Laurence Brown: Lost in the Pond

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Laurence Brown: Lost in the Pond

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 19 | July/August 2015

Laurence Brown is one of those expats, and I mean that in a good way. The British writer has embraced his American life with gusto, taken an interest in the culture of his host country, and shares his tongue-in-cheek observations about the differences between the two countries via his blog ‘Lost in the Pond’ from his home in Indianapolis.

I interviewed Laurence, 33, to dig deeper into his views on the cultural differences and what resonates with him as a British expat living the American life.

When and why did you move to the States?

Interestingly, both the date of my transplant and the reason for it are inextricably linked: I left England because of the 2008 recession. To clarify, my relocation was not an act of protest against big banks, but rather an act of mid-twenties desperation following the loss of my job. In the intervening years, I have come to question the wisdom of fleeing England’s capital (population: 8.5 million) for recession-hit Anderson, Indiana (population: 55,000). The only job I could find in Anderson following the approval of my work visa was a call center position – quite a far cry from the arts administration job I held in South Kensington. But on the subject of wisdom, I suppose I acquired a great deal of it after four challenging years in Anderson. Indianapolis — my current home — is a reasonable medium between London and Anderson, even if I am itching once more for the excitement of a major city. 

You write about the cultural differences between the U.K. and the U.S. via your blog Lost in the Pond. What are the five main differences that stand out for you between the two countries?

Naturally, the first major difference that springs to mind is each nation’s respective employment of the English language. And, my gosh, this particular difference stretches far beyond just the spellings of colourmetre, and aluminium; after seven years in the U.S., I still stumble upon the odd (sometimes very odd) linguistic variance that I’d hitherto not heard. The same, in fact, goes for food; who’d have thought Americans would be so inclined to add cinnamon to almost everything? Or that beef jerky was a thing? Or that ‘kid size’ actually equated to ‘medium size’? Actually, staying on that last point, sizes in general comprise quite a major difference between our two nations. Everything in America — from its cars to its portions to itself — is just that little bit bigger. It’s even got a bigger moon. What it doesn’t have is a collection of castles. I foresee this being a huge handicap for the U.S. should military conflict ever arise between our two great nations. Even the U.S., with the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, would be no match for, for example, Castle Donnington in the U.K. But I digress. Another notable difference is that Americans — pound for pound — are more direct than your average Brit. While ordering a sandwich, for example, an American might be inclined to say, “I want a BLT – no lettuce,” whereas a Brit would politely form the same order as, “Please can I have a BLT? Oh yes, and may I possibly have it without lettuce, please? If that’s not too much trouble. Thank you.”

Which aspects of American life have you become acclimatized to and which do you really enjoy?

Firstly, I have become acclimatized to the fact that Americans say ‘acclimated’. That was one of the word differences that genuinely knocked me aback early on. But isolated lexical variations aside, I secretly enjoy ordering a BLT like an American, because, and I’ve written about this in more detail, being direct is actually profoundly liberating. Before moving to the U.S., I was like a lot of Brits – even to the extent that I would say “please” three times within the same order. Now don’t get me wrong – politeness hasn’t been completely eradicated from my social checklist; I suppose I’ve just learned to employ it with a greater level of economy.

You’ve been on stage as a British actor in the States; how do people react to your English accent on stage?

So, here’s a true story: at the first read-through of one particular show, before I got acquainted with my fellow cast members, my leading co-star (I later found out) thought my accent was fake – even convincing herself that I was some sort of pompous Brit wannabe. It was only later she discovered that this was no act – that I was in fact an actual pompous Brit. This single event has caused me, in recent years, to audition with an American accent if the role requires it. That’s not to say that directors, upon discovering my true vernacular, won’t later have me deliver my lines in a British accent – even if the role is fundamentally American.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

The BBC recently released a survey of things that expats miss while abroad. What are your thoughts on the differences between British and American TV, and why have the Americans lapped up things such as Sherlock and Downton Abbey?

A lot of Americans I speak to appreciate British television because it represents a significant departure from the ratings-driven networks here in the U.S. Because the BBC is publically funded, there is perhaps more room for artistic exploration and storytelling. Moreover, there is typically less of an emphasis on aesthetically-pleasing characters; rather, there exists a thirst for characters that have, for want of a better word, character. More than any of this, though, is the sense that these shows themselves present a snapshot of British life – albeit, in Downton Abbey’s case, at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps because of America’s partly-British ancestral make-up, there remains a strong interest in British life this side of the pond.

LaurenceBWAmericans seem to love it when Brits swear and use idioms and phrases. Which are your favorite British sayings that really seem to hit the spot with Americans?

More and more I find that British swear words are making their way into the American lexicon. I find it personally entertaining when Americans use words like bollocks – particularly when the Americans in question are unsure of both the word’s meaning and its severity. A study conducted in 2000 found that bollocks was considered the seventh most severe word in the British lexicon, while in America it was famously incorporated into an advertising slogan for Newcastle Brown Ale, that great British drink. In terms of phrases, Americans tend to be amused by the more uniquely British sayings, such as: “It’s been donkey’s years since I saw him,” or “I’m just gonna nip to the loo.” You belong to a very exclusive club if you, as an American, have a basic understanding of these sorts of phrases. The same, by the way, is true for British yankophiles who indulge in phrases like “I want a BLT – no lettuce.”

Finally, what three things would you like the U.K. to adopt from American culture, and vice versa?

This might seem controversial to many of my compatriots, but I’d be interested in seeing U.S.-style spelling reforms in the U.K. Some would argue that the alteration of colourtheatre, etc. would eradicate a certain level of character from the U.K. lexicon, but when it comes to language, I tend to favo(u)r simplification over tradition. Other than that, the British collective could stand to follow my lead on ordering a BLT, while Arby’s would be infinitely more welcome in the U.K. than McDonald’s. On the other side of the coin, though, there are many aspects of British life I’d love to see imported to the U.S. Chief among these would be a comprehensive rail service encompassing more than just the coasts. And at the risk of pushing political buttons, I wish the U.S. healthcare system was more akin to the U.K.’s. While many Americans oppose socialized healthcare, the overwhelming majority of Brits could not imagine life without the NHS. And with good reason: last year, international health experts voted it the number one healthcare system in the world, while another study found that individual healthcare costs in the U.S. were 2.5 times those found in the U.K.

And finally…

If you’re looking to travel for love, life, or pleasure – do it. And do it with an open mind. Leave your preconceived notions at the arrivals lounge. Or turn left to departures.

For more information on Laurence’s expat adventures, visit his website, www.LostInThePond.com and follow him on Twitter (@LostinthepondUS) and Facebook (Facebook.com/LostInThePond). 

Photography courtesy of Laurence Brown

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