I’m noticing that the British, true to their reputation for reserve, prefer not to call attention to themselves. Not long ago I saw a little kid, about three years old, throwing a mother of a tantrum. A face-down-on-the-sidewalk, raging, spasmodic kind of tantrum. “You must get up,” his mother was saying to him, very quietly. “I am going to walk away. You must come with me.” She didn’t grab the kid by his belt loops and hoist him over her shoulder, or scream at him to get off the sidewalk and stop acting the damn fool. She didn’t struggle to put him back in the stroller, holding down his bucking-bronco body with one hand while trying to harness him in with the other. She just calmly walked away. She was at the end of the block when the kid looked up, saw her, and followed. He was still crying, still pissed off. But he followed. And she hadn’t raised her voice once. She was teaching him early: no drama.
In glaring contrast, my American family loves the drama. We don’t experience anything on an even keel – funny things are hilarious, sad things are devastating. Butterflies and unicorns will move us to tears; perceived slights will have us swearing revenge on our enemies’ children’s children. This sort of tendency to the mercurial has its foundations in our ethnicity, which is, to no one’s surprise, mostly Irish and Italian. In the Philadelphia region, you’d be mistaken for a corpse if you DIDN’T act this way. But here in the UK we need to figure out a way to level off, for the good of our new community.
And when I say “we,” I guess I really mean, “I.”
At the local grocery, called Tesco, most of the cash registers – sorry, tills – are automatic, not manned by a human cashier. You take your groceries, scan them yourself, bag them yourself, pay and get change – through the machine. It all sounds very simple and mundane, but circumstances soon revealed the dark underbelly of the point-of-purchase world.
It was because of the bananas. Every time I’d buy bananas (which is pretty much every time I go to Tesco), I’d put them on the automatic weight reader at the till and type in the number of bananas as instructed. And every blessed time, instead of the machine just showing me the price and letting me scan in the next item, I’d get a “PLEASE WAIT FOR ASSISTANCE” message.
On the screen, and in audio, in an impeccable British accent. “PLEASE WAIT FOR ASSISTANCE.”
The first time it happened, it was simply cause for embarrassment, because I knew I was holding up the line (sorry, queue) behind me, a transgression about which I always feel heavy guilt. But it didn’t just happen once. It happened again. And again.
I became convinced that the system was actually designed to thwart me, because I could never just buy bananas, pay for them, and go. I was always asked, however politely, to wait for assistance. Every time. Sometimes assistance came quickly and I could be on my way. But other times I had to wait, helplessly, fumbling around with my groceries while the queue built up behind me, the other patrons wondering why this woman can’t just simply buy the bloody bananas and get out so everyone else can get on with their day. It gnawed at me. Justice needed to be done, and as any good New Jerseyan can attest, justice is best meted via public freak-out.
I resolved to carry out a plan swiftly. One afternoon I entered the Tesco, which was particularly crowded with rush-hour patrons. The scene was set: good! I swooped a bunch of bananas into a basket, and made for the till. I commenced my check-out and put the bananas on the weight reader in a very deliberate (looking back, I guess sort of confrontational) way, and backed away from the till with a flourish, because I knew what was coming, and I wanted some theater.
As I suspected, along came the message: “PLEASE WAIT FOR ASSISTANCE.” I looked around to make sure I had everyone’s attention, because I was about to bring down the hammer. “The bananas!” I bellowed, pointing to the faulty fruit, lying there in a lifeless bunch. I was an attorney taking down a witness in a cross-examination. “Every time, this happens, with the BANANAS.” I put my hands on my hips, panting victoriously, nodding at everyone around me as if to say “You’re welcome.” Justice had been served!
To my immense disbelief, though, there was no retort that you might get at a grocery store in Philadelphia. There, someone might say, “Yeah, bananas SUCK!” or “That machine’s broken, I already complained about it, use number 3” or even, “I know, right? Friggin’ Tesco.”
No. Instead, the other customers quickly glanced away, going about their bagging and scanning, while an anxious-looking attendant scurried over and, with record speed, swiped his employee card and worked some kind of magic that quickly ended the transaction. The horrible realization dawned on me that they were all embarrassed – for me. “She needs assistance, all right,” they were thinking. There would be no collective sense of vindication, no fellow patrons galvanized to rise up against the tyranny of automated check-out. Just the quiet bleeping of everyone else’s perfectly functional scanners. I beat a hasty retreat before they could call in some other type of attendant – one in white scrubs, for instance.
I had mentioned to a new English friend, shortly after moving here, that my family seemed to be the loudest people on this island, and that the British really didn’t seem to be ones to freak out about stuff. My new friend chuckled. “We didn’t even freak out during two world wars,” he said.
He has a point. This is the country that birthed the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” during a time of extreme duress and daily horror. Over-displayed and over-memed as the phrase is today, it’s a good one. There is a time and place for drama, but not the local Tesco. This, I will be sure to remember next time I’m about to go bananas in a grocery store.