Expat Chronicles: Learning the Hard Way How to Do Things the London Way

Every now and then as an expat you get a reminder of the differences between where you come from and where you now live, and today I ran into one of those reminders. It involved a bike repair I’m having at a nearby bike shop. This little exchange provided an illustration of how Brits (them) and Americans (me) differ in matters of personal and, more specifically, economic values.

Before we get to that, let me say this: the UK and the USA have many similarities. In fact, with the exception of Canada and maybe Australia, the UK is probably the most similar country to the United States in the world. We both speak the same language. We both listen to the same music and watch the same movies. The NFL plays a handful of regular-season games in London every year, and the Premier League plays a handful of “friendly” matches in the States every year.

The food is not that different here. The shopping is pretty much exactly the same. You see the same restaurants, stores, and brands in both countries. Adapting to living in the UK has been pretty easy compared to, say, Uzbekistan, Rwanda or Laos (or probably Austria and Mexico).

But there are differences – and they can be important ones. For example, I like to sit at bars when I enter a drinking establishment, and that just doesn’t happen here. People order at the bar and then head to a table. Most countries I’ve been to allow this. I’ve sat at the bar in France, Holland, Denmark, Panama, the Bahamas, and (I think) Spain and Portugal. But not in the UK. So, you deal with it. There are worse problems.

You have to pay an annual TV license here that never fails to astound me. You buy the TV yourself, you pay for the cable or satellite service yourself – and then on top of that, you have to pay a government agency for the right to watch the very things you are already paying for. So, you deal with it. There are worse problems.

You can’t call the police to report complaints. Check that: Technically, you can, but they won’t do anything about it unless it’s an emergency.

One night, after midnight, some selfish dipshits decided to park their dipshit car a half a block away from our home and play their dipshit music really, really loud, for the whole neighborhood to hear. This went on for 30 minutes or more, I don’t know. So I called the non-emergency police number, told them about the noise, requested that they send a cruiser around to shuffle these dipshits along, and was told they don’t really do that.

“I’d suggest you call your council representative tomorrow and file the complaint,” the police rep on the phone said.

“But tomorrow the problem will be gone,” I answered. “We need the problem dealt with now.”

“I do apologize.”

And that was that.

Which brings me to another difference I’ve noticed, one that pertains to the bike repair shop I mentioned earlier: Brits (or maybe just the English, or probably just Londoners) do not seem to have a huge talent for caring whether they disturb someone else, or admitting when they are wrong.

Okay, this is probably a gross generalization. I’m sure I’m wrong about it (see, it’s easy to admit that you’re wrong, my dear Brits. I literally just did it!). I’m an American; I have no right to complain about others, given how the rest of the world views America. Duly noted.

But still…

Take the dipshits in the dipshit car. They were blasting loud music in a quiet residential neighborhood, after midnight on a weeknight. And I can bet you that if I had gone to knock on their window to ask them to turn it down, they would have looked at me in amazement that I had the nerve to tell them what to do, and probably said something like, “Mind your own business, mate, this i’int your car anyway is it?”

Because it’s their car, and they can do whatever they want in their car.

Now, this kind of thing happens in the U.S. as well – dipshits sitting in their dipshit cars playing loud dipshit music late at night. But with them, you either write it off to cluelessness or indifference – they are either too stupid to realize they might be bothering anyone else, or just don’t give a shit.

Over here, you get the feeling it is both cluelessness and indifference – they don’t think about how they might be bothering someone, and if forced to think about it, they still don’t give a shit.

So, the bike shop. I took my bike there the other day to get a flat tire fixed. The mechanic set it up on the bike repair stand and did an assessment. This must have taken 15 or 20 minutes. He saw this and that and that and this: a rusty chain, worn brake pads, deteriorating cables, etc. He told me they could give me the “Silver Service,” and it would cost 128 pounds.

I said fine, that’s fine. A little pricey, but fine. Maybe worth more than the bike itself, but fine. So we agreed on the repairs and price and I went on my way.

Today, I get a call from the bike shop saying they found some other stuff, and it would cost an extra 45 pounds, and the price would now be about 175 pounds.

I won’t go into all the particulars of what I said and what the bike shop guy said, other than that I told him the mechanic did a 20-minute assessment the other day and gave me a price, and if I had known they would find some other problem that raised the repair bill by one-third, then I would never have agreed to it to begin with, because the bike is probably not even worth 175 pounds. It’s a Specialized I bought several years ago in America, and has had too many problems. I bought it then for about 700 U.S. dollars. And now I was being told it needed repairs that amounted to about 235 U.S. dollars.

Well, we went back and forth, back and forth. And here is what struck me: The bike shop guy was amazed that I could possibly be upset about this. He kept telling me over and over about how hard his guys work, what excellent mechanics they are, completely missing my point in his zest to not admit that they might have fucked up with the original estimate.

It just never occurred to him that he and his fellow bike shop guys might be in the wrong – that jacking up a repair price by one-third on a GD bicycle is something a customer might get upset about. I mean, it’s a bike. It’s not a car. It’s not an appliance, it’s not a computer. It doesn’t have a lot of complicated technology. It’s a damn bike. Surely you can get a repair estimate somewhere closer during a 20-minute initial inspection.

I even told the bike shop guy, “Hey, just meet me halfway. I’ll pay 150 pounds, which is exactly halfway, but I don’t think it’s right to charge me 175 pounds when you quoted me 128 pounds.”

“Be reasonable,” he answered, as if me meeting him halfway – at the cost of an extra 22 pounds to the customer – was not being reasonable.

He just wouldn’t let it go. He kept going on and on about how nice and good his mechanics are. He was more interested in winning the argument – in proving that he was right and I was wrong – than getting down to business and agreeing on a price.

Being an American, I no longer cared about winning the argument. Just settle on a price and let’s move on with our lives. But he simply did not want to give in, not for a millisecond. I said I had to go, so he told me he’d call me back.

I’ve seen this before here, plenty.

The other day I was riding my bike – my backup bike, a different one – down a short path that led to the road. A car was blocking the bike entryway onto the road. A guy was inside the car, cleaning it, wiping the windows. One of his doors was open, which completely impeded a cyclist’s ability to pass. So I asked him if he could close his door a second to let me pass, because it was impossible to get by.

He didn’t even look up. He just kept cleaning. Then he said, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“But you’re blocking the way, chief,” I said, using one of my Americanisms (nobody says “chief” over here). “Just close your door a sec and I can scoot by.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

He was having none of it. He was cleaning his car, and he would bloody well do it in his own way, on his own schedule, the rest of the world be damned. Nobody could come between him and his right to do whatever the fuck he wanted, whenever the fuck he wanted to.

So I got off my bike and walked it around through the wet grass.

“You’re a helluva great guy,” I said as I strolled by. “A credit to humanity.”

I think he flipped me the bird. Hard to tell.

Another incident, that happened at the Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs Jazz Club. This was pre-Covid, when they were still doing shows with full crowds. It was the Monday night show, featuring an Italian sax player and bandleader who would occasionally do slow, soft ballads, and always began his shows by asking the audience to keep the noise down during the performance.

And sure as shit, as soon as he went into a slow ballad, a couple right next to me started yakking away in their regular voices, oblivious to everyone and everything around them. The band members gave them a look. Other people in the audience gave them a look. Even the club manager gave them a look, but she didn’t do anything about it.

So I finally leaned over and asked the couple, in a whisper, if they could maybe keep their voices down while the band was playing. And they looked at me like I was bloody mad.

“Mind your own business, mate,” the guy said. “You’re not in charge here.”

He didn’t care that he was bothering anyone, and neither did his date. They were enjoying their conversation, enjoying being in their own little world where nobody else mattered, and if nobody else liked it, they could fuck right off.

Another incident: This one during COVID lockdown, when we regularly called food delivery to our house. Our daughters wanted Burger King – just like in America! – and one of them wanted the chicken nuggets. The delivery arrived, and I gave my daughter the chicken nuggets. Only they weren’t chicken nuggets. They were jalapeno poppers, which look exactly like chicken nuggets, only with hot peppers and cheese instead of chicken. So she bit and got a mouthful of jalapeno and cheese.

I called the BK and let them know the order was wrong, could they send somebody out real quick with the right order? “No,” I was told. They couldn’t do that. Call the delivery service, maybe they’ll refund your money.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You screwed up the order, and now you’re not going to do anything to fix it?”

“We delivered the order,” he said. “We don’t have enough staff to send it out again.”

“But you didn’t deliver the order,” I answered. “We ordered one thing, and you delivered something else. So how about delivering the right one now?”

He didn’t care. He’d done his part. In fact, he sounded annoyed that I had a problem with the problem he created.

Another incident, involving the postal service: The mail delivery person had a package for us, but we weren’t home, so he delivered it to some neighbor like two blocks away, in an entirely different building. I found this out by calling the number on the mail slip that was delivered to us.

“Well can you pick it back up from the place you delivered it and try to deliver it to us again?” I said.

“Sorry, we can’t do that,” I was told. “We did deliver it.”

“But you delivered it to the wrong place.”

“Sorry, but it was delivered.”

“But…”

“It was delivered.”

“But…”

“It was delivered.”

At which point my head started whirling like a dervish and smoke started pouring out of my ears.

Here’s the thing: In all of these incidents, I was the only one involved who saw anything wrong with it. Charging me a much higher repair bill than I was originally told? My problem, not theirs. Not able to ride past a car clearly blocking a bike path? My problem, not his. Being disturbed by loud music late at night? Ditto. Being disturbed by a loud couple talking during a music performance? Ditto? Wrong food order? Ditto. Mail delivery botched? Ditto.

I can only come to the conclusion that this kind of thing is accepted here, and it’s my job to adapt to it. So I have, and I do. I have lowered my expectations on customer service so far that if they were any lower, they’d be down where the fossil fuels reside. I have learned not to argue with Londoners – they will die of starvation before giving an inch.

I have learned that I obsess over first-world problems, being the spoiled American prick that I am. Okay, I haven’t really learned that. I just figured I’d toss it in for all the self-righteous folks out there who don’t think anyone should ever complain about anything, ever.

Also, the bike repair guy did call back. He offered a repair price of 148 pounds, therefore meeting me halfway. I thanked him. He told me how difficult it was for him to do this, they did this for no charge and that for no charge, they have excellent mechanics, they’re all great guys, He sounded like he’d just donated a vital organ to charity.

I’m out an extra 20 pounds. But to him, I’m the one being done a favor.

2 Comments

  1. You really are spoilt for customer service in America. Here in SA, for many people in customer facing roles, it’s like they’re doing you a favour by serving you. That’s a broad generalisation, but what I mean is that it’s way too common here. I think the sarcasm, though, is probably miles ahead in London. It’s not acceptable either way, but you’re right in that you just have to adapt to the dominant culture you’re in. And, of course, always try to be the bigger person (as long as your temper holds 😕).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, we were definitely spoiled by the customer service in America, to the point where we took it for granted. Over here most people are normal and nice and do their best. But you do have to adjust your expectations, which is normal when moving to another country. My temper doesn’t always hold, because I got pretty heated on the phone call with the bike repair guy. But after awhile even I had to wave the white flag and say, “Can we just come to a happy meeting place here?” In terms of devotion to making a point and winning an argument, he was in a much higher league than me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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