And some days I feel like an idiot

05Mar08

Scene: cash register at an unfamiliar Sainsburys supermarket, where your protagonist—exhausted after preparing a student seminiar—has inadvertently pulled into a “10 items or less” lane despite having significantly more than 10 items.

I’m sure the cashier gave me a funny look, but allowed me to pass since there was nobody in line and I had already hurriedly began to unload my shopping cart to catch up with my flatmates who were waiting for me a few yards away.

As I was finishing up, my flatmates (both physicists) start laughing as I look up to see the impatient face—which softens ever so slightly when it registers my absolute shock at realising what I’d done—of one of the IPPP professors.

Looking helplessly back and forth from the “10 items or less” sign, the professor’s incredulous stare, and my own mammoth pile of two-for-one offers, I’m about to apologise when it dawns on me that the cashier and the the people who had magically appeared behind me in queue were about to let me go on my way without correcting me, only to curse me silenetly for the rest of eternity. The gravity of the situation only then dawns on me: these three people were about to quietly hate me forever, as per English tradition, without me having ever realised my mistake. Shaken by this, I’m only able to stammer out a hapless, “oh my…”

The IPPP professor seems satsfied with the look of dispair thats come over my face, and very calmly notes, “Hmm… yes, I thought that looked like more than ten items.”

At this point, my flatmates try to bail me out by explaining, “Sorry, he’s American.”

Thanks, guys.



2 Responses to “And some days I feel like an idiot”

  1. Noteably, this wasn’t the first time in the past week that someone had felt the need to explain to a cashier that I was American. Last week at Tesco I was again at the checkout line with a couple of friends while we were teasing each other about not being proper gentlemen for offering to help with our female friend’s bags. The cashier joined in, to which my friend, “This guy, he’s American. But it’s ok, he’s one of the good ones.”

    Much to my surprise, this segued into a dilogue on the Iraq war since the cashier’s son was being called to active duty this month.

  2. I should also make an explanation regarding my ‘grand realisation’ at the checkout line. One of the biggest Anglo-American cultural differences is this sense of a `stiff upper lip’ when dealing with annoyances in daily life. Rather than speaking up to correct a perceived injustice, English etiquette generally avoids confrontation. In practise, this means that some people will carry such an injustice with them for long periods of time until they can unload it on an acquaintance sufficiently separated from the actual incident.

    Last year I was having a conversation with a Californian postdoc while anther friend of mine was sitting nearby precisely doing this unloading ritual: he was explaining how some terribly rude student was loudly munching on crisps in the library and that he couldn’t stand it. To my delight and surprise, the Californian postdoc stopped mid sentence and turned to face my English friend: “And I bet you didn’t say a SINGLE THING, DID YOU?”

    My English friend responded with a look that simultaneously expressed, “of course not” and “should I have?” The look on his face is one of the memories that I will always treasure about the UK.



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