Just like everyone all over the developed world, we here in the UK spend a portion of our lives working through telephone menus, pressing one for this and two for that, speaking to customer service operators, and waiting on hold. Today it was my turn, because I had to talk to someone about my homeowners insurance. Why did they send me two bills, with the same account number and the same date, but different amounts?
My customer service representative today, Alan, had a mellifluous Scottish accent plus the helpful manner you’d expect from someone at an insurance company that puts out telly adverts (TV commercials) featuring a bouncy red cartoon telephone, inviting you to call. Unfortunately, Alan didn’t really know how to fix my problem, and as he turned to supervisor after supervisor, I heard a lot of on-hold music. American on-hold music.
I don’t know why they would choose Frank Sinatra and, in particular, songs about American cities. I listened to My Kind of Town (Chicago Is) followed by a bit of My Way. Later I got most of New York, New York, all of I Get a Kick Out of You, and the beginning of Something Stupid, which was cut off abruptly but not, I think, because it made an apt soundtrack for the situation–although a song called Something Stupid would seem to fit the bill.
The British, on the whole, do seem to be very interested in things American. Okay, Sinatra is an international star so maybe I’m making too much of that, but it does seem odd for a British firm to entertain its customers—most of whom must surely be British—with an ode of praise to, among other things, the Union Stockyards. Since, not being a Sinatra fan, I’d never listened to the lyrics before, I hadn’t known he was so big on the Chicago stockyards; I guess the time wasn’t entirely wasted, because I can file that tidbit away for the next time someone here asks me to tell them about Chicago.
For I am seen by some of my neighbors as the expert on all things American. I think many British people, even those who have visited parts of the USA, don’t realize how huge the country is. People ask me questions such as “I’m going on business to Delaware. What should I see while I’m there?” or “My daughter’s going to study in St. Louis”—which they inevitably pronounce as Saint Louie—“what will the weather be like when she gets there?” and “Oh, you’re from San Francisco? I’ve got a cousin just down the road from you. In San Diego.” Fair enough, really; from this distance, maybe San Diego is just down the road from San Francisco. They’re only about as far apart as, oh, say, London and Frankfurt.
This came up early in my stay, when I tried out a local book group. On my second visit, they discussed some of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories and kept asking me questions about Wyoming. I tried to tell them I didn’t know anything about Wyoming whatsoever, but that didn’t fly.
“Oh, but you must know something.”
“You certainly know more about it than we do.”
Um, I’m not so sure. I’ve never really been to Wyoming, though I did drive through it. Once. I think. In about 1982. I think I saw seasonal lakes in the desert—but I might be getting it mixed up with Utah.
The members of the book club exchanged looks that seemed to ask “Doesn’t she know anything?” and answer “Apparently not.” I know that look. I get it when people ask me the kind of simple question—something about drinking age or property taxes or smoking bans—for which the answer inevitably begins “it depends on which state you’re talking about”. And I get it when people ask me things that I should know, but don’t because in all my years in the US I never needed to know them, such as why Iowa has caucuses and what happens at a caucus. And I get it when people ask me things that there is no reason for me to know, things like how hard it is to get a liquor license or what the US equivalent of the sex offenders register is.
So I’m sure I left the members of the reading group with the impression that I’m rather dim. Wyoming is as far from where I grew up as London is from Istanbul. I looked it up, but I never got a chance to tell them, because I never went back. The next month they were scheduled to read Vernon God Little (about a fictional Texas school shooting) and I decided I didn’t want to be the token American in that discussion.
It occurs to me that I might be able to do a deal here, though. I’ll offer to study up on Wyoming or the Chicago stockyards or Sinatra or any other minute aspect of American life, land, or culture that they choose and tell them all about it, if they can get Alan to explain to me why I’ve got two different insurance bills.