For example, when I did order the cold sandwich, the server took time to enquire about everything I might like on it and exactly how I’d like it. When I eventually got said sandwich and thanked her, she took great effort to look me in the eye and express that I was ‘most welcome’ and that she hoped I was enjoying my day, would continue to do so and that it was a great pleasure to have us in their restaurant. Every word was deliberate and emphasised. Well, I liked it. It’s nice to be nice.
In England, if a stranger comes up to you and starts to talk, there are two reasons 1. They need directions or 2. You’re doing something wrong and they want to tell you about it. Since my friend and I were clearly tourists, on the two times we were approached by people, I felt instantly uncomfortable. I knew we weren’t going to be asked for directions therefore, we were in for a telling off. It wasn’t so. Not at all. The first verbal approach was from a woman outside of a ‘Cracker Barrel’ restaurant. My friend was smoking and I was keeping him company. As she drew up alongside us in the car park and rolled her window down, I instantly began to think of all the reasons we might be wrong… how very English of me. But, she was actually wanting to comment on how much my friend seemed to be enjoying his cigarette and how pretty my dress was. She called my friend ‘sir’ and me ‘ma’am’. She was so very enthusiastic. I felt like I was in a play.
The second time it happened, a man who looked like a cowboy to me, just walked up to us and started talking. There wasn’t the slightest hesitation. He enquired where we were from, where we were going to and how we were enjoying this fine day. Again, being European, I was expecting him to get to the point where he’d put the pleasantries aside and ask what he’d come here to ask or request, or whatever. But he didn’t. It seemed that his enquiring about how we were and what we were doing was just about the only reason he was stood there. My friend was smoking. The cowboy lit up a cigarette too and told us a bit about the area, its history and what we might expect from where we were heading next. After finishing his smoke, he left, smiling – ‘ya’ll have a good day, now’. We did as it happens.
A gas station is hardly the place you expect to get engaged in conversation, least of all by the server at a very busy register. He was the manager of the gas station and the station was busy. We were a big tour group and whilst the gas stations are massive – almost the size of a small UK motorway services (Woolley Edge north bound size) – they soon fill up with forty or so people. Not only that, on this day, we weren’t the only tour group and there were myriad other customers. My friend and I were buying some fruit and a few snacks. When we said hello, he instantly wanted to know where we were from and how long we were there for. He was interested to know where other people in the group were from and how we were finding it there. He was smiley and engaging. He showed great enthusiasm and interest in the UK. Surprisingly to me, once again, there seemed to be nothing but good humour from the people waiting in line behind us.
The manager of the gas station had heard of Nottingham (where my friend and I live) because of Robin Hood. He commented on that, as did the security guard at ‘Graceland’ (the home of Elvis). Usually known for their seriousness and adherence to protocol rather than pleasantries, I always approach security guards with a sense of polite distance. Too much familiarity perhaps seems to ignore the ‘seriousness’ of the task at hand. I always think this is fair enough. Therefore, despite the American tendency to chat and be informal, I handed my bag to the man at ‘Graceland’ security with only a slight smile and a ‘thank you’. Instantly, his calm expression became so very animated. ‘ You folks from the UK?’ he questioned with great enthusiasm. When we said we were, he was beyond excited, expressing that he was hoping to go to Nottingham the following year in order to visit Sherwood Forest. He said he had friends in Birmingham – another city about an hour from Nottingham.
The enthusiasm with which the American’s generally approached my friend and I was really quite astounding to me. I had never felt so welcome anywhere. People didn’t treat me as ‘less than’ because I was a tourist, on the contrary, they seemed to be more attracted to me as a result. Perhaps it is because I am English, there seems to be a ‘thing’ about loving an English accent. There also appeared to be a genuine desire to explain what was great about their country. They are proud of it and want to help you to enjoy it. I love this. And I must agree, it is a wonderful place.