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Being Cheeky and Other Traps for Americans in the UK

By Laura Harrison McBride

Cigna International Health Insurance

Summary: The British are very polite; everyone knows that. But, while the British have a sense of humor, it doesn't extend to unintended slights. McBride, an American in the UK, shares her story.

Americans in the UK - Avoiding Cultural Blunders!

The British are very polite; everyone knows that. And they are. Except, perhaps, for a few bank tellers. The fact that it had taken me a year to get my name on my husband's pre-existing account notwithstanding, when the moment came for it to be all "sorted" as the British say--once and for all--I threw a spanner into the process by being cheeky. I didn't mean to; it resulted just from a misunderstanding. And, indeed, the glitch really made no difference to my finally being able to access our funds. No, rather it was a painful reminder that while the British have a sense of humor, it doesn't extend to unintended slights. And I felt as if the entire incident marked me as a hopelessly crass, abundantly ignorant Yank.

For Americans reading this, you should know that a spanner, in Brit-speak, is a monkey wrench; sorted means straightened out. If I go back and forth between U.S. and U.K. idioms and spellings, please forgive me. I'm in process of sorting a bi-continental life and, like someone undergoing a sex-change process, am adopting my new country's ways little by little.

When I first went to southwest England, it was only because I had married an expat Brit who had been living in the U.S. for 25 years. As a bona fide granddaughter of an Irish woman, I was seeking dual citizenship in the Republic of Ireland. Nothing in my past would have suggested a desire to become British or to live in that nation, so at odds for so long with my own ancestral home. However, once you meet the people of southwest England en masse, you can instantly begin to love them almost as much as I loved the single specimen who had become my husband.

Financial feet first

After a while, it seemed we were shuttling back and forth so frequently that I had to put more than a toe in the British waters, and a logical first step was adding myself to my husband's existing bank account, maintained over the years as a convenience for his trips home. It was not sufficient to show my passport, as I had done decades earlier in opening an account in the Republic of Ireland for much the same reason. I had to have a piece of mail addressed to me in England, or a utility bill. I had neither. However, it was fairly simple to get the electric on our pied a terre put into my name. The thing is, of course, the posted notice showing the change didn't arrive until after we had returned to the U.S.

The next time we went to England, I gathered up the envelope, put it in my carry on, and went to the bank as soon as we arrived. At first, the bank employee handling such special situations didn't want to add me as I do not use my husband's last name, neither on my passport, nor my driving license, nor for anything else except the convenience of strangers who can't get around a woman keeping her original surname. Finally, when I dragged out the abundance of maiden-name plastic in my wallet, my passport and our marriage license from the U.S., the banker decided that, in fact, I was not a terrorist and could probably be trusted with accessing the few quid in the account.

Not rapid access

The banker did not offer a debit card automatically as U.S. bankers do, and it was our next trip before I thought to ask for one. It had finally occurred to me that I might need some cash sometime after the banks were closed and my husband was not with me.

They were quite pleasant about it, and offered to send it right out within ten days. Of course, I was back in the United States by then. But no matter; I wouldn't need access until the next trip.

It came, of course, in a bit over ten days, but not much. So I celebrated. I was free at last, free to stand in front of gray stone walls with ATMs sticking incongruously out of them, queuing with everyone else on a U.K. market day morning!

Endless pursuit of money

Not. I had left at home the envelope containing the all-important PIN. I needed it to activate the card, I knew. I couldn't activate it from the U.S. because the call-in number to do so was toll-free only to the U.K., and there was no way around that. I felt pretty stupid leaving that one envelope - among all the documents one travels with these days - at home. But no matter; surely a visit to the bank itself would result in their changing my pin, informing me of it, and sending me to the ATM outside to activate.

Again, not. They could change my PIN, all right, but they'd have to either keep it at the bank or send it to my statement address. This seems innocuous until one realizes that my statement address is in the U.S. (they have no problem, apparently, spending money on the royal mail), and the new PIN would not be generated for five business days - by which time we would have left for the U.S.

Again, however, I received an envelope from the bank a few days after I got home. I am now keeping it constantly at my side so that I do not forget it on our next trip; I shall not leave Heathrow before I shove the thing into an ATM slot and accomplish total access to our funds, something currently about 18 months in the making and counting.

Where's the problem?

But what about that sense of humor thing? Right. The teller, when I was trying to get that PIN changed, said, "We can keep the new number here or send it to you in five business days." I, thinking she meant to send it to my British address, pondered aloud, "Well, I guess my friend Sue is trustworthy enough to send it on to me when she picks up our mail." I meant from our U.K. address of course, having forgotten about their willingness to spring for foreign postage for my measly account.

It was then that the teller got all shirty. "And we aren't trustworthy at the bank, I suppose," she flung back at me as she walked away to do some magic function or other that would finally result in my being a 100 percent owner of my own funds in the U.K. Soon. On the next trip. Unless I forget that benighted envelope, and have to start the last lap of the process all over again.

About the Author

Laura Harrison McBride is a well-published author (fourteen books for Simon & Schuster, Prentice Hall, etc.), and currently runs her own publishing company, Muffindogpress.com, and England travel site, englandsouthwest.com, to entice world travelers to her favorite part of the world.

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First Published: Aug 23, 2008

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