An Englishman experiences life in Merced County

An Englishman experiences life in Merced County


I’m an Englishman, visiting and staying in Atwater with my in-laws for Christmas and New Year.

As always, I’m aware of the old adage that we are ‘Two peoples divided by a common language’ — “gas” instead of “petrol” for instance — but I am really more struck at how much alike we are.

I’ve visited many countries and while there are of course cultural differences, and sub-cultures too, basically we are all after the same thing: to provide for ourselves and our families as best we can.

Locally here in Merced County I can see you have the same, logical road structure you find all over North America — grids, straight lines, and numbered streets (First, Second, Third Avenues, for example).

In England, we are all loops! Driving there is a complete puzzle; to go West you have to deviate to the other three points of the compass throughout the journey! Thank heavens for SatNav (GPS).

What I don’t understand is that here in the Golden State, maybe the richest in the Union, in the wealthiest nation on earth, you have, like us, potholes everywhere in the roads and highways.

The Romans built roads 2,000 years ago in Britain and Europe that are still usable; we’re lucky now if ours last five or 10 years without repair. (Is that a consequence of our education systems? The Romans didn’t have university degrees, but they had craftsmen. We have a younger population with all sorts of diplomas but a shortage of carpenters, plumbers and the like. I’m far from sure that is progress. When I was a young man, my car manual told me how to replace pistons in the engine. Today, the instructions tell you not to drink the battery acid!)

Driving here is an education in itself: Luckily you have a lot more land space, so more room for wider roads. I was not surprised to be overtaken by cars here, but I was taken aback to be undertaken for the first time; I hadn’t realized that is what you do! It’s scary at first for a foreigner. (Although in France for example, they don’t pass you the wrong side on the highways, but in the large cities it is every man for himself! If anyone reading this ever finds themselves driving in Paris, watch out! The traffic round the Arc de Triomphe is a solid, continuous ribbon of metal doing 40 mph.)

You have made a major contribution to motoring civilization though, and that is the ability to turn right on a red light. I’ve not come across that anywhere else and it is so logical and practical. If only we in the UK could do the same, it would ease congestion tremendously. Of course, it would have to be a LEFT turn at our red lights instead!

Another consequence of your wider roads is that there is much less interaction between drivers than in the UK. Because most of our roads are only wide enough for two cars, we are always being held up from passing a parked car or bus. What we do is generally wait and flash our headlights to tell the oncoming motorists to proceed; they then wave in acknowledgement as they pass. This means that when I am leaving the small village we live in, I get to wave at, or be waved back by, several other local drivers before I get to the main road. All very friendly!

I was in the right hand lane here last week and paused before joining a queue at the lights to allow a motorist to exit a car park. Instead of a wave of thanks from him I suspect he thought I was a little crazy.

I came across a roundabout here. Just one. In Britain we have thousands. The 5-mile drive from our village to the nearest town means we have to go round seven of them. A Canadian relative visiting us tried to negotiate them, and had to lie down afterwards for a week!

Once we get on our motorways (freeways) the speed limit is a steady 70 mph everywhere, although mostly people drive at 80. (Usually, anyway, there is always someone roaring past at 100), but here the limit seems to vary considerably — 50, 55, 60, 65, 70. At least if you go slower occasionally you can see all the giant billboards screaming at you advertising everything from Realtors to Dentists and Cannabis.

Fixed advertising signs are not allowed on our motorways although, being a contrary nation, some try get around the ban by fixing signs on old trucks, which, having wheels, are not therefore ‘fixed’. Cannabis is also illegal.

Oh well, vive la différance, as they say In France.

Do you speak English?

I’ve always enjoyed the English language, and all it’s anomalies and strangeness. Apart from the obvious differences in spelling between you and us in the UK, color/colour, plow/plough etc., and I do think you have the more logical spelling), there are the things that puzzle me.

When my American wife first referred to the “hutch,” I thought: “What? We don’t have a pet rabbit.”

Then I realized she was referring to what we call a “Welsh dresser.”

When speaking of cars, I’ve got used to you saying “hood” and “trunk” instead of “bonnet” and “boot.”

You probably know those as well, but speaking specifically of London, you may have heard of cockney rhyming slang. In case you ever go there, here are a few examples:

Getting ready to go out as a young man in London:

Comb your Barnet

Brush your Hampstead’s

Get out a fresh Dicky

Choose a matching Peckham

Put on your flashy Almonds over your Plates

Don your Whistle

Make sure the Daisy’s are shiny.

And with bright Mincers, off you go in the old Jam.

(Translation: Barnet = Barnet Fair (Hair); Hampstead’s = Hampstead Heath (teeth); Dicky = Dicky Dirt (Shirt); Peckham = Peckham Rye (tie); Almonds = Almond Rocks (socks); Plates = Plates of Meat (Feet); Whistle = Whistle and Flute (Suit); Daisy’s = Daisy Roots (Boots); Mincers = Mince Pies (Eyes); Jam = Jam Jar (Car).)

As an older man in London, I’m more concerned about my Chalfonts, or alternatively Farmers.

(Chalfont St Giles, or Farmer Giles = Piles / haemorrhoids – UK spelling).

And if, like me, your hair has gone and you cannot comb it any more, perhaps you would consider getting a “Syrup” or an “Irish” — that is, Syrup of Figs or an Irish Jig — Wig!

But even ‘normal’ English is full of difficulties. Take homophones for example — words that sound or are spelled the same, but have different meanings. Like “bat.” Is that a baseball bat or a bat that lives in old barns? Bear the animal or bear the burden, or bare your arms? Creak or creek, hole or whole? And please don’t get me started on there, their, or ‘they’re’!

(On a whole different slant, why do we say “There, there” to comfort someone? There? Where?

English is fun though, and I expect the purists among you might even criticize me for commencing my sentences above with “But” or “And”!


Kevin Hutson is a resident of Somerset, a county in South West England.

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