This Side of the Pond
Notes From an Uprooted Englishwoman
March 7, 2019
On my very first trip across the pond, I landed in New York City. Bleary-eyed, I staggered the unfamiliar streets in search of sustenance.
That was when I stumbled across one of the best ideas America has ever had, though I didn’t know it at the time. At first, I thought I’d been unlucky enough to secure the world’s pushiest waitress.
She kept asking if I was done with my soda. I was, for the most part, but I was saving the melted ice to wash down my last bite, so I didn’t want to part with the glass just yet.
Frustrated, she changed tactics and asked if I’d like her to bring me a new glass. No thank you, I said primly, incensed that she kept drawing attention to my lack of available fluid because I actually did want another drink but had set a strict budget for my vacation.
That poor waitress must have wondered why I insisted on cradling a quarter inch of diluted cola that was quickly warming to room temperature. She didn’t know that I didn’t know about free refills, and I didn’t know to tell her I didn’t know.
Once the friend I was traveling with enlightened me, I found myself in a brand new world of possibilities. Could it really be true that I could drink soda until I sloshed while I walked? Was this even true for the bucket-sized cups I could see in the fast food restaurants? Would dehydration ever be a problem for me again?
I suddenly realized why Americans like plenty of ice in their drinks, whereas Brits think they’re being cheated of what little soda they might otherwise have had. I’m not sure you’d think us quite so crazy if the shoe was on the other foot, and vice versa.
What brought my introduction to the wonders of American beverage sales to mind last week was the unfortunate antics of a brand new political movement. Not too long ago, ten or so members of the UK’s major parties got fed up with what their bosses were doing, threw their toys straight of the pram and decided to form their own party.
It’s called the Independent Group but it doesn’t really have an agenda, a manifesto or even a point. Still, they needed to introduce themselves to the public in a more positive light than they’d managed the week before, when one of their number (who said she was tired at the time) attempted to demonstrate the party’s anti-racist ideas by saying it’s important to address everyone’s needs, even the needs of people who are “a funny tinge”.
It didn’t go down well, as you might imagine, and I’m still trying to work out what possessed her to say it. The Independent Group meanwhile had the bright idea to stage a photograph that would make them look like regular, everyday people we might all choose to be friends with.
Unfortunately, the choices they made only seemed like a good idea and actually had the opposite effect. They decided to gather at a chain restaurant called Nando’s, which serves spicy chicken or a vegetarian equivalent with fries and is sort of like an Applebee’s or Olive Garden: it suits virtually all tastes and offends almost nobody.
Nando’s has become an institution; a place that brings everyone together, no matter their diet choices, socioeconomic background or life experience. As such, there are rituals and rules surrounding a chicken dinner that the uninitiated couldn’t possibly know to look out for.
Within seconds of publishing their selfie, the Independent Group was ripped to shreds. True Nando’s aficionados knew at first glance that this group of people had never before set foot in the place.
The list of transgressions gave me a giggle. It was noted, for instance, that not one of them had sprinkled peri-salt on their fries, which is the spice mix the restaurant became popular for in the first place. There’s just no point dining there if you’re not going to avail yourself of the peri-salt.
One of the diners had poured so much ketchup on their fries it was clear they hadn’t had a potato product in years (and certainly not one that had been anywhere near a peri-salt sprinkler). Another had ordered herself a “wing roulette”, clearly not realizing it is a sharing plate consisting of far too much chicken for one person and nothing else at all.
But the funniest of all were criticisms of the drink choices made. Why, people wondered, would they order wine or bottled water when this is one of the only places in Britain to offer a soda fountain?
This, people decided, was the unthinkable transgression. Even the three who did order soda failed to escape notice as they had clearly not done what all human beings do when given access to unlimited liquid: mix combinations you’d never dream of drinking (or, rather, pouring down the drain) at home.
This is the unspoken rule, particularly in a country where refills are a novelty. One of my local pubs is another beacon of this all-you-can-imbibe wonder and, the last time my family headed there for a roast dinner, my brother was adorably furtive in plotting how to get the most bang for his buck.
Meerkat-like, he skulked back and forth to the fountain machine to enjoy cola mixed with root beer and lemon and orange and maybe a little cherry just for luck. It was fun to watch, having grown so used to the idea of my waiter or waitress bringing me all the liquid I want with a smile on their face as they do it. America may be known as one of the greatest homes of invention, but I would argue that no innovation has ever been so life-altering as the liquid gift that keeps on giving.